What is Originality?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Whenever my wife and I travel to the Bay Area, we try to pop over to Berkeley and nosh at the noted bistro Chez Panisse. Overseen by its co-founder, executive chef Alice Waters, it is credited with popularizing the style of cooking known as California cuisine.

I’m no specialist in things culinary, but I know what I like. And I like California cuisine. It takes familiar foods and spices and combines them in a way that is not overpowering to the palate. It’s sort of like being in a park on a sunny California day, the temperature not overpowering, and lots of happy things going on around you.

Which brings me to the subject of originality. I connect it to Alice Waters by way of this passage from Theme & Strategy (Writer’s Digest Books) by Ronald Tobias:

We say we prize originality above all else in art. Originality is the artist’s brilliance, that indefinable something that is distinctly the artist’s and no one else’s. What gets lost in all that praise of individuality is that originality is nothing more than seasoning added to stock. Seasoning gives distinct flavor, its character or charm, if you will, and seasoning gives the distinct taste that immediately identifies the dish as unique. But we forget that the foundation remains the same, and that the chef and the diner both rely on that fact.

A chef’s genius is not to create a dish from original ingredients, but to combine standard ingredients in original ways. The diner recognizes the pattern established in the foundation of a baked stuffed turkey, and we look for the variation, the twist that will surprise and delight us. Perhaps it’s in the glaze or in the stuffing, something that makes that turkey different from all the other turkeys that came before it.

As you develop an idea for a story, start with the foundation, the pattern of action and reaction that is plot.

In my workshops I’m sometimes asked how to keep plot and structure from devolving into formulaic writing. My answer is similar to what Tobias says above. And what Alice Waters would say. You don’t cook an omelet with a watermelon. If I want an omelet, I want it made with eggs in a pan with some ingredients and spices. What those add-ons are and how they are proportioned make up the distinctiveness–the originality if you will–of the dish.

In the same way, structure is the eggs. It’s what readers expect from a story. They don’t want to be confused or frustrated. Of course, an author is free to write experimental fiction, which is also known by its unofficial name, Fiction That Doesn’t Sell.

But if you’re in this to make some dough, you’ll use familiar ingredients but you’ll spice them up with your unique brand of characterization, dialogue, and voice.

The late, great writing teacher Jack Bickham wrote the following in Scene & Structure (Writer’s Digest Books):

Mention words such as structure, form, or plot to some fiction writers, and they blanch. Such folks tend to believe that this kind of terminology means writing by some type of … predetermined format as rigid as a paint-by-numbers portrait.

Nothing could be further from the truth

In reality, a thorough understanding and use of fiction’s classic structural patterns frees the writer from having to worry about the wrong things, and allows her to concentrate her Imagination on characters and events rather than on such stuff as transitions and moving characters around, when to begin or open a chapter, whether there ought to be a flashback, and so on. Once you understand structure, many such architectural questions become virtually irrelevant — and structure has nothing to do with “filling in the blocks.”

Structure is nothing more than a way of looking at your story material so that it’s organized in a way that’s both logical and dramatic.

Don’t get ensnared by the ruinous idea that structure is the enemy of originality and this thing we call “story.” In fact, the opposite is true.

So become a great chef. Know your ingredients. Cook up a delicious tale by mixing the familiar with your unique blend of spices.

Your readers will eat it up.

What is your view of originality? What are some examples from writers you admire?

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First Page Critique: THE ARCANISTS

Artwork by Jean-Louis Grandsire, courtesy pixabay.com

Good morning, my friends, and thank you for visiting us at The Kill Zone today. Please join me in welcoming Anon du jour, who has bravely offered a submission entitled The Arcanists to our irregularly scheduled First Page Critique!

The Arcanists

“Remember, this isn’t a bust, so no ruckus,” he said.

“Sure.”

“I mean it.”

“Sure.”

“If things get tight, drop out.”

Grim waved behind her and strode toward the Gasping Grouse.

Not far off, a foghorn warded ships into port. A train rattled, tracking, like a harried squirrel, along the rails overhead.

Grim hunched her shoulders, shoved her hands in her deep pockets.

As she pushed past the wooden doors, a sulfur cloud of smoke and unwashed flesh wormed into her nostrils, wringing water from her eyes. She should have been used to this by now, but that didn’t stop her from wanting to cover her face with her sleeve.She kept her eyes low as she snaked between the bar and the tables, past rows of cardsharps and washed up sogs who didn’t know when to give in.

She found the informant gazing into a full tankard at the end of the room.

