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Three Surprising Writing Problems Solved By Understanding Internal Dialogue

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Today marks the end of my summer blogging travels, where I have some fun by guest posting at other sites. While I still guest post a little during the rest of the year, it’s significantly less than in the summer months. Next month, my regular blogging schedule returns.

For my final summer guest post, I’m at the site of the wonderful Jami Gold. Not only does Jami have one of the best sites for writers, but she’s also a super nice person.

So please join me over a Jami’s blog for Three Surprising Writing Problems Solved by Understanding Internal Dialogue.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Internal Dialogue is now available from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.. (You might also want to check out Grammar for Fiction Writers or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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The Secret to Destroying Episodic Writing in Three Easy Steps

Destroying Episodic WritingBy Marcy Kennedy (@marcykennedy)

One of the main causes of the saggy middle syndrome many books suffer from is episodic writing. Episodic writing also makes our books feel slow to the reader.

“What’s episodic writing?” you might ask.

Episodic writing is when your story is composed of a series of loosely related events. Those events might be exciting. You might even have a few scenes that tie tightly together. But when you look at the big picture, something still seems off and the story feels like it lacks direction at times. Readers are easily able to put the book down and feel no compulsion to pick it up again.

If episodic writing is something you’ve struggled with in your past (or present) manuscripts, here’s how to fix it in three steps.

Step 1: Give your character a story goal.

The story goal is what they’ll be pursuing over the course of your book.

Sounds simple, right? Where most of us trip up on this step is confusing a goal with an ambition.

An ambition is vague. You can’t take a picture of it.

A story goal is concrete. It’s clear by the end of the book whether our character reached her goal or not.

Ambition: Be a successful author.

Okaaay…but what does that look like? How will you know when you’ve achieved that?

Goal: Hit the top 10 on Amazon’s bestseller list for my category.

Do you see the difference? One more example before we move on to step 2.

Ambition: Have a well-behaved dog.

Goal: Have a dog who sits on command, comes when I call, and doesn’t bite the mailman.

Because ambitions are vague, they can mean different things to different people. Goals are specific and clear.

Step 2: Build a chain link from beginning to end.

To reach her big story goal, our character will be attempting to take a tiny step toward that goal in each scene.

Where most of us tend to stumble on this step is that we’re either too nice and the story lacks tension because our character reaches her scene goal too easily, or we’re too mean and we stop the story dead.

In other words, when asked whether our character reaches her scene goal, we answer with a simple “yes” or a simple “no”

I’ll give you an example.

Scene Goal: Go to the murderer’s house and arrest him.

Does our character succeed?

Answer: Yes.

…Now where does our story go from here? Is it over?

We often think this is the way to make sure our plot has forward progress. After all, doesn’t our main character need to succeed at least sometimes if they ever want to achieve their goal?

They do need forward progress and some success, but this is the least interesting way to go about it.

Answer: No.

The murderer wasn’t at his house so they couldn’t arrest him.

That grinding noise you hear is a writer’s brain struggling to decide what to do now. We threw a disaster at our character, why isn’t it working?

A straight “no” can work, but more often leads to episodic writing because we’ve brought our story to a complete stop. Too many simple “no” results in a row can mean the story feels static and lacks that sense of escalation that readers crave. If we back our character into too deep a corner, they can sometimes end up seeming like too much of a weakling failure or waiting passively for outside circumstances to change.

The solution is to create variations on these answers.

Answer: Yes, But

Yes, they arrested him, but some of what they saw in his house called into question whether he was truly the murderer or not.

We allow our character to succeed, but we introduce a consequence or complication.

Suddenly, we have forward motion. Our character makes progress, in a way where each scene is directly connected to what came before, but it also creates excitement and a sense of escalation. The reader keeps reading because they want to find out what will happen next.

Answer: No, And Furthermore

No, they didn’t arrest him, and furthermore, he’d rigged his house to explode and our main character’s partner was injured. Now they’ll have to either continue investigating alone or accept the help of the rookie cop who screws up everything he touches.

