Friday, August 31, 2012

From our sponsor...

Cuban Dagger is getting some good reviews. Check it out, and also the bargain-priced Atlanta Bones, the first in the Jim Dallas series of Florida thrillers. You can read a free sample of each either at or at And if you like them, I'm currently writing the third, Eden Feint.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Dialogue Tag -You're It!

He Said, She Said
(and why they shouldn't hiss)

As writers, we're apt to become hypersensitive to repetition. "He jammed his foot on the accelerator and accelerated." And we're quite likely to go through and change words to avoid this unfortunate chiming effect.

Rightly so. However, certain words are what I have heard called "furniture" in sentences. They don't attract the eye and can be repeated without much fuss and feathers, and hardly any reader would notice.

Did the three "ands" bother you just then?

Unfortunately, writers sometimes get allergic to the word said. We have to use it all the time in dialogue tags - "he said" and "she said" and so on.

You can tell when a writer has become hyper-aware. That's when you get sentences like:

"You can't be serious!" he exploded.

"But I am," she hissed.

"Well, that just disgusts me," he riposted.

The cure is much worse than the disease. An occasional use of an odd word for effect is fine, but if someone hisses, for heaven's sake use sibilants in the dialogue: "She's so sweet," Lola hissed.

Another tip: don't use a tag for dialogue unless it's a verb that indicates a sound. Not "I think you're teasing," he smiled. Instead: "I think you're teasing," he said with a smile.

Go easy on them, though. "I hate you," she snarled. Little bit of that goes a long way.

Other alternates are simpler than you think. If there are only two speakers, you can sometimes just alternate lines of dialogue for a stretch, but be careful. In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway an early editor made a false line break in dialogue, which resulted in a radical change of attitude in the two waiters holding the discussion. Wasn't caught for fifty years.

Otherwise, here's a neat solution that also supplies narrative drive: couple dialogue to some action the speaker is performing:

Dale jerked his head around to stare at the sky. "What's that?"

Again, don't overdo it, but action/dialogue helps the reader imagine the scene and see the stage business your characters are performing.

And when you have to, don't hesitate to fall back on "said." And don't trip over the furniture words.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Space Enough and Time

Space Enough and Time

I know, that's not what Marvell wrote, but it's what I want to discuss today. One thing that new writers sometimes fail to do is to make clear the surroundings of the characters and the time flow of the story. It's frustrating for the reader, and a little attention should be paid.

For instance, if three characters are in a room having a conversation, readers like to know their spatial orientation. Are two sitting or standing close to each other in a supportive or confrontational way, leaving the third out of the equation or pushing the third to the edge of the scene? Worth knowing.

How is a room oriented? I read a story once in which the protagonist and his wife were awakened by the morning sun streaming through their bedroom window (singular) and into their faces. A few chapters later the wife, wondering where her husband is, stands at the same window watching the sun set behind the hills.

That bothered me. Decide on the details of the locale. Sketch them out if need be. Keep the orientation in mind as you write.

And keep track of the characters' relationships to each other. It's a simple thing to write "Jessie sat nervously in the chair, waiting for the doctor's news. When he came in, Dr. Lanyard didn't speak until he was in his chair, with the broad expanse of his desk between them."

Or "Dr. Lanyard came in and reached for Jessie's hand. He gently pulled her to her feet and gave her a commiserating smile."

The placement of the characters helps determine the emotional content of your story.

Similarly, keep track of time. Editors used to go quietly but thoroughly nuts over mentions of the moon. A full moon in one chapter and a first-quarter moon in the next means that time must have passed...but if the writer has just fouled up, that may throw off the time line of the story. Me, I download a calendar for the year in which the story is set (I know, though I don't tell the reader) and consult it for moon phases.

If you don't outline - I do, but some writers can't stand it - at least write out a time line for your story, so that the days of the week pass in some semblance of natural order. Ditto for the passage of hours. I've seen stories in which characters have brief conversations that in real life couldn't last more than three minutes, but the writer treats it as though it lasted two hours. Distracting.

If you use flashbacks, make that clear. It also helps to tell us how far back we're going: "Frederica recalled that day three and a half years earlier when the dog dug up the human skeleton...."

Is there a rule? I suppose it could be summed up: "Keep the geography, the characters' spatial relationships to each other, and the flow of time clear. And don't screw up your moon phases."

