5 Mistakes killing your book

Keyhole with hidden murdererI’ve been reading some Indie novels in a GoodReads review group and I’ve noticed several common writing mistakes. Some of them seem very remedial for published authors, and I wanted to call them out on it. Instead, I held back. So, I’m going to post them here.

  1. Writing too much description bogs down the narrative.

Don’t write long, descriptive details about the sky, the weather, the landscape, the contents of a room or what a character is wearing. To establish the time and setting, I limit myself to one or two descriptive sentences. Then it’s time to get into the story. Anything more and the reader will probably just skip over it anyway.

  1. Poor grammar and spelling errors take the reader out of the story.

I see them all the time in Indie books — peaking vs. peeking, set vs. sat, then vs. than, your vs. you’re; affect vs. effect… I could go on. Word misuse happens to all writers. I get it, but it still breaks the illusion of the story and makes the author look amateurish. Also, many writers don’t understand comma, apostrophe and semi-colon placement. Compound sentences, most modifying clauses and many phrases require commas. If, as an author, you’re not sure what that means, take a grammar class or hire a professional editor.

  1. Writing scenes that “tell, rather than show” won’t engage the reader

I think this is one of the toughest concepts for new authors to wrap their heads around. Basically though, telling is a boring lecture. It’s reporting information after the fact. Showing is describing the scene as it happens. It’s imaginative and the reader can “see” the story unfolding in his mind as he reads.

  1. Background that the author thinks is vital information is probably just an indulgence that’s interrupting the story.

Don’t drop in heavy, indigestible chunks of history into your story. Maybe some of the Protagonist’s background is vital to the plot (or just interesting) could be summarized in a few pages. However there’s no need to reach back to the immigrant great grandparents. Also, never, ever start your book with a data dump. If there’s critical information the reader must know to understand the plot, then drip it in pieces around the action, in the scenes and within the dialog – after the initial introduction of your characters and what’s immediately happening to them.

  1. Boring dialog creates boring characters.

Dialogue in fiction veers from real life in that the characters in your novel don’t engage in idle chit chat. Dialog provides essential information and reveals character. Yet, it must still sound real. Which can be tougher than it sounds.

The murder must always be believable

canstockphoto1131704I just finished reading a mystery novel in which a wife was pushed over the side of a cliff while trying to reconcile with her estranged husband. The husband was the obvious suspect, but in the end it turned out to be her jealous, wheelchair-bound sister who actually committed the crime. I can’t even begin to tell you how much this frustrated me.

The crime must always be believable. If not, the entire story unravels and bags of burning dog poop should be left on the author’s doorstep. And, in this case, the resolution to the mystery borders on criminally ridiculous. How would the jealous, wheelchair-bound sister get up to the mountain cliff in the first place? And even if she could somehow get there, how could she knock her sister over without the estranged husband seeing it? And how did she not leave tire marks behind?

The author was making the least likely character turn-out to be the murderer, and I’ll admit I didn’t guess the ending. But that reveal left a lot of questions on the table. While the motive made sense — jealousy — the means and opportunity aren’t plausible. The physics of the murder don’t make sense.

So, the lesson here is, all the little details of the murder (the how, where, and why) have to come together cohesively. It’s the missing puzzle piece that must fit perfectly to complete the puzzle.  Your reader will feel cheated if the crime is not something that could really happen.

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Rules for Writing a Mystery Novel

canstockphoto9200023Like any good game, there are rules to writing a good mystery. The author challenges the reader to solve the crime before the detective. The reader expects there to be clues leading to the correct answer, and trusts that everything will come together in the end.  So, for the author to play fair, these rules must be followed.

Rules to Writing a Good Murder Mystery:

  1. The crime must be a murder. Burglary, kidnapping, extortion and the like make for great thrillers, but only murder makes a mystery worth solving. Personally, I like to begin with the murder, then introduce the sleuth and start the investigation. However, there’s nothing wrong with having the murder occur before the story begins, or introduce the sleuth, victim and suspects, then have the murder occur.
  2. The murder must be believable. In other words, the motive, means and opportunity all make sense, and the culprit must be physically and emotionally capable of committing the murderer.
  3. Introduce both the detective and the murderer early on, preferably within the first three chapters.
  4. The detective must solve the mystery using only rational and scientific methods that, if observant, the reader could equally solve the mystery with the same information.
  5. Provide at least three genuine clues that point to the murderer’s identity. These clues don’t have to jump off the page, and probably shouldn’t, but they have to exist, none the less.
  6. Wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit, ultimately in the penultimate or final chapter.

