“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.” — Philip Roth

Don’t feel guilty because you have too many works-in-progress with no end in sight. Take a look at your unfinished manuscripts and ask yourself why you can’t complete them.

Afraid your work will be rejected by publishers? Consider the case of Marvin V. Arnett whose memoir was rejected by publishers over 90 times. She decided to put the manuscript away until her family helped self-publish the book. Each chapter stands alone yet threads together a story of urban social history beginning with her birth during the depression and ending with Detroit’s 1943 race riots. Ms. Arnett’s successful book and standing-room-only lectures about Detroit were brought to the attention of the University of Nebraska Press which reprinted the book under the title, Pieces from Life’s Crazy Quilt. The book was required reading in one of their classes.

Afraid you don’t know enough about a particular topic to complete a convincing plot? I admire the persistence of author Heather Buchanan in completing Dark River, a well-crafted book about scandal, love, murder, and a 100 year-old tragedy. Her manuscript was a work-in-progress for ten years as she researched Detroit’s history, rewrote, and finally published her successful novel. The idea for Dark River came when Ms. Buchanan read a Detroit 300 newspaper article which mentioned the first known slave in Detroit. The woman was buried at St. Anne’s Church near the river and Ms. Buchanan imagined what the woman’s story could have been.

Afraid you have too much story for one book? Highly rated romance writer, Karen White Owens, changed her works-in-progress to a multi-book series, several additional novels, a novella, and has recently published two Angels-in-Waiting eBooks, using non-traditional angels to move her heartwarming stories along. The ethereal comings and goings of her angels and their non-typical interplay with humans is surprising.

Are you afraid readers won’t like what you’ve written? You can’t please everyone, but you’ll miss the opportunity to entertain or inform readers if you don’t finish and publish your work.

I’m working on all the above issues. My manuscripts include a want-to-be novel that needs more historical research, a romance with characters whose story seems to never end, and short memoirs that may not interest anyone except my family and perhaps not even them.

After putting aside my writing out of frustration, I realized that Philip Roth was talking about me. My many works-in-progress are going to be my path straight to hell. Care to join me?


Voyaging at the Dawn Treader

When writing non-fiction, there is much from fiction that can be incorporated. Metaphors and storytelling are important tools in such a writer’s toolbox. In what may be a series of pieces about bookstores across the United States, and a few other countries along my travels, I will explore these locations with an eye for using tools that are similar to writing fiction. I hope you share this journey. Please share your favorite bookstores in the comments section. If I pass through your area, I’ll visit, and bring the experience to this blog… John McCarthy

DT Sidewalk

The Dawn Treader is one of those ports of call that from the outside appears to be a typical storefront. Bookshelves line the sidewalk in front with the bargain books for a dollar or less. All are used or well loved in usage depending on your view point. Like any seafaring ship, you must enter to find the treasure inside. And oh what plunder there is to be gained.

On first setting foot inside, I’m reminded of the time I took my son on a sleepover in a submarine. For such a small vessel, the inside was packed with compartments that, had I’d not known better, I’d think the sub was much larger from the outside. The same illusion occurs on first entering the Dawn Treader. The store entrance is spacious and open–that is if you consider a 6’ by 10 foot area surrounded by bookshelves as open. On the left is the cash register with stacks of books on the floor and desk, siren’s temptation that calls to you when making a purchase—“buy me, just one more book.” There are a few shallow steps up into what can only be described as narrow winding passageways of shelves filled with books. The different paths take you deep into the store–more so than one would believe could be the capacity from the view outside of the store front.

DT pathway

Antiquities to contemporary books pack the shelves. Along one passage there is a cart of mystery and suspense novels that are all signed by the authors. On this sojourn, I found two such treasures, King of the Corner by Loren D. Estelman and The Book of Lies by Brad Meltzer–both 1st editions & 1st printings.

