Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Case of the Vanishing Detectives

When I decided to write a hardboiled detective series I did what most fiction writers do.  I set out to explore my detective’s predecessors, the characters he’d be compared to when he made his appearance.

That turned out to require a lot less time than I expected it to.  As a hardboiled detective with an African heritage, Hannibal Jones turned out to have few predecessors.  The best known black mystery characters, chronicled by Walter Mosley, James Patterson, Chester Himes and Hugh Holton, are policemen or amateur sleuths. 

So where are all the men of color following in Phillip Marlowe’s gumshoe footsteps?  Ed Lacy introduced the first credible African-American private eye, Toussaint Moore, in 1957.  He won an Edgar, but no one followed his
lead.  I assumed that John Shaft would turn the tide when he appeared in 1971.  Ernest Tidyman's Harlem private eye was so hardboiled that at the time my friends and I jokingly referred to him as “Sam: Spade Detective.” Yet despite his film success, there was no rush of imitators.  All the African American private eyes seem to have vanished mysteriously.

I can hear all the Caucasian authors out there now, shaking their heads and muttering, “Don’t blame me.”  Well, why not?  African American authors write white characters all the time, so why not reverse that spin.  And white authors don’t seem to have any trouble writing black characters as sidekicks, or villains.  Why not write them as detectives?

Of course, there is the danger of stereotyping.  Your ethnic readers will look very closely at any characters you introduce who don’t look like you.  So how do you get it right when you’re writing about people from another race and culture?  Here are three hints that will help you.

Observe:  spend time in the grocery stores, restaurants and bars filled with mostly faces of color.  Don’t worry, no one will assault you as long as you mind your own business.  And by listening closely you’ll get a feel for the attitudes and interests of that group, not to mention their food and drink preferences. You will also develop a feel for the rhythm of language and common phrases they use.  I’ve found this works for Latin, Korean and Iranian characters too.

Avoid dialect:  When we change the way words are spelled to imitate the sound of someone’s voice we not only insult them, we make it harder for readers to get through our writing.  All you need to do to get the dialog perfect is to use the words your characters would use in their own unique order.  Your reader will “hear” what you meant, be it North Dakota Swedish or inner city black.

Get a reality check: First, make a black friend.  Next, have that friend read your work and beg them to be honest in their feedback.  Watch their face as they read.  Ask them to test the dialog aloud, and listen for changes they may make unconsciously.  If your friend balks at something, don’t debate it, change it.

The most important thing, of course, is to remember that we are all more alike than different.  Human motivations, desires, fears and joys are universal, so make sure your black characters are first and foremost human. 

And in case you’re skeptical about writing a black detective, you should know that Toussaint Moore’s creator, Ed Lacy, was actually a white guy named Leonard Zinberg.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

8 Ways to turn up the suspense in your fiction

After sharing theory and concept, I figured I should share a few actual tips on how to keep the suspense building when you write. So here we go.

1. Let the characters tell readers their plans. That doesn’t mean give away all the secrets.  It means show the reader the characters’ agenda.  Readers know something will go wrong because they know, on some level, that the story is about conflict. A bad guy hiding in the bushes is creepy, but how much stronger that scene would be if earlier we heard the good guy tell his girl, “I’ll meet you by the bushes at 6 o’clock.” Now we’re not only worried about him getting jumped, we also get to worry that she’ll see it, or that she might be the next victim.

2. Cut down on the violence.  If you read my thrillers you might be surprised at how few actual fights there are. I think the more violence there is, the less it will mean.  That’s why we don’t see all the fights Rocky has to go thru to get into the position to face Apollo Creed. 

3. Always be one step ahead of your readers. As you write, keep asking yourself what your reader is hoping for or wondering about each point in the story. Your job is to give them what they want, when they want it – or maybe a little later than they want it – or to add a twist so you give them more than they bargained for. How do you do that?

4. As you develop your story, appeal to readers’ fears and phobias. Phobias are irrational fears. To be afraid of a tarantula is not a phobia, but to be afraid of all spiders is. Most people are afraid of helplessness in the face of danger. Many are afraid of needles, the dark, drowning, heights and so on. Think of the things that frighten you most, and you can be sure many of your readers will fear them as well.