 

Grimhorn liked to settle her accounts with a lamb’s smile and a loaded spell deck in her overcoat pocket. The smile came free of charge. The deck was insurance.

You could never know many aces an informant was hiding in his vest, and Grim didn’t give two lashings if things got messy when they refused to pay up.

She leaned into the shadow of a brick wall and turned her collar up against the cold. Across the road, smoke and steam poured from the gaslit hub of the Gasping Grouse. Tonight’s quarry was a dream merchant with a penchant for fraud.

Grim’s partner, Gravehound, stood by as Grim flexed her mechanical left arm. He tossed his cigarette onto the cobblestone and stamped it out with his boot.

“Rusty gears?” he asked.

Grim shook her head. “Steelshifter’s metal. It don’t rust.”

“That isn’t cheap. How’d you get your hands on it?”

Grim smiled.

“You’re a piece of work,” Gravehound said.

“Don’t I know it.” Grim pulled a leather glove over her metal fingers. The steelshifter had fitted her just a week ago but the arm suited her almost as well as if she’d been born with it. And it had only cost her one month’s pay—after she’d bartered him down a little.

“I’m going in,” she said, patting the deck beneath her wool coat.

Gravehound clutched her arm.

She glanced back. His hair shone silver in the darkness, making him look far older than his twenty odd years.

 

Anon, The Arcanists appears to me to be aimed at the steampunk audience. Steampunk is not a genre that I reflexively reach for when looking for something to read, but a good story is a good story. Unfortunately, there are what I consider to be a couple of major flaw in your first page.

— Your story structure needs some work. You need some transition between the first section and the second sections of your story on this page. The transition 1) will connect them the sections and 2) advance the story.

Specifically, your first page is divided into two sections by a large paragraph break. These two sections appear to me to be alternative beginnings in a way.  They don’t really seem to connect and thus the story does not really advance. The first section begins with a person who we eventually learn is named “Grim” talking to… someone…for a few moments before Grim goes into a tavern called the Gasping Grouse and approaches an informant. Like Achilles chasing Zeno’s tortoise, however, they never quite meet up, at least on the page. We don’t know what the informant told Grim either generally or specifically in this section, and we don’t learn later. 

There is a paragraph break and things resume.  The second section has Grim, who we learn is also known as “Grimhorn,” and her companion, who we are now told is named “Gravehound,” once again standing outside of the Gasping Grouse. Grim is about to re-enter the establishment (apparently) with the intent of getting her quarry, who is referred to as the “dream merchant.” The section ends.

The first section should include some interaction between Grim and the informant, where the latter reveals where the dream merchant is, as well as a sentence or two indicating that Grim is leaving the premises. This will help you to advance the story to the second section. You can begin the second section with Grim and Gravehound discussing what she is going to do to apprehend the dream merchant and proceed accordingly.

— The second major flaw — and to my mind, the larger — is that what you have Grim doing makes no sense at all. If you go into a place to talk with an informant — particularly a crowded bar (you don’t go into a crowded bar to talk to an informant, by the way) — and the informant tells you that your target is at the bar, you don’t leave and then go back inside to get your target. If I go into a bar and talk to an informant who tells me, “Aye, the dream merchant is sitting at the bar, right over there, and is well into his cups!” and  then I leave, re-enter, and  grab the dream merchant, everyone, including the dream merchant, will know that my informant told me that he was in there. That’s a good way to lose an informant, not to mention one’s own eye. For your story’s sake, either put the dream merchant at another location (as revealed by Grim’s informant) or have Grim wait outside of the Gasping Grouse for the dream merchant and follow him for a couple of blocks before nabbing him.  

—  A third problem: when you begin a piece with two major characters having a conversation with each other you should name them both immediately. That way you get both characters established so that the reader will 1) have a better idea of who is saying what to whom and 2) begin to form a picture of those characters. You can then begin fleshing the characters out in the opening pages of the story.  You might also mention Grim’s  mechanical arm (even though you can’t flesh it out, heh heh) in the introductory paragraph. It sets Grim up as a badass from the jump.

There are a few other problems but those items are the story killers. All is not lost, however. I like the names and descriptions of your characters and the tavern (the Gasping Grouse is a terrific name for a dive bar) as well as your manner of describing the scenery. You set up mood and tone very well. It’s your substance and structure that need some work. Keep plugging away, Anon!