DT signed

At the furthest depths of the store the “passageway” opens up into the best collection of Science Thieves WorldFiction/Fantasy that I’ve seen anywhere. It rivals even King Bookstore, a 5 story monolith bookstore in the heart of Detroit. A curving 20-30’ wall contains floor to ceiling shelves of tightly packed hardcovers. Three rows of 2 sets of bookshelves, also floor to ceiling, are tightly packed with paperbacks. Many decades are well represented by great stories, such as the 1970s. I uncovered original paperbacks from classic, and still incredible series, such as Thieves’ World, Conan, and the original Star Trek.

DT tall shelves

Part of lore for the magical world of the Fey is that time spent there does not measure in the same way as the mortal world. Time exploring the “decks” of the Dawn Treader is the same. Beware of entering the store, thinking you have ten minutes to kill, as an hour will pass when next you leave the premises. Enter if you dare.

DT WindowDawn Treader – Established since 1992 (per website)

514 E. Liberty, Ann Arbor, MI 48104

(734) 995-1008
11 a.m. until 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday,
11 a.m. until 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday,
11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

Kwang’s Game with Groundhogs

This story shows Kwang’s, my husband, tenacious efforts to get rid of groundhogs in our back yard and win over their territory that they had before we moved in.

On August 13, 2001 we moved into our new house at the Northville Golf Course, Northville, Michigan, that is located between Five and Six Mile Roads.  It has high ceilings and several big windows facing south, providing us with the warm sunshine in the winter.  Our back yard ends up at the bump with huge pine trees to separate the empty lots to Five Mile Road.  This lot will be the future home of Northville Technology Park.

A couple of months after we moved in, we could hear an unidentifiable noise similar to birds chirping inside of our house.  I told Kwang with an uneasy feeling, “Birds are somewhere inside the house. There is no way that any animal or bird can get inside the house, probably in the chimney,” Kwang told me, showing that it was not an interesting subject.  “But we hear birds chirping,” I told him bluntly with anger.  “Since the builder put the net on top of the chimney, no birds could be inside the chimney,” he commented.

I was quiet, wondering if he might be deaf.  “This cannot be, because the builder already put the net on the top of the chimney to prevent any animals from going into the chimney.” I repeated his comment.  But the noises got louder and louder every day and especially at night.  Even the scratching sounds in the wall came from the chimney, almost as if something fell down inside of it.  Finally Kwang built a fire in the fireplace and the noise disappeared.  This was the beginning of a seesaw game between Kwang and the animals in our back yard to win control of the territory.

“Kwang, our house is surrounded by many different species of animals like the zoo,” I told him, anticipating an exciting answer, but he was quiet and did not show any interest.

For a while we enjoyed watching several species of birds on our deck, gray pigeons, red robins, sparrows, black crows and others.  They showed us their tricks and talents; chirping at each others’ beaks, and showing us their affection and  caring for each other.  Sometimes they just landed like shooting stars from the sky to find worms on the ground.

The more we enjoyed watching the birds, the more the mess piled up on our deck from the birds.  On the top of the picnic table, chairs and rails.  One afternoon Kwang and I tried to clean it up with just rags and laundry detergent.  It did not work.  The mess was coated on the wooden surface like white paint.  I scrubbed the surface with a steel brush with Ajax until my arms were getting numb.  Now Kwang’s tolerance level for the mess did not exist anymore.

Sami and Mike, our next-door neighbors, told us the best method to chase the birds away is to put an owl on the deck.  From fear of the owl’s big shiny eyes they never come back.  Initially I thought they meant a real live owl, then for a moment, not a real one.  What can you do with a live owl?  It would maybe give you even more headaches.

I rushed to Meijer, where Mike bought his plastic owl.  The old gentleman at the entrance who gave me a shopping cart said  with a routine greeting “Welcome to Meijer”.  Before his sentence was over, I asked him “Where are the owls?”  I should have asked, “Where is the location of the section for the owls for gardens?”  He did not understand me at all.  He came close to me and listened carefully to what I pronounced.  He could not guess that I was looking for a plastic owl.  I could not wait for his assistance and went straight to the garden shop leaving him behind.  In the garden section there are many animated animals, turtles with stones and plastic, rabbits, owls and two young children, carved in stone, who are reading a book affectionately together on the bench and many more plastic and stone sculptures for gardens.

