Thursday, February 23

English vs American Murder Mysteries

English vs American Murder Mysteries

Sorry this post is late! I’ve been working on my next book. This post is sort-of, kind-of a rough draft of a chapter for that book. So—as always!—your feedback is most welcome. :-)

I’ve been mulling over the question of what distinguishes an English murder mystery from an American one.[3] So, while I have a few ideas of my own (I’ve been a voracious reader of murder mysteries since the 9th grade), I did research.[5]

I LOVE Margaret Atwood’s writing, it’s so fluid, so alive. So I’ll let her take center stage and sum up some of the differences between an English and an American murder mystery:
“Their [American] world was fast-paced, sharp-edged, and filled with zippy dialogue and words I'd never heard pronounced—slang words like "gunsel", fancy words like "punctilious." This was not the Agatha Christie sort of story—there were fewer clues, and these were more likely to be lies people told rather than cuff buttons they'd left strewn around. There were more corpses, with less importance bestowed on each: a new character would appear, only to be gunned down by a fire-spitting revolver.”[4]
Yes!!! I love Atwood’s writing, it has bite. You feel it, it’s rhythm.

Another person who has weighed in on the basic difference between English and American murder mysteries is W.H. Auden. In his wonderful essay “The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict,”[2] Auden defined the whodunit as:
“The basic formula is this: a murder occurs; many are suspected; all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated; the murderer is arrested or dies.”
I’ll come back to this in a moment. Right now let’s look at what, according to Auden, is the progress of the major events in a murder mystery:

Peaceful state before murder
False clues, secondary murder, etc.
Arrest of murderer
Peaceful state after arrest

Let’s Talk Character

And, while we’re at it, here (see below) is how Auden thinks of the progress of events that pertain to characters who are NOT the murderer. They may be guilty of something, but it’s not the murder under investigation.

False innocence
Revelation of presence of guilt
False location of guilt
Location of real guilt
True innocence

In other words, at the beginning of a murder mystery the innocent seem guilty (and the guilty seem innocent).

In addition, there is what Auden calls a “double reversal.” Have you ever read a murder mystery where you’re sure someone—call them Dan—committed the murder then something happens, the detective discovers some clue, one that makes it SEEM as though Dan couldn’t have done it? Then, at the end of the book, in the big reveal, it turns out Dan is the murderer? That’s a double reversal and, when done right, can be very satisfying for the reader.

I’ll come back to this progression later, perhaps in another post, but I wanted to include it here because I think it could provide someone with a valuable framework.

Now let’s continue our discussion of what an English murder mystery is and what it isn’t.

What an English Murder Mystery Is Not

As Auden points out, his definition excludes the following kinds of stories:

A. Readers Know Who the Murderer Is

In some murder mysteries readers know the identity of the murderer from the outset. For example, one of my all-time favorite murder mystery TV shows was Columbo. (It seems the writers of Columbo called it a “howcatchem” rather than a “whodunit” or “howdunit.”)

Not that no English mystery can be a howcatchem, but I believe it would be odd for a certain kind of English murder mystery—the cozy—to be a howcatchem, and I'm focusing on cozies. I’ll also, in a later post, discuss what I see as a subgenre of the murder mystery, the locked room mystery.

B. The Identity of the Murderer Isn’t the Focus of the Story

This point often applies to thrillers and caper stories. Recall that in a thriller the identity of the murderer often isn’t the focus of the story. Yes, there is an investigation, yes the detective gathers clues and decodes them, but catching rather than unmasking the killer is the ultimate goal.

In a caper story the question is: Will the group of theives be able to do it? Will they be able to pull off the perfect crime? That’s not to suggest that an element of mystery isn’t involved. For instance, there’s often a mole, a double-agent, in the group. The identity of this person is a mystery, but one that is usually solved before the climax.

How an English Murder Mystery Differs From Other Kinds of Mysteries

The Essential Function of the Detective

English Murder Mystery

Auden influenced my thinking about this. He held that the essential function of the detective was to restore justice—restore balance—to a community after the peace, the norms of the community, was violated. This is one reason many cozy mysteries take place in small close knit communities: a monastery, a rectory or the country estate of landed gentry.

The ultimate purpose of the sleuth was to mend the community's structure of social and moral values.

P.D. James, in her book Talking About Detective Fiction, argues that:
"The differences between the hard-boiled school and such Golden Age writers as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Michael Innes, are so profound that it seems stretching a definition to describe both groups under the same category. If the British detective story is concerned with bringing order out of disorder, a genre of reconciliation and social healing, restoring the mythical village of Mayhem Parva to prelapsarian tranquillity, in the United States Hammett and Chandler were depicting and exploring the great social upheavals of the 1920s—lawlessness, prohibition, corruption, the power and violence of notorious gangsters who were close to becoming folk heroes, the cycle of boom and depression—and creating detectives who were inured to this world and could confront it on their own terms."

American Murder Mystery

American murder mysteries tend to be darker, much darker. The detective has given up on bringing balance to society. Given this, why does the detective bother to do what he does? Is it all about the money?

Not at all. In the American murder mysteries (though the motivation does vary) the detective solves the mystery and brings the murderer to justice (because either of his own personal internal will of ethics or because he has formed an emotional attachment to a person involved in the case. In short, the case has become personal for him. Just as no one needs anything as high sounding as a code of ethics to defend a loved one, so these detectives may have no code. They may, in fact, be what most of those in society think of as bad guys. But, still, they protect their own.

The Significance of Society

English Murder Mystery

Auden writes, “Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand restitution or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest.”[2]

As P.D. James says, the location of a typical British mystery is much like the world she was born into. She writes:
As I was born in 1920 it was an England I knew, a cohesive world... It was an ordered society in which virtue was regarded as normal, crime an aberration, and in which there was small sympathy for the criminal; it was generally accepted that murderers, when convicted, would hang...”
Accordingly, cozies (also known as ‘Country House mysteries’) were generally set in small interwoven communities and typically took the many interrelationships of such a community as a key theme.

American Murder Mystery

The American murder mystery is much darker. There is no sense of the detective striving to bring balance—justice and fairness—back to the community. In fact, sometimes the detective labors knowing that either this WON’T happen or that it will make the society MORE chaotic.

Closed versus Open Society

English Murder Mystery

In the English murder mysteries all the suspects come from a—to use Auden’s phrase—closed society.

This means that, in an English murder mystery, right from the get go we know who could have, and who could not have, committed the murder. In an American mystery we have our suspicions—perhaps we know certain characters are involved—but we don’t have the certain knowledge that one of a list of characters is the murderer.

This is one of the conventions of a cozy mystery. I would go so far to say if this isn’t the case, if the reader doesn't know who could have committed the crime, then the story in question cannot be a cozy mystery.

American Murder Mystery

In an American Murder Mystery the society usually isn’t closed although the reader does often feel the culprit is either one of the named characters OR one of the named characters is involved with the crime, although not the killer and one feels perhaps they were coerced. In this sense, the American murder mystery is a bit like the thriller.

The Detective and the Police

American Mysteries

It’s also telling, I think, that in American Mysteries the detective is often a loner, a private investigator who does not enjoy good relationships with most of the people on the police force. Perhaps one of them is kinda-sorta his friend, but even that is tenuous. Most police would just as soon lock him up and throw away the key.

And that’s another thing. American detectives, especially of Noir fiction, are usually male.

