Guest Post: Faster Editing with Track Changes

Today we welcome Cyberdyke to Mostly Mystery for a guest post on Track Changes.  I use this in Word but didn’t realize that it was common in most programs so am thrilled to add this to my toolbox.

I recently gave an article of mine to a friend to proofread. I recommended that she use Track Changes, as it would make it faster to see her suggestions. She had no idea what I was referring to. Every writing/word processing program has a form of Track Changes which can help you do just that.

Track Changes are a way to track the amendments to an original document. Or to put it another way, a visual revision history of all changes made by each editor. It is a perfect choice when having a beta reader or critique group peruse your manuscript (MS). Allowing every reviser to choose their own color, making it easy to glance through the work in progress (WIP) and see the alterations. Mousing over them pops up the editor’s name, quickly identifying who the comments are from. You can select colors using the preferences in your program.

Decide to keep or discard edits with a simple click. Or do a quick sweep and ‘Accept All’. Be aware there is no way back from this. If a reader cross something out, then undo’s it, the font color will still show that a change was made.

See example below.   Spelling errors, grammatical corrections, or moving words or sentences will show up.spelling example


To turn it on, in all versions: Ctrl+Shift+e

It can usually be found in ‘Revisions,’ to see all options.  For PC users, this shows up under “Review” as a separate tab.


Format (in the top menu bar) and choose Revision Mode

Choose which version from the one’s listed example: /First/Second/

(etc.) Revision

scrivener example












CLICK Track Changes

A review toolbar appears at the top of the page. If you need to make

changes that you don’t want to be tracked, move the Tracking slider in the

review toolbar to Paused, make changes, then turn it back on.

pages example



OpenOffice Writer:

Click Edit

Click Changes

Click Record

open office example













Nisus Writer Pro:


CLICK Track Changes

Nisus example









CyberdykeCyberdyke is a computer professional from the Pacific Northwest. She has worked for companies such as Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and McAfee. As a child, she wasn’t finding any books that appealed to her, so she began writing her own stories.

Stuck? What Next?

I think we’ve all been there.  There’s a point in the novel where you get stuck. Computer-Guy-300px Nothing’s working or you just can’t see what’s next.  For plotters, this may be a place where you have the outline but whatever is supposed to come next doesn’t seem quite right.  For pantsers, it’s the same thing except we might not know what the next beat or plot point is.

What to do?  There are a lot of different ideas on this.  You can try to power through it.  I’ve never found that works for me.  I mostly write as a pantser so just trying to write something never seems to make any sense – nor does what I write seem to work in the story.

I heard a speaker this weekend and his thoughts on this were that once he realized that was where he was, then that meant something was wrong.  And he needed to figure out what that something was and fix it.  I can relate. I have a story that I knew wasn’t quite working but I was trying to power through it and just write.  That is, until my critique partners said, “You know, you are on page xxx and something needs to happen by now.”  Totally on point, which is why having good critique partners is so helpful, but that’s a different subject. So, now I am in the process of trying to figure out what is wrong and correct it.

So how do we solve this dilemma?  One is to get some distance from it.  Set it aside and then come back to it and read it.   You may find it once you aren’t in the thick of trying to figure it out.

It may be that you are so focused on the creative side of things that you really need to let the other side of your brain take over a bit and work on structure.  My story has the structure issue.  I need to go back and make sure I am hitting the beats as I write, even though I am a pantser, so that my story moves along.

Still another way to solve this is to write something completely different.  A short story.  A non-fiction piece.  Anything else that allows your brain to focus on something new.  Then come back to the story with new ideas.

Finally, a character interview might be helpful.  This can be a dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist in a different place like an elevator or on a desert island. geraint-Desert-Island-Stick-Figure-300px (1) It doesn’t have to relate to the story but you may find that there’s something within that interview that does work at some point.  Or you may find the problem.  I have also used a direct interview where I ask my character the answers. I don’t always get what I need but generally I get some new information that is helpful to my story.

So what about you?  How do you move past that dreaded stuck place we writers sometimes find ourselves in?

Scrivener Tip – Synopses

The more I work with Scrivener, the more I realize just how fantastic this software is.

At the moment, I’m busy querying the first novel in my planned CACHE series – COLD, HARD CACHE.   About half the agents on my query list want a synopsis.  Most do not specify how long the synopsis should be, while the remainder request between one paragraph and three pages.