I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically quiet and open the floor to all who are assembled and inclined to comment. Thank you, Anon, for your submission.  Keep moving forward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Is Your Inciting Incident Strong Enough? – First Page Critique – The Edge

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

For your reading pleasure, we have the first 400 words of a novel submitted by an anonymous and brave author. It takes guts to share your baby with others on a public forum. I’ll provide my feedback below. Please share your constructive criticism in your comments.

The Edge

Naomi white-knuckled her steering wheel, working to stave off a panic attack as she drove eastbound on Route 50 toward Annapolis and the sanctuary of home. She’d flicked off the radio, as there was nothing but hurricane talk, so she didn’t even have that to distract her.

Where is the person I used to be? Or did I just think I was once someone different?

She focused on calming her breathing. The last thing she wanted was to have an all-out panic attack in full view of other post-work commuters while hurtling down the highway at seventy miles per hour. Her mind conjured a vision of losing control of the car and sailing off the side of the road into the trees. Then it skipped to crossing the median and into oncoming traffic, a reversal of what had happened to Wolfe’s late wife. Such thoughts and visions had to be beaten off with all the will she could muster.

“Get… a… grip,” she hissed, teeth clenched. Picture home.

She steered by rote, brushing aside more creeping mental images of passing out or having a heart attack—which only served to feed the anxiety. Inhaling, exhaling, one breath at a time, she slowly recovered some sense of control. Tension eased and her shoulders dropped. Calmer, her thoughts now turned to mulling over the day’s biggest challenge: the point at which she’d had to put on a neutral face while quashing down her humiliation.

Her phone rang, interrupting her thoughts. She tapped her hands-free device. “Hello?”

“Hey. How’s it going?”

Despite the blasting artificial chill of the car’s AC, warmth flooded her face and neck at the sound of Wolfe’s voice—and the news she had to tell him.

“I’m okay,” she answered, keeping her tone even.

“Uh oh. What happened?” His laconic voice belied an intensity and intelligence she admired, and which she believed many people didn’t immediately appreciate.

“I didn’t get it. I guess they just don’t see me as a leader. Sorry I didn’t call you earlier. I confess I was licking my wounds.”

He was silent a moment. “I’m sorry to hear that. You know they made a mistake in not giving it to you, right? Did you at least throw something at the person who got your promotion?”

“Clint got it. I guess they think he’s more qualified. Things work out like they’re supposed to, I hear.”

GENERAL COMMENTS

Before I give my feedback, I wanted to share my thoughts on where to start a novel. Since I am a thriller/crime fiction writer, I tend to start with a body or an act of violence or action that will change my protagonist’s life and tip it like a first domino colliding with others. An inciting incident disrupts the status quo and stirs things up in an intriguing way for the reader. It jump starts the story arcs and kicks off the plot to take its course.

An example of this is found in the first Hunger Games book where the inciting incident is a ‘district’ lottery drawing that forces Katniss into taking the place of her little sister in a fight to the death broadcast on a futuristic television show. That incident is a punch to the emotional gut of the reader who MUST turn the page to find out what happens.

But what if your inciting incident isn’t that dramatic? What can you do to strengthen your opener? 

Point of No Return – One benchmark for a solid inciting incident is that the protagonist can’t retreat once it starts. There should be a point of no return where the hero/heroine is forced to step out of his or her comfort zone and head into the abyss, to take a risk they hadn’t seen coming or that forces them into confronting their worst fears. It’s the author’s job to set the stage for the reader to discover why the hero or heroine deserves a starring role.

HERE is a link to a plotting method I’ve posted on my website under my FOR WRITERS section. It features the “W” plotting method and mentions the point of no return.

To Go Forward, You Sometimes have to Step Back – Ask yourself, what is my story about, the main thrust of the plot? Let’s call that a demarcation line. Now step back to a point where you find your protagonist, living in relative obscurity. What will drive him or her into stepping toward that demarcation line? What will stir, incite, or force them into making a move they might not otherwise? Then ask what would make that move a one-way trip? What is their point of no return, line in the sand moment? Picture a burned out mercenary, living as a hermit in the jungles of Venezuela, when a nun running an orphanage crosses his path. Their meeting may not be the point of no return, but when the villain in your story makes it his business to force the mercenary’s hand (threatening the children or the nun), the anti-hero takes action and can no longer live in obscurity. He’s forced to give up his life of anonymity and face his demons in order to do the right thing.

Questions to Ask About Your Inciting Incident to Make it Stronger:

1.) Review your current WIP for your inciting incident. Does it propel your protagonist (or even your antagonist) into your plot arcs?