Perhaps this has changed in the last couple of decades, what with Eve Dallas (a fictional detective created by J.D. Robb, pen name of prolific writer Nora Roberts), Kinsey Millhone (a fictional character created by Sue Grafton for her alphabet murder mysteries) and last but surely not least Dr. Kay Scarpetta (a fictional medical examiner created by Patricia Cornwell).

English Mysteries

There isn’t as much to say about the relationship between the British detective and the police. Probably because the relationship is generally placid! And why wouldn’t it be? The detective is well heeled, knowledgeable, affable (if a little quirky) and generally quite happy to let the police take credit for solving the crime!

One of Agatha Christie’s less famous sleuths, Miss Marple, often had a more antagonistic relationship with the police, at least at first. They saw her as a meddlesome little old lady who couldn’t do anything for the investigation other than muck it up. As Miss Marple helped them prise apart the many delicate threads of the case, their attitude changed.

But, at least in Miss Marple’s case, the police were always fair in the sense they gave Miss Marple a fair shake. When she proved herself they, sometimes grudgingly, accepted her help and, often, thanked her at the end. This is perhaps the most significant difference between English mysteries and their American counterparts: in the hardboiled variety the world isn’t fair and this is reflected in the detective’s relationship with the police.

Often the local police despised the detective and even if the police believed he could help them solve the crime the police would have rejected his help. In fact, sometimes the police are corrupt and do not wish the crime solved!

The Private Life of the Detective

American Mysteries

Another difference between British and American mysteries is that in American mysteries—and in contemporary stories generally—the private life and loves of the detective are an important part of the story.

English Murder Mystery

I’m not saying that this disregard of the private life of the detective is true for ALL cozy’s, though I have found it to be true for most.

That said, in many contemporary cozy’s, those where the protagonist often owns her own business (a bakery perhaps) and has an on-again off-again relationship with the unbelievably gorgeous deputy, that this relationship isn’t an important B story. But it’s not the visceral, gut wrenching, demon-exploring scrutiny that can occur in the more American variants of the murder mystery.

The Temperament of the Detective

English Murder Mystery

And this brings us to what might be the single most important difference between American murder mysteries and English cozies: cozies are light and bright. As a general rule, nothing irredeemably bad happens to anyone in them except for the murder victim(s). Even then, the victims are often horrible people the townspeople had oodles of reasons to want dead.

Cozies are read as a diversion, as an escape, as a mental exercise.

That said, there are notable exceptions to this. I’m reminded of P.D. James’ wonderful character Adam Dalgliesh. He is tortured. Truly bad things happened to him and James’ other characters. And James wrote books that were classic English cozies.

To sum up, I think the generalization that British sleuths are emotionally muted in the sense that they are rarely frightened, that they are rarely themselves victims of crime, that they outwit the criminal rather than the reverse and that, taken collectively, they are a rather courageous lot, is more or less accurate.

American Murder Mystery

As Margaret Atwood mentioned, American detectives are at home on the mean streets, perhaps because they are more violent and know how to punch and jab and kick. Myself, I can’t imagine either Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple doing anything like that!

Commonalities Between English and American Mysteries

What is common between the genres? Both rely on suspense to drive the story forward.

Categories of Crime Fiction

The way I’ve been using the word, a whodunit is any crime story where a crucial element of the suspense, the mystery, is who committed the crime. In this sense, all of the following categories are whodunits.

The Categories:

Cozy mystery
Locked room mystery
Historical murder mystery
Hardboiled murder mystery
Police procedural murder mystery
Forensic murder mystery
Legal thriller

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Who doesn’t like a good Choose Your Own Adventure book? Get six of R.A. Montgomery’s Choose Your Own Adventure novels in this Box Set: Race Forever, Escape, Lost on the Amazon, Prisoner of the Ant People, Trouble on Planet Earth, War with the Evil Power Master.

From a K. Grissom’s review: “We bought these books for our son because we remembered how much we loved them at his age. They are much quicker reads than I remember, but he loves them, so they get 5 stars. One book takes him less than 45 minutes to get through.”

That’s it for now! I’ll have another post for you tomorrow and to catch up, another one either Saturday or Sunday. Until I talk to you again, good writing!


1. The Roots of American & British Crime Fiction, by Seonaidh Ceannéidigh.

2. “The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict,” By W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden.

3. Here I talk about British and American mysteries but could just as easily have talked about softboiled versus hardboiled mysteries.

4. “Mystery writer,” by Margaret Atwood.

5. A note on terminology. The way I’m using the words, “whodunit” is ambiguous between English and American murder mysteries. To my mind the essential characteristic of a whodunit is just what the name suggests: The focus of the story—the story question—has to do with who committed the murder. As opposed to, say, how the murderer committed the crime or whether and how the murderer was caught.

Friday, February 17

Writers: Discovering What You Love

Writers: Discover What You Love

We’ve all heard the saying, popular at graduations, “If you love what you do, you’ll always do what you love.”

But what if you’re not sure what you love? How does one discover passion? Or perhaps you have the opposite problem, you love many things. How can you pick just one?

Discovering What You Love

Ask yourself, if you weren’t reading this, what would you be doing? Or, more to the point, what would you want to do? If—like me right now!—you’re dreaming of sitting in your favorite coffee shop contentedly sipping your favorite beverage, that’s okay!

Often when we’re chronically busy, every moment of our lives filled not only with things to do but with the awareness of all the things we haven’t yet done but urgently need to, sometimes when this happens all we can think of, dream of, is a moment of quiet, of silence, of relaxing into nothing, into a lull, into a glorious absence of activity. You could think of this as something like meditation.

So take a moment, sate yourself. Enter the calm. Breathe.

Now what? If you’re anything like me you can’t take more than 10 minutes of this! What are you thinking about now? What are you doing?

Are you doodling? Are you thinking about a vacation, perhaps somewhere hot? Are you thinking about family? Children? A pet? Gardening?

Now that a few thoughts are percolating ask yourself: What would I like to be doing in 5 years? 10 years? What would make me happy?

Look back. Picture yourself 5 years ago. Perhaps on your birthday. Did you go out with friends or did you celebrate with a quiet day at home? Fix that moment in your mind. Now ask yourself: Is whatever it is you’re currently up to what you wanted to be doing?

If, five years ago, you knew what lay in store for you, how would your younger self have reacted? Would she have been happy? Scared? Depressed? Thrilled? If she knew what the future held in store for her, what changes would she, would you, make?

I Know What I Love, but So What? Only a Lucky Few Can Do What They Love and I Don't Have That Kind of Luck!

But perhaps you’re ahead of the game and know perfectly well what you love, you just don’t know if you can make money—or enough money—at it.

Chuck Wendig in his wonderful article “Write What You Love, Or Write What Sells?”[1] suggests we find out what we love and do that but reminds us that if you love something—if you’re passionate about it—then one thing is guaranteed: You’re not the only one.

The real question is: How can you connect with these wonderful people who have the same passions as you? Also, how many of them can you connect with? The answers to these two questions can give you some idea whether writing what you love can be your full time job or whether you should keep working at it on the side.

