A Saleable Premise

Over the summer, while completing revisions on two WIPs (one YA, one MG) I took a quick step back to read a book focusing on story craft entitled ‘The Magic Words, Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults’ by Cheryl B. Klein (a book, by the way, that I highly recommend). Most of the advice is just as relevant to adult and genre fiction and I thought I’d share some of her initial advice/comments around constructing a ‘saleable premise’ for your book.

A ‘saleable premise’ is basically a one sentence description of your book that defines the protagonist as well as the overarching action and conflict. Although constructing a saleable premise seems on its face to be fairly easy or obvious, it can be more challenging than it first appears. Embedded within this description is not only the basis of the story but also a promise to the reader that the book will live up to the expectations the premise demands.

Cheryl Klein notes that a premise can be ‘unsaleable’ if it is too dense, quiet or nebulous, or if the concept has been overdone, or the publisher can’t envision it reaching an audience. Some of the ways a premise could appeal is if the book puts a new spin on already successful material, fills a hole in the market, or when it plays to a publishing house’s particular strengths. Of course, the best way to sell your work is to make it great and compelling – but this assumes you can get someone to read it, which is why that initial description can be so important. A strong story concept is critical. It’s how readers decide to purchase your book over another one. It’s also how agents and editors decide to take the time to read your story amongst the hundreds of manuscripts they receive each week.

A ‘saleable premise’ is what you would articulate in a query letter or elevator speech to an intended agent or editor. It is also a way of getting a publisher’s attention and yet, I wonder how many writers necessarily think of a ‘saleable premise’ when they begin a writing project (?). In her book, Cheryl Klein identifies three exercises which I thought were useful for any writer when thinking about their WIP in terms of ‘saleable premise’. I’ve added some of my own thoughts when it comes to these exercises as well.

  1. Write down the promises of the novel. I think detailing the emotions promised to a reader can help a writer focus on reader expectations – what emotions do you want the reader to experience while reading the novel? Does the concept for the story reflect that?
  2. Write the premise of the novel in one sentence. I find summarizing any WIP in one sentence a challenge, but it does help focus my mind on what exactly the core/essence of my WIP is really about. As Cheryl Klein points out, you might be able to create several premises for your novel, each highlighting a different aspect or storyline in the book, but the exercise of creating each of these premises can help a writer focus on the most compelling/freshest and (dare I say it) most ‘saleable’ aspect of the book.
  3. Identify three comparison titles for the book. This is an exercise most writers undertake when composing a query letter or pitch to an agent or editor, but it’s also a useful process when composing a ‘saleable premise’ as it helps describe and position your novel in the marketplace and also point out how to frame your concept/story in contrast to other comparable books.

So TKZers, do you consider or compose a ‘saleable premise’ for your books? If so, at what stage of the writing process do you do this – before the first draft or only when it is ready to be submitted or published? Or is a ‘saleable premise’ something you don’t even worry about?




The Weapon of Surprise

by James Scott Bell

Today’s first-page got me thinking about strategic decision making in fiction. That’s just a fancy way of saying that on occasion we need to step back, be objective, think about the overall plan, and be willing to give something up if it makes the whole thing better (which is where the admonition to “kill your darlings” comes from).

We writers are in a battle—for a reader’s attention. If the reader guesses where we’re heading, and we go there, said reader feels a twinge of disappointment. If that keeps on happening, the result is boredom and the battle is lost.

One of our primary weapons is surprise. When the unexpected happens on the page it delights readers. It pulls them more deeply into the story. It creates a mini-mystery. In my workshops I use the acronym SUES—Something Unexpected in Every Scene. It doesn’t have to be big (like a corpse dropping through the roof). It can be a small as a line of dialogue or a glimpse of something odd.

So let’s read this opening page and talk about it on the flip side:

Dark Elements

Sophia sipped her fish bowl-sized piña colada and wriggled her ring finger in the sun. The delicious princess-cut diamond fractured and rearranged the light, sitting on a platinum throne and presiding over her left hand like an ice queen. The sun was retiring to bed, and soon so would he. She lowered her sunnies and watched her fiancée hoist himself out of the pool, breathless after only two laps. He paused to recover under the shade of a palm. If she squinted her eyes long enough and let them go blurry, she could almost see what he would’ve looked like at her age. Almost. But that was a long time ago.

He towelled down his greying chest. I wonder if he knows, she thought, deep down surely he must know that I’m not marrying him for love. Maybe he thinks his sparkling personality has won me over, or his irresistible wit? Maybe he thinks I have a need for security, or some kind of daddy complex? Whatever it was, he wasn’t questioning it.

He came over to where Sophia lay on the sun bed, a polka dot bikini straining to cover her sensual curves.

“What did I do to deserve you, darling?” he said, kissing her forehead.

“You must’ve been a very good boy in a past life,” she said, smacking him on his wet speedo-ed bottom as he walked past. What was it with men and speedos? she thought, the older and more overweight the man, the smaller and more fluorescent the pair of speedos he tries to squeeze himself into.

Sophia herself had been a very bad girl in her past lives, and she was about to be bad all over again. She stretched her toned legs to check her tan and picked up a glossy magazine from the side table. As her lover boy went inside to shower, Sophia turned to a story about Kim Kardashian’s un-airbrushed butt, captured in its full glory on her recent holiday to the Bahamas. As she flicked through the uncompromising images, complete with dimples, cellulite and all, she smiled to herself. Not so perfect after all, are you? she thought, and for a fleeting moment she felt guilty for taking delight in another woman’s imperfections. But then again, celebrities aren’t really real people, are they?