2.) Is the inciting incident big enough to sustain a novel or propel it forward in a meaningful and realistic way? Are there enough building turning points to make it a journey?

3.) Are the stakes high enough to make the reader care?

4.) Does the inciting incident influence or jump start the main story question for your plot?

5.) Can your hero or heroine retreat from the inciting incident or is it significant enough to force a change into a new direction? In other words, do you have a legitimate point of no return where they are forced to cross that proverbial line in the sand?

FEEDBACK

I generally liked that the author started with Naomi white-knuckled behind a steering wheel, knowing there is a hurricane headed toward Annapolis (although Naomi quickly deflates that tension by wanting the distraction of the radio over ‘hurricane talk’). I looked up the area and hurricanes have hit this part of the country with devastating results in loss of lives.

But the minute Naomi retreated into her head, asking where her old self had gone, it was a head fake into a different direction that stutter-stepped into the next paragraph. In paragraph 3, there is more faked or forced emotion that takes place in her head, with an emphasis on “telling” what she’s feeling. The fabricated suspense of imagined car accidents and panic attacks are quickly deflated when Naomi gets a call and she says, “I’m okay.” The imaginary incidents reminded me of Calista Flockhart in Ally McBeal where her inner thoughts were more exciting and dramatic than her real life, but those were done with dark humor and dancing babies as her biological clock ticked down.

I had to wonder, as an aside, where Naomi could drive 70 mph on a packed commuter highway. It’s hard to tell if the other cars are stopped and she’s the only one careening across the lanes and through trees, since the action only takes place in her head.

I don’t know if the author intended for the reference to the death of Wolfe’s late wife by car accident is intentional and a foreshadowing. Let’s hope so, but I was confused by the description “a reversal of what had happened…,” deciphering between Naomi’s imagination and what might’ve happened to his wife. That description forced me to reread and I still didn’t understand.

In the dialogue we learn that she has lost a job promotion to someone else, Clint, and she seems to accept it like a worn welcome mat. The reader doesn’t know what she does for a living either. It’s hard to relate to Naomi or get invested in her life with an opener that is more about misdirection.

The author is capable of writing a suspenseful scene. There are good parts to this submission if the author can stay focused on visualizing the fictional world through Naomi’s eyes and how her emotions manifest in her body or her senses (showing rather than telling), but when the narrative drifts to imagined car accidents, fake heart attacks or passing out at the wheel, these descriptions read as ‘over the top’ and forced emotions as more of Naomi’s story is revealed about her losing a promotion to Clint, a co-worker.

Since we don’t know from this limited 400 word submission which direction the plot will go or what genre this is, we won’t know if Naomi is a mild-mannered woman capable of hiring a hit man to take out Clint to get her promotion or doing that job herself with hours spent at a gun range. Or did the author intend for this to be a taste of Naomi’s world until the hurricane hits and she discovers what’s really important in her life? We simply don’t know.

I think the author would have a more compelling start if the contrived emotions were stripped from this intro and we get to know more about Naomi and care about her. There’s a lot of pressure to getting a lot packed into 400 words, but this intro could orient the reader into Naomi’s world with the hint of foreshadowing where the story will go. It doesn’t have to be all action and suspense when the story is a drama about a woman’s struggle to find balance in her life and how she makes a dynamic change to make to happen. How would that story look?

Maybe Naomi has been hit in the teeth by losing another promotion to a better candidate because she is overlooked at every turn, but the impending hurricane forces her out of her comfort zone and she confronts her demons that change her forever. I would read that story.

 

DISCUSSION

1.) What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?

2.) What tips do you have for finding the right place to start your story? 

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First Page Critique: The Root of Atlan

photo by Laura Benedict

It’s a veritable feast of First Page Critiques this week here at Kill Zone. No one planned it this way, but it sure is fun. Today, we have a Fearless Writer and the opening of The Root of Atlan. The actual submission is just below, then my comments.

I hope you’ll weigh in as well.

The Root of Atlan

Day One

I woke to an excruciating headache and shouting. The last thing I remembered was walking through the airport after my flight and then what seemed like a bolt of lightning. When I pried my watering eyes open I found it was twilight or predawn and there were torches all around me. It hadn’t felt like I was unconscious but I definitely wasn’t where I had started and I was a bit groggy. I was surrounded by a number of other people, all of us lying on a circle of odd black stone ringed by tall stone pylons and mud.

