Tuesday, August 16, 2022

What We're Writing: Hank Takes A Risk






HANK PHILLLIPI RYAN:
So. I took a risk on THE HOUSE GUEST. Yes, a risk.

I decided, drumroll, that I would try something I have not ever done.

I would try, I challenged myself, to write this story from one point of view, in past tense, in chronological order, with no flashbacks or befores or fancy structure.

Just: tell Alyssa’s story the way Alyssa is living it. We know what she knows and we know it when she knows it. We know what she sees, and hears, exactly when she does. We know what she decides, for better or for worse.

Easy peasy, huh?

No way, Reds and readers! It was the most difficult book I have ever written.

No “earlier” or “before” to create a history. No other points of view to offer information or brand new settings or insight or dramatic irony.

We go where she goes, see what she sees.

AHHHHHH!

So difficult.

Here’s a bit of it. There are no spoilers, and nothing that will alter your reading of the whole book. And by February, you'll have forgotten this, anyway.

In this chapter, Alyssa is coming home from having a solitary drink in a hotel bar. And She’s met a woman called Bree. A woman who is running from something. Here's just a part of it.




Chapter 3


Alyssa fished her house keys out of her jacket pocket as she climbed the three brick steps to her red-lacquered front door. The forsythia flanking Alyssa’s flagstone front walk had gone from bare branches to flowering yellow almost overnight, and blooming crocuses made a ribbon of white along each edge, some blossoming brighter in the sudden glow of the motion-activated security lighting. The front steps, cleanly swept caramel-colored brick, were as pristine as when she had left them. 

One forsythia flower, the one she had carefully positioned on the center of the second step, was still there, as perfectly formed as when she had placed it. No one had stepped on it.

Sometimes, when the lights came on, she imagined that Bill had actually flipped the switch, welcoming her home. She imagined his eyes lighting up, too, when he saw her. Sometimes the loving memories of Bill emerged unbidden, the good Bill, and they threatened to engulf her. She would tamp them down, stomp them, destroy them. She could not allow that.

Those days were gone.

She thought about the woman in the bar. Bree. Whatever else Alyssa had to complain about, it was nothing compared to what Bree Lorrance had described. Hounding bill collectors, a harassing boss, and an abusive boyfriend who used the phone as a weapon.

Her key turned in the front door, and she clicked it open, the lights now on and the alarm clamoring. She tapped in the code. She’d changed it, in case Bill tried to sneak in. It had been his idea, the separation, so now he had to live with it.

He'd signed a legal agreement promising he’d only come to the house if he called in advance. Promises. As if Bill knew the meaning of that word. As if he cared about a piece of paper. As if he cared about an alarm. It was still, technically, his house.

She felt the silence. There were some times of day ––and night, especially night––when the house seemed to have a life of its own. Sixty-five hundred square feet, Bill had proudly told her. And anyone else who would listen. Which was everyone of course, he was Bill Macallen. They even laughed when he said size matters, as if that stupid joke was funny to anyone but a 14-year-old.

Those little things, things she had forgiven him when they were happy, seemed teeth-grittingly annoying now, pompous and even embarrassing. She’d never corrected him, though. She’d seen what happened when someone crossed her husband, a thing that once impressed her and now repulsed her. That was power. Only impressive when it was on your side.

Sixty-five hundred square feet. The living room, the movie room, the extra party room, and what Bill called the reception room, where long tables covered in white damask often served as bars or dinner buffets or arrays of fountains gushing dark chocolate with chefs creating dessert crepes to order, stuffed with fresh raspberry or lemon curd or brandied peaches.

Bill’s office-study, all dark rainbows of immaculately shelved books, with mahogany paneled walls and elaborate furniture. Bill thought it showed strength. Alyssa thought it showed arrogance.

Her glorious kitchen, restaurant-worthy and shiny with stainless steel, then the screened-in porch and redwood deck and, upstairs, an array of bedrooms and bathrooms. The pool in the back, randomly shaped like a shimmering turquoise island. Gardens, a changing cabana, and the guest house in the back. All that, and now it was just her, alone, in this expanse of terrifying excess.

She set her bag on the slim hall table, an act of defiance. Bill never liked her to put it there. Said it ruined the ambience of the entryway.

It was always Bill’s house, though he told her he’d bought it for her. For them. But, she thought now, more accurately, it was for Bill and his possessions. As it had turned out, she was one of them.

The ambience of the entryway. Bill words. So many things in the house were described by Bill words, Including herself.