5. Be sure to describe the setting of your story’s climax before you reach that part of the story. This is necessary to protect your pacing. So let someone visit it earlier and foreshadow everything you’ll need for readers to picture the scene when the climax arrives. Otherwise you’ll end up stalling out the story to describe the setting, when you should be pushing through to the climax.

6. Countdowns. Countdowns and deadlines can be helpful, but can work against you if they don’t feed the story’s escalation. For example, having every chapter of your book start one hour closer to the climax is a gimmick that gets old after a while because it’s repetitious and predictable—two things that kill escalation. Instead, start your countdown in the middle of the book. To escalate a countdown, shorten the time available to solve the problem.

7. Isolate your main character.  As you rush toward the climax, remove his tools, escape routes and support system (helpers and defenders). This forces him to become self-reliant and makes it easier for you to put him at a disadvantage in his final confrontation with evil.

8. Make it personal.  Don’t just have a person get abducted—let it be the main character’s son. Don’t just let New York City be in danger—let grandma live there.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Top 10 Reasons to Attend the Creatures, Crimes and Creativity Con

It has become an annual tradition! Every year at this time my blog is dedicated to explaining why every writer, aspiring author and avid van should be attending the Creatures, Crimes & Creativity (C3) Con this year. The C3 Con is the Mid-Atlantic’s book lover event of the year. And this year, we have two international bestselling authors as keynote speakers. But that’s only the beginning.

We draw readers AND writers of genre fiction: horror, mystery, thriller, suspense, science fiction, fantasy and paranormal authors will gather in Columbia MD, Sep. 30-Oct 2. 

So let’s count down the top ten reasons for attending the C3 Con:

#10 – FELLOWSHIP: Imagine being surrounded by avid readers and excellent writers for an entire 3-day weekend!

#9 – REED FARREL COLEMAN: Author of the heralded Moe Prager series and Jesse Stone novels, he’s been called our noir poet laureate. He’ll give a keynote address at dinner and teach a class.

#8 – ALEXANDRA SOKOLOFF: Known for her Huntress/FBI thrillers, her smooth blend of paranormal and crime fiction is some of the most original and unnerving work around. She will give the other dinner keynote talk and offer a one-woman class on writing for the screen.

#7 - MEALS: The registration fee ($275) includes five meals: Friday’s dinner, 3 meals Saturday and Sunday breakfast, so readers and writers dine side-by-side. One day registrations are available too, and that day's meals are included.

#6 - PANELS: Readers and fans will enjoy 36 panels and presentations from favorite authors, including the keynotes and local guests Donna Andrews (mystery) and Cerece Rennie Murphy (science fiction.)

#5 - GOODY BAGS - Each attendee will receive one filled with cool stuff, including free books (from Mulholland Books, Stark House Press, authors Alan Orloff and Debbi Mack, ) magazines (like Mystery Scene and Writers Digest,) our exclusive anthology filled with stories written by attending authors, and a flash drive from Smashword pre-loaded with ebooks.

#4 - TWITTER CONTEST: the attendee who tweets the most leading up to C3 using our hashtag (#MDC3Con) will get a new Kindle Fire.

#3 - FOR AUTHORS: EXPOSURE: Published authors get to spend time with their fans, and to expose new readers to their writing by presenting on one or two of the 36 panels. Their name and a link are posted on the C3 website.  And they will be pictured in the C3 program book. 

#2 - BOOK SIGNINGS: Novel Books provides an on-site bookstore and hosts two giant book signings, open to the public, featuring all the attending authors and their books. This is how people who don't actually attend can enjoy the C3 Con, both Friday and Saturday from 5pm to 6pm.

And the #1 best reason to attend the Creatures, Crimes & Creativity Con: BE A STAR: The Baltimore County library will shoot a video interview for as many authors as they have time for, and Diana Belchase will be there in person taping for a segment of her show, Book Smart TV!