Finally I found two owls, one was a dark brown and the other is a lighter brown color.  I chose the darker one because the owl’s eyes are brighter and shinier.  It is hollow and lightweight, like paper and we had to put weight inside.  Kwang fixed it on the rail with a bolt and nut in the middle of the deck.  For a while we did not see any birds sitting on the deck and we were extremely happy without having any more mess.  One Saturday when Kwang and I had lunch in the kitchen, a small gray pigeon was on the guardrail of the deck, and then later one more came and they played by flapping their wings for a few minutes and flew away.  Even if the owl’s eyes were shining, the smart pigeons knew it was a fake.  We were speechless with our huge disappointment and I just looked at Kwang’s stormy face.

A couple weeks went by again without paying attention to our owl or the birds.  One day we saw a small blackbird go inside the barbecue grill on the east side of the deck, through the space between top cover, in and out.  Later she came back with a small straw in her mouth.  She built a large nest inside the grill even though the owl was standing about three feet away.  The plastic owl totally lost its power and authority to chase the birds away.

One early warm winter day, Kwang and I had a cup of coffee at the kitchen table and saw a gray pigeon sat on the owl’s head.  “Wow!  Unbelievable!”  I screamed, “A bird is on the owl’s head”.  She stayed there about ten or fifteen seconds and flew away.  Seesaw games with birds and us seemed never ending.  Again the mess on the deck was all over.

Along with these bird issues, Kwang had another game in our back yard with groundhogs.  With less than one acre of land we had so many episodes with animals.  “Kwang, if we live on huge land with heavily wooded area, we will have extremely unexpected and maybe interesting activities with animals.”  I meant deer, wild turkey, rabbits, and other animals.

Kwang told me a groundhog was living under the rocks in our flowerbed.  Our flowerbed has several large rocks on a slanted smallhill.  The holes were everywhere.  Kwang’s first strategy was to totally seal the entrance with rocks and he hoped the groundhogs wouldn’t leave the hole and would die trapped inside.  Kwang was so pleased at not seeing any new holes for about a week.  I saw his face reflecting his feeling of triumphant victory over them.

A couple of days later Kwang asked me for mothballs.  He hates mothballs because of the awful smell and he also believes it causes cancer.  Kwang does not allow me to use mothballs in our closets.  I had to ask him “why?” with surprise.

His answer was short … “To kill the groundhogs.”  Kwang poured about a half box of mothballs, about one pound, into the hole.  He did not tell me the results of the mothballs with the groundhogs.

On the weekend he was in front of the computer for hours, and his face was reddish purple with anger.  He started to search for information on how to kill groundhogs, after failures at blocking the entrance holes with rocks and mothballs.

Meanwhile the groundhogs moved their home to under the pine trees over the bump in the wide open field about thirty feet away from the flowerbed.  “The groundhogs made two new holes,” Kwang told me in a grumpy voice.  I do not know if they are connected or separate holes in the bump,  Kwang mumbled to himself.

Late afternoon I came back from Indiana.  It was getting dark but not pitch black yet.  Kwang told me that he had to show me something in the yard before dinner.  I was hungry and a bit tired from the long drive, but as soon as I put down my bags on the kitchen floor we went out to my rock garden.  What do you expect?  In the middle of the rock garden I saw a windmill.  The pole was about six foot tall and two inches diameter.  It was spinning at 180 miles per hour.  The blades were about one and one-half foot long and four inches in diameter.  The wind was strong, you could not see the fan blades.  Just one circular one was turning round and round.  I lost all the words in the world.  I was speechless,  Crazy Kwang,  I told myself.  He explained to me that he saw on the Internet that with a windmill you can chase away groundhogs by the vibrations and noise of underground.  He showed me one more windmill on the bump.  I could not see well but  saw the fan was moving fast.  He thought it was all set and the groundhogs would not come again.  He was extremely confident about this device.  The vibration and noise analysis are using pump wear and failure analysis at the manufacturing plant, but in the green fields to kill groundhogs with this technique, I could not understand him.  But he is usually a much better engineer than I am for application of theory.  Also, he has great common sense.  I had to accept his practice this time.