Thanks, by the way, to Reb McRath for suggesting this topic!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Senses of Life

Senses of Life

Too often new writers produce prose that skates the surface of life without giving the reader anything to make the scene feel real. A skill that writers must teach themselves is to write with the senses.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Most of us can do pretty well with vision, because we humans normally depend heavily on sight. 

Imagine a world in which dogs write poetry. Think of all the similes for smell you'd find in a shepherd's sonnet. Dogs depend on their noses much more than we do. In fact, when we want to describe an odor we're pretty much confined to a limited number of descriptors and to comparisons. Taste is similar: how many things taste like chicken?

And it can be overdone. You want to strike a balance between presenting sights, sounds, textures, temperatures, odors and tastes that bring your imaginary world to life - and drowning the reader in a sea of minutiae.

Nothing is much duller than freight-train sentences overladen with modifiers: "The gloomy, shadowy, spooky alley, gleaming with rainfall, stretched into deep black darkness, cluttered with bulky, heavy, stinking trash cans arranged in staggered, crooked, irregular lines where greasy, fat, disease-ridden rats scuttled and chittered."

You gotta be selective. The details should be well-chosen. They should be the spice, not the main course.

When I was trying to liven up my own writing, I set myself a task: at least once on every page I would refer to a sense impression that wasn't visual. However, I wouldn't devote more than three lines to any single impression.

Of course I sometimes broke the rule. Hey, I owned it, I could break it.

But little touches lift the reality of a story:

"He got out of bed and crossed the floor, the old wood cool and rough under his bare feet...."

"He picked up the bait can, the peculiar odor of earthworms strong in his nostrils...."

"She sipped the wine, cool and astringent and faintly sweet...."

"The thunder rolled so close that it reverberated in her bones...."

Eventually you won't have to remind yourself to toss in a detail once a page.

Eventually you will spot just the right section of your story where a telling sensory detail will bring your world and people to life.

It takes practice, but every prose writer can learn to do it.

Hey, it's just common sense(s).

Monday, August 27, 2012

What's Next for Dallas?

What's Next for Jim Dallas?

Adam Stowers has been convicted of killing his wife. Trouble is, his attorney insists, he's innocent. Someone framed him.

Jim Dallas isn't sure about the case. Then he meets the dead woman's beautiful sister, and he agrees to look into the question. She attracts him - not because of her looks.

It's because of her well-developed desire for revenge.

The third Jim Dallas thriller is coming before too long. Meanwhile, check out the first two, Atlanta Bones and Cuban Dagger. Both are available for Kindle at and for other e-book formats at

Get to Know Your People

Characters: Get to Know Your People

Stories are about people. Even if there are no people in the story.

Huh? Hey, did you ever see Wall-E? For the first half of the movie…no people. A few images of them on an old tape, sure, but no people as characters.

Well, but wait, you say. Wall-E and Eve are sort of like people.

Exactly. They have personalities, so an audience can relate to them as though they were people.

Stories are about people.

Beginning writers sometimes have trouble with that. They don't get to know their people well enough before they launch into a story. Take the time to learn about them.

You don't want the reader to be unsure who a character is. Raoul? Have we met him before? Oh, yeah, he's almost like Guiseppe. I can't keep them straight…

Uh-uh. Each character, major or minor, should in some ways be individualized. This especially goes for the protagonists and second leads. Take the time to work out their histories. You're the writer. You should know more about the characters than you ever tell us.

So make the basic decisions: the character's gender (and gender preferences, if that matters in the story); physical description (age, height, weight, hair color, eye color, build and physical condition, some idea of facial features); place of residence, job, marital or dating status and so on.

Then…ah, then. Begin to think about the character's background. Parents, birthplace, siblings (if any), schooling.

Not nearly done. Now think about the character's values. What is the character's most treasured possession, and why is it so precious? What is the character's greatest fear? Why? What is the character's fondest wish—if he or she could summon a genie, what would be the request?

Get close to the bone. What is the character's greatest need? Does he or she realize this is so vital? What obstacles would stand in the character's way of satisfying this need?

Now write out the character's biography, making it as short or as long as you're comfortable with. Act the role of your character. Find some goofy online personality tests…and fill them out as your character. Think about minutiae: How sould the character answer the phone? What kind of shampoo does the character prefer? What lies has the character told, and to whom?

