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Pull back the curtain and see how a suspense writer puts the thrills and chills together.

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Welcome back, dear readers.

Thanks for spending some of your precious time off giving me a helping hand. Initially, I was very confident about the tone and voice of my new novel. I loved the beginning, and thought I started in a good place–plenty of action, but still slipping enough info about the protagonist that you got to know her.

However, after my retreat in the Catskills, I began to doubt myself. I started to rewrite the book in a much darker, serious tone, but now I’m worried it’s too cold.

I’d love to know what you think! Please read both excerpts, and tell me which one you like best. Both versions begin and end the same…it’s the middle that makes all the difference. Please ignore the lack of formatting in the second excerpt…I believe the blog is too long, so it’s acting up on me.

Excerpt One:

I never believed in ghosts.

I’d seen enough horror among the living to bother with the dead. Closets inspired no fear in me. I could walk by a bed without thinking about something seizing my ankles. Darkness was a place of dreams—not nightmares—and the only eerie whispers I’d heard were the wind.

If you’d asked me about it a few months ago, I would have told you I was the type of person who had to experience something in order to believe it.

I know better now.

I lifted my head with a gasp, heart pounding. It took me a moment to remember where I was. Posters of fossils and Egyptian pharaohs added jolts of color to bleak walls. My face felt wrong, pinched together on one cheek. Raising a shaking hand, I removed the Post-It note that had stuck there. The jumble of take-out containers that surrounded me was what finally clued me in. I’d fallen asleep at my desk again.

You are at work. No one wants to hurt you. The conflict is over.

Sweeping the paper cartons into the trash, I glanced at my watch. Ten-thirty. I’d been sleeping for at least two hours. The new exhibit was opening soon, and there was plenty I needed to get done. It would have to wait until tomorrow. After the dream I’d just had, I would be no good to anyone for a while. Rwanda. I was back in Rwanda with the little girl I couldn’t save. I’d wanted so much to save just one. The love I felt for her still hurt.

I walked through the darkened galleries before heading home, flicking off the lights as I went. There’s something peaceful about a museum at night. The aroma of old paper and wood, so many artifacts with stories to tell. You can’t hear them in the daytime hours, over the sounds of the screaming kids and their admonishing parents, but you can hear them at night, if you listen. My heels echoed on the tiles.

The mannequins in the Hall of Costumes glared at me through eyes of glass. One was a child, holding tight to her mother’s hand. It reminded me of my dream—the last time I’d seen the girl. She reached for me, arms flailing, when the Red Cross nurse pulled her out of my arms. The nurse’s name was Terry, and she’d been harried but kind. She assured me that she was the child’s best chance of survival, not an impulsive young reporter with no resources and a brutal case of malaria. Sixteen years ago. That little girl would be almost twenty now…if she were alive. Did she ever think of me? Did she wake up from the same dream? Her name had meant Hope. Maybe that had been enough.

I left my favorite gallery until the end. We called it Old Town, and it was one of the Manhattan Museum of Man and Nature’s most popular attractions—a walkthrough diorama recreating New York at the turn of the 19th century. Planks of weathered wood formed a boardwalk that wrapped around the buildings.

A cold wind caressed my neck, and I shivered. I stopped on the boardwalk for a moment, trying to detect where the breeze was coming from. There shouldn’t be a draft here. Is there a door left open somewhere? Then I heard it—footsteps on the boardwalk behind me, followed by a creak as the old planks protested.

I whirled around, expecting to see the museum’s ancient security guard behind me. I wanted to laugh with him and give him shit for scaring me. But the boardwalk was empty. No one was following me, although I was positive I’d heard someone.

Must have been my imagination. I was always spooked after a nightmare about Rwanda. Now I was hearing noises that weren’t there. Post-traumatic stress syndrome. That’s what the doctor said. I shook it off. There is nothing wrong with you. You had a bad dream and you’re jittery, that’s all. It could happen to anyone.

It wasn’t only the draft, or the sound itself, that gave me pause. The boards under my feet had shifted, as though from pressure. And then there was the smell…a girlish perfume, sickeningly sweet. I’d smelled it before—maybe I’d worn it in my younger days. Anäis Anäis? Exclamation?

Walking through the galleries no longer seemed like a good idea. I was too wired. I needed some sleep, some good sleep. Passing out at my desk hardly counted. I’ll follow the boardwalk out to the lobby. In the morning, I’ll laugh at how silly I was. I picked up the pace, hurrying through the diorama while I tried to convince myself that there was nothing to be afraid of.

I wasn’t a journalist anymore. No more jungle surrounding me or guns pointed at my face. I was a PR hack for a dying museum filled with dead things, the type of person I used to hate. I was the barrier between you and the person you want to talk to. This was my life.