I’m a pantser and not a plotter, which means that I don’t have a blueprint I can use as a basis for my synopsis.

Once again, Scrivener to the rescue.

In the compile screen, under “Format As” options, you can choose “Synopses Outline” or “Synopses and Titles”.  This handy option will extract everything you added to the synopsis section of your manuscript.  Compile it to a word document and you have the start of a chapter-by-chapter synopsis or a quick overview of everything that happens in your story.

Of course you do have to use the synopsis feature in Scrivener in the first place.  I didn’t say this was magic, did I?

What tips and tricks have you found helpful when using Scrivener?  Please me know in the comments.


Scrivener Tip – Multiple Story Lines

I’m currently doing the final read through of my contemporary fantasy novel, Unholy Triptych, and it’s been difficult for a number of reasons:  Firstly I have three main characters; secondly each has their own story arcs that only merges near the end of the book; thirdly they have alternately chapters: and lastly I’m using their ‘voice’ to differentiate them instead of relying on, say, describing them every time I start their chapter, or using their name in the opening paragraph.

Scrivener to the rescue…

I’ve just discovered that I can compile the document and include (or exclude) certain labels. As luck would have it, each character has their own label, so I can isolate their story arc, compile it to Word, and read it as one story.  Woohoo!

For more on Scrivener’s greatness, read this post from our Archives.

Let me know in the comments if you have any tips for using Scrivener.



I’ve been waiting for the right time and perfect subject to write a robust blog post, one fitting for both starting the New Year and resurrecting the blog.   I should know by now that this is akin to waiting for the muse to appear when you’re writing your manuscript – it ain’t gonna happen.

So from now on except shorter, less formal, blog posts from me.


Help! I Need Fish

Question marksWhen is a Clue Not a Clue? When it’s a Red Herring.

I’ve just unearthed a cozy that I started and abandoned a few years ago after an idea for a paranormal seized my imagination. The desertion was made easier by the fact that my mystery was floundering.

All my life I’ve devoured mystery stories. My trips through the library stacks began and ended in the section where all the spines had yellow Sherlock stickers. Since whodunnits and gothics topped my reading wish lists, it seemed like a no-brainer to choose the mystery genre for my first foray into writing. How hard could it be?

I went into the proposition with a character-based idea. I knew the protagonist. She was formed from all the women I’d read about with authors like Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich. My protagonist, however, would be an amateur sleuth, a la Miss Marple.Miss Marple

The first chapter sped along and ideas for my characters bloomed. I described them and their relationships with each other. I supplied the corpse. I inserted a love interest and dreamed of the book tour. Things that I’d neglected? A good reason for the murder, a good candidate for the killer, and any kind of clues or red herrings. What? I’d been so focused on characters that I’d ignored plot, and in mysteries, the plot with its many twists is king. So, I bailed. Left my protagonist in the lurch and headed to the land of ghosts and magic powers.

A few months ago, I dusted off the manuscript, did some work on it, and read the first few chapters to my writing group. Before I finished, someone asked me about one of the characters. “Is he the killer?” Rats. He was. I really liked the story and wanted it to work. What was I to do? The answer seemed obvious, more suspects. I needed Red Herrings.

All you mystery authors out there, who drop red herrings throughout your work like croutons in a salad are probably chuckling. For me, that answer, though simple, was difficult to pull off. So, I resorted to Google and found a plethora of information on the term, “red herring”.

red herringMost people agree that the term “red herring” originated in Britain. One reference that I liked reported that the ripe smell of a herring was used by early animal rights activists to throw the hounds off the scent of the fox. The “red”, it was thought, probably came from the color of smoking and curing the fish.

I was surprised to learn that “red herring” is not just a literary trick. It can be found not only in mystery and suspense novels, but also in movies and real life. For instance, any attempt to deflect someone from their purpose by trying to redirect their thoughts is called a red herring. People in trouble often try to steer the subject of their transgression in another direction. If you’re looking for a good example of a red herring, listen to a political smellydebate or pay attention any time tough questions are aimed at our wiley politicians. They are masters of the art of deflection.

Back to my story. How can I incorporate successful red herrings into my tale? I use the word, successful, because it would be easy to toss in a bunch of suspects to try and throw the reader off the trail. The difficulty here lies in the plausibility of the red herring. Will the reader believe that a suspect might actually be the murderer? And, how cleverly have I handed this suspect to the reader? Not only should the red herring be conceivable, but it should be something the reader believes in, through the characters’ or his own deduction, not something handed to him by the writer.