My breath steamed in the chill air. Surrounding us were about fifteen men holding torches. They were dressed in brown leather armor and looked like they had stepped out of a fantasy novel. Looking closer at them I could see that they weren’t, strictly speaking, men. At least, not like men from home. Their faces resembled a cross between human and gorilla with dark ash-brown skin, receding chins with heavy jaws, and short, pushed-in noses surmounted by bald heads. Their faces were tattooed heavily.

They were armed with short, heavy swords and they were all heavily muscled. Overall, they made Neanderthals look elegant and poised in comparison. They were shouting at us incomprehensibly and I could see from the faces of my fellow travelers that they didn’t understand either.

A new group of the ape-men came into the circle of torches and began tying our hands behind us. When one of them got to me I fought back as best I could. I had been raped once and refused to be a victim again. Since I had spent the years since the rape learning how to defend myself, my best was actually pretty good despite my weakness and grogginess. It eventually took three of them working together to get me pinned so they could tie me up. I was not going to go along quietly with whatever they had planned.

Being tied up was never a start to anything good unless safe words and mutual consent were involved. I ended up wrapped up almost like a mummy and bruised over a significant portion of my body.

I wasn’t the only one who fought back, or even the most successful. One guy actually managed to get away, the last I saw of him was with a couple ape-men in hot pursuit, but I didn’t think he was going to make it. They moved pretty fast for their bulk and they looked angry. The rest of us were herded out of the muddy clearing we were in and down a path through some woods. The light grew as we headed out, but we missed the sunrise due to the heavy cloud cover.

We hiked for a couple hours until we came to an encampment. Off to one side, there were lines of what were almost horses if you could picture them with horns and split lips like a springbok. Their hides were brown and tan with barring or stripes in black and medium brown.

We were herded to the center of the encampment and ropes were tied around our necks. The ropes were then staked to the ground so that we couldn’t stand. Since our hands were still tied behind our backs it was almost impossible to get a grip on the stakes. We weren’t fed or given any water and those on the edges of the group were the targets of a kicking or cuffing as soldiers passed by. I had been heartened when I saw my pack and duffel along with a few other bags that were clearly from my fellows unloaded and put in a tent. If I could just get to them I had some stuff that might give me an edge in getting away.

My Comments

Dear Fearless Writer.

Please, take a breath. I feel like I’ve just read twenty pages of an action screenplay in 400 words. Relax. You have a whole novel to write.

This is what seems to be happening:

A traveler (male? female? transgender?) experiences some kind of time/place shift after a bolt of lightning, and “wakes” surrounded by shouting, tattooed, non-human creatures. Other travelers have been transported as well, and they all attempt to fight off the creatures. The creatures are determined to tie up the travelers, and lead them out of a muddy clearing and to an encampment. At the encampment, the travelers are staked to the ground with short ropes, then starved and beaten.

The Root of Atlan has an energetic, rather exciting premise, but there’s both too much and too little going on at once for a reader to get a good handle on the numerous scenes. Even though the storytelling is done in first person, the narration feels way too distant. Too dispassionate and detached, yet immediately observant of the scene. (i.e. facial details, numbers of men, black stone, pylons, mud, swords, etc.)

First person is, well, personal. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the past tense—it still needs to feel a bit raw and immediate. There’s pain and noise, but where is the confusion and terror? This traveler has come through a hole in the universe. Where’s the shock? The traveler is almost immediately attacked, and we get an explanation about this person having been raped, instead of the sweat and dirt and pain of the immediate fight. Treat the rape with the seriousness it’s due. It’s a great revelation that explains the character’s toughness, but let’s have a few demonstrations of that extraordinary toughness first. Then deepen the character.

(Get to know your character. Here are Proust’s 35 Questions, a survey of your character’s personality. I’m not saying you have to use all that you come up with or even fill it all out. But the more you know about your first-person character, the better grip you’ll have on their view of the world.)

“Being tied up was never a start to anything good unless safe words and mutual consent were involved.” Clever and amusing, but a weird aside for someone whose life is obviously in danger. Unless this is intended to be satire or comedy—and it doesn’t feel like it’s meant to be.

I count no fewer than three scenes in this opening:

–Traveler awakens in a strange place, surrounded not only by fellow travelers, but tattooed, angry locals who are joined by more locals, bent on tying them up. Travelers unsuccessfully fight back.

–Travelers go on a forced march (hike seems too tame a word).

–Travelers arrive in a camp, where they are tied down and starved.