These endings work because we’re continuing to increase the stakes and obstacles, consequently raising the tension in the reader. Because too many of them can stall the story out in the same way as a simple “no,” they’re often best saved for the big turning points in the plot.

Both “yes, but” and “no, and furthermore” build a chain link that leads you from the start of the story to the end because each scene directly connects and grows out of the one that came before.

Which leads us on to…

Step 3: Escalate the failures from bad to worse.

It’s not enough to throw “but” and “furthermore” at our character. Each one needs to present them with a bigger challenge, push them harder toward their breaking point, and require more ingenuity and grit to overcome it.

Have you ever struggled with episodic writing? Any tips you’d like to share for how you overcame it?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Internal Dialogue is now available from Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords. (You might also want to check out Grammar for Fiction Writers, Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

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Image Credit: Michael & Christa Richert

I Have a Love-Hate Relationship with Pictures

This is the new picture I'll be using online.

This is the new picture I’ll be using online.

By Marcy Kennedy (@marcykennedy)

Turns out I have a love-hate relationship with pictures.

I love them because they grab important moments and help keep memories alive. I find great joy in looking back at pictures from times past. I hate them because, in the last couple of years, I’ve noticed I look older in them than I once did.

I know, right? That shouldn’t have come as a surprise. People grow old. But I’m a person who has always struggled to be comfortable with her appearance, and a photo shoot for my new website/online photos just over a week ago drudged up a lot of old insecurities I’d thought I’d put to rest. When I’m held still in an image, all the imperfections that I trick myself into thinking people don’t notice in real life can’t be hidden anymore.

I needed to replace my current photo because it was nearly eight years old. I didn’t want to replace that photo because the truth is the thirty-three-year-old me doesn’t look as good as the twenty-five-year-old me did. And as time goes on, that will get worse, not better. I won’t ever be able to go back to that girl’s face or her body.

I found myself wishing I could have a picture like Dorian Gray’s that would grow old for me. And as I thought that, I remembered a post I’d written a few years ago for August McLaughlin’s Beauty of a Woman blogfest. At the time, I wrote it because a lot of women around me were struggling with the turning-thirty hurdle. Now I’m dragging it back out because I need to remind myself of those lessons.

Dorian is the title character in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian is an extremely handsome man, so handsome an artist friend has asked to paint him.

On the day the artist will finish the painting, Dorian waits with a much older gentleman named Lord Henry. Lord Henry tells Dorian he should enjoy his youth and beauty while he has them because those are the only things that matter.

“You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully,” Lord Henry says. “When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats.” (Chapter 2, page 26)

Dorian can’t shake Lord Henry’s words, and when he sees his picture, he’s filled with despair because the beauty in the picture will last, but his own won’t.

“When one loses one’s good looks,” Dorian says, “whatever they may be, one loses everything.”

He claims he would trade his soul in order to have the picture grow old in his place.

Lord Henry’s lie—and it is a lie—is the same one society feeds us.

It sells us Botox, liposuction, anti-aging creams, and Spanx. It tells us wrinkles and grey hairs are things to cover up. It glorifies youth and irresponsibility and marginalizes the elderly, with all their wisdom. It believes a woman should never admit to her age.

And if we buy into the lie, it puts us at peril of the same fate as Dorian.

Because of the trade he made, Dorian stays young and beautiful, while his picture ages and grows grotesque with every year that passes and every evil Dorian commits. His outside stays beautiful at the expense of his inner growth and beauty.

Eventually, overcome with guilt for the murders, suicides, and other sins he’s been part of, Dorian stabs his picture, thinking that will free him. Instead, the picture returns to youthful beauty and Dorian, in death, becomes a withered, disgusting corpse.

Like Dorian, when we buy into the lie, we start to focus more of our time and energy and money on trying to match the unrealistic standard of beauty our society holds up for us to worship. We focus less on trying to cultivate the beauty we have inside.

And in the end, we’ll never win the battle against age. We’ll all die, and most of us will die old and wrinkly, saggy and age-spotted.