Immediately my thoughts attached to this windmill, to the development of bearing lubricant for a windmill which is demanding industry for the alternative energy.  What a good opportunity for me to test the lubricant in our back yard with our own two windmills.  I hid my smile inside and went into the kitchen and had dinner.

Every evening Kwang asked me “How are the windmills?”  He got a monotonous answer from me, “It is working.”  The November winds in Michigan were getting stronger and stronger and the blades of the windmill were falling one by one.  Now, a couple of weeks later, only the bare pole was left in my rock garden.  The blades of the windmills were gone before performing my lubricant experiment and the groundhogs ran away.

One afternoon Kwang asked me to come up to the bump.  Kwang ran the water to fill the hole for four or five hours.  He hoped filling the hole with water would drown the groundhogs.  I only saw dark deep holes and could not see any water which soaked into the soil.  Several groundhog holes in the back yard made it hard for him to cut the grass with the tractor and two pine trees were already dead because the groundhogs ate the roots.

Now Kwang did not tell me his plan about the groundhogs.  He just stuck to the computer for many hours.  A couple of days later we received a trap (cage) by mail.  Kwang still did not tell me what his plan with the cage was.  There was no way he could win the battle.  A week later another trap came but I never heard that he caught anything.  No activities and no comments from Kwang about the groundhogs for three or four weeks.

The Post Office delivered a large package to our front door.  It was twice the size of the previous traps.  It was huge.  Now Kwang was getting confidence that he could catch anything in the world.  Kwang asked me for slices of apples.  For several days there was no news from Kwang and I saw the huge trap was in our garage for several months.  Later he told friends that he caught a raccoon instead of groundhogs.

Kwang’s battles against the groundhogs lasted about two years.  Kwang could not get any new knowledge from the Internet and he started to ask friends for wise and practical advice.  He thought now was the time to share his anger and frustration with friends.  Some people gave advice to Kwang casually with common sense and others simply did not have any similar experience.

One idea from a friend was to put fireworks in the holes and let them choke from the smoke.  Friends suggested that the plan should be done at night when all groundhogs are inside their holes.  With a flashlight Kwang and I went to the holes.  Kwang put fireworks in the holes and sealed the holes with dirt as quickly as possible.

A couple weeks later Kwang said the groundhogs did not come anymore and did not make any new holes.  This is the method that people used to get rid of them and Kwang even recommended it to Mike, who is our neighbor.  Kwang was so happy and he was just like a marching soldier of victory and regretted that he did not use this method a long time ago.  I agreed, too, that this was the best idea and it would work with toxic chemicals, smoking fireworks, but the feeling of victory did not last long, soon there were two new holes at different locations under the pine tree on the hill.  I did not have any concern or anxiety at this time, like he had unless the holes were not under my flowerbed.

Kwang was digging out more information from the Internet.  One day I found a one-gallon jug half filled with yellow liquid in the garage.  I thought maybe it was floor cleaner from our plant to clean the garage.  We have not cleaned the garage for almost one year.  Now it was early spring and just the right time to clean out the garage.

“Is that floor cleaner in the garage?  There is no label,” I asked Kwang.  He did not answer me and I did not ask him why there was no label, but later after we finished dinner I told him again, “If you take a product without a label, it is not good practice.  Our employees may have made a mistake and put the wrong label on the container and without any Material Safety Data Sheet.”

He had a light smile on his lips and said, “It is my urine.”  This is another device to chase away groundhogs from the Internet and he showed me an Internet article.  I thought this time Kwang was going insane.  Maybe he has to go into a mental hospital.  I did not say anything.  I just thought how stupid I was asking him questions about groundhogs.  He had practiced this quite a while without results.  Again a couple of months were gone.