Here’s a bit of practical advice. An exercise, if you will. Take one of these three scenes and work the heck out of it. Put yourself in it. You are the person fighting for your life. You’re the one waking up in a strange place, surrounded by angry, combative creatures. You’re the one who was on the way to the bathroom before you got transported, and you really had to pee, and you’re so freaked out you notice it happened without you realizing it but you barely notice because you’re being attacked by tattooed human/gorilla creatures brandishing swords!

Who are your fellow travelers? Do they count at all, or are they simply redshirts who will all be dead by the time you escape the encampment and go on with your adventures? Is there someone who fights bravely beside you that you will want to stay close to?

Your single traveler is not going to see everything at once. The forced march is a good time to observe more details about our fellow travelers, and the creatures—single one or two out that are especially frightening or you think might help you.

Write long. Indulge in the scene. Then come back and tighten it up and edit. You may not even use everything you write, but you will have observed it. Keep the vital, most visceral parts. Write the experience, not an overview of the experience.

Dialogue?

As I read through this the third time (I’m slow on the uptake, I guess), I realized there’s not a word of dialogue! Creatures are shouting unintelligibly, but the travelers don’t even offer a grunt. No one is screaming? No one is crying for her mother? No one is saying, “Get your hands off of me, you damned dirty ape!”? (Sorry, I have zero idea how to punctuate that sentence.) The lack of dialogue is a big part of the narrator’s detachment from the story.

Mention the duffel or the absence of the duffel sooner. I really like the idea that it exists and that the traveler wants the stuff inside it. We can already see what the traveler’s first action mission will be.

Think about opening the book with your character already escaped from the encampment and living in this strange new world. You don’t need to start at the very beginning of the traveler’s arrival—surprise us.

Go and read the beginning of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend to see how he immediately immerses the reader in the story. The scenario—that the world is now inhabited by zombies and Robert Neville is the last man—is not the story. It’s a masterful tale of humanity and hope and survival.

Then show us what you know about your protagonist. It’s a fascinating premise and has great potential to be a terrific tale. Take your time. Enjoy the ride. Have fun with it.

TKZers, what are your thoughts on this submission?

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First Page Critique: A Raging Need To Kill

Photo purchased from Shutterstock.

Today we’re critiquing the first page of A RAGING NEED TO KILL, which was submitted anonymously by a reader. I’ll add my comments at the end, and then please give your feedback in the Comments.

A Raging need to Kill

Lilli missed her mom and she hated her dad, Henry, but she still cooked dinner just for him. Lilli opened the oven door and ducked over the golden brown turkey to check if it was done. When she poked the turkey with the fork, a piece fell off, she picked it up, and threw it in the trash bin. A smile spread on her face. “Perfect,” she whispered. She stirred in rosemary seasoning, butter, and garlic salt into the cubed potatoes. Thanksgiving dinner was ready when Henry walked into the living room with a beer in his hand.

Lilli’s mom, Kaitlin, had insisted on having the dinner each year and Lilli was determined to honor her tradition even though Kaitlin was dead. Henry walked closer to Lilli and rested his back against the wooden cabinet. The mouth-watering smell of turkey and cranberry sauce was overpowered by the smell of beer mixed with nicotine, wet hay, and manure.

“Did you prep the girls for the auction?” he asked Lilli, making her neck tense up.

“Not yet, sir. I’ll do it after dinner,” Lilli said while she stared at the yellow stains on the backsplash. She resisted moving even if every cell in her body wanted to step a couple feet away, instead she clenched her jaw to steady her uneasiness.

“Are you hungry, Dad?” she asked trying to remind him that she was his daughter.

“She’s not here anymore. Don’t hold on to the past, Lilli. It’ll be easier,” he said in a calm voice but she still noticed his irritation. He took a step closer to her and she grabbed a plate, served the potatoes and turkey, walked to the table, and back to the kitchen.

After serving two dinner plates for the two of them, she sat at the small wooden table. Henry ate the dinner and after a few minutes, he put down the fork and looked at Lilli with suspicion. “What did you put in the food? You haven’t touched yours. What, you poisoned me?”

“No, Dad,” she said and looked down with a small smirk.

He got up and tried to steady himself with the table. His eyes looked disoriented and he reached out for her but she staggered backwards. He threw a punch at her but Lilli ducked and he missed her.

My comments:

Whoa, talk about a dysfunctional family! I felt the bleakness of the narrator’s world as I was reading this page. I appreciate the way the writer used small details to put the reader inside the Lilli’s POV, such as her staring at the yellow stains on the backsplash.

This scene definitely made me want to learn more about Lilli’s world. I would suggest doing an editing pass to tidy up some punctuation and break up sentences for rhythm and flow.