This time, I felt it coming up behind me before I heard its steps. The boards shifted under my feet. My arms were gooseflesh.

I whirled around.

Nothing.

I was alone.

But as I stood, staring into the darkness, I heard it again.

Someone in hard-soled shoes was following me through the gallery.

Someone who wasn’t there.

Excerpt Two

I never believed in ghosts.


I’d seen enough horror among the living to bother with the dead. Closets inspired no fear in me. I could walk by a bed without thinking about something seizing my ankles. Darkness was a place of dreams—not nightmares—and the only eerie whispers I’d heard were the wind.


If you’d asked me about it a few months ago, I would have told you I was the type of person who had to experience something in order to believe it.
I know better now.
*  *  *  *
The reporter squeezed my arm hard enough to hurt, her long nails pinching the sensitive skin on the inside of my elbow.
“Did you hear that?” Her eyes widened, and I bit back a smile, despite the fact that my arm was throbbing.
This had to be the best idea I’d come up with so far—promoting the museum’s haunted reputation in time for Halloween. Plenty of people swore they’d encountered an apparition in our galleries, so why not take advantage of it? God knows we needed all the help we could get. The Manhattan Museum of Man and Nature was months away from its fiscal year end, but already I was hearing rumors of layoffs.
“I’m sensing something,” Mildred said. Mildred was our psychic for the evening—a brainstorm inspired by the ghost-hunting reality shows currently flooding the airwaves. No team of spook hunters was complete without some medium muttering in the background about the spirits of little girls and so forth. Since I didn’t know any real psychics per se, I’d hired Mildred, an unemployed actor who was willing to do the gig for an honorarium and a free lunch. I’d asked her to camp it up a bit to ensure the cameraman came away with some interesting footage.
But not too much. I didn’t want the paranormal researcher to catch wind of this harmless prank. He would leave in a huff if he suspected anything wasn’t kosher. He followed a step behind Mildred, sweeping his probe through the air, frowning with concentration. When Mildred proclaimed that she was “sensing something”, Michael rushed to her side, sweeping his apparatus around the room, waiting to see if his sensors beeped or whirred to indicate an unworldly presence. Often as not, the machine lit up like a Jack O’ Lantern. Not only was Mildred a great actor—she appeared to be having some luck in the psychic department as well. (At least, enough to satisfy Michael, who agreed to participate only when he was assured that “the medium wasn’t a quack”. The irony of this was not lost on me.)
“This is where many of our staff members report seeing a ghost,” I said as we neared a deserted 17th century ship. The reporter tightened her grip on my arm. Jill had been excited about our ghost hunt for weeks, but as night fell and we turned off the gallery lights, her mood changed. I could feel her trembling, and although she was known for her melodramatic tendencies on-air, I didn’t think she was mugging for the camera. Jill Watson was freaked out.
“Rita, why don’t you tell Jill your story?” I asked. Rita had been a security guard at the museum for five and a half years, and she was a constant source of ghost stories for my press releases. When she started telling her tales of terror, even I’d believed them. With her sincere manner and guileless face, it was impossible not to, until she confided that the mannequins in the museum’s Hall of Costumes often spoke to her. I’d instructed her not to repeat that particular gem, but the others were fair game.
Rita put on a great show for Jill and her cameraman. I envisioned how fantastic my security guard’s terrified expression would look in night vision. This was going better than I’d hoped.
“I was doing my last walkthrough at around ten p.m. when I noticed a woman coming through the gallery…right there.” Rita pointed to a spot a few feet from where we were standing. Jill had recovered her sensibilities enough to stick a microphone into Rita’s face, and the reporter nodded encouragingly, urging her to continue. With the light of the camera illuminating the scene, the vast gallery was eerie. This would be great publicity for our Halloween programming.
“The museum had been closed for hours, so of course I was concerned,” Rita continued. “I followed the woman, and told her the museum was closed. That’s when I saw that she…she wasn’t an ordinary woman.” Rita’s voice lowered until it was nearly inaudible.
“What do you mean?” Jill asked, forgetting to move the mike, which was still pointed at Rita.
“She wasn’t dressed like you or me, for one thing. She had on a long, flowered cotton dress, with a bonnet hanging down the back…it was like something from….”
“Little House on the Prairie?” Jill suggested.
“Yes, exactly like Little House on the Prairie. When she saw me, she started walking faster, until she turned that corner right there—” Rita pointed in the direction we came from. “And vanished.”
“Vanished?” Jill raised an immaculately groomed eyebrow.
“Yeah, she was gone. There was no trace of her. And as you see for yourself, there was no way she could have gotten past me. It’s a dead end.”
“But what about the other guards? They must have seen something…?” Jill indicated one of the many security cameras, which should have captured a full frontal of Rita’s phantom.
“Not at that time of night, uh-uh. I was here alone, and when we went over the tape the next day, there was nothing on it. It was like she didn’t exist.”
That was a tad close to home. “Quite a few other staff members have reported seeing her, too,” I said. “They call her The Pioneer.”
That eased whatever doubt the newswoman had about Rita’s veracity. “I felt something when we started walking down here,” Jill admitted. “It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and I felt like someone was watching me. I thought I heard something, too—remember, Jo?”
How could I forget? My arm burned where she’d sunk her talons in. It was a wonder she hadn’t broken the skin.
“Do you have enough, Brian?” she asked her cameraman. I’d thought his name was Brad, but each time she came to the museum it was with a different videographer. I’d given up keeping track of them.
Brian managed a grunt that must be cameraman code for “yes”, because she handed him the microphone and took my arm again. The camera’s sungun switched off, plunging us into darkness.
“What’s next?” Jill asked.
“I thought we’d go where people have heard the spirits of children crying.” I was referring to an area of the museum called Old Town, a walkthrough diorama that represented New York at the turn of the 19th century. As we entered the pitch-dark gallery, Mildred went into her spiel about the spirits who were summoning her. Michael swung his equipment in the air on cue. Brian jogged ahead to capture the action, leaving Jill and I to bring up the rear of our ragtag little group.
With only Rita’s flashlight to guide us, we concentrated on not maiming ourselves on the wooden boardwalk. I was relieved that Jill had worn sensible shoes for her midnight tour—she wouldn’t have survived the trek in her usual four-inch heels.
A cold wind brushed past my bare neck, and I shivered. There shouldn’t be a draft here…Then I heard it—the sound of footsteps on the boardwalk behind us, followed by a creak as the wooden planks protested.
The three of us whirled as one. I expected to see another security guard sneaking up on us, but no one was there. Rita raised her light so we could see farther, but the boardwalk was empty.
“Weird,” Jill said. Her laugh was shaky. “What was that? Some mass hallucination?”
“Must have been,” I agreed, but I wasn’t troubled. It wasn’t so much the breeze I’d felt, or the sound itself. The boards under my feet had shifted, exactly as they would if someone walked behind me. And then there was the sweetness of pipe tobacco.
“I don’t like this,” Rita said. It took some encouragement, but at last she swung the light forward again.
I could no longer hear Mildred musing about the spirit world, or the plaintive beep-beep-beep of the paranormal motion detector. The three of us were silent, hardly daring to breathe as we made our way along the boardwalk.
This time I felt his presence before I heard his steps. The boards shifted under my feet. My arms were gooseflesh.
“Light,” I yelled. Rita whipped her flashlight around, illuminating the path behind us.
Once again, nothing.
But as we stood, staring into the darkness, we all heard it.
The distinct sound of a man in hard-soled shoes, following us through the gallery.
Footsteps of a man who wasn’t there.

