One of my favorite childhood reads was “Grover and the Monster at the End of This Book.” In the story, Grover the Muppet begs the reader not to turn the pages because he’s heard there is a monster at the end and he’s afraid. The shocking twist is that lovable old Grover is himself the monster at the end! I was thinking of this kids’ classic the other day while reading advice on how to craft a memorable villain. Your book’s monster, according to this advice, should be a reflection of the hero. But what does this mean?
Sometimes, it means that your protagonist and your antagonist share the same flaw, especially at the beginning of the story. Maybe they are both stubbornly independent and believe themselves to be uniquely gifted. The villain, however, ends up using his or her powers for evil, whereas the hero overcomes this flaw to band together with others to defeat the villain.
It also means that your villain should have roughly the same power as your hero. There’s a reason Sherlock Holmes goes up against Moriarty, a cunning antagonist who is a worthy foe for someone as brilliant as our iconic detective. It’s also the reason you so often see superheroes fighting some ‘bad’ version of themselves in comic action movies. If you’re a Hulk, then it’s not interesting to see you fight a bunch of little guys. Instead, you get to tango with a tricked-out, mean-tempered version of yourself.
This doesn’t mean that every protagonist/antagonist needs to have literal super-human powers. It just means their skillsets should be evenly matched, whether that’s an actual army or the ability to spread gossip through a small town.
A memorable antagonist should also bring out a unique side of the hero. In the Hulk example, the Hulk is both a villain-fighting hero and a kind of antagonist for Bruce Banner. He forces Banner to wrestle with relatable human problems like controlling one’s temper but also keeps Banner from living the normal existence he often craves.
Another strategy is to give your villain and your hero the same goal or dream, which puts them in natural competition. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert has two primary antagonists—Quilty, who also wants Lolita, and Lolita herself, who wants to get away from Humbert. Giving your hero and villain a shared goal can be a way to flesh out your story as the reader may be forced to question whether the villain or hero’s strategy is the best one. For example, you could argue that Danny Kaffee and Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men have a shared goal of protecting U.S. troops, but they have very different ideas about what that protection looks like.
All of this is to say that, unlike Grover, your hero won’t find himself literally at the end of the book. But he or she should find a part of themselves, a new understanding that the villain is uniquely designed to precipitate.
If you, like me, spend any amount of time watching true crime shows, then you will notice a pattern among the victims. They are all perfect. They lit up every room they entered. They had the winning-est smiles but no shirts on their backs because they’d already given them to the nearest person in need. Even if, as the story progresses, we find out that the deceased experienced some trouble in their lives (an affair, a drug or alcohol addiction, a termination from work), we are told that they were just in the process of getting their life back on track when they were cruelly cut down by murder. Cynical viewers comment that the producers must think we won’t care about justice for a flawed dead person.
Having been a TV producer for a time, I know why we get these glowing testimonials from the victim’s loved ones: they are to humanize the deceased, to try to bring them to life and give them a voice in a program that is otherwise focused on their role as a dead body. I get it. I do. There’s a sameness to the reports, though, that serves to undermine their purpose. The victim loved life. Loved her family. No one would ever want to hurt him.
Except, of course, someone did.
One of my current favorite programs is See No Evil, which uses CC footage to piece together events after a murder or other heinous crime. There is minimal lionizing of the victim, perhaps because we get to see them for ourselves on the grainy footage. They visit ATMs, feed the parking meter, pay for gas.
A recent episode featured Edward Lowry, a man found savagely beaten and stabbed to death on a street in South Dakota. Ed’s friends and family offered up the usual backstory of what an amazing guy he was—how helpful, friendly and outgoing. Then the cameras traced Ed’s actions leading up to his death. He’d received a promotion at work, we’re told, and he went out to celebrate. He visits a couple of bars, drinks a beer or two. In between, we follow his distinctive, robot-like walk through town as he’s caught on security footage from banks, pawn shops and the like. By the end, you feel like you would know his figure anywhere.
The cops talk to the bartender at one of the places Ed may have visited. She says he wasn’t in. The cameras show he was there, bellied right up to her bar for a good long time. She served him but didn’t remember him. At the time she’d talked to Ed, he was no one special.