Something stung Sophia’s ankle and she squished the first mozzie of the encroaching dusk. There’d be more where that came from, but she didn’t want to go inside just yet. She liked to milk every last minute of the dying sunlight out of these hot, lazy days. Daytime was her time, when she could do as she pleased while he was at work. Then in the evenings she felt like a B-grade actress, trying to play the role of the besotted fiancée with conviction.

At least it never got cold here, she thought. The nights were balmy and humming with cicadas as warm breezes tickled the tropical leaves. Kiralee Island felt wild, like anything could happen. Maybe she should wait a while longer, she thought, a few months at least, maybe even a year? What was the rush? The sex was surprisingly good, after all, and he was nice enough. She’d planned for next weekend, but it felt premature. You don’t pluck an under-ripe fruit from the tree just because you’ve become impatient, you wait for exactly the right moment. Yes, she could wait a while longer before she killed him.


JSB: Before I get to the editing, let me say up front that I like this voice. It’s got attitude, which is essential. It’s also funny and wry in its observations. All terrific qualities. But I suggest the strategy here ought to be reconsidered for one main reason: getting that last line to pop.

By the time we read before she killed him we already suspect this character. She’s a gold digger. She’s cold about it, too, mocking the guy’s personality and attempts at wit. Indeed, we are told outright she’s been a “very bad girl” in her past (lives).

So when we read the last line we’re not really shocked. It’s more like, “Oh, okay. She is taking this guy to the cleaners, and she’s also going to kill him. I could see that.”

What I suggest, then, is a rewrite of the page taking out all the on-the-nose references to her gold digging. And the snarky attitude toward the man. Keep the reader guessing about this relationship. Make the guy attractive. In fact, by using more dialogue, give us a reason to start liking the fellow.

And then, boom, drop the last line. Now you’ve got our attention. In fact, you’ve got us hooked.

The thing about voice, which everyone talks about but no one seems to be able to define (with, perhaps, one notable exception) is that when it’s good (as in this example) the author can easily overdo it. There’s a temptation to show it off at the wrong time (which is what I mean about strategy).

Thus, the observation about the Speedos (should be capitalized, as it’s a brand), while amusing, tells us we’re not exactly dealing with a warm personality. Again, that takes the surprise out of the last line.

The Kardashian bit seems forced and, by this time in our cultural zeitgeist, rather obvious. It feels like it’s in there only to be funny. Again, the temptation is to let voice show off at the expense of strategy. Voice should be in service to story, not the story itself. I say this because I really find this author’s voice has great potential. In fact, several times as I wrote this post I assumed the author was writing in First Person POV. When you can get a First feel into Third, you’re really on the right track with voice.

Now to some editing matters.

The sun was retiring to bed, and soon so would he.

Confusing, as the he seems to refer to the POV character, Sophia. I thought it was a typo. I’d just cut the entire line.

He towelled down his greying chest. I wonder if he knows, she thought …

Several times in this piece the author uses she thought when it is unnecessary. When we are firmly in the character’s POV, we don’t need it. The problem here is simply that we’re not firmly there. The fix is simply to get us into the character’s perspective with something like this:

She watched him towel down his graying chest. I wonder if he knows, deep down ….

Then you don’t need she thought. We know who is doing the thinking.

There are four other instances of she thought that can simply be cut.

He came over to where Sophia lay on the sun bed, a polka dot bikini straining to cover her sensual curves.

That’s a POV switch (“head hopping”) as the observance of the bikini is from his perspective, not hers.

Bottom line for me: The voice is promising, but I’d like it to be more seductive at first. Lull us into the scene so we’re really impacted by that last line. After that, there will be plenty of time for wry humor. Just don’t let that overtake your main task, which is to keep readers happily on edge from page one forward.

Okay, friends, take over from here. I’m traveling today so may not get a chance to comment. Help our brave writer out.    


First Page Critique: CROSSROADS

Welcome, Anon du jour, welcome, to our Saturday morning installment of FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE! We have here the beginning of a work titled CROSSROADS, so let’s cue up either the Sailcat album, Neil Young’s Comes a Time LP, or Cream’s Wheels of Fire to provide some background music and proceed:



Kelli Wade speeds along the 405 at night, wears her chopped jeans, favorite silk T, coffee-with-cream Chanel jacket, and cowboy boots.  She threads her way between a bus and rusty Toyota, leaning on her Harley.  Blonde hair streams straight out behind her; her helmet strapped to the side of the seat, unused.  Tears streak the sides of her face, momentarily blurring her vision of the dark traffic.

He was sleeping with that waitress-whore!  Did he think I wouldn’t find out?

She has keyed his car, front, back and both sides, before riding away from her ruined relationship.  And this, after getting word that Jackie, her college roommate, has been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer.

“Up yours!”  The rage in her voice blends with the deep-throated growl of the cycle’s engine.  Kelli skids off the exit ramp, swallowing back her pain and pulls up behind the Taft Building.  She chains her bike to a fat drain pipe and takes the service elevator to the sixth floor, shoving open the double doors of Sunset Investigations.  Did he think I was stupid, or didn’t he give a shit about my feelings?

She sits down hard behind her desk, alone, surrounded by darkness.  To keep her mind off murder, she begins to sort through stacks of paper, invoices, and case reports.  The normal day-to-day function of her job.

She takes a deep breath.  Is there’s any wine left in the fridge?

Dawn leaks in through the window blinds, sending streaks across the polished floor.  Other operatives of the agency begin to arrive to work, including her mother.