That said, As Chuck Wendig reminds us, all things being equal, we have a better chance of succeeding at doing what we love than do folks who aren’t as passionate. He writes:

“When you write the thing that truly speaks to you ... you’re likelier to plant a more fertile garden, narratively-speaking. Write what you want, and you’ve a greater chance, I suspect, of putting passion and power into the characters and into the story. If you like what you’re writing, and you’re affected by it, you stand a greater chance to affect the audience in the same way. Surprise yourself. Make yourself feel something. Tell the story you want to tell.” [1]

Here’s a question: Right now you’re doing something that pays the rent. Why do you do this? Is it purely for the money? I’m guessing not. Every single job I’ve had ... sure I’ve taken it for the obvious reason—I received money in exchange for work—but there was always something I liked about it, something that fulfilled me, something that made me feel good about the work.

So, sure, whatever you’re doing you’re doing for the money, but what is the one thing (or two things, or three things, or ...) you like about it?

You Don’t Always Know What You Love

In an interview for the blog “This is Horror” Chuck Wendig said:

“[W]riting horror began for me as a way of cheating and defeating fear. As a little kid I was terrified of horror movies like _The Exorcist[link] and _Nightmare on Elm Street[link], and yet I was compelled and fascinated by them. So, learning to embrace that kind of storytelling was a way of getting power over fear. After a while, though, I just found it really cool.” [3]

From Chuck Wendig’s comment, above, it looks like he didn’t always know he loved to write horror.

In order to know what we love we must try new things. This can be tough, going out of your way to do something requires effort and it might cost money. You also know that in the end you might be disappointed!

In fact, if finding a new thing to love is anything like finding a new favorite dish then you can expect that for every five new experiences you’ll only really like one.

Like anything worthwhile, discovering new things that fulfill you takes work. It requires honesty and (at times) more than a little bravery. That sounds counter-intuitive, I know! It seems as if we should know instinctively what we love—and sometimes we do!—but that isn’t always the case. Discovering new things to love can be hard work.

You might wonder, “Well, if discovering new things to love is such hard work, why bother?” That’s a good question, one I think everyone has to answer for themselves. Here’s my answer: Discovering what I love teaches me about myself. Sure, it’s not easy but, in the end, it’s what keeps me keeping on.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

I’ve been on a diet and so, of course, the only thing I can think about is food! Especially cupcakes. So! I’m recommending American Girl Baking: Recipes for Cookies, Cupcakes & More from Williams-Sonoma.

That's it! Have a fantastic weekend. I'll talk to you again on Monday. Till then, good writing!

* * *

The Structure of a Great Story: How to write a suspenseful tale!


1. Write What You Love, or Write What Sells?, Chuck Wendig

2. Why You Should Write What You Love, Chuck Wendig

3. This quotation is taken from an interview Chuck Wendig did for a blog called, “This is Horror.”

Thursday, February 16

How to Write a Restaurant Review

How to Write a Restaurant Review

I love food! I love the texture—the velvety softness of rising bread dough—the smells, the look, the sounds—bubbling and sizzling—and, afterward, when everyone is fighting food coma, the sleepy clinking of dishes as plates are cleared away.

Given this I guess it’s natural that I would love restaurants. I love the way they look, I love getting together with friends and enjoying a meal together. And I love the way a new restaurant holds out the promise of new, interesting experiences.

One of my earliest memories is being driven by a gorgeous restaurant. It was night but since the restaurant’s walls were mostly glass I could see the interior, illuminated as it was by a soft, flickering, light. As my parents’ car whisked me away I craned my neck to peer inside. Each linen-clad table held a candle centered in a pool of soft light, surrounded by smiling people enjoying the sort of community that flows naturally around good food. In my youthful mind that restaurant was an oasis of hope and warmth and beauty.

I’ve gone to a few restaurants since then, nice ones even, but nothing has ever come close to that childhood memory. Of course I’m positive that, were I to swim back through time and walk into that restaurant, I would find it devastatingly ordinary. But over the years that memory has served as something of a beacon.

Given this passion for all-things-food I’ve often thought about writing a restaurant review. I think what has held me back was that I wasn’t sure how to write one!

It’s time to remedy that.

 I’ve decided that this summer I’m going to get out more and review a number of the wonderful, funky, unique, quirky and above all welcoming restaurants that surround me like raisins in a delicious rice pudding. But I’ve never written a review! So I thought this would be a marvelous topic for a blog post.

The Association of Food Journalists: How to Write a Review 

Thinking about it now it makes perfect sense that there’s an Association of Food Journalists, but for some reason that came as a surprise. What follows comes from the Association's infinitely informative article they have graciously shared with the public: Food Critics Guidelines.

The goals of a critic should be to be fair, honest, to understand and illuminate the cuisine about which he or she is writing. A critic should look beyond specific dishes and experiences and attempt to capture the whole of a restaurant and its intentions.

Beautiful! That’s the picture in broad strokes, the overall goal. Now, as my gran used to say, let’s get down to brass tacks.

A review concerns three basic categories:

a. Service
b. Menu/Food quality
c. Atmosphere
d. Value

When you write a restaurant review you are doing journalism and journalists have guidelines. For instance:

1. Visit twice. If you are writing a full length review try to visit the restaurant at least two times. If you can only visit the restaurant once then note this in the review.

2. Play fair. Order what the restaurant is known for. If they are known for their tasting menu then,  if possible, order that. If they are known for their deserts then order the desert, if they are known for their seafood then order the seafood.

3. Dish evaluation. Discuss each of these elements (Service, Menu, Atmosphere, Value) with reference to what the chef was trying to accomplish. For example, if they were experimenting with a fusion dish then it’s not fair to complain it wasn’t authentic!

4. Be comprehensive. While it goes without saying you don’t have to order every item on the menu, do try to order a complete meal, from appetizer to dessert. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t mention an item that you haven’t tasted.

5. Try a variety. Order dishes that were created using: a) different cooking techniques (steamed, deep-fried, sautéed, and so on), b) different ingredients (fish, beef, seafood, vegetables, etc.) and c) different styles (traditional, modern, fusion, etc.).

6. Be sure. If you visit the restaurant twice and the first time a particular dish stood out as either wonderful or terrible, then order it again to see if you have the same experience.

7. Be generous. Give a new restaurant one month to work the kinks out before eating there, at least if your visit will be part of a review. If you need to write a review within that first month make the review more descriptive than critical. If possible, call it a “sneak preview” rather than a “review.” Highlight things like the clientele, the decor, the chefs background and be sure to mention how long the restaurant has been open. Naturally you will discuss the menu but try not to concentrate on it as much as you would in a normal review.

8. Re-review. If you’ve reviewed a restaurant and it changes owners, if it hires or fires its chef or if it moves to a new location then it’s important to review it again.

9. Negative reviews. If you have an all-around terrible experience at a restaurant and feel it would be irresponsible NOT to write about it then make sure your review is based on more than just two visits. Also, make sure your review is based on a representative sampling of the menu. That is, make sure you’ve tried appetizers, various main courses as well as desserts. Also, make sure you’ve sampled a variety of food (red meat, chicken, pork, vegetarian, and so on) prepared using different methods (sautéed, steamed, roast, and so on). If you do use a rating system, showing exactly how the negative review was earned can help minimize pushback.

10. Edit, edit, edit. Double-check your facts. Confirm the spelling of the restaurant’s name, of the chef’s name, of the restaurant’s contact information as well as the names of the dishes you reviewed.