Ed sets out again past midnight, loping toward home. We know he doesn’t get there. A group of young men happen across Ed and decide to jump him and rob him. We see them fall in behind him, stalking him, and we want to yell out for Ed to run. Change course before it’s too late.
The three thugs took Ed’s life for just $200. Afterward, they’re shown celebrating with treats at a gas station convenience store. The cops close in for their own kind of score.
I’m left with other questions at the end. Why, if Ed was so surrounded by loved ones, was he out celebrating alone? Maybe they were all just busy that night. After all, they couldn’t know. They didn’t know it was the last time Ed Lowry would stride through town with his leather jacket and bandana and unusual walk.
All of us are walking that same path that Ed Lowry did. Something is out there, waiting to jump us, we know not when or where. See No Evil shows us a glimpse of those last minutes, lets us see the person going about their mundane lives at the Kwik-Mart and the bank, and that’s when we know the truth: murder victims aren’t perfect. They’re just regular.
We just happen to be watching when they walk off camera one last time.
This week, The Vanishing Season launched into the wide world, and I am profoundly grateful for all of the support I’ve had along the way. I am especially grateful this morning for readers who are willing to take a chance on a new author. There are so many books to choose from, and time is precious, so we newbies are unspeakably delighted whenever someone gives us a read. In that spirit, here are three 2017 crime novel debuts that are a treat for your eyeballs:
The Dry, Jane Harper
If you haven’t yet picked up this winning debut by Australian author Jane Harper, then run right out to do so. It’s the story of Federal Agent Aaron Falk who returns to his hometown after a long absence to attend the funeral of his once-close friend, Luke. Amid the worst drought in a century, Falk investigates Luke’s death and reluctantly addresses the buried secrets that bound him to his friend. Atmospheric and compelling.
See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt
Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel is a reimagining of the Borden murders of 1892, which captured public imagination when their daughter Lizzie was accused of the crime. The book is told by four people: Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the maid Bridget, and an inscrutable stranger named Benjamin. Lizzie’s guilt or innocence continues to be a source of debate years on, and Schmidt uses that uncertainty to clever advantage in bringing to life one of history’s most famous unreliable narrators.
My Sister’s Bones, by Nuala Ellwood
Kate is an investigative journalist working in war-torn areas like Iraq and Syria. She returns home for her mother’s funeral and must deal with her sister Sally, who has developed a problem with alcohol. The first night home, Kate is awakened by a terrible scream… This book packs a wallop as it explores multiple kinds of trauma, from the kind born of a rough childhood to the PTSD that results from covering wartime atrocities. The survivors here are doing the best they can to make it through the day, even as several of them harbor dark secrets.
Whew! Last week I enjoyed an amazing whirlwind of activities surrounding the launch of The Vanishing Season. I have to stop myself from screeching in joy whenever I see the book on the shelves now. The Brookline Booksmith was kind enough to host opening night, where a good crowd showed up to see if I would make a fool of myself babbling in front of an audience. I managed not to say anything too embarrassing and we all got to enjoy cupcakes in Speed Bump’s honor. All credit to Dessert Works in Norwood, MA for these beauties, which tasted as good as they looked!
The whole week was just a blur of excitement and I wanted to share some highlights with you before I lose the details in a Christmas haze.
As much as I enjoyed Bump’s cupcake cameo, I was even more thrilled that Shannon Kirk, Elisabeth Elo, and Hank Phillippi Ryan took time from their busy schedules to come to the launch. These three talented writers are some of the loveliest people to know. They have been amazingly generous to me with their time and wisdom. Not only do I get to enjoy their terrific books, I now get to call them friends as well. How lucky am I?
My favorite part of launch week was all the friends who came to visit! My longtime friend and editor Amanda Wilde zipped down from Toronto to hang out for the full week. We don’t see each other in person very often so this was a rare treat indeed. My other friend Jill came all the way from Minnesota, and it was so great to see her, too. I talk online to these ladies all the time but it’s not the same as seeing them in the flesh. Michelle Kiefer drove up from Connecticut to hang out with us, and it was like an old-fashioned slumber party, only you talk about books instead of boys. But the biggest surprise was my friend Robbie McGraw who came all the way from Los Angeles and didn’t tell me she was coming. Everyone else knew but me! It was the greatest surprise!