I’m predisposed to like CROSSROADS, Anon, because from the jump I liked Kelli Wade and how you are developing her from the jump. You get several things right. Naming your protagonist right out of the gate is a great move. You also put the reader in the moment from the first sentence by using the third person present narrative style. I especially like how you show your readers without telling them that Kelli is in Los Angeles: Taft Building + Route 405 + rusty Toyota (that sounds like award-winning author James Scott Bell’s hooptie to me!) = Los Angeles. Additionally, you show that Kelli does not take betrayal lightly. Revenge may be dish better eaten cold, but it’s pretty tasty in the heat of the moment, too. You paint a very clear picture of your character’s appearance and personality within just a few paragraphs, yet we don’t feel bombarded with information. That’s part of good pacing. The additional element of Kelli working with her mother is a nice touch as well.  More on that in a second.

Those are the positive elements. CROSSROADS needs to be cleaned up just a bit in a few places.


— First sentence: Kelli hits a tiny speed bump. She should be “wearing her jeans,” rather than “wears.” The third person present narrative is a good choice, but it has its pitfalls. I think you want a gerund there as opposed to a verb given that she already “speeds” along. Oh, and while you are at it: tell us the model of the Harley Kelli is riding. Enthusiasts love that information.

—  Third sentence: Let’s change that “her: her” to something else. I like to avoid using the same word twice in a row. And let’s get rid of that semi-colon. Here’s one way: Blonde hair streams straight out behind her. She has a helmet, but it’s strapped to the side of her seat, out of the way.


— First sentence: “She has keyed his car” …let’s change that to “She had keyed his car” since it takes place in the past, even if it’s just a few minutes ago.

— Second sentence: While we’re at it, let’s do the same thing and change “has been diagnosed” to “had been diagnosed” for the same reason.


— First and second sentences: These aren’t really incorrect but I’d like to see them a little shorter and tighter. Let’s use all verbs and make a couple of other changes. As things stand right now,

“Kelli skids off the exit ramp, swallowing back her pain and pulls up behind the Taft Building.  She chains her bike to a fat drain pipe and takes the service elevator to the sixth floor, shoving open the double doors of Sunset Investigations.”  

Let’s change that to

“Kelli skids off the exit ramp. She pulls up behind the Taft Building and chains her bike to a fat drain pipe. A service elevator takes her to the sixth floor, where she swallows her pain and shoves open the double doors to Sunset Investigations.”


— The next issue is a question to which I honestly don’t know the answer. It seems as though most businesses store their files and send their bills electronically.  Would a contemporary private investigation agency use stacks of paper or would Kelli be poring over files on her computer? I’ve converted almost entirely to e-billing, electronic documents, etc. That brought me up short, if only momentarily. Of course, if the book’s “present” is before 2007 she is almost certainly pouring over paper. It’s a minor quibble.


— “Is there’s any wine” should be “Is there any wine”…but I suspect that you know that, Anon. Otherwise, good proofing all the way through.


—Dawn leaks in…so…we’ve already been told that Kelli arrived at night, but was it really night or really, really early in the morning? I would like some sort of sense of how long Kelli has been sitting in her office before morning comes. This can be handled in a few words earlier in the text to give us some idea of what time of night Kelli arrived at the office.

— I like the surprise of Kelli working with her mom, but it’s a reveal that you might leave for just a little later. Or not. Also…as CROSSROADS is presently written… how does Kelli know that her mom has arrived? Is Kelli’s office door open and she sees her? Or is the door closed and she hears her? There are all sorts of ways that you can address this and you can do it by showing, not telling. As is in:

Three knocks rattle Kelli’s office door. Only one person in the office knocks like that. “Come in, Mom,” Kelli sighs.

These suggestions are made in the spirit of making a good first page better, Anon. I like the setup and I like your character. Please keep going with both.

I will now strive mightily to be uncharacteristically quiet while our friends at TKZ today offer their own observations and comments. Thank you so much, Anon, for submitting CROSSROADS to First Page Critique! And please don’t forget to circle back and let us know when we can see the rest of CROSSROADS!


READER FRIDAY: Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

Wikimedia Commons Attribution: Thomas Wolf, www.foto-tw.de

Think about very creative types. Often they are said to have ginormous egos. It makes them who they are. Think Kanye West, as an example. There are others.

1.) Many writers are plagued by self-doubt, especially when they first start out, but is a big ego part of the success formula for ANY creative art form?

2.) Does having a big ego help or hurt an author when it comes to writing?



WordPress, Script Writing, Memoirs – What does this have to do with fiction writing?

Jordan Dane

It’s been a strange week. Whenever I get toward the end of a project, I sabotage my progress by finding distractions (or I let them take over “There, I said it.”). I honestly don’t want my story to be over. I’m madly in love with my latest protagonist, Braxton Valentine. Valentine: Steel Heart will be launched Oct 31 as part of a new Amazon Kindle World – Desiree Holt’s The Phoenix Agency. This will be book 1 of 2, with the second installment coming in Feb 2018. I don’t have to say good-bye to my brooding hero, but that doesn’t make it easy to finish book 1.

I wanted to have a free schedule for the holidays, not like last year where I wrote like a mad woman for a January release. Never, never, never again. That’s the goal, but in the midst of my mounting common sense comes my new website design.

Distraction #1 – I asked my designer, Maddee at Xuni, to create a WordPress site I can maintain by myself to keep the cost down on monthly tweaking and all the new releases. I’ll be launching it soon, but I had to teach myself much more than I ever thought I would know about WordPress (WP). Like a petulant child, I kicked and wailed against doing it NOW, but I eventually broke down WHILE I WAS FINISHING Valentine’s story. After I sunk my teeth into my learning curve, I found I really enjoyed getting to know more about WP & I’m thrilled that I will finally have control over my site. I still plan on using Xuni for some administrative functions. I can’t totally quit Maddee and need my fix, but it was satisfying to learn something new and gain control at the same time.