This time he found out that groundhogs like vegetables, especially cabbage, and they only come out of their holes in the daytime to eat vegetables.  As I mentioned before, Kwang lost more confidence fighting with the groundhogs.  Even though we have three traps, he never caught a single one.  Will vegetables make a big difference, I wondered.  Kwang took several pieces of cabbage from me and put them into the biggest trap of the three.  On May 30, 2007, one groundhog was inside the trap.  His eyes were wide open looking for escape methods.  Kwang was so exultant he almost jumped into the sky.  It seemed to tell us, “See it does work with vegetables.”  Kwang showed it to Mike and they went together to Northville Park near the women’s correction facility to release the groundhog in the park.

On May 31, 2007, he caught another one.  This time Kwang told me it was bigger than yesterday.  Kwang asked me to go together to release it in the park.  I said no.  The groundhog might bite me when Kwang released it.  On June 1, 2007 and June 2, 2007, he caught two more groundhogs.  We caught a total of four.  Kwang finally won on the battlefield.  I told Kwang the groundhogs did not communicate with each other about the traps on the hill.  They are foolish to be caught in Kwang’s trap.

In my mind, I should learn from Kwang his tenacious attitude to solve issues.

I Pledge Allegiance to the Flow

When did you first know that you were a writer? I can trace it back to saying the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school. Whenever we got to the line “one Nation under God” I thought it sounded awkward. Now mind you, I had no knowledge of the political forces and controversies surrounding the words “under God” in the Pledge. My reaction stemmed purely from the writer’s sense of something being wrong with the flow.

When a piece has good flow the words and sentences have a smooth, unbroken rhythm. Think of reading a passage and following the words with your finger as you read. If at any point your finger pauses too long or stops completely, you have a potential problem with the flow. It means your brain is either working harder to process the written words, or it has come completely out of the story.

In fiction, good flow requires such things as: no logic problems in the plot; no out of character behaviors that are incongruent with the plot; and no inconsistencies like the color of a car being red on one page and blue five pages later. Any of these things may draw the reader’s brain away from the story and off on a tangent saying, “That’s not right.”

Good flow also means there are no awkward pauses or phrasing, no irregular word usage, and no sentences long enough to make you winded if reading it out loud. The reasons behind these problems are usually much harder to articulate. Authors and readers can often tell good flow from bad, but the mechanics are not easy to define.

It would be years later before I learned that “under God” came about through government editing of author Francis Bellamy’s original work. As it turns out, there have been five editing jobs on the Pledge since being published in the September 8th, 1892, edition of The Youth’s Companion. Each change either improves or disrupts the flow and I decided to try and figure out the reasons why. Let’s start at the beginning with the Pledge as it first appeared in The Youth’s Companion:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

The first editing on this piece came from the hand of Francis Bellamy himself. He inserted the word ‘to’ before “the Republic”:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

What does the alteration do for the statement? In the original form, “the Republic for which it stands” has only a passing relationship to the earlier subject/predicate “I pledge allegiance.” By adding the word ‘to’ in front of the phrase, the connection is made stronger thus improving the flow. The change also helps reduce some slight ambiguity of the word ‘it’ which could refer back to either ‘allegiance’ or ‘Flag.’ In the new form of the sentence, I not only pledge allegiance to my flag, but also to the republic for which my flag stands.

At some point in time, the colon in the Pledge gets changed to a comma. Since I couldn’t find exactly when this change happened, I’m going to take some license and examine what the change does while the sentence is in a simpler form:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

While use of either a colon or comma is grammatically correct, the tone is different depending on the choice. Read the version with the colon and then the one with the comma. Did you give a little more emphasis to the words “one nation” when reading the version with the colon? Was the flow a little more monotone when reciting the version with the comma? A colon adds some drama to the sentence while a comma is more casual. In this case, I think the colon is the better option because it fits in with the ceremonial nature of the Pledge. When grammar rules give you a choice, take care that the tone imparted by a colon is in line with the character and tempo of the overall piece.

In 1923, the National Flag Conference released a new version of the Pledge designed to take away any confusion immigrants might have about which flag they were honoring. The words “my flag” became “the flag of the United States”:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The following year, the conference added the words “of America”:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Before adding “of America” the flow is choppy. Is it just coincidence or luck that using the full name of the country improves the flow? I don’t think so. Referring to our country as “the United States” is the common way of speaking. It’s only in formal situations that we add “of America.” The flow of the 1923 version is uneven because the casual usage of the name is at odds with the formal nature of the Pledge.