Night two saw us at the Canton Library, where I talked about some of the research into serial killers that I had read about for my book. Criminologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists have studied serial murderers for decades. Unfortunately, much of what they have learned has not translated into better ways to catch these guys. It’s great to know that serial killers are more likely to have wet the bed as a kid, but when you suspect you have a serial murderer loose in your community, you can’t exactly round up all the childhood bed wetters. It’s a definite conundrum!
On night three, I went to New England Mobile Book Fair to attend the 6th Annual Mystery Gala night along with about 40 other writers. The inimitable Tess Gerritsen received the Robert B. Parker Award for her astounding ability to craft wonderful characters and intricate plots. She also played the violin for us because she is just that talented. I got to catch up with some
mystery writer friends and to make some new ones. Somewhere in there I managed to convince the lovely and talented Lisa Gardner to buy my book! She is funny and wise and I enjoyed talking with her more than I can say. Many thanks to New England Mobile Book Fair owner Tom Lyon for hosting this terrific event!
Now I am recovering from all these terrific events and working away on book two. And shopping. Must get to that Christmas shopping…
One question I get asked a lot by my super supportive friends and family is how best they can help me in this new mystery-writing endeavor I’ve got going on. Maybe you, too, have an author in your life whom you would like to support! If so, please read on for these top tips.
Buy the book. Purchasing a copy of the book is always the best way to help out because sales are what publishers consider when weighing whether to give the author another chance to publish. If you don’t happen to like the topic or concept of the book, perhaps buy it for a friend or relative who would enjoy it.
Where should you buy it? Does it matter? You should buy the book wherever it is easiest for you to do so. If you have lots of options, consider buying from your nearest indie store. Indie booksellers do a lot to support local authors, and we like to give back any way we can. If you’re buying online, Amazon is the best way to go because they are a giant in the bookselling industry, and higher sales mean greater visibility on the Amazon platform. This means other readers are more likely to discover your author friend’s book!
What if I can’t buy the book right now? That’s perfectly okay! There are still many ways you can support your author friend. You can ask about their book at your local library. Librarians take note when customers inquire about titles. You could also recommend the book to your book club or post about it on your social media, if you feel so inclined. Most people find their next reads through recommendations from friends, so anything you can do to “pass it on” would be much appreciated by your friendly author.
Attend a local book signing with your friend. The most common number of attendees at book signing events is around four. Your author would love it if you showed up to a signing because they will be desperate for a friendly face!
Wait, should I leave a review? Where should I leave it? Asking for reviews from friends and family can be tricky. If you honestly really enjoyed the book, then yes, it would be lovely for you to leave a review. The most helpful place to review is probably Goodreads because it maximizes the chances your comments will be seen by other readers. Amazon reviews are helpful too, but Amazon frowns on friends-and-family reviews and will sometimes strip reviews from a book if they detect a relationship between the author and the reviewer.
Finally, please humor us as we prattle on about our books and how excited we are. We sometimes get carried away like parents of a newborn. Smile and nod, mentally update your grocery list as we fret over galleys and covers and deadlines. We promise we’ll shut up eventually…at least until the next book comes out.
No artist enjoys negative reviews, but they are an inevitable part of putting your art out into the world. In the immortal words of author Chuck Wendig, someone is going to hate your book so much that they would film themselves feeding it to a weeping zoo animal. (“I hate hippos and I hate this book! Eat the book, Mr. Tub-Tub! EAT IT!) There’s no question that the negative reviews can sting, but did you also know they are incredibly helpful to you, the author? No, I’m not high, and I’m not kidding. Here are three proven benefits to those one-star reviews:
They legitimize your positive reviews. If you have a book that has 25+ reviews on it and they are all glowing, readers will assume you are gaming the system. Maybe you aren’t! Maybe every one of those reviews is genuine, but readers are suspicious when they see only praise for a book. They presume the author’s friends and family rallied in support. But if you have a few negative reviews in the mix, then readers know your book is “out there in the world” and they are more inclined to trust the good reviews.