When you get under the skin of this person you've created, you may be able to write about him or her. But you have to get there first. If you can't believe in the character, how can the reader?

Ross MacDonald (Kenneth Millar) said something that I thought was profound. Asked if his detective Lew Archer was in fact himself, he said, "Lew Archer is not me . . . . but in a way I am Lew Archer."

Invest your character with that kind of belief. Now you're ready to begin a story.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Three Beginners' Mistakes

Three Beginners’ Mistakes

Occasionally, aspiring writers ask me to read their work. I don’t like doing it because all too often they want praise, instant success, fame, and fortune instead of criticism. What they get from me is usually criticism.

However, I notice some very common mistakes showing up over and over. If you want to write a story, let me hit three of the most common ones that you should avoid.

  1. B eginning at the wrong spot. I know, I know, you’ve developed this tremendous backstory for your protagonist. But don’t dump it all on the reader at the very beginning. Don’t start by listing a dozen names of people who are going to be important. Don’t start before the story starts. And the story starts when your protagonist is challenged and acts. You can drop in the backstory later on. Get things moving right away, and keep it going.
  2. Holding back too much information. If your main character is a squirrel, not a human, let us know pretty darn soon. If the character is not male but female, let us know. This is almost the opposite of number 1, but it’s equally annoying. I once read a story that went on for ten pages of description of a place and activity before the writer even mentioned that the main character was present. People like to read about people. Get your characters on stage.
  3. Yakata-yak. “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t go on and on about what a great (or evil) person your protagonist is. Let the protagonist do and say things—and let the readers make up their minds about what kind of personality disorders they might have. Don’t stay too subjective. Don’t go into detail in narrative about your protagonists’ hopes and dreams and fears. Have the protagonist demonstrate these through action and dialogue. And don’t have long static talking-head conversations that ramble without point. Keep on task.

I’ve been guilty of each of these from time to time, but I do try to educate myself to weaknesses and to watch out for them. Remember, writing is not an idle activity, but a process. No one can teach you to write, but you can learn to write by observing your own work, considering it critically, and determining to learn something each time you begin a new story. Experiment. Keep what works and develop it and get rid of the weaknesses—and the beginners’ mistakes.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

R.I.P. Neil Armstrong

R.I.P. Neil Armstrong


MSN has just announced the death of Neil Armstrong. I remember him as a hero.

We need more. Farewell, Neil. Safe journey.

The First Two Books

Meet Jim Dallas....

Atlanta Bones is the first in the series of Jim Dallas thrillers and the follow-up is Cuban Dagger. Both are available at for Kindle and at for other e-reader formats (including .pdf, if you’d like to print out a paper copy). Both offer free previews of the books.

Atlanta Bones introduces Jim Dallas, former Atlanta policeman now forcibly retired, far too young, because of injuries he received when two men tried to kill him—and did kill his wife Susan. 

In this outing, Bethany Sandridge, also from Atlanta, asks Dallas to find her presumed-dead husband’s body, lost at sea somewhere in the Florida Keys. Until she can prove he is dead, you see, she does not have immediate access to his fortune….

We also meet Sam Lyons, bulky and intelligent, who becomes Dallas’s right-hand man and instant source of incidental knowledge. Sam also retired young (his choice) from a position as investigations director for a major insurance firm, mainly because he couldn’t stomach the formality it required. Now he wears only Hawaiian shirts, the gaudier the better.

The second entry in the series, Cuban Dagger, begins when Lyons asks Dallas to help him investigate the disappearance of an eighteen-year-old girl, Judy Hampton of Miami, who vanished while celebrating her 18th birthday in Aruba. 

Dallas is pessimistic, but he does pick up the girl’s trail . . . and becomes involved in a criminal scheme that crosses national borders, with an unimaginable betrayal, and with a deadly assassin who favors the knife as a weapon.