You don’t have to employ a ratings system, but if you do the key is consistency. If you are set on using a ratings system, The Association of Food Journalists recommends the following:

4 stars: Extraordinary. The standard by which you judge other restaurants.

3 stars: Excellent. Great food, wonderful atmosphere, good service, all around wonderful experience.

2 stars: Good. A solid example of a particular kind of restaurant (e.g., sushi, Italian, and so on).

1 star: Okay. The restaurant did one thing well. Perhaps one dish was delicious, or the restaurant had a fabulous waitstaff, or you enjoyed the atmosphere. Still, you’re not going to hurry back to a 1 star restaurant, but you would go again.

0 stars: Poor. Nothing about the restaurant made you want to return.

Personally, I think I would simplify matters and go with thumbs up or thumbs down! But that’s just me. Thumbs up would mean I’d go back while thumbs down would mean the opposite. I have a feeling I wouldn’t employ a rating system because the overwhelming number of restaurants I’ve been to I would gladly go again.

The Actual Writing

1. Hook the Reader With the First Sentence

It seems to me that writing a restaurant review is remarkably similar to any other piece of writing. The most important thing is to open your review with a sentence that will hook the reader.

2. Make It Personal

When it comes to food journalism, Nigella Lawson is my idol. Take, for instance, her March 2014 article for The Guardian: Why I Became a Cookbook Writer. Here’s her first sentence: “I never intended to be a food writer.”

Bam! It is unexpected. Honest. And I don’t know about you, but it certainly grabbed me.

Lawson is open about the fact she is self-taught. She writes, “if you needed a professional qualification to cook, human beings would have fallen out of the evolutionary tree a long time ago.” So true!

She goes on:

“In How To Eat I thought aloud about food, shared my enthusiasms and prejudices and tried to explain how and why I cook any one dish at any time. It is an intensely personal book: any authentic collection of recipes is in part autobiography; and in my case, many of these recipes were a kind of memorial to the food cooked by my mother, Vanessa, and my sister, Thomasina.”

You see how Nigella Lawson seems to be speaking right to you, her reader. She is brutally, beautifully, honest, baring her soul. You are girlfriends, a bit tipsy perhaps, sharing secrets as you sip wine and eat something sinfully delicious.

In other words: make it personal. Write from the heart. Although he meant something a wee bit different, I think of what Westley said to Prince Humperdinck at the end of The Princess Bride: To the pain! Expose yourself. Write the painfully personal. Write your heart.

Good writing is good writing, whether you’re writing about your initiation into adulthood or a good fritter.

3. Be Objective

It sounds counterintuitive at first but it doesn’t matter whether you like the food. I remember reading a blog post by a former literary agent in which he talked about how whether he personally liked a book was beside the point. What he was looking for was whether there was a market for the book. (Of course if he loved the story then there definitely would be a market: all those readers like him!)

The question your asking yourself is whether your readers would like this food. Yes, of course, share your personal preferences with your readers—that’s part of being honest, of being personal—but also share whether you like that kind of food.

Personally, I don’t like dry ribs but I realize that most people like them just fine. So if I were to have a dish of dry ribs I would evaluate them against other dry ribs I’ve had and so could say, truthfully, these are the best dry ribs I’ve had even though I didn’t personally care for them. Also, I would try to eat with friends who loved dry ribs and ask for their opinions.

A few of my favorite cookbooks:

How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking, by Nigella Lawson.
Barefoot Contessa Foolproof: Recipes You Can Trust, by Ina Garten.
Everyday Super Food, by Jamie Oliver.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending what I think is an amazing book: Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly.

From the blurb: “Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.”

Are you going to write a review? If so, I would love to read it! Please leave a link to it in a comment.

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again tomorrow. In the meantime, good writing!

Tuesday, February 14

Writing an Effective Book Description: 7 Ways to Turn Browsers Into Buyers

Writing an Effective Book Description: 7 Ways to Turn Browsers Into Buyers

Descriptions are important. I used to think the sole purpose of a description was to summarize or describe a book. And, of course, that’s part of it! But, primarily, the job of your book’s description is to sell the book. This means that, like our heroes, we must go beyond passive description to inform potential readers how this book can change their life for the better. (I go into more detail about this, below.)

Now, you might think: well, that’s all fine and good for Non-Fiction, but I write FICTION! I agree that it’s a bit easier—or at least more straightforward—in the case of non-fiction, but this principle applies to fiction as well.

For example, look at the description of 1984, by George Orwell. The following is an excerpt from the first three sentences (note that potential readers see this without having to click the “Read more” button): “...[Orwell’s] dystopian vision of a government that will do anything to control the narrative is timelier than ever” and then comes the following quotation:

“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

I’d like to stress that I’m NOT discussing politics here. Whichever side of the (sizable!) political divide you personally come down on, you can see the hook here, and it’s a powerful one.

Of course you might think: but 1984 is a classic! I write light-hearted romance.

It doesn't matter! The same principle applies.

Why do people read your book? What does it do for them? Perhaps it helps them forget how ordinary their life is. Perhaps it allows them to vicariously experience exotic locales as well as the thrills and chills of being swept off their feet by a handsome stranger.

I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with a classic example of this—and if you’ve got one in mind PLEASE leave the book's title in a comment!—but this comes from the description of The Red Door Inn by Liz Johnson:

Step into the Red Door Inn, a lovely home away from home tucked along the north shore of fabled Prince Edward Island. It's a place where the wounded come to heal, the broken find forgiveness, and the lonely find a family. Won't you stay for the season?

That’s quite the invitation! By the way, at the time of writing, this book sits at #460 in the paid Kindle Store. According to the Kindle Best Seller Calculator this works out to about 194 copies sold per day. At a 35% royalty this means the book earns about $103 per day. Not bad!

In any case, enough preamble. Here are 7 tips for writing a book description that will show your work in its best possible light and, because of this, turn browsers into buyers!

7 Tips for Writing a Book Description That Will Turn Browsers Into Buyers

Before we get into this let’s look at what I think is an effective non-fiction book description. It’s from Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth.

In this instant New York Times bestseller, pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth shows anyone striving to succeed—be it parents, students, educators, athletes, or business people—that the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a special blend of passion and persistence she calls “grit.”

Drawing on her own powerful story as the daughter of a scientist who frequently noted her lack of “genius,” Duckworth, now a celebrated researcher and professor, describes her early eye-opening stints in teaching, business consulting, and neuroscience, which led to the hypothesis that what really drives success is not “genius” but a unique combination of passion and long-term perseverance.

1. Hook Readers With the First Sentence.

Does the first sentence grab readers? Does it hook them? Does it pull them in and compel them to read the next sentence?

Let’s look at the first sentence of GRIT's description:

... pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth shows anyone striving to succeed ... that the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a special blend of passion and persistence she calls ‘grit.’

The book's promise is right there: You don't need talent to succeed! Read this book, discover what grit is, and you too will learn the secret to outstanding achievement."

Here’s another example of an effective description that packs a punch in the first two sentences. It’s from Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Work Week:

The New York Times bestselling author of The 4-Hour Body shows readers how to live more and work less, now with more than 100 pages of new, cutting-edge content.

Forget the old concept of retirement and the rest of the deferred-life plan–there is no need to wait and every reason not to, especially in unpredictable economic times.

Notice that the first sentence is in bold and that it communicates the promise of the book: Read me and you’ll learn “how to live more and work less.” I’ve noticed quite a few descriptions have the first sentence in bold to help it stand out. Some descriptions also increase the font size of certain key sentences in order to draw attention to them.