Distraction #2 – Since I saw the end of my project in sight (we’re talking final chapter, big finish, folks), I decided to make contact with a local writers group and attend one of their critique sessions. I enjoy giving back to the writing community, as other authors have done for me, and I also get a lot out of reviewing and giving feedback to others. The meeting was held at a good restaurant I like, double score, and I met new people, trifecta. But after lunch we began the critique process (which hasn’t changed in YEARS), which is to read 10 pages aloud (cold) and provide feedback. Instead of hearing submissions of fiction, I heard only one memoir and one screenplay/script before I had to cut out. In the past, this group has also had quite a number of poets. Not one fiction read. I have to say I was a little disappointed, except that I wanted to make the most of it and focus on how screenplays can still evoke emotion with good dialogue and setting.

The next day I researched script writing and read examples of famous scenes from well-known movies that were packed with very emotional content. It inspired me to double my efforts to put the right dialogue into every scene and fill it with emotion. The setting can still be sparse (especially when I am writing shorter Amazon Kindle Worlds these last few months), but the dialogue needs meat and heft. The film-goer or the reader MUST be gripped by your stripped down version of a story and their minds fill in the gaps to paint a picture in their minds that can be rich and satisfying.

Have any of you thought about script writing?

A rule of thumb – one page of a script is equivalent to one-minute of film/TV. So if you can write an approx. 50-70 pgs for episodic TV or 80-120 pgs for feature film—with good and effective story structure, packed with emotion and good dialogue—you have the bare bones to a solid novel. I’ve heard of some authors who start out by writing in a script fashion before they fill out their story into fiction. Could this be the new outline?

Here’s a page from CASA BLANCA – We’ve all seen this scene.

I’m not proposing that I divert all my attention to learning script-writing, but this method isn’t that far off from where I taught myself to write a tight scene with a focus on dialogue. To get a jump on my writing after work, I would take a notepad to lunch and write only dialogue lines that I heard in my head (yes, I had a lot of folks staring at me). With those lines as a framework, I would fill out the other elements later (setting, body language, action, introspection). The brain is an amazing team player. While you are doing other things, it is still working on your story or your research. If you’ve ever read a full script, you know how the brain fills in the gaps and makes you see a movie rolling in front of your mind’s eye.

So my “fiction group” diversion lit a fire under me. I suppose inspiration can come at you fast.

Even the Memoir writer in the critique group got me to shred through the words that readers will skim (as Elmore Leonard said) to realize that even your own memoir needs emotion and a point. Unless you are famous, who is your target market? If you’re a survivor of an ordeal, you can share your journey and be inspirational, but your average person who only wants to chronicle their life will have a “story” with no end (yet) and a ramble of back story and mental musings without a point. My dad’s memoir is a case in point. It shall never see light of day because he can’t stop editing it—which is a good thing because he’s still here to wordsmith it.

For Discussion:

1.) What diversions have paid off for you as a writer?

2.) Have you ever considered writing a script for your book – or started with a script and fleshed it out into a novel?

3.) How many of you maintain your own website? Do you enjoy WordPress?

VIGILANTE JUSTICE (Mercer’s War – Book 3) – $1.99 Ebook

In Montana, when a disturbing pattern of missing teens and college students falls under the FBI’s radar, former CIA operative Mercer Broderick fears the violent abductions are at the heart of a dark web of conspiracy that must be stopped and Brotherhood Protectors won’t be denied from the fight.


First Page Critique: STEEL

Welcome to the Tempering Zone, where we’ll examine and hone the first page of STEEL.

(You know I had to go there.)

Today I’ve asked our Brave Writer lots of questions. As writers, we want to keep our readers asking the right questions—questions that occur to them because they’re excited to imagine how a story might move forward. What we don’t want is for readers to furrow their brows because they don’t quite understand what’s going on.

I get a pleasing sense of the world the Brave Writer is building: antique and magical, with a strong protagonist who is emotionally complex. With a little examination and reworking, it can be an very good beginning to what I assume is a YA novel.


Chapter 1
Helia crept along the wall, her senses on high alert. The stars shone into the open-air courtyard, the uncertain light drawn toward the low-burning fire pit in the center. She walked just on the edge of this light as she carefully drew the spell of invisibility. It wasn’t true invisibility, but this spell made the caster as unnoticeable as was humanly possible. Another person would only see her if they looked at her directly. The flickering flames and trembling starlight could conceal even that.

Even with the spell, Helia forced herself to walk as if she was being watched. Straight and stiff, with her head held high with confidence. She walked as thou a crowd were analyzing her every move. As if the royal family was there to evaluate her. As if she needed to prove to the gods that she was strong, stronger than they gave her credit for.

She almost made it. She almost left her house without losing her guise. But as she passed the opening to the living room, both her confidence and her spell crumbled.

Her eyes flickered for just a moment to the right. Just for a moment, because they were so used to looking there. Looking for her twin brother and seeking his approval. Because Urian was the only one she felt like she could trust completely. And so he was the only one who could stop her from doing what she needed to do.

I need to do this, she reminded herself.  It’s for everyone… No it’s for me. It’s all for me because if I stay here…

If she stayed here she would have to face many more months of pity and severe disappointment. Her mother bursting into tears, her aunts scowling and scolding, and the rest of the village skirting around her like she was a plague. She needed to be somewhere where people didn’t know her, a place where the past wouldn’t crush her.

This was the right thing to do. But still, she stood there for half a minute—wishing hard for her twin to come out and tell her to stay—but then she forced her feet forward and flew toward the entrance of their tiny house. Just before she went outside, she snatched her bow and quiver from the stand right next to the door, heedless of the clatter it made.

Laura’s Mini-Synopsis:

A girl tries to use an invisibility spell to sneak out of her house and run away because she’s affected adversely by some event in her past. But she loses her confidence and the spell falls apart, so she’s no longer invisible. She leaves anyway, knocking stuff around noisily as she grabs her bow and quiver from beside the door.