Congress adopted the Pledge as part of the national flag code in 1942 and it remained unchanged until 1954 when the words “under God” were added:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

So what did I hear that made the flow sound off to my young mind? The phrase “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” is complex with no verb or conjunction to help the brain process what is written. Even without the addition of “under God” the statement is hard to interpret. However, the extra words make it more difficult. The complexity becomes more apparent when you see the translation the brain has to do to understand both statements:

Before: one nation standing indivisible, with liberty and justice for all

After: one nation standing under God and indivisible, with liberty and justice for all

The difference may seem subtle, but it is important. I’ve never heard the Pledge spoken without a pause before the words “under God” even though there is no grammatical reason (e.g. a comma) to hesitate there. That stop in the flow is the brain doing a synaptic two-step trying to process the sentence. Tough enough for an adult to figure out let alone my grade school self!

Information Dumps

An information dump is exactly what it sounds like: a steaming plop of backstory. It includes facts about characters and events that are relevant to your storyline but predate the opening scene. Often times, these factoids are the very building blocks of your story, but to start with them at the beginning – which is where they belong according to history – would carry as much suspense as a three-legged-turtle race. That’s why most suspense novels start with the main conflict already in motion. The characters develop as they navigate this conflict and the backstory comes in as they do. There are seven tools novelists can use to fill backstory: prologues, flashbacks, dreams, nightmares, internal thoughts, conversation and revelation.

Each has their place, but when you examine the first four, you quickly discover conflicts with the first rule of suspense, which is action! The last three rely on quieter moments in your story, and the information arrives between the action scenes. If all dumps go into toilets, then the first four are outhouses and the last three are indoor plumbing.

Prologues and Flashbacks
A prologue is positioned as the first read in your story, preceding Chapter 1. It can carry on for several pages. Flashbacks deliver the same kinds of information, only doled out between chapters and breaks in the story. It is hard to hold suspense in either format because, by their very nature, both take the reader out of the main story to enlighten them. Full stop, dump info, now back to the action! Most readers will let you get away with this once, but if you make a habit of it you’re likely to lose your audience to a tennis match on television.

I recommend writing prologues and flashbacks in the present tense, even where the rest of your novel is in past tense. This seems like a contradiction, but present tense allow your reader to become the parrot on your character’s shoulder, quietly watching the prequel unfold in real time, which, in and of itself, can build tension from even the most mundane events. In past tense, the same information comes out like a midnight visit to the outhouse: it’s all business, you wouldn’t be here if it was necessary, and it’s not some place you want to hang about.

It is important that your characters, not the narrator, tell the backstory, even if the characters in the backstory are not the main folks in the novel. Narration ruins tension, pure and simple. Past tense narration is a big yawn.

Dreams and Nightmares
Where flashbacks and prologues tell of past factual events, dreams and nightmares show the future, and they are not real. Even where the dream relives some past event, the circumstances in the dream are always different from what really happened, and that makes them unreliable for information dumps. Dreams hardly ever work with tension, but nightmares can have a place if the information you’re dumping is traumatic. Fires, the tragic loss of a loved one, or the face of the killer the night of the pummeling can work very well in nightmares, providing that someone wakes up the dreamer. Suspense is intrigue, not mystery, and readers deserve a “true” meaning of it all. Without this “truth” conversation between two on-page characters, your readers are still in a dark outhouse – they don’t know what, if anything, they just heard is trustworthy.

Minimize your use of prologues and flashbacks, dreams and nightmares, and you will minimize your problems with backstory. Now, let’s look at who flushes properly.

Internal Thoughts
Internal thoughts allow your characters to quickly dispense past information and future schemes at the same time while staying within your main conflict. (Consider: He reads the email and thinks, First time I met Sluggo, didn’t have my gun. Won’t make that mistake again.) People do not have long conversations with themselves – or talk in complete sentences. One past fact, relevant to the story’s future, that’s what you want. Too much internal thought and your readers are going to go huh?  because with internal thoughts, you are not only inside the character’s head but the reader’s head, too.