It means your book has reach. Not every story is meant for every reader, and this is actually a good thing. It means that the people who love aliens but hate sci-fi can find books to suit them, and those who crave a mushy romance can find those stories without stumbling over a bunch of dead bodies. But if you are going to reach the maximum size of your desired audience, it means your book will sometimes bump up against the borders of that readership—that is, it will fall into the hands of a reader for whom it is not intended. “I hate ghosts and this book was full of them!” If you aren’t seeing at least a few of these reviews, it probably means your book hasn’t expanded far enough within its target audience.
It helps your target readers and your book find each other. People read one-star reviews to find out what might turn them off about the book, and one person’s squick is another person’s kink. “This book has vampires in it? BRING IT ON!” or “People complained about the sex and violence in this story, but I totally dig both of those, sometimes both together! I am buying this book right now!” Similarly, it helps keep your book out of the hands of too many readers who wouldn’t like it. They know to avoid your book and buy something else, thus saving you even more one-star reviews down the line.
So there you have it. One-star reviews are actually helpful when it comes to marketing your book. What they are NOT helpful for is aiding in your growth as a writer. Unless you have a lot of negative reviews complaining about the same thing (rotten grammar, weak endings, etc.), then reader advice is not likely to help much. Reader reviews are meant for other readers, not you, the author. If you skim negative reviews for any published work, you will usually see that the reader complaints are all over the map, often contradictory, and thus it would not be possible for the author to address them all. So take them with a grain of salt and maybe a large glass of wine (because they still sting, after all!), and be grateful that your book attracts reader passion.
I write mystery novels, but when it comes to figuring out who your readers are, “mystery novel” alone won’t cut it as a designation. Is it a classic mystery in the style of Agatha Christie or a suspense tale ala Mary Higgins Clark? Or maybe it’s more of a noir? It might surprise you to learn that there are more than a dozen subgenres within the broader category of “mystery,” and they each have their own conventions and diehard fans.
One of the conversations I had with my editor about The Vanishing Season concerned the level of gore in the story. It involves a serial killer who likes to cut off people’s hands, so there are some definite icky moments. However, most of the violence occurs “off screen” and there’s no detailed discussion of bloodshed or viscera. The question facing me and my editor was whether to leave in references to the killer’s dastardly deeds or remove them in case they turned readers’ stomachs. The decision would slant my book in one direction or the other: keep the serial killer creepy stuff, and the book sits with dark stories, leaning toward thrillers; or remove any references to a hacksaw and plant the book closer to a traditional mystery. Hmmm…what to do?
If you are aiming for the largest audience, make your book a cozy or a traditional mystery. These are both classic types of mystery that can feature official investigators (ala Columbo) or amateur detectives (ala Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote). The fun of these books is in their characters, their settings, and the puzzle at hand. There is often a murder but it won’t feel too dark because the victim often deserved what was coming to him and the crime itself is not detailed. There are no long passages lamenting man’s inhumanity to man or musing on the darkness of the human heart. Rather, there is more often humor and enjoyment in watching a likable sleuth figure out the twisty solution.
Suspense and thriller books tend to be darker in tone, with an omnipresent sense of foreboding. The main character is in danger from a known or unknown threat. These books often have elements of mystery to them, but in some ways, suspense is the opposite of mystery. Tension in mysteries relies on the reader not knowing the identity of the perpetrator. By contrast, suspense books may even reveal who the Big Baddie is fairly early on, and the tension comes from what next horrible thing will happen to the hero and how he/she will defeat the villain, e.g. Behind Closed Doors. Descriptions of agonizing deaths or other macabre developments are not unusual in suspense/thriller stories.
As you can see, the reader experience varies dramatically between these categories of “mystery,” and if you want one kind and get the other, you may be disappointed. Books have to delivery on reader expectations. Thus, the question for me and my editor boiled down to: what kind of book are readers expecting from The Vanishing Season? Given that the central premise involves serial murder—a killer who hunts for sport—it did not seem like the story would ever fit neatly into the cozy or traditional mystery bin. On the other hand, readers who are drawn to tales of serial killers actually want to hear some of the gruesome details. Watering down the creepy factor too much risks alienating this group.
So…in the end, the minor descriptions of severed body parts stayed in the book. It’s a mystery/thriller at heart, and I hope it delivers as such!