You can still register, and get more details, at

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Keep Them in Suspense III

For the last couple of weeks we’ve been talking about suspense, the element that can make or breaks the end of your story. To give your story a truly satisfying climax, you need to escalate the tension. You can raise the stakes by making the danger more imminent, more intimate, more personal or more devastating. For one familiar example, if the shire is at risk in the first film, the world better be in danger at the end of the trilogy.  If the tension doesn’t escalate, your suspense will fade.

One technique to keep the tension high is to give us more promises and less action.  Suspense happens in the stillness of your story, in the gaps between the action sequences, in the moments between the promise of something dreadful and its arrival.

If readers complain that “nothing is happening” in a story, they don’t usually mean no action is happening.  It usually means no promises are being made. Contrary to what you may have heard, reader boredom isn’t solved by adding action – the solution is to add apprehension. Suspense is anticipation; action is the payoff. You don’t increase suspense by adding events, but rather by promising that something will happen.  So don’t ask yourself, “What needs to happen?” Ask, “what can I promise will go wrong?”
My favorite scenes in the Star Wars movies grow from one inspired bit of dialog.  Han Solo looks around and says…”I got a bad feeling about this.”  Actually, five different characters say that in the series but only Han Solo says it twice.

When Scarlett swears she’ll never be hunger again, or Marley tells Scrooge he’ll be visited by three ghosts, a promise has been made.

Suppose a jilted lover in a romance says something like, “if I can’t have her nobody will.” Maybe he hides in the bushes until his rival shows up. The bad guy pulls his knife. The good guy looks around, looks right at the bush but doesn’t see the bad guy hidden there.  He turns his back to the bad guy...
Milk that moment. That’s the suspense.

But make sure that eventually you show us what happens in front of that bush. You have to keep every promise you make.  And the bigger the promise, the bigger the payoff has to be.  A huge promise without the fulfillment isn’t suspense—it’s disappointment. That’s why Frodo can’t simply pull off the ring and toss it, and Rocky can’t knock out Appolo Creed with a lucky punch in the third round.
And remember, every word in your story is a promise of some sort.  If you spend three paragraphs describing a woman’s fabulous shoes, those shoes better be vital to the story. The cliché is, if you show me a gun on the mantle in chapter 2, somebody better darned well aim that thing at someone before the books’ over.

Stories sometimes fail because writers don’t make big enough promises, or they don’t fulfill them. Don’t let that happen to you.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Keep Them in Suspense II

Last week we talked about the importance of creating suspense in fiction. Because I think that applies to all genres it only makes sense to say that there are different types of suspense.

The most common kind of suspense is probably “will the hero accomplish his major goal?”  That can take different forms based on the genre you write in.  In a mystery, where the violence usually takes place before the protagonist is involved, the question may be “who done it?”  You maintain suspense there by keeping your villain one step ahead of your detective, and your reader.  In a thriller the reader may be anticipating the antagonist accomplishing his goal so the question is “how can this impending crisis or crime be averted.”  The reader might know about dangers the protagonist doesn’t know about – that in itself creates suspense.  In a horror story the question may be “will the protagonist survive?”  

So as we write, how do we ratchet up the suspense to keep readers on the edge of their seats?  Well, part of this is why we talk about conflict and suspense together.  Because to really create suspense you need to create characters that readers care about, and then put those characters in jeopardy.

Narrative suspense is built out of four parts: reader empathy, impending danger, escalating tension and reader concern – or as i call it: worry.

We create reader empathy by giving your protagonist a goal or objective or an inner struggle that readers can identify with. The more they empathize the better.  Once they care about and identify with a character, readers will be personally invested when they see that character struggling to get what he wants.

We want readers to worry about whether or not the character will succeed.  Readers have to know what the character wants so they know what’s at stake, and they have to know what’s at stake to get engaged in the story. So, to get readers invested in your novel, make it clear what your character desires, what is keeping him from getting it; and what huge, horrible consequences he’ll face if he doesn’t get it.

Suspense builds as danger approaches. Readers experience worry when a character they care about is in peril. This doesn’t have to be a life-and-death situation. Depending on your genre, the threat may involve the character’s physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or relational well-being. Whatever your genre, show that something terrible is about to happen—then postpone the resolution. That’s how you sustain suspense.