I would also suggest rearranging the dialogue between Lilli and Henry to increase the tension in the following exchange.

Henry ate the dinner and after a few minutes, he put down the fork and looked at Lilli with suspicion. “What did you put in the food? You haven’t touched yours. What, you poisoned me?”

I suggest breaking up the something like this:

Henry ate the dinner. After a few minutes, he set down his  fork.

 

“You haven’t touched your dinner.”

 

“No, Dad.” Lilli stared down at her plate and stifled a smirk.

 

”You put something in the food?” Henry staggered to his feet, then tried to steady himself against the table. “What, you poisoned me?”

In general, job well done! I’m hoping we will find out in the next page whether Lilli did in fact poison Henry. (Sounds like he deserved it).

Our thanks go out to today’s brave writer for submitting this first page! TKZers, how did you react to this first page? Please share your feedback in the Comments.

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First Page Critique – “My Special Messenger”

An analysis by Larry Brooks

As usual with these First Page Critiques, here is the untouched submission, followed by a hands-on analysis. Also as usual, caveats apply.

First page critiques provide a valid quick first look at a writer’s narrative skills, and perhaps, how they launch a scene. And in a rarer instance, some visibility as to how that opening scene launches a story.  That said, first pages – and first scenes, for that matter – are unique among all the pages and scenes that appear in a finished novel. The criteria is different. The context and the mission is different. And because it doesn’t demand either a payoff within the confines of a “first page,” nor does it need to be completely clear (often the comments offered on a first page, perhaps because so little else is contextually available, seems to criticize a lack of a sense of what the story will end up being about), any input to it beyond the writing itself, at a story level, should come with an asterisk.

Heck, we don’t even know the genre yet, something virtually every reader of every published novel knows before they even pick it up from a bookshelf, or click the BUY NOW button on Amazon or elsewhere online.

Here is today’s first page, asterisks and caveats implied, as submitted:

*****

Charlotte clutched the armrest with a vice-like grip. The plane pitched. Black clouds loomed outside the window.

I’m going to die!

A chime sounded. The seatbelt sign lit up.

I knew this would happen.

She squeezed her eyes tightly shut.

Think of something nice. Freshly shaved truffles–Domingo singing O Sole Mio–Rosy waiting for me at the airport.

Reaching up with a trembling hand, she twisted the air vent nozzle to full. A baby screamed in the row behind.

Shit! ­­­– Another frigging bump. I don’t like this. Get me off this plane!

The wine in her glass sloshed from side to side. She gulped it down.

I need another drink.  

Thoughts flashed through her brain so fast, everything blurred. She’d been impulsive, booking this trip. And she desperately needed a change. But this? Going half-way around the world? Perhaps she be running away from her problems. Perhaps she should have done something safe and boring, like she’d always done.

She jumped when she felt a gentle touch on her arm.

“About a million people travel safely by plane every day,” said an accented voice in her ear. “Statistically speaking, you’d have to fly every day for nearly two hundred years to experience a problem.”

Was it that obvious she was scared? Could the stranger hear her heart hammering?

She looked into the rheumy eyes of the man in the aisle seat. An elderly gentleman swathed in an immaculate pinstripe suit two sizes too big leaned toward her.

Ravi Shankar!—Is Ravi Shankar still alive?

Enormous eyebrows sat like whiskery caterpillars on the stranger’s broad forehead, tufts of white hair sprouting from his ears. A spotless white handkerchief peeked from his lapel, and the Band Aid on his chin showed evidence of a tour of his facial terrain by an unsteady hand.

He patted Charlotte’s arm with a sinewy hand.

“I think of turbulence as bumps on a road. Does it bother you when you’re in a car and go over a few potholes?”

“No.”

“Then imagine the sky as a big road and the plane as a car. A couple of bumps won’t make a difference to a safe journey. Besides, there’s less traffic up here.”

He let out a high-pitched chuckle, covering his mouth as a cough caught in his throat. Pulling out the handkerchief, he dabbed beneath his eyes. A piece of paper floated from his lap beneath his seat.

“Oh! My landing form. I didn’t fill it out yet since my eyesight’s not too good these days. I’m a bit concerned I may do something wrong. Would you mind helping me please, young lady?”

Charlotte unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned down to retrieve the form from below his seat. The stranger handed her a sterling silver fountain pen with the initials “RCF” engraved into the cap.

“Use this. It’s my lucky pen. Perhaps it will make the flight smoother.”