Instead of dreading it, fearing it, we should rejoice in it. The most beautiful woman is one who’s lived a full life.

I’m going to wear each new crinkle in the corners of my eyes as a badge of honor speaking to the hours I’ve spent laughing with friends.

I’m going to remember that my no-longer-perfectly-flat belly is because I’ve chosen to enjoy pizza nights with my husband, eat birthday cake and ice cream with my each of my elderly grandparents, and bake cookies for my parents.  

I’m going to treasure the dark circles under my eyes (the part of my age I hate the most) because it speaks to how deeply I love, to the nights spent lying awake trying to think of ways to help hurting friends or crying over deceased loved ones and pets. Deep love leaves deep marks.

So as much as I’d still like to have a picture like Dorian Gray’s, I’d never want to be like Dorian Gray.

Because external beauty is not the most important thing, at least not to me.

Do you struggle with growing older? Do you love having your picture taken or do you hate it?

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Creating an Author Business Plan: Our Competitive Analysis

Image Credit: Glenn Pebley

Image Credit: Glenn Pebley

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

We’re down to the final pieces of our author business plan. (If you missed the previous sections, you can start back at the beginning with setting our goals, choosing our stories, identifying our audience, running our business, and crafting our product plan.)

Today we’re tackling the competitive analysis.

Traditionally, the competitive analysis section in a business plan has been about learning as much as you can about the people or businesses that directly compete with you and figuring out a way to steal their customers.

I don’t know about you, but that view of a competitive analysis makes me shudder. I don’t want to hurt other authors. In fact, I believe that we can achieve more when we work together. When one author is successful, it brings new readers into the reader pool who might like our books as well.

Besides, books aren’t like cars or plumbers. You can own a whole bookshelf (or e-reader!) full of books.

Because of those factors, I like to look at this as a cooperative analysis. Some of the elements in a cooperative analysis will focus on how we can stand out and what we can learn from other authors, but we’re also looking for authors we might be able to partner with.

If you’d like to read the rest of this post, please join me for my regular monthly guest spot at Fiction University where I’ll be giving tips on how to write the competitive analysis section of our author business plan.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

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6 Major Writing Problems with Avengers: Age of Ultron – Part 2

Avengers Age of Ultron

Image Credit: Svilen Milev

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my mini-series where I’m looking at what we, as writers, can learn from the mistakes made in Avengers: Age of Ultron. If you missed the first installment in this series, I recommend you read it first.

Mistake #3 – Too Many Easy Answers and Short Cuts

We need to briefly talk a bit of plot structure here. Early on in a story, the villain/antagonist should be much stronger than the hero. Reaching their goal wouldn’t be a challenge for the main character if the antagonist wasn’t stronger than them at the start. The main character (or characters) grow and learn over the course of the story until, at the end, they’re able to defeat the antagonist.

Your main character needs to defeat the antagonist/villain based on their own skills. You can’t bring in the cavalry to solve their problem for them, especially not at the last minute. The solution can’t magically arrive. The solution needs to come from inside the main character (or characters). This is what happened in The Avengers.

It didn’t happen in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Prior to the final battle, Ultron had kicked the Avengers’ butts, with the help of his allies. So what should have happened is that the Avengers should have grown and learned something to make them stronger as a team, enabling them to overcome Ultron. Instead, in comes the cavalry. Vision (who I’ll talk about more in a minute) comes to life, and Ultron’s former allies switch sides, without ever dealing with their personal problems with Tony Stark, which were what drove them to side with Ultron to begin with. Not only is that an outside solution where the main characters never need to grow or improve, but it’s a gaping plot hole. We hated you before, but now we’re okay working with you even though you haven’t changed at all (as proven by the creation of Vision).

The easy answers and solutions didn’t stop there though. I don’t have the time to go through them all, but I will mention another huge one–the creation of Vision.