“Helia crept along the wall, her senses on high alert. The stars shone into the open-air courtyard, the uncertain light drawn toward the low-burning fire pit in the center. She walked just on the edge of this light as she carefully drew the spell of invisibility. It wasn’t true invisibility, but this spell made the caster as unnoticeable as was humanly possible. Another person would only see her if they looked at her directly. The flickering flames and trembling starlight could conceal even that.”

Immediately I envision a wall with a wide, flat surface at its top, and it sounds like Helia is  creeping along there in a cat-like manner. Further reading shows that she is in fact walking, keeping her back close to a wall. Please be more clear.

We have stars shining into the courtyard, their light “drawn toward the low-burning fire pit.” Is there a fire in the fire pit? Or is the fire pit itself on fire? Wouldn’t a fire actually compete with starlight to the starlight’s disadvantage? It’s a pretty-sounding sentence, but feels like window dressing.

Cloak of invisibility: Let’s leave the revelation that it isn’t true invisibility for a slightly later reveal. We are dragged down by this detail. It’s a cloak of invisibility! Let us enjoy it for a moment before dashing excitement about it. Later, we can discover its limitations. IRL we purchase things that immediately seem fabulous, and later find they aren’t all we think they are. (I’m looking at you, As Seen on TV Bacon Boss!) And I don’t really understand what “that” describes in the last sentence.

The first paragraph of a novel works well when it’s focused on character and action, with  a small bit of scene-setting. Not trappings. We know she is being careful and alert. But that’s all we learn about her. Too much detail about the cloak and the light slows down the action in what is a very tense situation.

“Even with the spell, Helia forced herself to walk as if she was being watched. Straight and stiff, with her head held high with confidence. She walked as thou a crowd were analyzing her every move. As if the royal family was there to evaluate her. As if she needed to prove to the gods that she was strong, stronger than they gave her credit for.”

This paragraph is at odds with the first. She’s supposed to be creeping, yet she’s also trying to walk with royal self-possession. It makes her sound very childish. If this is the intention, okay. But it is still confusing. Use “as if she were” rather than “as if she was.” Use “were” if the situation is conditional or contrary to reality. Same goes with “As if the royal family were there…”

There’s a lot of information here: we learn that she’s someone who might be viewed by a crowd, or a royal family, or the gods. Either that, or she has a very active fantasy life. Again, it slows the action, and feels like it’s only there to foreshadow or telegraph what’s in her universe. Don’t try to give it to us all at once.

“She almost made it. She almost left her house without losing her guise. But as she passed the opening to the living room, both her confidence and her spell crumbled.
Her eyes flickered for just a moment to the right. Just for a moment, because they were so used to looking there. Looking for her twin brother and seeking his approval. Because Urian was the only one she felt like she could trust completely. And so he was the only one who could stop her from doing what she needed to do.”

What is the cause and effect here? As it reads, everything falls apart, and then she looks into the living room, seeking out her brother. Or does she lose her confidence and guise because her eyes flickered to the right, hopeful that her brother is inside, waiting to stop her? (I assume she looks toward the living room.) As I read the second bit, I assume the latter is how you mean it.

Whichever way you mean it, try to make the sequence immediately clear to the reader. Don’t require the reader to step lively to follow the action. Linearity and cause and effect are things that even mature writers sometimes struggle with. I know I do. I’ve put characters on scene, then added a quick couple of lines about how they got there. Lots of writers get away with it all the time, but it’s not a good habit. Reveal with subtle details, not exposition.

Also, her breaking of the spell seems like it would be a bigger disappointment to her. We get no reaction.

I do very much like the way Urian fits into the story. In a few lines you’ve sketched out their relationship: they are very close, and he is the sensible one, and she’s the one prone to acting on impulse. Nice.

“I need to do this, she reminded herself. It’s for everyone… No it’s for me. It’s all for me because if I stay here…
If she stayed here she would have to face many more months of pity and severe disappointment. Her mother bursting into tears, her aunts scowling and scolding, and the rest of the village skirting around her like she was a plague. She needed to be somewhere where people didn’t know her, a place where the past wouldn’t crush her.
This was the right thing to do. But still, she stood there for half a minute—wishing hard for her twin to come out and tell her to stay—but then she forced her feet forward and flew toward the entrance of their tiny house. Just before she went outside, she snatched her bow and quiver from the stand right next to the door, heedless of the clatter it made”

The reader will assume she’s already had this discussion with herself. You only need a line or two about what a relief it will be to not see her mother’s disappointment, and have the villagers avoid her. Give us just enough to make us curious. The internal dialogue is awkward and you’ve already done a good job of showing her hesitation by talking about wanting Urian to talk her out of it.

Is the house tiny? Given that it has a courtyard, I imagine it to be bigger. And I wonder about the phrase “living room” too. It doesn’t feel like a contemporary story and the concept of a living room is modern.

I might end with something like this:
Fighting tears, but resolved, Helia flew for the doorway, pausing only long enough to snatch her bow and quiver from their stand. The loud clatter of the stand falling onto the tiles followed her as she disappeared into the night.

Title: The opening doesn’t seem to have any connection to steel at all. Is it perhaps a story about the invention of steel? Or is it that she needs to prove herself to be as strong as steel to the gods? I’m not sure.

In a way, this first chapter feels like a prologue to a story. We know that Helia’s young and feels compelled to leave a difficult, if ultimately safe situation. I would expect that Chapter 2 might see her well into the action—perhaps older, already having some adventures behind her. But if it is, indeed, the very beginning of her adventures, leave more of your juicy details for later revelations.

Thanks for sharing this with Kill Zone!