2. Include Your Book's Keywords in the Description.

Keywords are important because this is part of what determines whether your book will show up for particular searches.

When you publish your book you’re asked for up to seven keywords. Work as many of these into your description as you can. Some authors also bold or underline one or two of the most important keywords.

Many times you can get a good idea of the kind of keywords books in your category use by simply looking at the categories that the best selling books succeed in. If you have the time it's also a good idea to copy, say, 10 of the best descriptions for books in your category and run them through a program that reveals which words are used most frequently.

3. Make Your Book's Description Similar in Style to the Best Sellers in Your Genre/Category.

Does your description look similar to, have a similar style to, the description of the best selling books in your genre/category? If not, study the descriptions of the best sellers. Not all of them will sparkle, but pick the best and see how yours differs. Then tweak yours.

Don't be discouraged if you don't get it right the first time!

Also, make sure your book's description communicates the book's genre and subgenre.

4. Solicit Feedback.

Let friends and your fellow writers read your description and give you feedback. Share your description with your social networks. You can also work up different versions and ask folks to choose which one (A or B) they like better.

One tip I've received is that, for ease of reading, each paragraph should contain no more than 2 or 3 sentences.

5. Remember That a Description Is More Than a Summary, It's an Advertisement!

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Does the description highlight the book’s benefit for its intended audience? In other words, did you tell the reader what your book can do for them?
  • What is the reader’s problem? Be genuine. Show your readers you've be through what they're going through, that you understand them. How will your book fix their problem? How will it make the reader [insert modifier: wealthier, happier, more productive, etc]? 
  • Communicate that these tips are practical. Anyone who reads the book and puts in time and effort can change their life. (I believe this!)
  • Make sure you list the benefits a potential reader will get if they read the book and implement the advice. Include bullet points that communicate, say, the 3 most important benefits of your book, the three most important things it can do for readers.
  • Why is this book the best book they could read on this topic? Help your book stand out from the crowd.
  • Try to make a personal connection with the reader in the book description. If the book is intended for a certain age range, include that information. The more accurately you can target your intended audience, the better.

6. Include an Elevator Pitch.

This point applies more to fiction than nonfiction. Don’t give away too much information. If you have a number of cliffhanger moments in your book (perhaps the first one occurs around the Lock-In) then take the readers up to the first cliffhanger.

See: How to write a kickass book description.

7. Update Your Book's Description.

Update your bio to reflect the content of your book.

Update your book’s description as you get reviews, etc. Also, if you’re running a promotion, don't be afraid to put it in the description!

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I want to recommend a book by one of my favorite writers: Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman

From the blurb: "Through Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerge these gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to duping others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again."

That's it! I hate writing descriptions. Sometimes I think the description is more difficult to write than the book! I hope this was of some help. If you'd like to share what's worked for you, please share your tip in the comments, I'd love to hear from you. :-)

I'll talk to you again on Wednesday. In the meantime, good writing! :-)

Sunday, February 12

The Structure of Character

The Structure of Character

Most of the time I focus on story structure rather than character structure.

Now, you might wonder: Is “character structure” really a thing? Do all the different elements that go into making up a fictional human have a structure?

I think they do, though it’s not as clear cut as it is with story structure. By the way, I’m not putting this forward as the way things are, I’m musing aloud. In what follows I lay out my reasoning, and I would be very interested in what you folks think! :-)

Motorboat Example

To make things easier, I’m going to refer to the following diagram in what follows:

In this figure you see three things:

- A shark
- A man driving a motorboat
- An island

When we talk about character, the following terms are often used:

- Motivation
- Goals
- Desires (internal & external)
- Flaw
- Wound

I want to try and explain what I mean by each of these terms with reference to the above diagram.

MOTIVATION: The shark is the man’s motivation for heading to the island.

DESIRE: The man’s desire sets his goal. We can’t actually see the man’s desire. In this case it’s something like, “Stay alive!”

GOAL: The island is the man’s goal. If the man reaches the island he’ll be safe from the shark.

FLAW/WOUND: Flaws come in many different varieties. The character can have a physical imperfection: a sprained leg, a scar, a physical wound, and so on. The character can also have a psychological flaw. He could be depressed or his anxiety levels could be so high he can’t think straight. Or perhaps he’s lost someone he loves. In terms of the motorboat example, if the man had a broken arm it would be more difficult to steer the boat toward the island.

Desire vs Goals

Some folks talk about internal desires and external desires—and that’s great! An example of an internal desire would be the desire to be loved. An external desire, on the other hand, would be wanting Handsome John, the crown prince of Egodia, to ask one out on a date. This way of talking about things is fine—great!—but I prefer to simply think about these things in terms of desires and goals.[1]

A desire, at least in the sense I’m using it here, has the following connotations:

  • It is about the heart rather than the head. 
  • It is personal vs impersonal.
  • It has to do with “unkickables”; that is, things you can’t take a picture of—things like the desire to be loved or to be a success.
  • It is broad vs narrow.

A goal, on the other hand, is very different:

  • It is about the head more than the heart.
  • It is impersonal vs personal.
  • It is “kickable”; tangible. That is, you could take a picture of it. This covers things like winning the lottery and climbing Mount Everest.
  • It is narrow vs broad.

The way I think of it, a goal is a specific, concrete, expression of a desire. While the desire is broad, general, even nebulous, the goal is concrete. One could take a picture of the character accomplishing it.

For example, if a character—let’s call her Jane—has the desire to be rich, there are several concrete, specific goals she COULD have:

  • Buy a lottery ticket.
  • Go to school and become a lawyer.
  • Become a day trader.
  • Rob a bank.

And so on. Jane’s personality, skills, background and environment will no doubt influence which goal Jane selects, but that GOAL will be an expression of her DESIRE to be rich.

Of course, you could think about desires differently. For example, Jane could have a specific desire (e.g., I want to get rich by becoming a day trader). That’s fine. Think of desires and goals however makes the most sense to you!

The Structure: Incompatible Desires

When I talk about the structure of character I think about how desires and goals relate to one another. Specifically, how the secret to making a lifelike character is to give her incompatible desires (which, in turn, translate into incompatible goals). In a well-structured story this will eventually force the character to prefer one desire, one goal, above another.

Perhaps the best way to communicate what I mean is to look at examples:

Example 1: Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris

I’m guessing that you’ve either read the book or seen the movie. If not, what are you waiting for!? If you’d like to read a summary of the story, head over to Wikipedia.[2]

In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling has two main desires:

Desire1: Save lives, help those who can’t help themselves.
Desire2: Gain status, be recognized and valued for accomplishments.

These desires are expressed as the following goals:

Goal1: Save the girl ([name], the senator’s daughter) Buffalo Bill has captured.
Goal2: Climb the career ladder at the FBI. (Graduate and become a full-fledged FBI agent. Be recognized and rewarded for hard work and excellence.)

Before Clarice started working for Jack Crawford her internal and external desires were in sync. She believed her superiors at the FBI were interested in saving innocents, that this concern trumped their ambition.

Another way of saying the same thing is that, in the Ordinary World of the story, Clarice’s goals were aligned. AFTER she begins working for Crawford she realizes her superiors in the FBI don’t care about saving Buffalo Bill’s victims as much as they care about politics—that is, in not ticking off the wrong people and climbing the career ladder.