Ultron wants to create a better body for himself. He takes the same material that made Captain America’s indestructible shield (Vibranium) and the infinity stone that powered Loki’s staff, and together with the help of a bio-engineer who can grow flesh, he puts it all together with the intent of downloading his consciousness into the finished product.

The Avengers highjack the body and get into a fight over whether or not to bring that body to “life” apart from Ultron, using Stark’s artificial intelligence program JARVIS. This is an absolutely fantastic moral dilemma. Should they or shouldn’t they create life? It should have been a major stepping stone in Stark’s character arc (the truncated one we talked about earlier).

But nope. Just as the other Avengers are fighting over what to do, Thor arrives and unilaterally brings Vision to life. “Why?” you might ask. Because he took a trip to the water spirits (which we’d never heard of before) and decided it was a good idea. And everyone is just supposed to go along with what these hitherto fore unheard of water spirits told him.

In my opinion, that was a pat and easy solution that stripped all the great moral conflict from the situation. Having Vision be able to lift Thor’s special hammer later didn’t fix the fact because he was already alive by that point. In other words, the hammer was an ad hoc justification (something added to a theory after the fact to save it). Oh, look, it’s okay they brought him to life because lifting Thor’s hammer proves he’s a good guy. (Sarcasm very much intended.)

Takeaway:

The solution that allows your hero to defeat the villain that they weren’t previously strong enough to defeat should come from within themselves and from things they’ve learned, not from outside sources. And the solution should never be easy.

We also need to watch out for taking the easy way out. This can come in two forms. We write ourselves into a corner, putting our characters into a situation that we can’t now find a way to get them out. So we save the day with a solution we haven’t laid the foundation for earlier or we bring in the cavalry. I’ve talked about this before in my post on “Four Fiction Felonies that Make Your Story Unbelievable” so please check that out for more. The other form is when we’re tired and our creative and emotional juices are dry. In this case, we don’t write a scene to its full potential, wringing every ounce of conflict from it, simply because we’re burnt out. The solution to that is to move on and come back to the scene during editing.

Mistake #4 – Too Many Rabbit Trails and a General Lack of Focus

Somewhere along the line, the powers-that-be forgot that this movie is supposed to be about telling the story in this movie rather than setting up for other movies or other Marvel franchises.

If you’ve never heard the term “rabbit trail” before, it refers to a digression in a story that doesn’t contribute anything to the main storyline or to any subplot of that story. It might be kind of fun in and of itself, but it makes the story feel slow or scattered because it doesn’t matter to that story. It steals time away from the real story.

One major example of this is the hallucinations the Avengers experience when they encounter the Scarlett Witch. Large chunks of time were given to showing Black Widow as a child learning ballet, Captain America dancing with Agent Peggy Carter, and Thor at some weird party. Captain America’s flashback felt very much like it was intended to drum up interest for Marvel’s TV series Agent Carter.

These scenes did not need to be there. They’d already shown the dark hallucination Scarlett Witch gave to Tony Stark. That one was necessary. It kicked off his (never completed) character arc, served as the inciting incident for the creation of Ultron, and showed her powers. But then all they needed for the other characters was to show her shooting her red mist at their heads and them dropping to their knees looking tormented. We would have figured out that she’d given them horrible visions too. Because the only plot purpose of those hallucinations was to show that Ultron and his allies could bring the Avengers to their knees. (In other words, to show that the villains were stronger than the heroes at that point.)

A second example–what was the point of Ultron kidnapping Black Widow? What purpose did it serve for Ultron–why not just kill her? What larger purpose did it serve in the plot? None, none, and none. Rabbit trail.

Here’s another example. Midway into the movie, Thor decides he needs to take a side trip to meet up with his professor friend (the one Loki enslaved in the first Avengers movie) so they could go to a cave where Thor would talk to water spirits. Thor makes a point of telling us this will be dangerous (probably because they wouldn’t show any of that danger and they were trying to trick the audience into worrying–it didn’t work because they were TELLING rather than SHOWING). Thor’s trip didn’t need to be in this movie. It’s whole purpose was to set up the Infinity War movies that Marvel plans to release in a few years. (I read somewhere that Joss Whedon fought to have this scene cut, and he lost the battle.)