*photo credit: GoDaddy stock photo

Breathing Life Into Secondary Characters

Photo purchased from Shutterstock

As writers, we all lavish attention on the main characters of our stories. But what about the minor characters? Too often, a story’s  secondary characters get short shrift during the writing process.

And that’s a shame, because it’s often the minor characters–the second bananas–who often carry the show. Don’t short change your reader by giving them secondary characters who are generic or cardboard: the “leggy blonde” who is tossed in for a frisson of sexual tension; the “beefy cop” who turns up at a crime scene; the “tired-looking” hotel clerk. Those types of descriptions tell the reader that the writer needed to include a particular character to move a scene forward, but didn’t put any effort into bringing the character to life.

All secondary character need to live and breathe for the reader. In his book On Writing, Stephen King said that every character in a book thinks of himself or herself as the main character. Whenever that character is on stage, even briefly, he should be presented as if a spotlight is shining on him.

When it comes to strong secondary characters, a few standouts come to mind: Dill in To Kill A Mockingbird; Melanie in Gone with the Wind; the wealthy, pompous Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice.

Which secondary characters are the most memorable for you in thrillers or mysteries? As a writer, do you struggle with the challenge of portraying second bananas?


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First Page Critique: “Deliah and the One Penny Blue”

Today we have yet another in our series of soul-crushing First Page Reviews.

Of course, I’m being a bit sarcastic. The intention is never to be soul-crushing, even when that seems to be the outcome. (We’ve all been there, on both sides of these little eviscerations.)

I’m not a big fan of first page reviews. They aren’t without some value, of course, because certainly they provide a glimpse of the writer’s ability to render readable prose, which is a square-one necessity in this business. (You’ll notice that this alone usually eats up over 90 percent of the feedback we provide here, and about 60 percent my own feedback today). And perhaps, to set up a scene… specifically, an opening scene. But that’s about it. They tell us little about the story arc itself. Nor should they. Stormy skies and perfectly coiffed hair and the color of sunsets, because we’ve all seen the color of sunsets and don’t need to be told – often the hallmarks of a first page – aren’t really the point, while they certainly can be stage lighting if handled properly.

We also often get some sense of initial foreshadowing, of course, but if the entire story is visible beyond a vague hint on page one, that, too, is a mistake. First pages aren’t there to tell us about the story itself. Nor should they. They are there to begin the process of setting up the story. Stormy skies and perfectly coiffed hair – often the hallmarks of a first page – aren’t really the point, while they certainly can be stage lighting.

And therein resides a paradox. Because if we don’t yet know the story arc, we can’t really access how well the setup for it has been handled… beyond, of course, the prose itself. So here we are, having come full circle to focus on the sentences.

That said, let’s see how today’s brave author (we are contractually obliged to include that phrase in these intros) does with her or his first page.

My not-quite-as-cynical commentary (really, I’m hoping I can help) follows.

Twilight coloured everything with purple shadows. Squeals echoed down the slope while the last of the kids raced the darkness home, the boys rounded up and kept safe by girls like us.  Surrounded by poplar trees, at sea in a stretch of grass and daisies, the tall ship appeared around the curve of the hill. A well-worn and familiar playground in Old Town, the tilted deck was strung with rope nets and a faded black flag flew above.

Our shoes stirred up the damp smell of woodchips as the two of us reached the hull and climbed up onto the deck. The boards sounded hollow, empty beneath our feet. Leaning back against the worn timber, I tore open the paper, and hot vinegar clouded up into my face, sharply comfortingly. With my eyes downcast, I offered the chips to Martha.

We ate in silence as the night pressed down around us. My wet clothes had chilled with the evening air and kept me from forgetting what had happened earlier. Though I tried to fill up somehow, swallowing past the rawness in my throat, my jaw was hard with tension. I felt overly conscious of every gesture and the quiet was building.

When the food was gone, I scrunched the paper, holding it close to my nose to inhale the familiar scent. It smelled of late nights; the familiar bustle around the fryers and the fluid motion of Martha working beside me. I clenched the paper tighter, wringing it between my hands. Sweat budded over my top lip and I coached myself to speak, to break the spell somehow.

Alongside, Martha crossed her arms and tilted back against the wooden balustrade, looking up at the sky. Waiting.

It was lonely, sitting side by side with my oldest friend. I toyed with the discarded paper, flicking it back and forth with my fingertips. I had a sense of something counting down.

“Can you stop that?” said Martha. Still, she didn’t look at me.

My cheeks flushed hot but I imagined I could hear ice cracking over dark water.

“I didn’t mean for it to go that far!” I choked suddenly, swiping at my eyes.

Martha finally looked at me, lips pressed tight together. “So, what the hell happened, Penn?

Here’s my first impression. And really, I say this with love and empathy: you’re trying too hard. Much too hard. My fear is a crusty old editor, whose taste for purple prose (ironic, since this is the color you evoke in your opening line) has soured like the tongue of a senior chef auditioning newbies for a cooking show.

Okay, now I’m trying too hard.

Shadows aren’t purple. Dusk skies are purple. Shadows are a lack of color. It’s never wise to try to revinvent nature.

So the girls have rounded up the boys and are keeping them safe on the way home, all of them squealing. Really… I don’t think this works. And if they’ve all headed home, nobody is squealing anymore.

Your sentence introducing the “tall ship” works better if you flip it around, like this: The tall ship appeared around the curve of the hill, surrounded by poplar trees, at sea in a stretch of grass and daisies. Another note: hills don’t curve, they slope. And the ship doesn’t “appear” unless ot or you are moving (a point of view thing); rather, om this case it is fixed in place, because it isn’t really a ship at all.

You’re trying too hard. The biggest rookie mistake, and the most common, is to try to sound like a professional author, but end up sounding like someone trying to sound a certain way. Professional authors live in a world where they understand that less is more, where adjectives and adverbs and over-wrought metaphors are the very things that mark the writing of a newbie.