This is where I become stymied. I have a host of people for suspects, but how can I weave their possible culpability into the story without disclosing my sinister motive? Enter the great and wonderful internet once more, “How to introduce a red herring.” I found a blog with excellent information:

There I learned some valuable truths about formulating suspects. In order for a suspect to have plausibility, he has to: 1) benefit from the crime, and 2) have means and opportunity. That way, the reader as well as the investigator will include the person in his list of suspects.

Other less obvious, but equally important, clues can evolve using setting, where the crime takes place and how that place relates to each suspect. Also, what you see or don’t see at the scene of the crime is important. Does an item at the scene have some relation to Agatha Christieone or more of the suspects? Does the absence of an item say something about the killer? What about the item itself? Could it have different meanings that point to more than one suspect? Agatha Christie, the Grande Dame of mystery, would know.

Sometimes, a clue is simply a clue, but if introduced during the middle of an emotional subplot, can be initially overlooked by the reader. While the reader is concentrating on the immediate problem, the writer can slip in a clue that later resonates with the reader. How many times have you said, “Oh, right, I remember that.” Sometimes, I get so caught up in the plot that I miss the clues, but I always seem to fall for the red herrings. That’s part of the lure of the genre. I enjoy trying to guess the identity of the killer, but don’t want to figure it out too early in the book, and I really appreciate a good twist at the end.

The last advice I’ve gleaned from my research is to read, read, and re-read in the genre. I’m going to have to dust off the old collection, and dig in to some of my favorite mysteries. This time, though, I’ll go through them like a writer, watching for the clues and red herrings, and hoping I can add some of that magic to my own work. Ooh! I’m already feeling more devious.

If you have any suggestions for me, I’d love to hear them. In the meantime,

Keep Writing!




Novel Writing: Making It Personal

Have you ever wondered whether or not the books you read have names, places, or happenings that are actually personal to the author? It’s like thinking about songs that you loved and wondering how they came to be written and what they mean to the composer.

ThreeMayKeepASecretFrontWhile only my first mystery novel, Three May Keep a Secret, is actually published, I have two more coming down the runway. The second, Marry in Haste, will be out June 22, 2016, and the third is done except for the last chapter. Death Takes No Bribes is the third book in the Endurance series, and it contains, like the first and second, some thoughts that are personal to me. The town of Endurance, Illinois is based on my town, Monmouth, Illinois, a place where I’ve lived since 1968.

In each of my Endurance books, I’ve used words provided by my children and a couple of friends. I decided it would be nice to include their efforts in the finished products. Some of these words were: tundra, helicopter, instrumental, disingenuous, and little pumpkin. The last one was not easy! They all think they can stump me with words that won’t fit into my plots. But I have triumphed in all three books, and the word-providers know which words are theirs.

teenagersA second theme that streams through all three of the mysteries is Grace Kimball’s memory of her high school students. Grace is the main character, a retired teacher with twenty-five years of English teaching behind her. But since she lives in a town of 15,000, she is constantly running into adolescents she taught who are now adults. She remembers things they did in their adolescent years, and her memories lighten the mood of the murders. Here’s an example:

Grace is walking down the corridor of the Endurance Hospital when she sees a hospital aide pushing a patient in a wheelchair. Andrew Weathersby. His locker was right outside my classroom his sophomore year. One day I heard a commotion and walked out to the hallway. It was a girl fight—the worst kind of fight. Andrew nonchalantly leaned against the wall and pointed out his twin sister Ally. “She’s the one on the top, beating the crap out of Lisa Watkins.” Then he leaned forward and shouted, “Hit her again, Ally!” Alphabetical propinquity. That year my hallway was a war zone. It was quite the entertaining year, but the following year their lockers were moved to the lower junior hallway, and all was quiet again. At least he was using his muscles now in a good cause. Each of the three books is filled with Grace’s encounters with former teenage students. Some are true, some are fiction.

You know who you are.

Finally, each book has items, events, dates, places, and people who are special to me. In Three May Keep a Secret, I described the Public Square of the small town where I live. No Monmouth Public Sq.Circleone knows how to drive around it without driving defensively, and anyone who grew up here knows the truth of that statement. I also borrowed the history of my town to use for the history of Endurance, a small town on the edge of the Illinois prairie, built by Scotch Presbyterians, civilized by women, and surrounding a college.