She’d been Alice until the night they’d met—but he’d whispered she was “more like an Alyssa,” and persisted, even teasingly, intimately, introducing her as Alyssa, and soon she’d felt like Alyssa, too; glamorous, beloved, to the manner born Alyssa. And eventually she’d embraced her Bill words: her names, first and last. No longer Alice Westland. But Bill’s possession, Alyssa Macallen.

She’d loved it, once, as she’d loved him. Until the division. Or again more accurately, the subtraction. Her mother had warned her, in the days before she died. “Be careful,” Mama said as she’d clutched her daughter’s arm. Alyssa could hear it now, an evil queen’s menacing admonition. “If he leaves you, you’ll have nothing again.”




HANK: The House Guest comes out February 7, 2023. With blurbs from Lisa Scottoline and Tamron Hall and Lisa Unger and Wanda Morris–and more!--on the cover.

I am dying of nervousness.

Reds and readers, what do you think about this just-plow-ahead structure?

75 comments:

  1. Oh, goodness, Hank . . . . now I can’t wait to read the rest of Alyssa’s story!

    It’s seems a bit strange to know there will be no flashbacks, no other viewpoints as the story unfolds, but I think it will be quite intriguing . . . and a bit of an adventure . . . to learn the story exactly as Alyssa sees and learns it . . . .

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 16, 2022 at 12:59 AM

      I hope so! It certainly was an adventure for me :-) thank you so incredibly much!

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  2. This is fantastic, Hank! I can't wait to read more. I think the single point of view is fabulous. The reader can really be in it with Alyssa/Alice and feel everything she's feeling, and boy, she's feeling
    A LOT. I love it.

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 16, 2022 at 1:01 AM

      This is so enormously reassuring, darling Jenn, thank you so much. This is such a nerve-racking time! And what you said is so kind and thoughtful and wonderful… xxxx

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  4. I'm a bit surprised to read the beginning of this post. The first four of your books I read were written from one (first person) point of view in past tense (unless I'm remembering wrong about the tense) without any fancy narrative techniques. And I enjoyed the Charlie McNally series very much. But it has been a while, so it's nice to see you stretching your writing muscles in a new way.

    Since that's usually the way the books I read are written, I like it. I do enjoy more points of view if done well. I've got to admit, I find flashbacks to be a bit gimmicky at times and done well at others. It depends on the story being told. I feel like the multiple points of view and timelines is the thing to do now, so lots of writers are doing it whether it makes sense for the story they are telling or not.

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    1. I think Charlie was first-person present, but I could be wrong. But I'm with you - I don't know how different they are to me. You're still learning the storie as Charlie does.

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    2. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 16, 2022 at 8:57 AM

      The Charlie books were first person, present tense. Possibly that doesn’t feel different to you as a reader, but it is quite different as a writer.

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    3. From a reader's point of view, it is indeed a slight difference between present and past tense. But the rest of it? You've done it before and done it well. I'm sure you pulled it off again this time.

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    4. The only difference for me - as a reader - is that present tense books feel more "immediate" because the action is literally happening right that moment.

      I've never tried writing present tense in a novel. Just a piece of flash fiction.

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    5. Than you, Mark! And Liz, that's a great way to think of it.

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  5. First, I loved this forboding scene and can't wait to read the book. But I'm with Mark - I thought your Charlie books were written straight ahead like this, although they were in present tense, as I recall.

    I'm also surprised that you found this hard. I've only recently ventured into multiple points of view and for me it's harder, more complicated to write. Can you say more about why you decided to revert to a single POV and a chronological timeline?

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 16, 2022 at 8:59 AM

      I’m so amused by these reactions. The Charlie books were first person present tense, a very different way of writing and crafting and envisioning a story.. And doesn’t it prove that our brains all work differently, thank goodness.

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  6. Love reading different types of writing styles and I’m so glad you are trying something new. All of your books are amazing and I’m excited to read this one. Based on this chapter, it will be amazing as well!!!

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 16, 2022 at 9:00 AM

      Oh, thank you so much! I am applauding like mad… Thank you!

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  7. HANK: I love this scene of Alyssa returning to her huge empty house. Challenging or not, I'm looking forward to reading more of this single POV present tense book!

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 16, 2022 at 9:01 AM

      You are such a dear pal! I cannot wait for you to read it!

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  8. I also remember the Charlie books as being 1st person present. Was it much different to write a first-person past? Well, obviously since you said it was.

    Having written both alternating third person and first person (although both past), I can say both have their challenges. But I'm looking forward to THE HOUSE GUEST and I'm sure you did a fantastic job!

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 16, 2022 at 9:02 AM

      Yes, the Charlie books were first person present tense. Because you have written in both, you understand how astonishingly different that is. or perhaps it is only different to me. Which is all that matters during the writing!