And let’s not forget the brief introduction of Ulysses Klaw, the arms dealer with the special Vibranium metal that Ultron wanted to use to build his body. Not only did Tony Stark conveniently know about this illegal arms dealer, but he also knew that Klaw had Vibranium even though all the Vibranium in the world had supposedly been used to build Captain America’s shield. No real explanation is given except that Stark met Klaw at a conference. Am I the only one who doubts a grimly-looking illegal arms dealer goes to legitimate conferences? But introducing Klaw and his collection of Vibraium sets up the Black Panther movie Marvel is planning. Though they don’t show it in any current Marvel movie, Klaw killed Black Panther’s father to get the Vibranium.

So much of the plot of Avengers: Age of Ultron was focused on preparing for or pitching other series and movies that it’s no wonder they didn’t have time to develop the plot or characters for this movie itself.

Takeaway:

Everything we put into our stories needs to matter for that story by itself. This is true even if we’re setting up for future elements in a series. We need to find ways to introduce those elements that still work within the present story. We also need to be careful that we don’t include a character in our main series just to “introduce” them to our readers so we can try to convince them to read about that character in a different series. If a character or plot event doesn’t serve a purpose in this story, it doesn’t belong there.

Do you have full-blown flashbacks in your book? If so, you need to ask yourself what they contribute to the story. Do you really need them?

Check your book for rabbit trails. They might be great writing in and of themselves, but if they don’t move the plot forward, they need to go.

What do you think? If you think I’m off-base about Avengers: Age of Ultron, I’d love to hear your reasons. If you think I’m right, did you enjoy the movie anyway and will you watch a third one?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” botton.

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It’s Okay to Be Angry

AvengersBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Too often we’re made to think that anger is a negative emotion, one we should avoid because it’s weak or shows a lack of self-control.

You can see it in The Avengers in the way Dr. Bruce Banner is treated. His character is a personification of anger. If Banner gets angry, he turns into a giant green monster capable of breaking an entire city. 

When we first meet Banner in The Avengers, he’s working as a doctor in the slums of Calcutta. S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff tricks him into coming to a deserted hut on the edge of the city. The hut is secretly surrounded by snipers just in case Banner loses control.

Banner ducks inside, and she steps out of the shadows.

“For a man who’s supposed to be avoiding stress,” she says, “you picked a hell of a place to settle.”

Banner turns around. “Avoiding stress isn’t the secret.”

“What’s the secret then?”

Banner doesn’t tell her how he’s managed to go a year without turning into the Hulk, and throughout the movie, that becomes the question.

The others either tiptoe around him, try to provoke him to expose his “secret,” or they take protective measures in case he does get angry. (Measures that include a giant cage that will drop him from the sky.)

We treat anger the same way in our lives. We block it off, pretend we aren’t angry when we are, or try to learn techniques and tricks to keep from getting angry.

But the secret isn’t to keep from becoming angry.

At the end of the movie, the Avengers line up to fight the alien army set to invade earth.

“Dr. Banner,” Captain America says, “now might be a really good time for you to get angry.”

Banner strides toward the aliens. “That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.”

Everyone thought that Banner had discovered some way to keep from getting angry and that was how he prevented himself from becoming the Hulk.

The truth was he hadn’t purged his anger. He’d learned how to control it. By the end of the movie, he’d even learned how to harness it and redirect it for good.

Feeling angry isn’t wrong. Anger is merely an emotion. Sometimes it can even be healthy if we’re angry over injustice or true evil. And denying it or hiding it won’t make it go away.

It’s what we do with anger that matters. (Click here if you’d like to tweet that.)

Do we allow our anger to hurt and destroy? Or do we channel it into righting wrongs?

It’s the difference between a father who goes out and murders the drunk driver who killed his only daughter and a father who finds a way to bring about stricter punishments for drunk drivers and establishes a safe ride program in his town. Both were justified in their anger. But one used it for evil while the other used it for good.