The second book, Marry in Haste, takes place partly in a house I lived in for five years when I first moved to Monmouth. It was a huge Victorian with quite a history, built in the late 1800s. In my second book, one of the characters buys it to restore it to its former beauty. I kept the original house number—402—but changed the location and street name. McCullough houseIt no longer exists as it was razed in 1990, but in my second book it comes to life once again. Also in this second book is a restaurant begun in Endurance by two of Grace’s former students. Such a restaurant began in our town too, and although the two restaurants are not the same in name or décor, the idea is the same. Jessalynn Folger plays a cameo in this book. She is quite a strong woman who had to fight her way out of a terrible childhood to become an amazing professional, an in-house lawyer for a huge New York bank. I borrowed that name from a real former student who is also the daughter of a friend. She has the premier chapter in the book and the spotlight for one night. I think she’s as strong as the woman named for her.

Finally, in the third book of the series, Death Takes No Bribes, I used the high school where I taught for thirty-four years as the setting of two murders. Apologies to all who worked with me in that school, but no one in this book is based on anyone with whom I taught.

Grace Kimball’s retirement replacement is a Ms. Jaski, and this seemed appropriate because my first grade teacher—a young woman I definitely admired at age six and who teachertaught me to love reading—had this name first, and each day she hugged us before we went home. She left to get married after that year, but I used her name because I’ve never forgotten her or what she did for us. Another character in this book is a teenager named Ginger. That’s my oldest grandchild’s name, and while I changed her age from 11 to 16, I think she retains some of the zany character of my granddaughter. In this novel, Grace stops in her old high school classroom, a stupid decision that causes her pain, but one of the things she notices is a “2002” carved on the teacher’s desk. She never found out who the artist was. This never happened to me—no desk carvings—but I retired from a job I loved in 2002, just like Grace. So I chose that date for a reason.

It’s been fun putting personal memories into books that strangers will read, not realizing the personal nature of some of my choices. As time goes by and books in the series pile up, I’ll continue to use interesting places, people, and events from the past.

So Who’s Telling This Story Anyway? And other tips.

images[6]Point of View has always been important but seems to be a bit of a hot topic these days. It’s a powerful device and one of the first decisions a writer needs to make. Getting it right the first time saves a lot of time in re-writing.

John Gilstrap recently spoke at the meeting for my local writers’ group, Riverside Writers. John writes commercial thrillers and so it was with great interest that I listened to the tips he had for us. While this blog is mostly about mysteries, I found that what he had to say applies to most mysteries as well. He spent a lot of time on point of view. While thrillers are generally seen through the eyes of a number of characters, our mysteries are more likely not to be told that way. But the points he made had me stopping to re-think a few things.

  1.  Point of View (“POV”).  John doesn’t use 1st person for his stories.  He prefers the multiple POV; however, his most important consideration is to make sure whoever is telling the story in a particular scene is the best POV.  John also stressed the need to tell the story from whatever particular character is on stage’s point of view.  By this, he meant that any description or use of words or anything the character does or says needs to be from that POV.  Fscreenshot1[1]or example, a young boy will notice or not notice  different things from a woman’s perspective – or his mother’s perspective.  So thinking through who tells that part of the story needs to include a consideration for what that character would see and notice.   Think camera placement in a movie – what would that character see.
  2.  Who are you writing for? This again goes back to POV.  John mentioned that one of the most common problems he sees in manuscripts is that the writer is writing for him or herself.  When that happens to him, he said he has to cut the paragraph or page.  Everything needs to come from the character’s POV.
  3. All senses count.  As I think we’ve all been told many times, we have to remember to use all five senses in our scenes and stories. Again, we are back to what the character would notice.
  4. Pacing and movement.  Switching gears a bit, John he uses some of the same tools mystery writers use for pacing  – short sentences for action and longer ones to slow or stop the action.  He also said that each paragraph has to move the story along in some way – something that we know we need for a mystery as well.  John referenced movies and the fact that the soundtrack, if done right, is the heartbeat of the movies.  For writers, we don’t have that – only our words and tools to move the story at the pace we are trying for.  But if we think about our story in that way, we can use our words, sentences and paragraphs as a kind of soundtrack with a certain pace.
  5. List of things to watch out for in your manuscript.
    1. Adverbs.
    2. Too much alliteration.
    3. Unintentional rhymes.
    4. Dialogue that doesn’t do anything like “Hi.” (Been guilty of this and had to go back and cut it even when I was doing something to show the era – I realized that I had some really dead lines and cut them).