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Death of a Murder Mystery Novel

canstockphoto8528152The Librarian stepped around the corner of the bookshelf and froze. She raised her hands to her cheeks and screamed. Still, she couldn’t look away. Beaten, battered and ripped apart, it lay in pieces at her feet.

Clearly, the book was dead.

When the police arrived, the librarian pointed them to the gruesome scene. Two detectives approached the book, lying open on its spine. Its cover spread eagle. Black ink spilled off its earmarked pages and pooled on the carpet.

“Another discarded book,” Detective Barnes said, leaning down on one knee to get a closer look at the corpse.

“Like yesterday’s garbage.” The other detective, Noble, took a pen from his jacket and used it to close the book cover. “It was a mystery novel.”

Together, Barnes and Noble stood and walked toward the librarian. She cowered near the checkout counter, trembling.

“You hear about this kind of thing happening,” she said, looking up at Detective Barnes. “You just never think you’ll actually witness this kind of horror.”

“Just tell us what happened.” Barnes slipped a hand inside his jacket and pulled out a pen and note pad. He nodded toward the Librarian. She took a deep breath and looked back in the direction of the crime scene.

“Several people started the book.” Her voice was barely a whisper, as if she was frightened of what she might say. “Some would read a few chapters, others just a few pages, but the outcome was always the same: The readers would just lose interest, shut the book, and discard it.”

“And do you know why?”

She closed her eyes, scrunched her face. “The book was a murder mystery, but after a hundred pages, there was still no victim. No murder. No crime scene.”

“You mean the murder in the book didn’t occur within the first three chapters?”

“That is correct. And nobody knows exactly when the murder did occur because…” She stopped suddenly, sighed, and brought a hand to her face. It looked as if she might faint. “Because every reader gave up on the book before the mystery began.”

“Well, that’s crazy.” Barnes shut his note pad with a huff and dropped his pen. “The crime and the ensuing questions are what hook the reader. As with any fiction, but especially in a murder mystery, you want to do that as quickly as possible.”

Standing beside him, Noble nodded. “Mystery readers pick up a book for the blood, and they want it sooner, rather than later. They won’t wait a hundred pages for something to happen.”

The Librarian reached for Barnes, grasping his forearm and squeezed. “Wait,” she said. “It gets worse.”

The Detective shuddered. “You mean?”

“Yes.” The Librarian shrank back toward the edge of the counter and gripped it to support her weight. Her legs were wobbly. Her face flushed. Looking down at her feet, she spoke slowly, deliberately. “The beginning chapters were just pages of set-up and back story.”

Both detectives looked away in shame. There were some cases that were so ghastly, so incomprehensible, that it made their stomachs turn. Detective Barnes’ eyes burned, and he squinted to hold back the tears. “Readers are just sort of left in suspended animation, waiting for the murder to occur so they can participate in solving it.  It’s the whole point of a murder mystery.”

“We’ve seen it a hundred times,” Noble said. “That book lived dangerously. It broke all the rules. It was bound to get discarded like that.”

ROUND UP THE (UN)USUAL SUSPECTS …

SuspectEvery suspect is hiding a secret. Let me repeat for emphasis: EVERY SUSPECT IS HIDING A SECRET. It’s just that only one of them is hiding THE secret. The others don’t want your hero uncovering that they’ve stolen family heirlooms, was responsible for the happy couple’s break-up, dealing drugs, burned down the school building, pirating cable TV. Part of the fun of reading a murder mystery is unraveling the sordid lives of the suspect line-up.

So what makes a good suspect?

If ultimately the murderer is proven to have motive, means and opportunity, a viable suspect should have one or two of these attributes, but not all three. The obvious suspect will have “motive.” (She stood up in a crowded theater and announced her vow to make sure that the victim wouldn’t live to see the light of another day just hours before the murder occurred.) The suspect with “means” just happens to own the murder weapon, and the one with “opportunity” was at the wrong place at the wrong time. However, upon investigation, everyone of these attributes point to something else entirely – something that’s probably scandalous and juicy.

So how many suspects should be standing in the line-up?

That can be a little tricky. There’s got to be enough suspects to ensure that the murderer’s identity is a surprise, but not so many that the poor, confused reader can’t keep up. Three is the minimum (see above) but, if the story calls for it, that line-up can stretch to four or five.

Show me a good suspect, and I’ll show you a good liar.