Ah, fall, when the air is redolent with the scent of woodsmoke and new pencil erasers. The kids are back to school today, and we somehow have a third grader. I swear she just started kindergarten yesterday. But no, amazingly she is eight and I can hardly believe it because eight is a significant year in my memory. It’s when I decided I wanted to be a writer. (Spoiler alert: it’s going to take more than three decades to accomplish this goal.) More than that, though, age eight feels contiguous with who I am now. That eight-year-old and me, man, we’re the same. I look at my daughter now and wonder if she will experience eight the same way.
She sometimes wants to be a writer. Sometimes a chef. Also sometimes a rock star. These days she spends a lot of time making up plays for the neighborhood. The latest one is called “Me and My American Ninja Warrior.” (It is hilariously misspelled “My American Ninja Worrier” on some of the fliers.) The story involves a girl named Amelia who leaves her country home to become the first female to fight in the army in a great war for truth, justice and freedom (the opponent here is somewhat murky, but it’s men who are telling her no and she is standing up to them). When Amelia’s mother begs her not to go, Amelia demurs, saying, “My home is the battlefield now.”
What is most interesting about this play is that she and her friend next door have conceived a second role that shadows Amelia and plays her inner self. Eleanor performs Amelia’s outer actions, while the friend gives her inner thoughts. There is a prescient tune (yes, it’s a musical…) in the first act where Amelia is musing on how society asks her to behave one way but what she really wants is to be valiant in battle. It includes a line about how “my insides sing a different song.”
I find it amazing and inspiring that these eight-year-olds are already wise enough to listen to their inner voices. I hope they sing loudly and proudly, this year and every year.
I’ve spent a lot of time this year learning about how authors connect themselves to their work. You are supposed to figure out the parts of your personal story that intersects with your fiction and this overlap becomes part and parcel of your “brand.” So if you are a late-in-life divorcée and so is your heroine, you would emphasize this relationship to underscore your authenticity. To prove that the story is rightfully yours.
In mysteries, authors often draw on personal experience as some form of investigator. Archer Mayor, who writes the popular Joe Gunther series, has worked as a death investigator for the Vermont State Medical Examiner’s office. Lisa Scottoline, who’s penned many award-winning legal thrillers, spent years working as a lawyer before turning her talents to fiction. Hank Phillippi Ryan, who writes terrific page-turners about female investigative reporters, is an Emmy award-winning investigative reporter herself. These writers clearly know their stuff!
So when the publishing director asked me in a hopeful voice about my background in criminal law, I had to admit the truth: I’ve watched a lot of Law & Order. Oh, I’ve also done a lot of other homework and research, but I’ve never worked as a cop or lawyer. My experience at police stations is purely recreational.
No, the part of The Vanishing Season that belongs to me is the ugly side. Like Ellery in the story, I was sexually assaulted at a young age (in my case five years old) by an adult neighbor who said he would kill my family if I ever told. So I said nothing for a long time. Eventually, I turned to books to help me process what had happened to me. I started checking out books on rape from the library at age eight, both fiction and non, looking for a roadmap forward from those who had been through it before me. These stories were tremendously helpful, a real lifeline. You’re not alone, they told me. It will be okay.
It is okay and I have a lovely life, with a husband and daughter who is now eight years old herself. She knows only vaguely the kind of predators that lurk in the world, and I hope she can retain that innocence as long as possible. I’ve learned from experience, however, that there are many others out there who have lived through the same kind of agony I endured. I know because they’ve written to tell me so. For years now I’ve told fictional stories that touch on sexual assault in one way or another, and in return, I’ve received real, heart-rending tales from women who say yes, me too. One woman was awoken one night by a man who climbed through her bedroom window with a knife. Another had an uncle protected by her extended family even as he spirited her away into the basement for regular “private time.”
Like me, these women are relieved to find stories that verify their own experiences. We’re not crazy. We’re not broken. It wasn’t our fault. But this brand is just that—burning and permanent, a mark put there by someone else that fades with time but never quite goes away.
I’m working a story about a murder that takes place on a university campus. The leafy grounds of higher education might not seem like they would be a popular spot for murderers to hang out, but I’ve got personal experience that says otherwise. My academic pursuits have brushed up against three infamous murder cases—each lurid enough tales to be fictionalized on programs like Law and Order and Cold Case. In the first one, I lived in the same dorm with Gina Grant, a young woman convicted at age fourteen of murdering her mother.