When Clarice’s internal and external desires come into conflict her life becomes disharmonious. Clarice realizes she must choose, one desire must rule the other. Either she will give up her ambitions and try to save the girl or she will let go of her desire to rescue the innocent in favor of getting ahead at the FBI. Whichever way Clarice chooses it will reveal her character. In the end she does the only thing she can given who she is: she tries to save the girl.

Example 2: The Matrix

For both Neo and Trinity their goals change during the course of the movie. At first Neo is focused on finding Morpheus and figuring out what the matrix is. When he accomplishes that at the Lock-In his desires change. Neo wants to be what Morpheus wants him to be: the One. He also wants to protect the resistance—both the movement and the people within the movement, especially Trinity. So ...

Desire1: Protect and serve the resistance.
Desire2: Become the One.

Early in Act Two these desires are in harmony, but after Morpheus is captured they come apart. At this point Neo believes he has a choice: save Morpheus and die himself or sacrifice Morpheus and live on in the hope he (Neo) will become the One.

Goal1: Kill Morpheus before the agents can extract the codes from his mind and use them to quash the resistance. (Morpheus dies, Neo lives.)
Goal2: Rescue Morpheus and, in so doing, give up his own life. 

Neo wants to save the resistance—and himself—(Goal1), and he wants to save Morpheus (Goal2), but he can’t do both. So he chooses, and his choice reveals his character and sets him apart as a hero. He chooses to give up his own life so that Morpheus might live and the resistance continue.

So, what do you think? Is there a structure to the desires of a well-drawn character?

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending something a bit different. Sometimes I use a voice recorder to start my writing off. I love writing while I walk! The voice recorder I use is the Sony ICD PX333. I’m sure there are better recorders out there, but not for $29.99! I’ve had it for years and I've dropped it, used it out in the snow, the rain, and it still works fine! If someone else would like to recommend another voice recorder, please do!

That’s it! I was a bit late with this post—there was a lot to think about! I’ll talk to you again tomorrow. Till then, good writing!


1. To me this seems like a simpler system, though I likely find it simpler simply because it clicks with me. Each of us is different and so it’s reasonable that we each need to make sense of these concepts in our own way. If my way of thinking clicks with you, great! If not, then ignore it. Do whatever makes sense to you.

2. Although the book and the movie are quite similar there are significant differences. For example, Clarice’s anger plays a much bigger part in the book as does Crawford’s scheming and behind the scenes manipulations.

3. The Oracle has told Trinity that the man she falls in love with will be the One.

Wednesday, February 8

14 Tips On How To Create Your Own Urban Legend

14 Tips On How To Create Your Own Urban Legend

This would have been a great thing to do for Halloween! Oh well, better late than never. Today I want to talk about something that has fascinated me for ... well, for as long as I remember: urban legends.

As I’m sure you know, an urban legend “is a form of modern folklore consisting of fictional stories, often with macabre elements deeply rooted in local popular culture. (Wikipedia)”

Generally, urban legends spring up on their own, but there’s nothing to say that we can’t create our own! Why would we want to create one? Well, to scare the pants off our readers! And because it’s kind of fun. :-)

The Ingredients of an Urban Legend:

Antagonist: A proper villain.

Protagonist: An ordinary, more-or-less innocent person. Everyman/woman.

1. Fear of strangers. The bad guy is a foreigner, an outsider, a stranger.

This is a primal fear. The thing that waits in the darkness outside the ring of firelight. Closely related is the idea that one of the people huddled around the fire isn’t what they seem. They are a monster wearing a human face.

2. Importance of ritual and rule-following.

This is generally part of the moral: Follow the rules and you’ll be okay, break them and the monsters will get you. Or, which is more-or-less the same, behave morally, resist temptation and the boogyman will pass you by. Give in and you’ll be monster food.

3. The author is anonymous.

The event itself is said to have happened to a friend or a friend of a friend, but the author herself doesn’t give a name or any way to trace her down.

4. Vague. No specific examples are given, nothing that can be definitely traced.

Sometimes it’s said that the information came from “an advisor close to the president” or perhaps even a prominent person is named, but in such a way that it’s difficult to pin down anything concrete. Public officials say many things, do many things, and it’s not always easy to trace them.

5. Electronics don’t work.

It seems that whenever the supernatural is involved—and most urban myths I’ve read include some sort of supernatural element—anything electronic dies a spectacular death.

6. The protagonist is alone.

This is classic storytelling. When the protagonist confronts the Big Bad they are (almost) always alone. Let’s face it, if the protagonist had help the stakes wouldn’t be as high, it wouldn’t be as interesting.

7. It is said to be a true story.

We all know urban legends aren’t true, but they’re interesting precisely because a small part of us thinks, or wants to think, that it COULD be. That’s what happens when a story aggressively puts itself forward as being true, as being just another story about something that happened to a friend.

8. Event is said to have happened locally.

I think this point is connected to the fact that we tend to prefer the stories of our friends. What happens locally has the potential to affect us.

9. Event is said to have happened recently.

Events that happened a few years ago or last decade, even sensational ones, aren’t as interesting to us as those that happened earlier today, or yesterday, or a few weeks ago.

10. The event happened to someone the teller knows. Or a friend of a friend.

I think that, rightly or wrongly, we tend to put more weight in the stories our friends tell us, even friends of friends.

11. The event is macabre, horrific, sensational.

In your own life, what scared you the most? We’ve all been scared. When I was a kid I ate pizza too fast and started choking. Lucky for me my dad knew the Heimlich maneuver and I was okay. For a few weeks after that, though, I was terrified of choking.

In itself fear of choking is a bit tame, but I suppose it depends on WHAT the person chokes on.

12. Give it a moral.

I think this is implied by some of the above, but it’s so important it deserves its own point. Urban legends have a moral. For example, take the urban legend “The Hook.” From Wikipedia:

“The basic premise involves a young couple parking at a lovers' lane. The radio plays while they make out. Suddenly, a news bulletin reports that a serial killer has just escaped from a nearby institution. The killer has a hook for one of his hands. For varying reasons, they decide to leave quickly. In the end, the killer's hook is found hanging from the door handle.”

Here, since the couple left lovers’ lane, they get to live. If they hadn’t stopped their ‘activities’ and left, though, things would have turned out bloody.

13. I say this tongue-in-cheek: It helps if a blurry photograph is involved!

Self-check: Would your urban legend disturb you personally IF it were real?

Something to try if you’re looking for inspiration: Make your own urban legend by taking the beginning of one and melding it with the ending of another. Here’s a list of urban legends.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Many writers have sung the praises of this book: Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between, by James Scott Bell. Personally, I start from the ending, but to each their own. Bell’s approach has been something of a revelation.

From the blurb: “What if, amazing as it may seem, the place to begin writing your novel is in the very middle of the story? According to #1 bestselling writing teacher James Scott Bell, that's exactly where you'll find your story's heart and heat. Bell's "Mirror Moment" is the secret, and its power is available to any writer, at any stage of the writing process. Bringing together years of craft study and personal discovery, Bell presents a truly unique approach to writing a novel, one that will stand the test of time and serve you all your writing life.”

That’s it! I’d love to read your urban legend. Share it in the comments ... if you dare (cue scary music). Or post it on your webspace and leave a link. Whatever you do, good writing! I’ll talk to you again on Friday.