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19 Comments

  1. Cigarista

    I like the second better because of the dialogue. The first one, however, felt more suspenseful and tense.

    Mike

    Reply
  2. Vanessa

    I like how the second one starts with dialogue because as a reader, I like to get right into the action of things. However I like how the first version had descriptive writing that conveyed a mysterious/ spooky feel.

    I wonder if you could somehow blend the two. I find that both versions are polar opposites (description vs dialogue). Could you start some of the first version and then let your protagonist be surprised by the reporter intruding upon the protagonist’s experiences? Or conversely start with the dialogue and then do some sort of flashback to show off your descriptive writing.

    I do agree with Mike, the first version definitely more “suspenseful and tense”.

    I think the first version shows off your ability as a writer a bit more than the second version.

    I don’t think I officially “voted” for version 1 or 2 but perhaps a hybrid of both. Those are my 2 cents. Have a great weekend!

    Reply
  3. CeeBee

    I vote for the second one too. I think it’s the dialogue that makes it more “active”. The first one does do more to describe the background and thinking of the main character though. Hope that’s helpful in some way 🙂

    Reply
  4. Laura Best

    It didn’t take me long to realize that I like the second one better. This of course comes down to personal tastes. But the question remains, which one is your favourite?

    Reply
  5. trin

    I liked the second one better it had a better flow to it and it sucked you in completely to the characters and what was happening around them.

    Reply
  6. Mystic_Mom

    I like the first one – it is much more intense and suspensful…the second one has good dialogue but almost too many players for it to have suspense like the first version. If they were called away one by one or something happened – like a sudden black out of battery operated equipment (:-)) then you could bring that great dialog of part two to the suspense of part one.