Finally, John’s advice is to find out what you want to leave the reader with – what emotion. And to use hooks at the end of each chapter to keep the reader turning the pages.  This last tip has me checking each chapter ending in my mystery and deciding whether it is strong enough or needs to be revised.

As is generally the case, I found a few things in John’s talk helpful. My current novel is in first person and that makes it clear on POV but I often try to remember things from Savannah, Georgia that I’ve seen when I’m working on description – and now, I have a reminder to remember that I need to then see them through my character’s eyes.

So what about you? Tips or thoughts on POV?

Ten Rules I Remember About Naming Characters

character-names-268x300As a former teacher, I’m well aware of the old joke about the pregnant teacher who can’t think of a good name for the upcoming baby because each name she thinks of has some darker association with a former student. “I can’t name him ‘Ben’ because of that teenager I had in class named Ben who was always whispering obscene things under his breath to the girls who sat around him.” This problem doesn’t matter when naming characters rather than children.

When I’m writing mysteries, I keep a notebook full of the names of people and places in my mystery series set in the small town of Endurance, Illinois. It helps me choose names for new characters and it keeps me from repeating names I’ve used before. Since I’m currently on the third book and I’ve peopled a pretty good slice of the town, I need to be careful about how I name new characters. With that in mind, here are ten of the ideas I remember when I’m thinking about character names.

hireFirst, I read a lot so I have to make sure I don’t subconsciously use names I have read before in books. One of my favorite sleuths is Spenser in the Robert Parker novels. Spenser makes sure the reader understands that he has the letter “s” twice in his name because of the poet, Edmund Spenser. Parker’s detective is quite the poetic philosopher. Perfect name. I will never use that in my novels.

Second, I need to make sure I don’t use a name and location of a real person I’ve known in my past. I found myself subconsciously doing this with a minor character who had the first name of a long-ago college roommate, and the character lived in the former roommate’s current city. Obviously, my brain had connected the two. A week later, I realized what I had done. Switch that name.

1954:  American actress Grace Kelly (1929 - 1982), who is appearing  in 'The Country Girl' directed by  George Seaton for Paramount. Kelly abandoned her movie career in 1956 to marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco.Third, the main character has to have a name I love because I will be using it a great deal in more than one book. Grace Kimball, my main character, has such a name. The concept of “grace” in religion has always been an awesome idea to me. Ditto the concept of “grace under pressure” in Hemingway’s novels.  “Grace” is also the middle name of a loved granddaughter, and it’s a beautiful concept when used as “graceful.” Then, of course, there was Grace Kelly, a beautiful American film star. “Kimball” was simply a last name that came into my head when I wasn’t thinking about names at all. But it works well with Grace.

Fourth, I never bring in too many names or characters at once. I introduce characters gradually so the reader can feel secure in knowing who’s who. When I began to write my third Endurance mystery, I was going to write about the local Endurance school board. Eventually, I changed that plot concept because it was too confusing to introduce seven or eight board members at once. So, I try to introduce characters in unique ways and not too closely together.

names-300x300Fifth, I make names memorable so the reader won’t have to page back to figure out who this character is thirty pages later. For example, my detective is TJ Sweeney, a decidedly detective-sounding name. Not until much later in the book does the reader learn that the “TJ” stands for Teresa Johanna.

Sixth, I make sure my main characters have names with different vowel combinations and different first letters. This makes it easier for the reader to remember which character is which. I don’t have a Sharon, Susan, Sandy, and Shauna in the same story.

turner-and-hooch-original-300x168Seventh, I believe a great way to introduce humor is to use a name to indicate what a character is or isn’t. In my small town of Endurance, the mayor’s name is Mayor Blandford.  And, yes, he is bland. I also include a character with a slobbering, ugly pet dog like the Bordeaux bulldog in Turner and Hooch. The dog’s owner named him “Adonis,” a name from mythology that symbolizes a handsome male. This dribble-mouthed dog is anything but.