This essence – sounding like a professional – is the hardest thing to teach and to learn (among a core set of more precise principles, which are absolutely teachable and learnable). The best way to learn is to have someone blue pencil your own narrative to understand why it is perceived as otherwise.

Your next paragraph is a confusion of up-and-down geometry: shoes stirred up… climbed up… empty beneath… leaning back… tore open the paper… clouded up… eyes downcast. This is literary motion sickness, I’m afraid.

Martha looked up at the sky… waiting for what, exactly? Whatever she was waiting for, it wasn’t going to descend from the heavens.

Nothing (beyond description) happens until your sixth paragraph. This is the whole point of the scene (and the first page): they feel like something is coming. That all of this is “counting down” to something, and this is the something that will crack open the story. This moment is the point of the scene… I suggest you get to it a bit quicker, cutting out all the existential pondering of sights and sounds, which really means nothing in context to what’s about to be revealed between the two girls… who must have taken a pass at gathering boys and protecting them on their way home.

Because that is what the reader will care about. The reader won’t care about what kind of tree surrounds them, or what smells are wafting about, or what vinegar smells like… because none of that is what the scene is about.

Begin with this awareness, and build an impactful lead into the moment when the girls get real about whatever happened that still haunts them, in context to what they know or don’t know, and can discuss or shouldn’t discuss.

This upgrade is an example of what I like to call mission-driven scene writing, versus overly sensated English Comp 101 scene writing. At the professional level, even on a first page, crusty old agents and pub house readers and even browsing readers on Amazon’s preview pages instinctively know the difference.

One other comment: your title… it makes me go, “huh?” You can do better.

Hope this helps. Killzoners (I won’t say “what think ye?” again, I got killed for that one), please weigh in and help this writer get over this purple hump.




How to Cure Mid-Novel Sag

by James Scott Bell

The plot doctor is in.

I see the waiting room today is full of pantsers. They have that lost look in their eyes that usually appears in the middle of their first drafts.

One comes up to me and says, “Doc, I was having so much fun! I was writing along, letting the characters take me wherever they wanted to go. Now I’m forty thousand words in, and I’m frozen. I don’t know what to write next! Every choice seems like a rabbit hole! Help me, Doc, please!”

“Of course,” I say. “Just have a seat and—”

“Is there any hope?”

“Who’s your plot doctor, huh? Now just wait a moment and all will be well.”

There are plotters here, too. One approaches slowly, as if fearing recognition. He whispers, “Doc, I can’t figure out what went wrong. I had the whole thing mapped out and the pieces were falling into place. But the middle is sagging. Not enough oomph. What can I do, Doc?”

“Well, let me tell you—”

“Not so loud, Doc. I don’t want these pantsers giving me the raspberry …”

I’ve treated many such cases over the years. A cursory examination of the patient usually calls for three things: a shot, a couple of pills, and preventive measures.

1. The Shot

The first step is a shot of the potent “mirror moment” drug. I’ve seen immediate improvement to the eyes (which sparkle) and the mouth (which smiles or shouts Yesss!) after an injection.

The mirror moment gives the writer a new and powerful insight into what their novel is really all about. That illumination shines both backward (to the beginning) and forward (to the ending), stimulating new scene ideas and added character depth.

2. The Pills

Now I give the writer a couple of pills, with the following instructions: take the first one and see if that clears things up. Give it a few days to work. If, however, the symptoms persist, pop the second.

The Best Move Pill 

Step away from your manuscript. Go find a quiet spot or your favorite coffeehouse table, and use a pad and pen (I find this an aid to creativity).

Write down the names of every major and minor-recurring character in your novel.

Now, dedicate a page to each of these characters, answering the following question: Considering what this character wants out of the story, what is the best possible move he or she can make RIGHT NOW?

Please note that most of your characters will be “offscreen” at any given moment in your manuscript. That’s okay. They are not inert. They are in the process of planning, conspiring, sneaking, escaping, suffering … they are all doing or experiencing something. (When characters are offscreen, I call their activities “the shadow story.”)

This exercise will give you lots of plot material, scene ideas, and possible twists. See how it goes. After some time has passed if there is still significant sag, you have this:

The Guy With a Gun Pill

Raymond Chandler once wryly noted, “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Of course it does not have to be a literal man with a gun. It can be any character introduced in some surprising fashion. We’re not talking about a one-off character in a scene, but a recurring character who will add complications to the protagonist’s life.

When you place a new character in your story, you immediately inherit all of that character’s backstory, agendas, secrets, shadow story and so on. Additional scenes arise organically. As you create the new character, ponder a few questions:

  1. What can this character do to make life more difficult for my Lead?
  2. Can this character bear a secret that will upset my Lead’s applecart?
  3. Do they still make applecarts?
  4. Is there a hidden relationship this character can have with another in my cast?
  5. What is this character’s agenda?
  6. How far is this character willing to do to gain his objective?
  7. How can I give this character an even stronger motive?

Writers who dutifully take their medicine usually contact me in a few weeks to report being in the pink again. They have pep in their step and a twinkle in their eye, along with a few other clichés.

I am happy to hear it, but then I advise one further measure.

3. Preventive Medicine

If you want your heart to be healthy, you’ve got to eat healthier (and I never even went to med school!). Have you heard of Burger King’s new offering, the Rodeo Burger? It’s described as “two savory flame-grilled beef patties totaling more than ½ lb. of beef, topped with three half-strips of thick-cut smoked bacon, our signature crispy onion rings, tangy BBQ sauce, American cheese and creamy mayonnaise all on our sesame seed bun.”

I’m so there!

(Yeah, maybe once every three years.)