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    2. It is somewhat different. For me, the biggest difference is that being in 1st person, Betty (and therefore the reader) CANNOT know anything that isn't right in front of her. I'm always asking, "Can she know this? How could she find out? Does she have to know it right now?"

      It's a very interesting technique. In my Laurel Highlands books, Sally can learn something Jim doesn't know - but the reader would. And vice-versa. It opens some doors, but leads to different challenges as well.

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    3. Exactly--that's dramatic irony! And why you as the reader can say--oh NO, don't believe him!

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  9. Wow. Bill is so creepy and repulsive! Alice/Alyssa probably has some secrets too. I'm excited to read it. I actually like novels that tell a straightforward story, whether in first person or with a narrator. If there are too many points of view, it can feel a bit disconnected.

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 16, 2022 at 9:03 AM

      Cannot wait! And yes, that is precisely what I was trying to convey. A linear chronological story, especially a thriller, takes away some storytelling and information tools that are effective for writing to use. So it was a challenging but incredibly rewarding exercise! xxx

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  10. Deep point of view rules! Can't wait to read it. As for entrance hall ambience: I have a narrow glass table piled with a week's worth of junk mail, dog leashes, and plastic bags. And a potted amaryllis bulb from Christmas living the life with three-foot green leaves.

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 16, 2022 at 9:04 AM

      Love this! And thank you so much. Yes, that is the key… How to get the intimacy of first person present with the necessary structure of third person close.

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  11. Here's to spouses who do NOT make you change your name, and then treat you like one more possession. What a creepy way to get introduced to Bill. I find myself hoping he gets what he richly deserves, Hank.

    As I've said before, a good story is a good story. The only way I notice viewpoint is when it goes horribly wrong. Other than that, I'm willing to go wherever the author takes me, inside any head, and in the past, present, and future, if necessary.

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 16, 2022 at 9:06 AM

      Thank you so much! Yes, I am too! I’ll never forget the time at a book event someone came up to my table, grabbed PRIME TIME and said, oh I have heard so much about this, I am so eager to read it! She looked at the first page, closed the book, and said oh. I can’t read this. It is first person present tense. I never read that.
      That absolutely still haunts me.

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    2. Hank, that person has such a limited view of reading! Don't let it haunt you! I'm pretty sure there are more of 'us'--those who, like Karen, read for a good story! Give us a good story and we don't care about point of view or tense--those crafty details that in the hands of a good writer make their story come alive for us!

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    3. Hank, please Dear, why should that haunt you? Obviously, she is an insensitive idiot, one you should not give space to in your head!

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    4. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 16, 2022 at 9:54 AM

      You are all such dear friends, and I am so grateful! Yes, it was quite a watershed moment… Talk about being in someone else’s head! A true revelation. But really showed me how sometimes our personal biases get in the way of enjoyment. And, as a writer, how —no matter how fabulous that book might’ve been :-) ha ha— she would not care, and she would criticize it. It really makes you look at reviews in a different way.

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  12. I love it Hank. Getting inside her head like this allows the reader to be fully part of the fear and the dread, and to be in the dark too, to be afraid, no all-seeing narrative, we’re right there in the trenches with our heroine. I’m no expert in POV but this was really exciting to read. I suspect it was exciting to write too? Thumbs up from me, Joyce W.

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 16, 2022 at 9:07 AM

      Oh, hooray hooray hooray! Thank you! And yes, you are right. It’s almost channeling, how close you have to get in the mind of the character. xxx

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  13. I can't wait to read this one and LOVE the cover! Judy Sheluk, who can't seem to get this site to recognize me!

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 16, 2022 at 9:08 AM

      Oh, thank you judy! So lovely of you! (And did you get my email?)

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  14. Hank, wow! What a feeling of menace that scene created. Alyssa, coming home in the dark, to that huge, empty house! Then we learn more about control freak Bill. Chilling! You nailed it, Hank! It is everything you wanted to accomplish, and I am so looking forward to reading the nail-biting rest of this!

    Did Alyssa leave the blossom on the step to provide a clue to whether or not someone had come inside? A better, less obvious one would be something like a bit of scotch tape near the bottom of the door. Although if he is very careful that might not be good either. A single hair, between the door and casing, might be best.

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 16, 2022 at 9:37 AM

      Well, thank you! So honored to hear this. And you are full of wonderful ideas! Next time, I know who to consult! Xxxx

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  15. The reader is going along with the ride from the get-go with this book. No map, no brakes, and we don't even know how much gas is in the tank--but here we go from page 1! It's a great way to write a thriller, Hank. It may have been challenging, but I guarantee that readers aren't going to clinically evaluate the structure of this book. They're going to be zooming around every curve that comes Alyssa's way, clutching the dashboard and our hearts occasionally, until she reaches her final (triumphant) destination.