It’s the difference between saying something cruel back to a person who’s hurt our feelings and using that anger to remind us how not to treat other people.

It’s the difference between screaming at our spouse because we feel like they never help us around the house and letting that anger be our cue that it’s time to have a painfully honest talk about weaknesses in the marriage that we need to work on.

What do you think? Is it alright to get angry? Or should we work on trying to purge ourselves of anger?

If you like suspense, I hope you’ll take a look at my ebook Frozen (it’s only 99 cents). Twisted sleepwalking. A frozen goldfish in a plastic bag. And a woman afraid she’s losing her grip on reality.

I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” botton.

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Unbelievable Real Life: Skeleton Flowers

Skeleton FlowersBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my unbelievable real life feature where I show you places, animals, and other oddities from our world that look like they stepped right out of the pages of a fantasy novel.

Today I wanted to show you the Diphylleia grayi–a plant commonly known as the Skeleton Flower. The name conjures up creepy images of a flower made of bone, but it’s actually more beautiful than creepy.

Most of the time, the Diphylleia grayi looks like a plain white flower. Not very interesting. But, when it rains, their white petals turn clear as fragile glass and their veins run through like white bones. They grow naturally only in the cold wooded mountainsides of Japan and China, but you can buy them in North America to plant in your garden.

Take a look!

What do you think? Would you plant a Skeleton Flower in your garden?

If you like suspense, I hope you’ll take a look at my ebook Frozen (it’s only 99 cents). Twisted sleepwalking. A frozen goldfish in a plastic bag. And a woman afraid she’s losing her grip on reality. I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” botton.

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Creating an Author Business Plan: Identifying Your Audience

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to the third installment in my series on writing your author business plan. We’re working on our Author Business Plan Summary, and we’ve already covered setting our goals and choosing our stories. If you haven’t read those posts yet, I recommend you go back and start from the beginning.

Our next logical step is to identify our audience.

Please join me for my regular monthly guest post at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University where I look at how to narrow down the core audience for our books.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” botton.

Enter your email address to follow this blog:

A Chance to Win One of 15 Great Writing Resources

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Even though this isn’t my regular day to post, I wanted to let you all know about an opportunity. From February 14th to February 28th, you can enter to win one of 15 excellent ebooks about writing and marketing your fiction, including two of my Busy Writer’s Guides. Take a look at what’s on offer!

 

group promo2

In case you want to know more about any of these books, here are the links:

Captivate Your Readers by Jodie Renner

~ Fiction Attack! by James Scott Bell

~ Outlining Your Novel, by K.M. Weiland

~ How to Market Your Book, by Joanna Penn

~The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

~ Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, by Janice Hardy

~ Grammar for Fiction Writers, by Marcy Kennedy and Chris Saylor

~ Fire up Your Fiction, by Jodie Renner

~ Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives, and Other Introverts, by Joanna Penn

~ The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction, by C.S. Lakin

~ Writing a Killer Thriller, by Jodie Renner

~ The Positive Trait Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

~ Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide, by Marcy Kennedy

~ 1,000 Creative Writing Prompts, by Bryan Cohen

~ The Negative Trait Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

To find out how to enter, you’ll need to visit the site of the talented Jodie Renner. She put this fun event together to celebrate the release of her newest book Captivate Your Readers. Winners will be drawn on March 1st.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? You might also want to check out Showing and Telling in Fiction.

I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” botton.

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Sometimes Truth Is Stranger than Fantasy

You’ve likely heard the saying before that truth is stranger than fiction. Today my special guest poster, mystery author Kassandra Lamb, is putting her own spin on that saying to tell you why she thinks truth can be stranger than fantasy. She’s going to let us into the minds and motivations of serial killers. First allow me to introduce you to Kassandra:

Kassandra Lamb

Kassandra Lamb

Psychology and writing, or writing and psychology, have always vied for number one on Kassandra Lamb’s list of greatest passions. Now retired from a career as a psychotherapist and college professor, she can focus on creating an alternate universe in which her protagonist, Kate Huntington, is always the kind, generous and insightful person that Kass wishes she were herself. When she is not at her computer, transported in mind and spirit into the world of her characters, Kass lives in Florida and Maryland with her husband and her Alaskan Husky, Amelia.