Tuesday, February 7

8 Ways A Thriller differs from a Mystery

8 Ways A Thriller differs from a Mystery

I’ve discussed the structure of a CYOA story, the structure of a mystery, the structure of a short story, even the structure of a great story, but never the structure of a thriller. I think it’s high time to remedy that!

But how to write a thriller is a rather large subject, so in what follows I only look at 8 ways a thriller differs from other kinds of stories.

Thriller: Mystery, Crime, Suspense and Horror

Thrillers have a bit of everything: mystery, suspense, crime and horror. Perhaps that’s the secret of their popularity, there’s something for everyone.

“Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety. Successful examples of thrillers are the films of Alfred Hitchcock.” (Wikipedia)

In a word, thrillers are supposed to be thrilling!

8 Ways in which a thriller differs from other books:

1. Pacing: A thriller is relentless.

I’ve found that certain genres—cozy’s for instance—don’t require a huge amount of dramatic tension or, as I like to call it, narrative drive. Speaking for myself, I read cozy mysteries for the sense of community, to see the characters’ quirks and how they complicate things. To see a) WHO did it, b) HOW they did it and c) WHY they did it. Thrillers, though, I read primarily because I want to lose myself in a fast paced story that fires up the imagination.

2. There is no obvious set of suspects.

One of the things that distinguishes a thriller from a cozy is that a thriller doesn’t have a clear list of suspects.

Recall that in a cozy mystery the suspects are drawn from what W.H. Auden calls a “closed society” so we have our pool of suspects right from the beginning. The reader’s task is to work out which of them committed the dastardly deed. For example, a freak snow storm traps 9 people in a remote hunting lodge. Logically, the killer has to be one of the surviving 8 people.

In a thriller, though, the killer can be someone completely unconnected to the detective and her allies. For example in Thomas Harris’ novel Silence of the Lambs Jame Gumb, the serial killer and Big Bad, was never directly connected to the investigation. (Dr. Hannibal Lecter WAS, but Lector wasn’t the antagonist.)

That said, many times the murderer has some sort of connection to the detective. For example, it might turn out that the killer is someone inside the detective’s inner circle, or perhaps one of the apparently minor characters involved in the case—the detective’s mail carrier, the barista that serves the detective coffee each day, his sister’s new boyfriend, and so on. For example, in James Patterson’s thriller, Along Came a Spider, one of the killers was part of the hero’s own team.

3. High stakes.

In a cozy the stakes are usually modest. If the detective doesn’t solve the case then the murderer will go unpunished and the imbalance the murder created in society will not be addressed. As a result, people will be more suspicious of each other, each thinking that the other could be a murderer. Also, the sleuth’s reputation would take a considerable hit.

In a thriller, on the other hand, if the murderer isn’t caught it could mean the end of the world.

4. Protagonist is a hero.

Not all protagonists are heroes. A hero is someone—male or female—who has noble qualities. For instance, they are courageous and think of the well-being of others before their own. They will do what many would consider irrational things to defeat the Big Bad and save the day.

Generally, whatever organization the hero is with he is cut off from. He is the rebel police officer, the journalist who skates too close to the edge, the soldier who would do anything, sacrifice anything, to save the day.

5. Antagonist is a proper villain.

Another difference between a thriller and a cozy is that in a thriller the murderer is more likely to be a vicious, brilliant, psychotic, serial killer than he is a weaselly nephew who murders his cousin for their money.

Or, if we’re talking about a political thriller, the villain is much more likely to be a terrorist out to destroy the free world than someone who kills in a moment of passion or because he wants to stop his most intimate secret from being revealed.

6. A lot of scenes, not many sequels. What sequels exit are short.

I mentioned that thrillers were part action story and here is one reason why: sequences of scenes are strung together with only very short sequels between them. I know I use this example quite a bit—perhaps too much!—but Raiders of the Lost Ark is a terrific example of scene vs sequel length.

There are sequels in Raiders, but they are very short. One sequel was about 5 seconds long, just long enough for Indiana Jones to say something like, “We’ve got to get the ark,” and then he and Marion are off to fight another battle.

Let’s face it, folks don’t read thrillers because they want something to help them fall asleep! They read them for, as the name suggests, a thrill.

For more on scenes and sequels see the article Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts.

7. The setting of a thriller is often exotic. 

Exotic locations are unfamiliar, extreme, locations.

Unfamiliar. For someone from the Pacific Northwest, a tropical beach would be an exotic location, but if you lived in Hawaii then not so much!

Extreme. The world's largest particle collider would be an exotic location. As could a spacecraft orbiting Earth ... or Mars!

A Carnival is often used as an exotic location, especially if the thriller has supernatural overtones.

This is another point of departure from the cozy mystery which is often—and quite intentionally—placed within a familiar, comfortable, cozy setting.

8. An exciting, surprising, climax.

Every reader of a cozy knows what the climax is going to be: the detective is going to go over every clue and separate the true clues from the distractors and red herrings. (Distractors are those clues that have to do with wrongdoing, but wrongdoing that has nothing to do with the murder.)

While the climax of a thriller needs to reveal the identity of the murderer (the who, the why and the how) there also needs to be a twist. For instance, a classic twist comes at the end of the movie Seven when the penultimate victim is revealed to be the detective’s wife. This leads to the further twist of the Big Bad himself being the ultimate victim, killed by the detective himself.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m going to recommend something a bit different: Dragon NaturallySpeaking Home 13.0. I’ve tried it out and I have to say I’m VERY impressed. The program seems to understand 98% of what I say perfectly. Unfortunately, the 2% that Dragon misunderstands can be frustrating! bottom line: If you’re a slow typist or you hate typing, and you don’t mind fixing the odd mistake, this program is for you. (Here’s a review of the program: PC World.)

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again on Wednesday. Until then, good writing! :-)

Friday, February 3

The Structure of a Supernatural Episode

The Structure of a Supernatural Episode

I've rewatched Supernatural a few times. For giggles I've drawn up what I'll call a plot outline. This isn't intended to be an outline for each episode, or for any particular episode. The following has been drawn from a number of different episodes and pieced together. Please keep in mind that this is a work-in-progress! 

Note: Transcripts of most of the episodes can be found on the Supernatural Wiki. 

By the way, if you would like to read more about story structure, try my article: Story Structure.

The Structure of an Episode of Supernatural


Inciting Incident: Someone dies a gruesome death.

Act One

Banter: The theme of the episode is introduced as the brothers talk to each other. What they talk about is tied into the story arc for that season. As they talk, the brothers learn of the bizarre death that occurred in the trailer. They’re not 100% sure if the death is the work of a monster, but it seems like their kind of thing.

Body. The brothers stand beside the body of the person killed in the trailer. Generally, they are inside a morgue and a medical examiner is with them. They question the medical examiner and make observations of their own.

Interview: Round one. The brothers question those close to the victim as well as anyone who was with the victim near the time of their death. One of the people the brothers talk to suspects Dean and Sam aren’t what they say. The confrontation is more-or-less friendly. The brothers give this person their phone number.

Crime Scene. The brothers go to the crime scene and look around. Perhaps they’ve picked up a clue or three from their questioning so they’re not only looking for clues as to what kind of thing did this, they’re also trying to rule out theories they’ve already come up with.