Anyway, I try to make my heart happy. It takes some discipline (e.g., steamed broccoli) and some hard work (e.g., actually eating the steamed broccoli).

Writing is no different. So if you’re a pantser, don’t be afraid of work and study. Get over the fear that any planning beforehand is stifling to your creativity. It’s not. You need to learn that surprises happen in the planning, too.

You plotters can continue to shore up your foundations with a growing knowledge of powerful story beats, which will allow you to leave a planned route for another choice. You can do that because you’ll know the next beat to write toward. You won’t be lost; you’ll be enjoying the trip!

Ah, the waiting room is clear. My work here is done. The doctor is out.

Do you often feel a sag in the middle of your manuscript? How have you solved that problem in the past?


A Counterterrorism Story

By Mark Alpert

If I’m going to write a scene that’s set in a real-life location, I like to visit the place before I start writing. Luckily, the novel I’m working on right now is set in New York City, and I’m pretty familiar with most of the book’s settings: Coney Island, the Gowanus Canal, Green-Wood Cemetery, Gracie Mansion, and so on.

But last week, the novel inspired me to visit a new place, one that’s fairly close to home but a little mysterious. In this book, I envision a conflict in the near future (2023) between an aggressive, militarized federal security force (black helicopters, anyone?) and New York City’s police department. I won’t go into the details here, but in this novel the Feds get into a shooting war with the NYPD, and I had to figure out which places would be the natural strongholds for the New York cops. One of them, I figured, would be Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, which is already home to the NYPD’s Aviation Unit and Emergency Service Unit (which in other cities would be called a SWAT team). Another stronghold would be Rodman’s Neck in the Bronx, which is the NYPD’s firing range, and a third would be the new Critical Response Command (CRC), which was set up two years ago by the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Bureau.

The purpose of the CRC is to field a mobile police unit specifically organized to swiftly respond to terrorist incidents similar to the attacks on the Bataclan theater in Paris and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The officers are heavily armed (assault rifles, body armor, etc.) and at least a hundred of them are on duty at any time (the CRC has more than 500 officers in all). Their headquarters is in a central location with relatively quick highway access to four of NYC’s five boroughs and both airports: Randalls Island, which is known to most New Yorkers as that overlooked, interstitial place underneath the Triborough Bridge.

I reasoned that the CRC headquarters probably served as an arsenal for the Counterterrorism Bureau, so it would make a good setting for one of the scenes in my novel. But I wasn’t sure of its exact location. I’ve visited Randalls Island dozens of times over the past decade, mostly because of my kids’ athletic activities; there are many soccer fields and baseball diamonds on the island, as well as a track-and-field stadium. The island is also home to a psychiatric hospital, a homeless shelter, a sewage treatment plant, and a firefighter training academy, but in all my visits there I never spotted a police station.

But it was fairly easy to find on Google Earth: it was the brick building surrounded by dozens of parked police cars. I decided to get a closer look at the place, so I took the subway up to East Harlem one afternoon and walked across one of the three spans of the Triborough Bridge, the span that connects Manhattan to Randalls Island. As I approached the CRC headquarters, I was surprised by the lack of security around the place; there was no manned gate at the entrance to the parking lot, no guards in front of the building. There wasn’t even a buzzer on the front door or a metal detector or a desk sergeant stationed at the entrance. I walked right into the building and saw a bunch of heavily armed cops milling around the lobby.

As it so happened, I really needed to go to the bathroom. I noticed there was a men’s room right off the lobby, so I approached one of the heavily armed officers and asked if I could use it. He nodded and went back to his conversation with the other cops. As I stepped into the bathroom, a man standing at the urinal glanced at me and asked, “Hey, are you new here?” This was kind of a ridiculous question, because I’m clearly not Counterterrorism material. I’m a near-sighted, five-foot-six, 56-year-old writer with a bad back and many, many neuroses. (Plus, I was wearing khaki shorts and a polo shirt.) I explained that I was there only because I really needed to use the bathroom, and then I entered one of the stalls.

Once I got out of the bathroom, I realized I was tremendously thirsty. (It was a hot day.) So I went back to the officers in body armor and asked if I could use their water fountain. One of them reluctantly left his buddies and offered to show me where it was. He led me into the station, which didn’t look so different from any other New York police station — linoleum floor, fluorescent lighting, gray metal desks, phones ringing. Along the way, the Counterterrorism officer asked me, “So who are you here to see?” It was another ridiculous question — if I had an appointment with someone, would I really wear shorts to it? I explained once again that I came into the station only because of my bathroom needs.

The officer stopped short and glared at me. “You shouldn’t be here! This is a secure facility!” At which point I wanted to respond, “Oh really? You could’ve fooled me.” But I’m a polite person (usually) so I said nothing of the sort. Instead, I looked apologetic and said, “So does this mean I can’t use your water fountain?”

We were only a few feet away from the fountain, as it turned out, so the officer relented. I decided to take a good long drink, if only to justify the trouble I’d put this guy through, but by this point one of his supervisors was looking at us curiously and making him nervous. So the officer tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Okay, that’s enough, buddy!” and then he escorted me out of the station.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression: I think the NYPD is way ahead of other police departments in readying itself to combat terrorist violence. And they’ve done an amazing job of deterring and thwarting attacks. (Some of the credit should also go to the agents at the FBI’s New York field office.) I feel that NYC is a safe place for me and my family largely because of their efforts. That said, they need to do a better job of securing their counterterrorism facility.

Did the visit help me by providing details or color that I could put into my novel? Not really. Aside from all the heavily armed officers, the place was nondescript. But visiting the station did make me feel more comfortable about writing the scene. And later on, as I strolled the island’s perimeter, I came up with a good idea for the following scene. (A boat chase!)

So, all in all, it was a productive afternoon.