Next week I’ll share some rules for building tension in any story.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Keep Them in Suspense

Suspense is what keeps people turning the pages, no matter what genre of story it is, and since no one wants a reader to put down their book before the end, this seems like a good topic to explore. We writers love to use that word – suspense – but it might also be thought of as frustration.  The reader wants to know something and the writer keep saying, “I’ll tell you in a minute” and by the time that minute is over the story is done. If you write thrillers or that subgenre we call suspense, the word worry might work better.

I first learned about suspense when read the Tarzan novels.  Edgar Rice Burroughs had an interesting technique for holding his readers’ attention.  After the first book the stories involved Tarzan AND Jane.  They always took off on some adventure, and they always got separated. So you might see Tarzan running thru the jungle – he comes face to face with a lion – the lion roars – he pulls his knife.  The lion jumps at him and…

The chapter ends and we’re following Jane.  She’s lost so she climbs a tree.  She finds herself on the limb with a huge snake.  It gets closer.  She’s about to fall out of the tree.  The snake rises up, about to strike and…

The chapter ends. Suddenly we’re watching Tarzan grapple with the lion. And the whole time we’re watching Tarzan, we’re worrying about Jane. As a kid I found this kind of thing very frustrating – but fun. As an adult I learned that people like to be frustrated this way.
More technically, suspense is created by posing a question the reader wants answered.  In my own work i use three different kinds of suspense.  There is “what’s going on here?” suspense.  If you watched the television show Lost, or more recently Colony, you know what that is.  You came back every week trying to figure out what the heck was going on. 

There is also “why is this happening?” suspense.  This is what writers mean when they tell you to start the story in the middle.  Page one opens with someone holding a gun in your hero’s face, saying “This is what happens to people who go poking their noses into my business.” Of course, then the writer has to answer the obvious questions during the action. 

Btw, in my opinion, Stephen King is the best novelist alive and King writes suspense - not horror. Every King novel is a master class on how to write the “why is this happening?” kind of suspense. If you haven’t time to read one of his giant books, Rent the first season of his TV show “Under the Dome.” You’ll get the idea.

We’ll talk about other kinds of suspense, and how to create them, next week.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Conflicting Conflicts

Last time I told you that giving your people more than one conflict helps the reader care about them.  Usually one is more personal than the other, although they can be related. 

In my plot class I talk about the secondary plot. In that context, let’s consider the movie Die Hard.  The big, obvious conflict is between a cop – McLane - who wants to save a group of hostages, and a terrorist whose true objective we don’t get to know until almost the end of the film. But note that McLane is also wrestling with a more personal conflict with his wife and we are not allowed to lose sight of that conflict throughout the film.  It’s easier for us to relate to that more personal objective. That helps us relate to the character.  Just like in Rocky (the example I used in a previous blog) I have never wanted to get punched by a heavyweight champ but HAVE wanted a woman to love and respect me, so that goal helps me relate to the character.

Your protagonist, and maybe your antagonist too, should also have internal conflicts.  It might be okay for your villain to be willing to do whatever it takes to take over the world, get the girl or win the race, but your protagonist should have to consider his response to each challenge on a moral basis.  Sure he can save the hostage by shooting the bad guy in the head, sure he can find the killer by lying to everyone about what he already knows, of course he can get the girl by flattening the other fellow’s tire… but SHOULD he?  Yes, many people like a totally confident protagonist, and your story might work fine without internal conflict… but it will be better with it.

Remember, conflict is about character.  In a good novel, or movie for that matter, the protagonist will grow and change during the story. It is the conflict that makes that change. Overcoming each challenge forces our protagonist to show the strength, or determination, or quick wits we want to see in a heroes, and the challenge the conflicts present force him to change.

And since conflict makes a story, so you need more than just conflict between the primary protagonist and antagonist. There should be some sort of conflict in every scene. What if everyone in the scene agrees on what they want to do? Then they can still disagree on how to do it, or when.