Eighth, I often use names that reflect the history from the small town of Endurance, Illinois. Grace discovers that Endurance had a huge Swedish population in its past because she researches a story involving Gustav Swensen. In checking out his grave at the cemetery, she discovers Ahlstroms, Olofssons, and several other Swedish family names. In current Endurance, she drives impatiently along at 10 mph behind Nub Swensen, probably a descendent of Gustav, who doesn’t get the idea that 35 mph doesn’t equal 10 mph, a common malady in a small town, and one of this author’s pet peeves.

Ninth, I describe secondary characters with just a first or last name or the job they do such as “the janitor” or the “train porter.” The readers will not see them more than once or twice, so they don’t have to waste brain cells remembering them.

Tenth, I use different names for characters only if I make sure the reader understands what I’m doing. Otherwise, confusion reigns. Grace would call her friend “TJ,” but others would call her “Detective” or “Detective Sweeney.” Her boss, Stephen Lomas, might yell “Sweeney.” And just to vary descriptions, “TJ” can sometimes be referred to as “the detective.” But I  have to be careful not to confuse readers with multiple names.

When I first began writing, I assumed that character names could simply be anything you wanted them to be. Not so. You really have to consider all of these ideas when coming up with names for your creations.

Book Review

I just finished a mystery/thriller by a New York Times bestselling author,nyt courtesy victorfarmington someone whom I’ve read sporadically over the years, usually quite happily. This particular book is set in the 1980s but was published not long ago, so it’s not one of the author’s early works. Yet reading it was a slog when her technique and years of writing experience should have made it a slam-dunk.

We all know the phenomenon that happens when a book is truly good — time is suspended as we enter the magical world of another person’s  imagination.

Conceptual Books

Conceptual Books

We experience good writing on our most visceral level, all senses at full-throttle, our grey-matter molecules beamed directly into the author’s creation. For me at least, time flies by so quickly that analysis isn’t possible, not until I take up the novel a second or even a third time.

But when a book is disappointing, I immediately tackle it on a more intellectual plane, looking at it this way and that, mentally adding and subtracting elements that can either make or break a great read.

Examining the bad for hours on end but zooming through the good? Yes, it’s a formula that seems totally out of whack. In my defense, wonderful writing sticks to me, as it does to most wordsmiths. On the other hand, after I’ve analyzed the bad stuff up one side and down the other, it steals out of my memory and I eventually forget everything about it, name included.girlsplit2So, what did I get out of the best-seller I just finished? An what went so wrong that it became a chore to read through it?

First off, this was not a Turow type noveI, so there were no deep, byzantine currents swirling around. Most of my time was spent thinking about Plot, Characters, and Setting, all along very fundamental lines. For all three, I had a short and non-demanding laundry list of expectations. Here it is with my quick marks:

laundrylist8I really didn’t think I was asking too much, was I? In any event, here’s the explanation of my scores:

PLOT(noun) To Which I say PLOT! (verb)

Or in other words, it bordered on the tedious and was, with a few exceptions, ploddingly predictable. Definitely not bestseller quality.

That dynamite beginning? If the book hadn’t been by a Very Well Known Author, I would have quit after a few pages. Reputation and previous experiences with this author’s books compelled me to keep reading when the words didn’t.

There were negligible hooks at chapter ends, something that really bothered me. Maybe I’m spoiled.come to grief As a big fan of Dick Francis, I’ll admit to having analyzed every one of his 40 novels — in an earlier life. Today, I would enjoy and consume as rapidly as I could. (A factor of age perhaps?)

Anyway, Mr. Francis is a master at ending chapters with lots of shivers and rising expectations. One of my favorites is in COME TO GRIEF, where a series of bizarre horse mutilations has been unnerving the local equestrian community:

“In the days that followed, interest and expectation dimmed and died.  It was twelve days after the Derby, on the last night of the Royal Ascot meeting, that the screaming heebie-jeebies re-awoke.”

If I’d written this passage, I’d  be dining out on it for years.

Alas, my mystery/thriller had nothing in this league.

The scenes were okay, in the way of vanilla pudding, just tasty enough that you continue to eat it but nothing to get excited about. And I wanted to get excited. After all, this was supposedly a thriller.

But a big structural problem, which I put down to both missing chapters and missing character development, came with the insertion of a central character whose life was in the hands of the antagonist, a truly wicked man.snidely-whiplash-stikes-again  This character was a kidnap victim subjected to all kinds of devious, nasty torture; she was also trying to escape the villain’s clutches. (Good Thinking!) Despite this incredibly important role, she appeared in only three or four chapters, almost as after-thoughts.