I hope when you finish reading the post that you’ll take a look at Kassandra’s latest release Fatal Forty-Eight. It’s part of her Kate Huntington series, but it stands alone as well. You don’t have to read the first books before reading this one. If you enjoy mysteries or thrillers, I recommend you grab a copy (and I’m not just saying that because I’m Kassandra’s editor–this book is really good). Take it away, Kassandra!

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Sometimes Truth Is Stranger than Fantasy

By Kassandra Lamb

When Marcy graciously invited me to guest post on her blog (thanks so much, Marcy!), I wondered what the heck I would write about since I write traditional mysteries and thrillers, not fantasy or sci-fi like she does.

Then I asked myself, why is it that I don’t write fantasy? (BTW, I talk to myself a lot.) The answer came back that it’s because I’ve seen so much weird, surreal stuff on this planet during my years as a psychotherapist. In my newly released thriller, I explore one of the most surreal phenomena on the Earth plane–the serial killer.

A few weeks ago I posted about psychopaths. They are totally self-centered thrill seekers who feel little or no empathy, remorse or fear. Pretty scary folks! (Read more HERE.)

Unfortunately psychopaths (i.e. those who have antisocial personality disorder–the official diagnosis) make up 3% of males and 1% of females in the U.S. and at least 1.7% of the Canadian population. Fortunately, only a very small percentage of psychopaths become serial killers.

An FBI Symposium in 2008* attempted to come up with a simple definition of serial murder:

The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events at different times.

According to this definition, the guy who kills his wife, and then kills his neighbor when he finds out said neighbor witnessed the first murder, is a serial killer. Now you might be tempted to say that this guy isn’t really a serial killer, because he doesn’t match the picture of one painted by TV shows and movies.

But he fits the definition, and furthermore he is probably a psychopath. One can think of circumstances where a husband might kill his wife, either premeditated or in a fit of rage. But to go on and kill one’s neighbor in cold blood–that requires a self-centeredness and a lack of empathy and remorse that lands the killer on the psychopath continuum.

The motivation of serial killers is varied and complicated. The FBI* has identified several themes:

  • Financial/Criminal Gain: The person kills for money (hit men, black widows/widowers) or to gain status in a criminal group (gang members).
  • Anger: The person vents their rage toward someone (perhaps symbolically) and/or toward society in general.
  • Sexual: Violence has become eroticized somewhere in the person’s background so that they get sexual satisfaction through killing (may or may not be signs of sexual activity at the crime scene).
  • Ideology: The person kills as a way–in their mind–of advancing a strongly held ideological belief (for example, by killing prostitutes to rid society of their immoral behavior).
  • Power/Thrill: Having the ultimate power of life and death over someone provides a rush.
  • Psychosis: Truly being out of touch with reality and being driven by hallucinations and/or delusions.

Often two or more of these motivations apply in any given case. Most often the serial killer starts out killing for financial or practical gain–robbing people and then killing them to eliminate witnesses, for example. Then they discover that killing gives them a thrill, and they start to kill more for that reason. These are the hardest killers to identify and capture because their victims often have little or nothing in common, which is the case with the killer in Fatal Forty-Eight.

But my killer also falls into the ideology category of motivation, or at least he convinces himself that he is killing for a good cause, and there is also a bit of the sexual motive as well. (I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the story.)

Let me dispel several myths about serial murder and serial killers.

(1) Not all are sexually motivated by any stretch, and only a small number of serial killers are psychotic.

(2) There is a huge difference between a psychopath and a psychotic even though the two words sound so similar. A psychotic is someone who has completely lost touch with reality. Often their brains have just stopped functioning in any kind of rational way, or they may be living in a world created by their own hallucinations and delusions. Sometimes those delusions or hallucinations may drive them to commit crimes, but this is rare. Mostly they are a danger only to themselves.