Reviews for Atlanta Bones:
"The prose is elegantly tough, the settings are perfectly rendered, and the action's down and dirty...."- Reb McRath, Amazon review

"The writing style is right on the money...think John D. MacDonald, Carl Hiassen, and especially the easy wry style of Nelson DeMille....But the best thing, at least for me, is I feel like I've just made a new friend. And I can't wait to read about his next adventure." - Gary Kim Hayes, A Sense of Wonder blog

"Filled with mystery, suspense, and even unexpected humor, Atlanta Bones is a riveting read." - Lamar Waldron, Amazon review

Reviews for Cuban Dagger:
"Great and vivid characterizations for both heroes and villains" - Saskie, Amazon review

"The reader is the true winner in this dark funhouse ride of a book." - Kimberlyhdm, Amazon review

And number 3? It’s in the works. Stay tuned.

-Ken McKea

Friday, August 24, 2012

“I want to write!”

So many people want to write. What does it take?

For one thing, I believe, it takes a goal. It is not enough to want to write. You must want to write a story.

That means learning what makes up a story. It looks simple: a bunch of people who do interesting stuff. Believe me, it isn’t simple.

You want characters who seem real, who are believable. You want them to act like real human beings—which means that you cannot create cardboard cut-outs who get pushed here and there by the plot.

The plot. Oh, yes, you want a plot. That means you want your characters to do things and to have experiences, but it also means they must do these things and have these experiences for good and sufficient reasons. They may not even be aware of these reasons, of course. They may learn, as most of us do, as they go along.

Needing a plot means you also need a conflict. Your character has to need something and need it badly. Not just want it or wish for it—have a deep and unceasing need. What is the something? Could be survival. Could be love. Could be a million dollars. Could be a burger with fries.

However, to the character, at that moment, the object of need must be the most important thing in life.

Your character can’t satisfy this need easily or without effort. Indeed, the character’s efforts should make the goal harder to reach, not easier. Elizabeth is prejudiced against the proud Mr. Darcy, so her need for a loving husband is made keener. Jim’s sneaking ashore with the pirates is supposed to let him spy on Long John Silver—but he winds up separated from his friends and (so he believes) hunted by men who want to kill him.

Don’t make it easy. Make it hard, and then make it even harder. Your character has to be broken to an extent before he or she can begin to mend. Huckleberry Finn has to decide that he’s ready to go to hell for Jim before he can help Jim reach the heaven of freedom.

The character must change, maybe for the better, maybe for the worse. In some fundamental way the events of the story must change the character.

If you want to do that—if you want to write a story, then can you do it?

Of course you can. Whether you can write a story that others want to read—well, I don’t know, and probably you don’t either. That takes a few things, too, and as we go along, I’ll probably want to write about them.

Feel like writing a story?

 Jim Dallas #1: Atlanta Bones

"After what everyone I knew insisted on calling the accident— though I'll be damned if I can see what was accidental about two men deliberately shooting me and leaving me to die in a burning house —  the police shrink had cautioned me about losing the skills of socialization."

So says Jim Dallas in Atlanta Bones. Since that traumatic day he has healed and has retired to Cady's Island, Florida, a place difficult of access and quiet enough to allow some serious brooding.

A woman he knows slightly, Bethany Sandridge, asks his help in finding her husband, or more accurately his body. He was lost and presumed drowned in a storm somewhere in the Florida Keys. "I want you to find him," she says. "Find his body. Find his bones. Because he's dead out there somewhere.

Dallas does his best. See how he does. You can read a free sample of Atlanta Bones in a Kindle version at or buy the book for Kindle there.

Or for other e-book formats, you can similarly sample the book or buy a copy at


So. This is new to me.

I hope I’ll have a few things to say about my writing and about my reading and about life in general.

I hope some of them may interest you.

This is the beginning. I want to mention my series of thrillers, set in Florida and featuring Jim Dallas, a cop who has been through…too much. Retired and on a disability pension, he lives on Cady’s Island on the Atlantic coast of Florida. He gets bored easily, though he does have something to live for.

For the next few years, anyway.

Dallas wants to keep his skills sharp. And he doesn’t object to doing favors for those who need them. Sometimes he even does them for pay.

He has only one close friend, Sam Lyons, tall, bulky, and good-humored. Together they learn they make a good team for righting wrongs that others have committed maliciously (even though, sometimes, legally – technically speaking).

Here I’ll keep you up to date on the cases Jim Dallas takes on and will offer color commentary on the process of writing. I also may offer my opinions of other writers and my observations on the brave new world of e-publishing.

Stick around. Enjoy the ride.

-Ken McKea