Her struggle should have been a taut, eventful, thrilling, and suspenseful story line, but since she was only a shadow of the personality she could have been with stronger characterization and plotting, the story line itself was impossible to pull off.



Basic genetic material.

With a couple of exceptions, the remaining characters played out like fragile strands of DNA that refused to coil. Because I was looking for each personality to be special and memorable. I found myself urging on the characters throughout the book, trying to endow them with more than the author herself was contributing. The problem wasn’t that she failed to provide the basic genetic material — there were descriptions galore. And there was lots of showing as well as telling. But most of the time it just didn’t add up to a complete double helix.

The Real Thing, courtesy of

The Real Thing, courtesy of

The villain was a pleasant family man whose evil side was rarely depicted and never connected back to the nice guy we kept meeting page after page. His  raison d’être for being so awful was (deep breath now) an awful wife.

The female protagonist was an icky sweet school teacher. I mean really.

I loved the male protagonist — but then I always fall for the tall, dark, handsome guy, no matter how often I read about him. I actually started to buckle under for two of them as the author couldn’t make up her mind who was the lead dog, another character problem.

The children were more rounded, though they were overly simplistic and bordered on trite. A beautifully drawn child character is a gift indeed. But not here.

The gay friend was a gay friend, down to the pink shirt. And so on.

Characters who were better molded were made so by lines like this:

“Some days he found himself to be lacking impulse control, but whether that was damage to the frontal lobe or the result of fully realizing his own mortality, he couldn’t say. He was a walking, talking second chance. He had no interest in passing up experiences or putting opportunities off to a tomorrow that might never come.”

And this:

“He gave her half a smile. ‘Yeah. I’ve been experienced right out of normal thinking. I’ve spent a long time studying murderers and trying to figure out how they got that way and what makes them tick.’”

And this:

“’You should be dead.’

‘Yeah. But I’m not,’ he said with a shadow of the big white grin. ‘Life’s a funny old dog. Don’t take it for granted, kid.’”

All these quotes go to one character, the protagonist (sort of), the best developed of the bunch.

gitmo coverNow, contrast that with another book, a quirky thriller called GITMO that introduces the main character this way:

“Dixon Sweeney shaded his eyes and looked at a cloud, a little puffy thing hanging on the horizon. Maybe it was a sign, a memory moment of his first free breath in eight years. He picked up his cardboard box with the duct tape handle, all his possessions, and walked down the three concrete steps and out into the early-morning heat that dampened his body and stained the pits of his Goodwill suit.”

And this:

“The heat was overpowering and the mosquitoes were a torrent by the time the bus stopped in an open swale of dirt commonly used by protesters who gathered for executions. Sweeney picked up his box and climbed aboard. There were only a few riders, but he sat in the back, as far from anyone as he could. The free noises frightened him. Conversations confused him. Colors blinded him. And making any kind of decision was impossible. So he sat by the latrine and endured the stink and watched the miles roll by.”

And, later on, this:

“But Dixon Sweeny wasn’t about to be discouraged. In fact, he started dancing.

“He moon walked and he shouted and he threw his box of taffy high in the air. And even when the rain turned his black prison brogans into slapping seal feet, and even when all that water whipped the sandy berm into mush, he didn’t let up. He’d been gone so long, damn near a decade, and he missed his home and his wife and he jumped up and around like an idiot, in the rain, in the mud, in the dumb seersucker suit that was given to him as a guard joke that the mail room guys do to you. And he missed his wife, and his people and his house, and his wife…

“The rain shut down like a faucet, which made Sweeney stop, dizzy with exertion.

“He blinked. Across the street there was a brace of palm trees and a sandy trail. Beyond, through a cluster of sea oats, there was a glimpse of blue.

“He started running, kicking off his shoes, ducking under his string tie, yanking away his coat, ripping through his pajama-top shirt, tossing everything aside. He began hopping on one foot at the water’s edge, finally falling and rolling as the double-pleated seersucker pants split over his toes and his underwear disintegrated. He ran headlong into the sea, naked as a jaybird, babbling incoherently about his true love, his baby, the love of his life, a presence since he was born that had been denied too long—the sea.”

I almost don’t care what happens next – I’m just in love with Dixon Sweeny and his new love of life.