Psychopaths, however, are legally sane. They know what is real and unreal in at least a concrete sense. In other words, they aren’t seeing things that aren’t there or hearing voices in their heads. But their ability to distort reality to suit their own self-centered perspectives is incredible sometimes. And they know right from wrong; they just don’t care.

Ted Bundy, 1979, leaving Leon County, Fla. Courthouse (Photo from The Florida Memory Project–CC-BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Ted Bundy, 1979, leaving Leon County, Fla. Courthouse (Photo from The Florida Memory Project–CC-BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

(3) Most psychopaths are not obvious. They are experts at fitting in. Ted Bundy, one of the most notorious and sadistic serial killers in the U.S., was handsome and charismatic. He seduced his victims into trusting him.

The Green River Killer, Gary Ridgeway, confessed to killing 48 women over a twenty-year time period in the Seattle, Washington area. He was married at the time of his arrest and had been employed as a truck painter for thirty-two years. He attended church regularly, read the Bible at home and at work, and talked about religion with co-workers.

A letter to the police from Jack the Ripper (U.S. National Archives–public domain)

A letter to the police from Jack the Ripper (U.S. National Archives–public domain)

(4) Serial killers are not hoping someone will stop them; they are not trying to get caught. But since they feel little or no fear, they aren’t all that worried about getting caught either. They will sometimes contact the police or newspapers with taunts or even hints as to where they might strike next, or they may intentionally leave clues behind at crime scenes.

They do this to enhance the thrill! Killing is starting to lose its buzz so they have to up the ante.

(5) Serial killers are not all white males. Racially, they run the gamut of the population, and some are female.

Aileen Wuornos killed seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990 (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Aileen Wuornos killed seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990 (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

And here’s another interesting tidbit I read about recently. The one group of serial murderers that perhaps we would be tempted to say are not psychopaths are the medical personnel who commit so-called mercy killings of terminally-ill and suffering patients.

Guess again. A recent, small study** in England found that the majority of these killers crave attention and are inordinately obsessed with death. The researchers only looked at 16 cases so this is not a definitive study, but nonetheless…

Okay, now that I’ve given you enough material to populate your nightmares for weeks to come, let me remind you again that serial killers are rare. It is likely that each of us has known a psychopath or two in our lifetimes, but very few of us will ever cross paths in real life with a serial killer.

My fictional heroine, however, has a real penchant for getting herself mixed up with murders. Please check out my new release below, and also I have a CONTEST going to celebrate its release. So pop over to my publisher’s site (misteriopress.com) to enter.

I promised Marcy I’d hang around for a while if you have any questions. Also I will be talking more about the origins of psychopaths in a post on the misterio press site next week.

Oh, and this book is dedicated to Marcy, who is my editor and from whom I have learned so much!!

References:

Carey, Elea and George Krucik, MD. Psychosis, Healthline.

*FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit. Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators, July, 2008.

**Townsend, Mark. Study identifies key traits and methods of serial killer nurses, The Guardian, November 22, 2014.

Fatal48 Ebook FINALFATAL FORTY-EIGHT, A Kate Huntington Mystery

Celebration turns to nightmare when psychotherapist Kate Huntington’s guest of honor disappears en route to her own retirement party. Kate’s former boss, Sally Ford, has been kidnapped by a serial killer who holds his victims exactly forty-eight hours before killing them.

With time ticking away, the police allow Kate and her P.I. husband to help with the investigation. The FBI agents involved in the case have mixed reactions to the “civilian consultants.” The senior agent welcomes Kate’s assistance as he fine-tunes his psychological profile. His voluptuous, young partner is more by the book. She locks horns out in the field with Kate’s husband, while back at headquarters, misunderstandings abound.

But they can ill afford these distractions. Sally’s time is about to expire.

(This book is part of a series but is designed to be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone novel.)

Buy Links:

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