At least one, if not all, should be lying through his teeth. He is feeding the sleuth (and the reader) false information that leads them looking in the wrong direction. Obviously he’s lying to keep a secret hidden, but could also be protecting a reputation or a family member. Protection makes a believable motive for deception. And, when his lie is revealed, it makes a great twist in the book and places this suspect in the spotlight.

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“This book will make your head spin. I was constantly on the edge of my seat.” — Electively Paige

Prey of Desire coverPrey of Desire‘ is featured on ElectivelyPaige.com, a book review site. They wrote:

“*I received this book for review from the author, this in no way affects my thoughts as expressed in this review*

“I was so excited to read this book! I have been a big fan of Mr. Gatlin since, not very long ago actually, I read his amazing novella. So, when I found out he had another book out I jumped at the chance to read it! 

“A prologue opens this book and from the first page I was hooked. JC just has a way with words, let me tell you. This book will make your head spin. I was constantly on the edge of my seat. I could not put it down. You will have so many guesses as to how the book will end but you will not see the ending coming. I absolutely loved it. If you are a lover of fantastic action-packed thrillers that make you think, ones that really make your mind work over time, well this is the book for you. 

“I considered myself a fan of this author from the first few pages of The Designated Survivor but reading Prey of Desire cemented it. He has definitely gone on my auto-read list and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us next! ” — Paige Boggs, ElectivelyPaige.com

To read the full review, click here.
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Life Lessons that make great character growth

canstockphoto13359765There’s a formula that a strong plot plus a strong character arc equals a great novel. Readers love character development because it adds weight to the story. Sure, the adventure is fun or the mystery is thrilling, but add a layer of personal growth for your sleuth and you leave the reader feeling that the book meant something.

There are many examples of character growth out there. These are a few ideas I had, especially for an amateur sleuth thrust into the middle of a murder mystery.

1. You can’t give up when the going gets tough. The story opens with a character who has spent her life running from her problems. She’s never dealt with adversity because she’s always taken the easy way out, especially when things get tough. But, as the story unfolds, she learns that there are some things worth fighting for, and must stick around to face her problems.

2. Being selfish and self-centered is not a healthy or socially acceptable way to live. You just know a character who begins a story as a self-absorbed prima donna is going to get spanked with a whole heap ‘a Karma. She may initially react inappropriately to the events unfolding around her, but by the end, she will find her place in the universe, and generally be a happier person for it.

3. Wearing a mask to impress others will ultimately hurt you. A character who spends the beginning of a story concentrating on everyone else’s perception of her, or who everyone else wants her to be, is headed in one direction: an embarrassing reveal of her true self. This character will ultimately learn not to fear the judgments of others. If she stops living to impress others – others will be impressed and inspired by how she deals with her imperfections.

4. There is no real relationship if you can’t first love yourself.  A character with low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and a genuine dislike of herself is probably beginning the story in a lonely place. Or she may be brokenhearted, with a history of lost loves and disappointments. Then she gets swept up in the events of the story and learns her true value. Real love probably isn’t far behind.

5. Micromanaging every little thing in life leads to failure. The character who begins a story needing to control everything in her life is about to have her entire world upended. The more she tightens her grip, the more out of control her life becomes. When the dust settles, she’ll have learned that she must relax and let life happen without the incessant worrying and micromanagement. She may even come to the realization that life was actually in perfect order all along, she just couldn’t see it or understand it.

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Eight Life Lessons: Ideas for Themes and Character Arcs

Does your sleuth have a quirk? He better have a history to back it up

canstockphoto11602983I just finished a manuscript in which a mystery is solved by an amateur sleuth who hates technology. It’s an interesting premise. Surprisingly though, the sleuth’s aversion to laptops, cell phones, iPods and treadmills had no impact on the story. It had nothing to do with the mystery or in any way helped him figure out the whodunit or capture the murderer. He just complained about technology.

After reading it, I asked the author why she gave the main character that quirk. She told me that she was trying to make the sleuth interesting, to give him a memorable personality trait. As it turns out, her writer’s group read her story and told her that the main character was too bland, and that she needed to spice him up. So she came up with that personality quirk and inserted some new dialog.

That got me to thinking: how do you make an offbeat quirk a natural part of a character’s personality?

Offbeat characteristics can be fun to write, but if not done correctly, they can be distracting to the reader. In the story I just read, it was clearly not an organic part of the narrative. It was tacked on and it felt like it. And to fix that story, two things need to happen. Number one, the sleuth’s extremely negative reaction to geeky coolness should — in some way — help him solve the murder. Number two is rooting the quirk within the character’s history.