In Gina’s telling, her mother was an abusive alcoholic. In the prosecution’s version, Gina resented her mother’s interference in her relationship with her boyfriend. The boyfriend was also convicted in the murder of Gina’s mother, although he didn’t arrive on the scene until the woman was already dead. Gina had originally been bound for Harvard, but they rescinded their invitation when they discovered her crime. No murderers are welcome at Harvard, it would seem. Gina ended up instead in my biology class at Tufts University, where she behaved like any other student. We’d had meetings prior to her arrival where university staff explained that we should treat her no differently and that we should not talk to the press about her. Notably, however, they did not assign her a roommate…
Meanwhile, despite Harvard’s best efforts to keep its campus free from homicide, they did have a murder that year, when Sinedu Tadesse stabbed her roommate, Trang Phuong Ho, to death and then committed suicide. Tadesse was lonely at Harvard and apparently clung to her relationship with Ho. When Ho decided to stop living with Tadesse and instead wanted room with a different group of girls, Tadesse fell into rage and despair.Before the murder/suicide, Tadesse mailed a photograph of herself with an anonymous note to the Harvard paper with a note saying, “Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving this woman.” Then she stabbed Ho forty-five times and hanged herself in the bathroom. In an odd postscript, Trang Ho’s sister Tram ended up in Gina Grant’s class at Tufts.
Then I moved to Yale, where we had an unusual student in our neuroscience classes named Tonica Jenkins. Unlike most graduate students who were eager to make friends and study hard, Tonica presented as standoffish, almost paranoid, and didn’t seem prepared for class. She didn’t seem to take the classes seriously and she bailed on exams. When a fellow student’s car got scraped up by a key, there were whispers that Tonica had done it.
The university investigated and discovered Tonica’s perfect 4.0 grades on her transcripts were a lie. Jenkins had not only forged the transcripts and letters, but she didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree. Yale sued Jenkins for the $15,000 in stipend money they had paid her. During the hearings, Tonica sent pictures of herself to Yale in which she appeared bound and gagged in the trunk of a car. She said the dean had done it to her. We couldn’t believe we’d sat in class next to someone this crazy! No one believed her story about the kidnapping, and she was ordered to repay the money she had defrauded from the school. Amazingly, though, this proved only the beginning of Tonica’s life of crime.
Tonica was later arrested for attempting to purchase cocaine. To avoid these charges, she hatched a plan to fake her death by murdering another young woman. With the help of a male cousin, Tonica grabbed a woman who resembled her off the street. For two days, they drugged the woman, Melissa Latham, with crack and marijuana. They also took her to the dentist under Tonica Jenkins’ name to establish a dental record so that Melissa’s body would be identified as Tonica. Tonica’s plan was to murder Latham, burn her body, and dump it in an abandoned building. She would then assume Latham’s identity.
The plan went awry at the point Tonica and her cousin tried to kill Latham. They beat her with a brick until she pretended to be dead, at which point she escaped and ran next door to a KFC restaurant. Tonica was eventually convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Finally, I have no idea if I’ve crossed paths with murderer #3 or not because the culprit has never been caught. While I was living at Yale, an undergraduate named Suzanne Jovin was stabbed to death one night a couple of blocks from my apartment. Just prior to this, witnesses had seen Suzanne in downtown New Haven, and it’s not clear how she made it across town in fifteen minutes. Her boyfriend was out of town at the time, and police could find no one with motive to kill Suzanne. They zeroed in on her thesis advisor, who lived in the area, but intense investigation revealed no apparent link between the two outside of class. The suspicion alone cost James Van de Velde his job.
Someone must have picked up Suzanne and brought her across town, probably someone she knew. Then they murdered her out in the open on a city street, not that late at night, in an area crammed with students. The odds that someone would witness the crime were high, and yet no eyewitness has ever come forward. The case remains open and unsolved.
A few weeks ago, a Northwestern Professor was arrested for murder after the body of a young man was found stabbed to death in his apartment. I didn’t know this guy, but my colleague did. “He seemed like such a nice man,” she said with amazement, and that’s the thing about university murderers: they have to pass as normal at least long enough to assimilate. They could be your teacher, or the kid living down the hall in your dorm, and they look perfectly ordinary…the same as you or me.