But I have to admit I was glad I read along to this gem:

“’What’s that?’

“’What’s it look like?’

“’Well, it looks like a Daisy, Spittin Image Peace Maker BB gun.’


“’Damn straight,’ she replied.

“’Miss Mazie, you wouldn’t shoot me. I’ve known you since I was yea big.’ He held his palm down by his knees.

‘’Thanks for reminding me,’ she said. Then she shot him in the dick.”


Lovely expansion of the Philadelphia Free Library. The Library’s extensive e-service is a boon to overseas Americans as well as those living in rural America.

GITMO is the product of the writing team of Shawn Corridan and Gary Wald and is available free if you have a Philadelphia Free Library subscription (which isn’t free — go figure — but is a nice subscription service to have just the same).

Getting back to this not terribly successful mystery/thriller, the rising action needed more yeast, the unsagging middle could have done with some support, and the strong, believable ending wasn’t. You saw it coming a mile away and it left with loose ends galore.

Which allows me to move on to SETTING.

The author chose to put the story in the 1980s, which intrigued me as I was actually alive during that time – and can remember it to boot. There was lots going on in the ’80s.



But beyond referencing “The Cosby Show” over and over and mentioning that profiling was in its infancy, the author’s version of the era was left largely undated by events, wardrobe or even technology. Granted, it’s hard to say there were no GPSes when in fact there were no GPSes, although the author did hint about DNA and fingerprint analyses that were on the horizon. Still, more than the mention of a hairstyle, TV show, or what might be happening down the road is needed to totally ground you in place and time, and failure to do that can affect the entire book. As per one of Randy Ingermanson’s best sayings: “Sell the World, Sell the Story.” Or, in this case, don’t — and don’t.

A nice succinct example of establishing setting can be found in KEY WITNESS by J. F. Freedman, when the protagonist, a high-powered lawyer who’s volunteered to work as a public defender for a year, surveys his office:

muskegon county public defender

Muskegon County Public Defender’s Office

“THE DAILY END-OF-THE-DAY summing-up and plotting out the next day’s work took place in Wyatt’s cramped, gothic-feeling office. The Hunchback of Notre Dame would feel at home here, he thought—but he had come to like it. He wasn’t so romantic about the situation to want to work out of these kinds of digs for the rest of his life; but for now, with this case, this was the right place to be. These were underdog offices. You didn’t entertain here, you didn’t impress, you didn’t schmooze. You brought your lunch pail to work and you did your job.”

A great lesson can also be learned from historical fiction, where the author must walk a fine line between assuming what the reader knows intuitively and through his/her general learning, and what must be explained. Here’s a great example of that in TAKE, BURN OR DESTROY by S. Thomas Russell:

take, burn“The bump and screech of gunports hinging up stole a little of Hayden’s breath. Apprehending the gunports opening, the French officers turned to shout the alarm, but their calls were lost in the shattering report of British eighteen-pounders. There was no reply from the Frenchman. Musket fire cracked from the tops as Hawthorne’s marines began firing at the men scurrying about the enemy’s deck.

“Immediately, to both left and right, the gun crews went coolly about reloading their carronades. Many were seasoned hands at this now, after their convoy to the Mediterranean. There was no hesitation or confusion, but only a well-greased axle, turning with precision and regularity. The balls and wadding were pushed in together. At the same time, the gun captain uncovered his lock, ran his pricker into the touch-hole, poured a measure into the pan, closed the lock, and pulled back the cock with two thumbs. The carronades were run out on wooden slides, and the gun captain made certain of his target and yanked the firing lanyard with a quick jerk.

“Hayden had stepped back from the rail, turned away, and covered his ears just in time. A tremendous explosion tore open the darkness, with the muzzle flash, and smoke plumed forth, blossoming up into a weeping night.”

Through this description, Mr. Russell not only sold me on the world but also involved me just a little more in the intricacies of his story.

Returning to the bestseller, it turned into a good learning experience at the end, but was also a genuine disappointment. No one, with the exception of students, perhaps, wants to read a bad book. And this was truly a bad book. With three strikes against it in Plot, Characters and Setting, crafting a successful story with the remaining elements would have been a tough go for anyone. Yet I admit to an element of reading to see if the chestnut could be pulled from the fire despite all the negatives.  Every now and then it happens. Sadly, this now and then, it didn’t.

Til next time,
~~Britt Vasarhelyi