Far and away, the best place for your backstory is between the quotation marks. Just don’t make it sound like a witness’s testimony. Conversation is just that; it is two or more people conversing, not one character speaking to an audience of one or more. In filling backstory with conversation, usually one character will know the past event and the other character will draw it out of them, either intentionally or entirely by accident. You need to decide who’s going to be telling this prequel because you can’t be in two people’s heads at the same time. Think of our parrot jumping from protag’s shoulder to the other guy’s, back and forth, back and forth; poor bird will get so dizzy he’ll drop off the page. And so will your readers.

You can show some internal dialogue within conversation, but only if it is brief and it moves the action forward quickly. (“Sure, I was there. Hundreds of people was there when the lights went out. But I didn’t see who knifed’m,” Sluggo said with air of defiance, confident they’d never be able to identify him in the pitch black.) Now we know  that Sluggo did it; his “internal thoughts” just told us one thing while his “dialogue” told the questioner something else. Your reader knows more than this other character does!

It is always best to pull backstory out of your characters and avoid using narrative as much as possible. Some narrative will be necessary, like in the above example with Sluggo, but the more you let your characters tell your story, the stronger they will become.  Sweet-scented candles burning in the lavatory.

Revelation is a surprise to both your readers and characters alike, and it hits like a thunderstorm. It can come in the form of a phone call from the doctor’s office, old letters found in the attic, or a sudden, unknown, rich relative, but it has to be a shocker. It has to be a turning point in the story. There is nothing gratuitous about revelation, and placement is just as critical as content. They don’t work in the very beginning or at the very end of your story (unless your protagonist is Sherlock Holmes). In the beginning, not enough has already been established; it’s all revelation. Plop it down right at the end and your readers are going to feel cheated. But incorporate it as a turning point in your story and a revelation can both explain the past and set the table for the rest of the banquet in an instant.

Imagine a different story… Back in Chapter 10, the sweet matriarch of our imaginary story died, leaving our hero, Andrew, without any benefactors. At the end of Chapter 15, we read how, Andrew has finally been evicted along with his new wife and infant from the home he’s grown up in all his life. The nanny’s son, he was, always helped out where he could. And now, the nasty niece, Nancy, and her troop of lawyers have taken over the estate and kicked Andrew and family out after 22 years, penniless and hopeless. Chapter 16 opens with Andrew’s wife pounding on the outhouse door and shouting, “The doctor’s office just called – DNA confirms that the letters in the attic are REAL! He was your father! The estate is yours, not Nancy’s!” Now that’s a revelation. The entire story turns at this point. Our hero who was destitute in Chapter 15 is now master of the house, and in the final scene of Chapter 21 we gleefully see Nancy on her knees scrubbing floors as Andrew’s five-year-old comes storming into the kitchen in muddy boots, demanding, “Where is my lunch?” Your reader gets up from your sumptuous table feeling full, and full of anticipation for what you’re going to cook up next.

Dump the dump
So if backstory always work best woven into dialog, why not just dump the dump? What if, instead, you scattered the information like a soft, spring rain. Now, the scat dissolves slowly and enriches the plot. For example, when getting into the head of your bad boy, what if you have one character in Chapter 1 tell how he was kicked out of Boy Scouts for fighting, and a couple of chapters later have another character, an ex-con, talk about how he was a model prisoner and released early. Then in Chapter 8, his first wife tells us how he battled alcoholism after losing his business to the IRS. We see this character’s evil development was years in the making; something not possible in one cognitive scene. In the end, the rain dissolves the information when and where necessary and the roots of our story grow stronger because of it.

Next Month: Pace
Suspense means action, and action demands quick movements from both your characters and your plotlines. However, a suspense novel is a marathon, not a sprint. Run too fast and you’ll burn out before the finish line – or your readers will. You want to keep a strong cadence, but there will be times you’ll want to back off just a bit and let your characters – and your readers – catch their breath. Next month, we’ll look pacing; when to trot, when to gallop, when to graze.