Interview: Round two. The brothers go back to some of the people they’ve already questioned (they might also speak to someone new). They need to clarify a point, or they require more information, or perhaps they now know a person lied to them. 

Twist: In a scene that usually involves the brothers, the central mystery for this episode is revealed. For example, let’s say Charlie is acting all dark-side and the boys aren’t sure why. This is the point at which we find out there are two Charlies, one all brightness and light, the other pain and black clothing.[Supernatural Season 10, Episode 11]

Act Two

More banter. The banter ties the theme of the episode to the story arc for that season and does so more strongly than before. Something has changed, the stakes have been raised or perhaps the danger has become more immediate. 

The brothers’ discussion has to do with something personal, something about the conflict they’re going through that season. It is possible that the conflict raised by the story arc for the season will prove to be crucial for the climax of the episode in the sense that if Sam can’t resolve his conflict at the climax of the episode there is no chance he will be able to resolve the much greater conflict at the end of the season.

The brothers find another clue. Because of this clue, they go back and re-question some of the people they’ve already interviewed.

Midpoint. This is generally an information dump or a confrontation leading to a revelation. The brothers emerge with a hypothesis of why what is happening is happening. Research reveals the answers.

The brothers investigate something based on the new information they’ve uncovered.

The boys visit a person who turns out to be a mentor figure (or some kind of archetypal figure). Perhaps this is someone who has investigated the case before them or an expert on local lore. Before the mentor figure gives the boys any information he gives them a test, often a test of knowledge. 

The stakes are raised. The boys find the monster (or, what is more likely, the monster finds them), but they aren’t prepared. Either the monster has abilities they aren't prepared for and it gets the upper hand, or what the brothers thought was the Big Bad turns out to be the Big Bad’s helper. In any case, the brothers' situation isn’t just bad, it’s dire

Act Three

We see the monster attacking one of the people the brothers have interviewed. This will generally be someone sympathetic.

At this point the brothers have figured out the kind of beastie they’re looking for, have figured out its weaknesses, and now all that’s left is to hunt it down. The question: will they arrive in time?

Escalation of stakes: In order to destroy the monster an artifact must be destroyed, something it gets its power from. But, first, they must find it. Or perhaps one of the brothers puts himself in danger to lure the monster out so it can be utterly destroyed.

Theme tie in. One of the brothers warns the other that if he’s going to do this he has to resolve the personal conflict that was discussed at the beginning of acts one and two. Perhaps that conflict is that he has to forgive himself. 

The brothers track down the cursed artifact. They summon the monster and prepare for battle.

Act Four

Something distracts one of the brothers from protecting the other. Perhaps the police have responded to a complaint, perhaps it’s another monster, but something requires that one of the others be elsewhere.

The remaining brother is vulnerable to the monster in the same way the other victims were because he hasn’t resolved his personal conflict.

The other brother comes to the rescue in the nick of time and destroys the artifact. For a moment it seems like the monster is gone but a second later we see that the monster is still there. Something is wrong. All hope is lost.

One of the brothers uses something in an unexpected and creative way and the monster dies. For example, Dean holds a mirror up to the ghost conjured by a foolish person chanting “bloody Mary.” The ghost is affected by her own magic and dies, killed by her own curse.


Show that the endangered human is safe. If Sam’s challenge is to forgive himself then have him give this advice to the girl/guy the brothers saved. Have a short discussion between Sam and Dean which ties the events of the episode in with the story arc for that season.

* Blast classic rock music as Dean's 1967 Chevrolet Impala drives off into the sunset. *

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

One of my favorite reference books, a golden oldie, is The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

That's it! I hope you got something out of this post. Have you ever tried to do something similar with your favorite TV series? If so, please share! 

Have a terrific weekend, I'll talk to you again on Monday. :-)

Wednesday, February 1

How to Use Your Life Experiences to Ground Universal Themes and Make Your Story Unique

How to Use Your Life Experiences to Ground Universal Themes and Make Your Story Unique

All stories need to draw from universal themes. For example:

  • One person LOVES another but the love is not reciprocated. 
  • One person HATES another because he killed someone she loved. 
  • One person is dying but there is one slim HOPE they’ll get a reprieve.
  • The thing you FEAR the most happens.

The problem: for a story to be interesting it must be unique. After all, if you know exactly what’s going to happen at every turn it’s not fun.

The secret: Infuse your story with your experience. This is what binds the universal to the particular and lends it verisimilitude.

Life experience marries the universal with the unique.

It seems like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? If something is universal then—by definition—it can’t be unique!

That’s the beauty of using one’s own life experiences. Like you, I’ve experienced heartbreak and elation. I’ve gone through initiations (of sorts), won and lost friends. Someone I was close to died. My experience of each of these things is PARTICULAR. It’s embedded in a particular place and time, a particular culture, a particular set of desires, of strengths and weaknesses.

Of course we can’t just write out our life experiences and plop them into novels, but we CAN (in a sense) channel that experience as we write particular characters, particular scenes.

If I use my own experiences, do I need to base my characters on real people?

Including your friends and neighbors in your fiction can end relationships! My advice would be to go ahead and use your own experience, mine your memories, but change the characters enough that no one but you knows who they’re based on.

Even if you’re not concerned about your loved ones lynching you, basing a character too closely on a real person can be confining.

After all, you don’t want to be constrained by what the living, breathing, infinitely-complex-person would or wouldn’t do in a certain situation. For example, if your character decides to have an affair then it’s best if she doesn’t closely resemble anyone you know!

An Example

Let’s say there’s a person in real life, one of your ex's, that you want to put in your book. Let’s say he was a doctor who owned his own clinic, that he was evangelistically vegan and that you walked in on him and your neighbor getting to know each other in the biblical sense.

Let’s also say you don’t want it to be obvious that you’ve based one of your characters on your ex. Here are some questions you could ask yourself:

- What profession could my character have that would keep intact those characteristics I care about and let everything else go? In my example, I’d want to keep him out and at work for the same amount of time and I would want the character to have some sort of dietary restriction. For instance, he could be a stock trader and allergic to gluten.
- What one characteristic of his drove you nuts?
- What one characteristic of his did you love?
- What did he want most in the world?
- What was his biggest flaw?
- What was his greatest strength and greatest weakness?
- Did you trust him? How’d that work out?
- What role did your respective friends and families play in the relationship?

These are the sort of things, the sort of ingredients, you can put in a story.

Another Example

In one of my stories I modeled my antagonist after my mother! Also, in that same story, I put bits and parts of myself into the protagonist.

I loved my mother, but we had our battles. I gave the antagonist my mother’s eyes and the same way of moving her hands when she spoke as well as the same vocal rhythm. (At least, in my head. I’m not sure that was communicated to the page.) But, physically, that was all I used. As it turned out, that was all I needed to immerse myself in the scene and write with passion.

In any case, my point is that since my relationship with my mother was unique and I saw her in a way no one else did, I felt safe transferring these traits to my character without fear of them being recognized.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I'm recommending: Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark. This book sits on my reference shelf and it has made writing easier.

From the blurb: “Ten years ago, Roy Peter Clark, America's most influential writing teacher, whittled down almost thirty years of experience in journalism, writing, and teaching into a series of fifty short essays on different aspects of writing.”

That’s it! If you have tips and tricks for using your personal experiences in writing, please share.

I’ll talk to you again on Friday. Till then, good writing!