Book Review: To Catch A Killer

To Catch A Killer

Sheryl Scarborough’s novel follows a teen girl, who as a toddler witnessed her mother’s murder, a horror that remains unsolved. Obsessed with that lack of resolution, Erin is drawn into the world of forensics, largely in part because her adoptive mother’s brother works for the FBI and authored a book on the subject. Her life is further complicated by an uncommunicative parental figure, a strong desire to learn the identity of her birth-father, and deal with the murder of her favorite teacher – the catalyst that launches the story. Tossed into the mix are her burgeoning feelings toward a boy who is a prime suspect and her relationship with two zany girlfriends.

The book felt like a contemporary spin on a Nancy Drew plot as Erin moves deeper into the gray areas of the law in her search for clues to both murders and her paternity. In a classic case of misdirection, suspects keep stepping to the forefront as Erin struggles to handle the full range of teen emotions that pull in all directions.

Though she faces danger on a number of occasions, the narrative never generates a truly palpable sense of peril, and the real culprit barely scores a menacing personality. Teen fans of TV shows like CSI will appreciate the forensics primer as Erin works through the evidence she accumulates.

A fun story even if it lacks strong emotional teeth.

Point of View (POV): Who’s Telling the Story Anyway?



Every writer has encountered the POV police, those nagging editors who tell you that you’ve violated the rules and gives you a literary slap on the wrist. The transgression – allowing two or more characters access to his or her own feelings or thoughts within the same scene, or worse – the same paragraph. Omniscient writers of the 19th and 20th centuries were masters of it, but the style has evolved into something much better. Today, we have scene or chapter shifts when writing in third person and alternating first person chapters as an additional choice. Violations of this sort contribute to an agent or editor thinking the writer is an amateur at worst or sloppy at best – neither of these things are desirable.

Rather than looking at these violations as something to avoid, writers should seek to capitalize on that element of craft. Use it! Get inside more of the characters’ heads. Let the reader see and feel what’s going on from the varied cast of characters who inhabit your world. The result will be added depth. After all, who likes to listen to a one-sided conversation?

Broadening the POV experience in a novel can create added tension and conflict; all the goodies that make readers turn the page. Any character in a chapter can be given dialogue, but consider what happens when you are in that characters POV, and the thought is not the same as what s/he says, especially if the character isn’t your protagonist. She might be saying I love you, but secretly thinking: I hate you, and I’m going to kill you. The reader now understands where she’s coming from, but the protagonist doesn’t. It’s like watching a movie knowing the killer is standing behind the door and the hero doesn’t. Instant tension. Readers love tension – give ‘em some.

POV is a direct path to characterization. Just as actions speak louder than words, so does what a person thinks, and in novels we get the luxury of knowing what that is. If your standing in a room of people, you have no idea what people are really thinking, only what they’re doing and saying, so use POV to flesh out your characters; all of them.

How do you avoid breaking the rule? First, practice and more practice writing will help. Second, before you begin to write a scene or chapter, take a moment to consider who the best choice would be in terms of moving the story forward and building conflict and tension. Once you’ve decided, then pretend you’re a demon and simply invade the body of that character. Every thought, feeling, and sentence that proceeds from that character’s mouth stems from the experience, knowledge, and education of that character. How and why they say and do things will be unique to that character, and that makes the story three-dimensional.

Don’t try to avoid the rule – grab it and own it.

Happy writing!!!

Theme: To Choose or Not to Choose…

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Every writer is ultimately asked:

“What’s your book about?”

“Oh, it’s about this guy who kills a store clerk and then tries to hide from the police.” The recipient of this information will give a nod of the head and then ask:

“Yeah, but what’s your book about?” This is the point where the writer suddenly has no words. Why?

It all comes down to theme. It’s the difference between writing a book that has a lot of plot: bombs going off, people chasing other people, innumerable twists and turns, and reading a book that lasts in the mind of the reader beyond the ten minutes after the book is finished. If you look up any of the cheat sheets like SparkNotes, there is always a treatment about the theme of a book. Some are very broad, like it’s about the forces of good vs. evil. Note: most books are in some way. If one were to write the story I suggested above (I haven’t) one theme I might suggest is that the story concerns how superficial facts are often taken as gospel without looking to the root causes. The perpetrator’s guilt is assured by the public because they simply read the initial facts in the newspaper. It’s still very broad, but it now speaks to a dire societal tendency. Now the book will become an indictment on how the forces of criminal justice and public media operate. The resonance of the book will carry much farther because it’s about something other than how the character ducks the police or the vigilantes at every turn.