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 16, 2022 at 9:39 AM

      Awwwww thank you! And that is so wise of you. And the goal is to have the story structure disappear inside the story, so the reader is unaware of any of the mechanics. But that’s why we can talk about it here on Jungle Red!

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  16. I'm intrigued. Thanks for sharing.

    I admit, I also thought, "But ... Charlie?" Then again, those of us out here in Readerland suspect Charlie shares a lot with Hank. ;) My take on Alice/Alyssa is she's just different enough to make getting into her head, let alone finding her voice, challenging.

    BTW, I really liked you showing us your antagonist/villain. This is what she's up against. Mr. Keeping Up Appearances with an Iron Fist and a Machievellian Brain. He even shares a name with a fancy Scotch whisky. It all plants possbilities into my brain he may have powerful friends in important places owing him favors. Stacking the deck against our girl.

    Very exciting!

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 16, 2022 at 9:52 AM

      Oh, so wonderful to see you! Hooray! And thank you so much for the kind words. Yes, revealing Bill through Alyssa’s perception of him is interesting, too, isn’t it? And fun to write. Because… What if she’s wrong? All we know is how she thinks of it. Just saying.
      But yes, it was for fun to write, once I got in the swing of it. third person past tense is very difficult for me! Xxxxx

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    2. "What if she's wrong?" Ooooh! =:-D Oh, the possibilities! :)

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  17. Hank, this is a brilliant scene! If I was teaching a class on show not tell I’d use this! I love how you make the reader believe one thing before they begin to realize the truth! Love it! Creepy!
    XxxxxRhys

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    1. Oh, Rhys, that is so kind of you! And oh, Reds and readers, please do not miss Rhys' brilliant interview on A Mighty Blaze! She was featured on LIT CHICK, which is Blaze's big marquee program. Wanna watch? Here's the link: https://www.facebook.com/amightyblaze/videos/1161627821052198

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  18. Hank, this excerpt makes me want to read THE HOUSE GUEST sooo much! As to switching from multiple points of view to one, it's a big change, and scary!

    I believe it's important to keep switching things up and to keep growing as a writer, and I suspect this is the sort of change most readers won't consciously register - it will just give them a slightly different experience than the last book, which is exactly what you want. As a wise Random House editor once told me, readers want the same, only different :-)

    Also, in my reading, I've noticed multiple POV and flashbacks are pretty standard for domestic suspense novels. Playing with that structure also gives readers a newer, fresher version of the genre they love to read.

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    1. Oh, I never thought about single POV being "unusual" for domestic suspense, but (as always) you are SO right! Thank you!

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    2. I’m one of those readers who definitely notices changes in the
      writing structure of books. The multiple POV can work in a story, if we’ll done. Hank you do it extremely well, but many authors have a problem with the multiple pov writing structure. I don’t read domestic thrillers in a large part because the multiple pov writing structure gets in the way of the story too much for me. I’m taken out of the story and observing the structure and why I don’t like it. I’m looking forward to reading your new book.!
      Susan Nelson-Holmdahl

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    3. Oh, Susan, yes. If you notice the structure, it's not working--I keep trying to make it seamless, and invisible. (except when the author has a reason for noting it, as in the completely fabulous WRONG PLACE WRONG TIME by Gillian McAllister. That's all about noticing the structure, and it's incredible.)

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    4. I will check out Wrong Place Wrong Time! I’ve been running out of really good books to read. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  19. Hank, I cannot wait to read this--it just sucks you right in. And I so admire you trying something that feels challenging to you. I've never written a third person single narrative with no flashbacks and it sounds scary but fun.

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    1. Yes! It makes you see so clearly all of the narrative tools you are giving up...xxxx

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  20. I prefer reading third person past tense, though I have loved your books written from first person POV and present tense. A good story is a good story.

    I loved the excerpt (and the earlier one you shared with Alice/Alyssa in the bar.) Beginning to feel the tension rise with each sentence. And getting the sense of what a menace Bill might be. But wait - then there is the house guest, and we know something is coming, and it isn't good. Can't wait to read it. Thank you for crafting stories that provide many hours of delight. You can imagine all of us curled up in a comfy chair with your book and be pleased you met the challenge of a single POV.

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    1. Aw, thank you, JC! And that is a wonderful mantra: a good story is a good story. SO true!