    Reply
  7. Story Teller

    Thanks for weighing in, everyone. So far, I’m leaning toward writing a combination of the two. I’d love to get some more feedback tomorrow.

    Happy Halloween!

    Reply
  8. Kim

    First one. Maybe because I prefer the psychological intrigue of it. I came away with far more questions of what was about to come by reading the first.

    Reply
  9. Jocé

    Wow, this is a tough call. Both versions are so good, well written.
    I’m going to give you my 2cents worth before I read the other eight comments, to avoid buckling under the influence of greater minds 🙂
    okay:
    Right now after reading both, I’d vote #1 as your opening. There is something so focused, and chilling about it. Plus I love the paragraph (about fourth in) with the line “There is something peaceful about a museum at night.”
    I believe this first version allows your reader time to enter that museum environment – time to think – before sorting out a myriad of other characters in the more public interview/investigation set up of #2. That said, the second has so much to offer too, I love the interaction of the characters and I hope this material would still find its way into the story further in?!! Good luck.
    Now I’m going to read the other comments.

    Reply
  10. Story Teller

    Thanks, Kim and Joce. I really appreciate it. I’m getting the feeling that #1 demonstrates stronger writing, while #2 is an easier read, with all the dialogue and fun characters.

    @ Joce – you know how much I value your opinion (or maybe you don’t). But I highly respect your talents as a writer…you are my great mind. Thank you so much.

    Reply
  11. claudineg

    My vote is for the second, for the dialogue and the opportunity to meet more characters. And somehow it’s scarier that a number of people are having the encounter together vs. what might be one person’s imagination, hallucination or some form of post-traumatic stress.

    Reply
  12. jeff erbach

    Hi–

    Hard to indicate a preference, but if pressed I’d say the first. I found it intriguing. The second one was less personalized and I found the setup reminiscent of many similar stories. I find this genre, for me, ultimately comes to personalizing the work. My heart won’t race if it isn’t engaged.

    Thank you for allowing me to see this.

    Reply
  13. Tasha Farrell

    Holli,
    I thought I’d posted my comment, but it “went away” somehow (or maybe I never got past Preview). Anyhow, I liked the first one best; it really drew me in, and it seemed to me by far the more intriguing and suspenseful. The second one felt like a much slower, less engaging opening. But that’s just personal preference. Thanks for letting me read it!

    Reply
  14. kungfusinger

    I prefer the first one. It felt true-er. I also connected more deeply with the one character than I did with any of the characters in the second exerpt.

    The intro “I never believed in gosts…I know better now.” fits the mood very well for the first one. However, the intro is such a vastly different mood than the second that, in my opinion, it causes a bit of dissonance that distracts from the chapter overall.

    I also find that with dialogue heavy sections I tend to read only the bits that are in quotations and skim over the description. Having so very much dialogue distracts a bit from the story for me. Unless the major descriptions are part of the dialogue, I tend to miss it and feel confused.

    P.S. The same thing happened to me that happened to Tasha.

    Reply
  15. Story Teller

    Thanks so much for all your feedback! It really helped a lot, and I appreciate it so much.

    kungfusinger & Tasha – sometimes that happens when Blogger is doing site maintenance. Sorry for the hassle, and I’m glad you kept trying.

    Reply
  16. Lisa

    Hope it’s not too late to weigh in Holli…

    I liked the first draft better, mainly because of what it “didn’t say”…

    And the fact that she was alone left no doubts that what she was experiencing couldn’t have been influenced or caused by anyone else around her..

    Reply
  17. Story Teller

    Never too late, Lisa. Thanks so much for your comment!

    Reply
  18. K

    I’m glad you said it’s never too late. Just getting caught up on your blogs.

    Great writing in both versions- as usual.
    I definitely like the first one better- just you against…There were too many characters in the second version although I liked the dialogue.

    Now for some mild nit-picking.Should the second sentence read -to be bothered by the dead?
    I suggest taking out the dream sequence. It took me out of the story. Would it be possible to bring in the salient points in the para starting with ‘the mannequin’s… one was a child’ insert- it reminded me of the little girl in Rwanda…arms reaching out…

    I wonder if caress is the right word for something so eerie? –wind spidered across my neck–?

    at the end of another paragraph–No one was following me. (period)

    I suggest to omit ‘girlish perfume’ And ‘anais’. Maybe it’s an age thing but I don’t know what that is. I think the second one was better but just hint at pipe tobacco.

    My two cents’ worth.

    Reply
  19. Story Teller

    Thanks so much, K! I very much appreciate your comments and the time you took to craft your response. It is valuable feedback.

    Reply

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