Some writers go in with certain themes in mind; others just get the story down on paper first. Either way works, and I’ve used both approaches. In some ways knowing your theme from the beginning is an advantage because you can bear it in mind as you write, and seize the opportunity in the moment to strengthen the ties to your theme. But, here’s the really cool part. If you just sat and wrote from page one to page three hundred with no thought as to what your story is about beyond its characters and plots, you will have subconsciously introduced theme or themes into your story. That’s why revision can be so much fun. Put the finished novel away for a month and then sit down quietly and read it from start to finish. Read it as a writer, and look for what surfaces. In one of my novels I did just that. I told the story of a boy who goes through several traumatic incidents as he tries to deal with his mother’s murder. On reflection, I realized that I had introduced themes of social injustice, racism, and bullying into it with no forethought at all. On revision (so many revisions, including rewriting the entire novel in third from first person) I underscored these issues and strengthened passages with backstory, dialogue, narrative, and plot. The story that emerged was so much better than the first draft, or even the second and third.

One piece of advice: the literary approach to writing dwells significantly on character and theme, but don’t worry about this. Just write. If you have a theme, great, if you don’t, then just get the whole thing down first. It’s my personal belief that it’s possible to achieve a balance between literary and mainstream novel writing. Dan Brown is often accused of writing plot boilers, but if you really look at his novels, he deals with some very substantial themes like the subjugation of women and overpopulation.

To borrow a familiar iconic quote: if you build it, they will come. In writing, if you write it, the theme will come.

Happy writing!

© Vectorchef | - Character Boy Write Letter Theme Elements Photo

© Vectorchef | – Character Boy Write Letter Theme Elements Photo

Writing: Give yourself permission…


…an odd piece of advice, to be sure. Why would you need permission to write? Because you won’t succeed unless you do.

At its very core, writing is a solitary function. Not so much once you’ve completed a novel; at that point you will be sharing your work with beta readers, editors, proofreaders, agents, and hopefully a publisher. It won’t be so solitary at that point. The project itself, however, is a relationship between only you and your keyboard or, for some, a notepad. The permission you need to give yourself is to take that time away from friends and family. It means saying okay to feeling guilty about doing something for yourself, and not to be so vigilant about doing laundry or vacuuming or getting the car washed. Be a little selfish about understanding that anyone can get the chores done because only you can do your writing. I’ll repeat that: only you can do your writing. The expression of art comes from within; it is unique to the individual. Often, it requires taking that permission one-step farther, and it’s one of the hardest. You must learn to say no: no to invitations, no to watching an extra episode of a TV show, and no to friends and family on occasion because you must be faithful to the process of getting words down on paper.

I have also encountered another form of permission I needed to give myself. Story ideas circle like mad in our minds. While they’re tucked away up there, they remain safe. You remain safe from people thinking you’re a little bit touched in the head (face it – we are). Writers become fearful about bleeding their stories onto the page, as it becomes the evidence of our madness. Give yourself permission to write them anyway. I had a dream when I was about ten years old. Two of the characters in my dream were girls from school, but in my imagination they had morphed into leprechaun-like creatures, hell, they were even dressed in green. They virtually kidnapped me and brought me into their world. I still wish I could remember what went on during that part of the dream, but I distinctly recall them bringing me back at dawn and leaving me in the sunlit hallway of my house. I was frantic they were going to go away, because I wanted to go back. I woke up angry about losing my grip on the dream. I tried desperately to go back to sleep, but it was no use. That dream has haunted me most of my life. While it didn’t provide a distinct story idea, it did give me a sense of wonderment of the paranormal. Forty-odd years later, I did have a story idea, one that involved fairies and elves, but I felt ridiculous wanting to write it. Many people either love or hate the Twilight series, but I owe particular thanks to Stephenie Meyer. While reading her series, I recognized it was okay to put paranormal-esqe ideas into a novel. I’ve not felt funny about writing or sharing any subject since, because I gave myself permission to allow my imagination to produce a completely new world.

There are a gazillion forces and reasons, which prevent writers from writing. Be true to your inner passion and give yourself the permission to do whatever it takes to answer that call. Not every writer is destined to have a book or a short story published, but that has nothing to do with what’s inside. If you truly have the passion, if you actually feel resentful or annoyed when you’re prevented from getting those words out of your head, then write a permission slip to yourself and get to it. It’s the empowerment you need.