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  21. I love this excerpt. It’s filled with suspense, and the descriptions make me feel as though I’m right there in the scene with her. It doesn’t seem at all like this is the first time you wrote a book this way! It’s going to be a long wait to get to read the entire book!

    DebRo

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    1. YAY! Yes, it will be a bit...It's interesting for me to feel the metabolism of when my books are published change a bit, you know? But February will be amazing! xxx

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  22. I love this POV! And your gorgeous details make me see this enormous house in my mind so beautifully. I cannot wait to read the entire book. I’m curious as to why you chose to write just one POV for this book.

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    1. Well, thank you! And that's a great question! I guess I wanted to see how a linear construction worked--and it allows me to get into Alyssa's head, to BE her, and only go forward, just like real life.

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  23. This excerpt really makes me want to read the book. It pulled me right in.

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  24. My books have multiple points of view and, starting with the second one, flashbacks, and I've found these devices very convenient for getting a story across. So I can see why limiting yourself to a single viewpoint would be difficult. But, judging from this excerpt, you've certainly made it work. And, as Debs says, it's impressive that you've given yourself this challenge. Plus, now you can create a unreliable narrator, and your reader can't figure that out from other points of view. Clever!

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  25. Thanks for the sneak peek. I'm already hooked! (BTW, just finished "The Murder List"... yowza.)

    As a TV/screenwriter, everything I write is always in present tense, and I've come to realize that my brain actually prefers the past tense in novels. I suppose it feels less like I'm reading a script (which is work for me), and more like pure entertainment.

    I believe you mentioned on a recent CrimeTime that you'd started dictating your first drafts... did this influence your decision re: the changeup in POV/tense? Just curious. And speaking of creative challenges, I wonder if anyone's ever written a mystery/thriller/suspense novel in 2nd person, a la "Bright Lights, Big City"?

    Best of luck with "The House Guest"... off now to change my locks.

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    1. HA! Yes, I think TV writing ha a profound effect on my novel writing--it's very natural for me to write in present tense. To learn how to write in third, I honestly had to keep saying to myself: Once upon a time... And, ridiculously, it was really helpful. The dictation, nope , I did that before. (and I am still doing it.)
      And second person--I THINK I remember hearing about something..but I forget what it was. Anyone, anyone? There's a little of it in Dwyer Murphy's brilliant AN HONEST LIVING (highly recommended!) but they are more like asides in an first-person narrative.

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  26. Hank, I'd never really thought about the challenge of writing from a single POV in past tense, but now that you've pointed it out, I can see just how hard that could be. I'm always happy to have alternating chapters for characters giving their view of things, as it does so help to connect the dots. With only one character providing all the essential information, that gets tricky. However, the one thing of which I'm certain is that you, Hank, can meet that challenge. I can't wait to read more of this story to see just how you mastered it. The excerpt is so tantalizing, and I already like Alice/Alyssa. At first thought, you would think a man wanting you to change your name would be a huge red flag, but I can see how she might have bought into the flattery of him imagining her with a more exotic or sophisticated name. This is going to be so good!

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    1. Oh, so wonderful of you! xx Crossing fingers! Thank you!

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  27. Love it. Now I need to know what is the deal with Bill?

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  28. Interesting Hank, that you say you're cutting out the flashbacks. However, what do you call the snippets where Alyssa thinks back to how arrogant and controlling Bill was, how it was his house; and how he re-named her from Alice to Alyssa etc. etc Those are all thoughts going back to her past with her husband. Are they not flashbacks? Or do you call those backstory??? And what is the difference? I think this is a topic for one of your craft blogs either here or on your Career Authors website. It would be almost impossible to write a psychological thriller without reference to the past. The past has to come in some way, somewhere, whatever you call it. No????

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    1. Great question! To me, a flashback is: you're in the present, and then, bam, the story stops, and you go to another time altogether, and the story advances in that time, as "live" action, but before the present. A memory is just that, a thought about the past that passes through the mind of the CHARACTER, but the forward motion of he action does not stop. It's a way to tuck in backstory, like what happened to her name. But we are not IN the past with her, she is remembering it in the present. Does that make sense? And yes, that's a great topic!

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  29. Already intrigued. It draws you closer to the main character while still thinking ‘Is she evaluating the situation correctly?’

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    1. YAY! That is exactly what I was hoping. Thank you! x

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  30. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 17, 2022 at 12:50 AM

    Good night everyone! Sweet dreams, love you and thank you…xxxxx

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    1. Hank, I love that you stopped in and wished everyone a good night. It's 12:20 a.m. here and I'm headed to bed to read for a bit. Sweet dreams to you, too.

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  31. I am so excited to read The House Guest, Hank! Sounds fabulous!

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