For the most part, supporting characters can have odd, outrageous quirks without delving into that character’s pathos. The same can’t be said for main characters. Their back stories need to be more developed and should provide an explanation for the abnormal behavior. Cause and effect comes into play. You’ve got ask, “What experiences would produce that trait?”

If your sleuth is going to have a quirky personality trait, he better have a history to back it up.

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Quirky Character Traits

Index of A to Z Blog Challenge Articles – April 2014

A2Z-BADGE-0002014-small_zps8300775cJust completed the Blogging From A to Z Challenge. Nearly 2,000 bloggers signed-up to participate this year. We started on April 1, 2014 with a topic themed on something with the letter “A,” then on April second another topic starting with the letter B, and so on until you finish on April 30, 2014 with a topic based on the letter “Z.”

My theme was, obviously, on mystery writing — and I wrote about everything from Amateur Sleuths to Zealous Zodiac. Participating in the challenge doubled the number of my blog followers, and I met several interesting writers!

Here’s the rundown of my articles in the challenge:

A – Amateur Sleuths: How Your Next Door Neighbor Solves Crimes

B – Bad Guys: The Whole Point of the Mystery

C – Cause of Death: Procedure from Crime Scene to Death Certificate

D – Deadly Doses: Death by Poison

E – Endings: Crisis, Climax & Resolution

F – Forensic Files: Bridging Fiction with Science

G – Great Escape: Getting your Sleuth Safely Out of the Frying Pan

H – Heroes & Heroines: 3 Tips for Writing a Kick-ass Protagonist

I – Investigations: Steps in Investigating the Crime Scene

J – Jargon: Classifications of Murder

K – Keen Killings: 24 Inventive Ways to do in Your Victim

L – Language of the Body: Add Visual Dialog to your Conversations

M – Motives for Murder Mysteries

N – Nobody Knows: What Type of Mystery are you Writing?

O – Obstacles: Road Blocks in your Hero’s Journey

P – Private Eyes: Getting a P.I. involved in a Murder Mystery

Q – Quirky Character Traits

R – Romantic Subplots: 20 Ideas Beyond Romeo & Juliet

S – Suspicious Behavior

T – The Ticking Clock: 25 Ideas to add Suspense to your Mystery

U – Unlawful Behavior: Just How Bad is Your Bad Guy

V – Vibrant Victims: Two Types of Dead Bodies in Your Murder Mystery

W – Writer’s Block: Stuck on What’s Supposed to Happen Next

X – The X Factor: The Unexpected Twist

Y – Yielding Yesterdays: Writing a Character History

Z – Zealous Zodiac Characteristics: Basic Character Templates

Whew! That was tougher than I thought it was going to be. I guess that’s why they call it a “challenge.” :)

X Factor – The Unexpected Twist

canstockphoto2447238Every murder mystery must include an X Factor — the twist that heightens the suspense in the story and keeps it as unpredictable as possible.

Story twists should always come when the reader least expects them. Twists or surprises can be obstacles for the protagonists to overcome or temporary setbacks just as it looks like everything is going well.

Here are a few twists, surprises and curves I’ve come across over the years that could make great X Factors.

  • An unexpected discovery is made
  • Someone gets or delivers the wrong message
  • An urgent call is made, but the person who was to receive the call isn’t there
  • An inheritance comes unexpectedly
  • Help is refused sight, hearing or motion
  • Something of value had disappeared
  • A suspected enemy turns out to be a friend
  • The main suspect was being framed
  • The bluff is called
  • Parents interfere
  • A person thought to be dead is found to be alive
  • The suspected motive is shown to be false
  • An unexpected corpse shows up
  • There is no money in the account
  • An old wound is opened
  • The enemy discovers the plan
  • A man turns out to be a woman, or vice versa
  • Help that is expected and urgently needed doesn’t arrive
  • A traitor is present
  • Secret information is revealed
  • A letter arrives or is discovered that changes the course of events
  • The child is not waiting at the school
  • A trusted friend, lover, or coworker is not what he appeared to be
  • An unexpected invitation shows up
  • A witness comes forth
  • The car is stopped, but the wrong driver is behind the wheel
  • A suspect’s alibi turns out to be false
  • The wrong person shows up
  • A trusted character had lost a previous spouse under mysterious circumstances
  • Expected information doesn’t arrive or isn’t what was expected
  • A character suddenly loses
  • A character reveals that she is dying