******

A Few Comments

First impressions: I like this. It has a sense of being in the moment, and it is something to which we can relate. It also has a dash of wit, countering a hint of fear. And a final line that leaves a question mark – perhaps compelling, perhaps not – that may be addressed on the next line page… or not.

Short of a few comments on specific lines – the low hanging fruit of editing – I don’t have much beyond this positive overall take away. And yet, in many first page panels I’ve seen (at workshops) and read (here, and elsewhere), there seems to be an obligation to find something to criticize, all of it, of course, within the context of trying to find something to help.

But in this piece… honestly, I think it works. Do I know what the story is yet? Not at all. Unless accompanied by a short synopsis that includes, at a minimum, the target genre, it’s impossible to tell. Are we reading the first plucked strings of a love story? A setup for a seduction, perhaps one with nefarious intentions? Will the plane crash land and strand these two on an island?

We don’t know. Should we criticize it because we don’t know? Absolutely not. Full disclosure is not the mission, or even the expectation, of a functional first page. Rather, highest mission is simple and clear, beyond delivering narrative that makes sense either in or out of context.

That mission is simply this: does the page make the reader want more?

My answer here is hell yes. Not so much because of the story – there’s not a lot of story here yet – but because of the writing. I think this writer has some chops, and this story may have legs. Chops and legs combine tend to become a sum that exceeds either part.

So, not to short-change this writer, here are a few little nits. There aren’t many.

When you say, “Perhaps she be running away from her problems,” I’m not sure if you’re trying to be colloquial or if it’s an outright omission of a word or two. Either way, it doesn’t seem to fit the tone. The italicized inner thoughts you offer don’t sound like someone quoting from Shakespeare or Eminem, which this particular line does.

Your narrator poses the rhetorical question: “Was it that obvious she was scared?” and does so in an odd way… because this isn’t an inner thought, which you show in italicized first person. And yet, by definition it is an inner thought, a musing, because an omniscient narrator wouldn’t pose the question, while she absolutely would. And yet, it’s clunky, because it’s pretty darn obvious – to the reader and to the guy sitting next to her – that she actually is scared out of her mind. He notices, which is why he reaches out to her. So posing the question makes her seem a little dim, a little less than self-aware.

The initial description of the Ravi Shankar-esque seat mate… wonderfully done. But you can do better than a “sinewy” hand. You’re being sarcastic in describing him, be sarcastic in describing his hand, too. Like, “his hand looked like it belonged to Keith Richards.”

For a moment, after that paper slips from his lap, we don’t know who is speaking the next line of dialogue. ‘ “Oh! My landing form,” he said’… might work better.

And a landing form – whatever that is… I’m not sure, do we need a slip to land? If you’re suggesting a customs slip to land in another country, say that instead. Otherwise, this sounds like the author has never been on an airplane before.

See, I’m having to work hard to find something to help here.

If there is one thing that might make it stronger, I’d say to give us some stronger hint of what’s coming in a dramatic/story arc sense. A bit more of a hook. A little nub of foreshadowing. Remember, in virtually any genre that isn’t “literary fiction,” it isn’t a story until something goes wrong. And while it doesn’t have to go wrong on the first page (in fact, it really shouldn’t), it helps if we get a sense of something that will be happening, even if it is barely discernable, which is a bit light here. Short of that paper drop, which doesn’t really qualify as a hook, and the assumption that the airplane isn’t about to crash, there’s not much of a sense of what that might be.

A nice start, me thinks. Says the guy who doesn’t recommend trying to sound Shakespearean, ever.

What are your thoughts on this first page submission?

This is my last Killzone post.

I’d like to thank the folks who run and contribute to this post for inviting me and tolerating me. These two years have been rewarding, and I’ve connected with a lot of writers who I wouldn’t have bumped into otherwise.

I’m in the midst of reinventing and relaunching my website, Storyfix.com, working in conjunction with writing guru and contributing writer Art Holcomb. I invite you to check it out (there are nearly 1000 posts archived on all forms of the craft of writing fiction), and if you like what you see, subscribe to the email feed.

I’ll remain active in this wonderful community of writers, though, chipping in when I feel I can contribute.

I wish massive success for you all. And I join you in welcoming my friend Sue Coletta, who slides into my every-other-Monday seat here armed with a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm to share.

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Use NaNoWriMo to Repo Your Mojo

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Yes, it’s almost here, November—which is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This singular event challenges writers all over the world to complete a 50,000 word (or more) novel in only one month.

I’ve participated a few times in the past and produced a couple of published books out of it. (Not, I quickly note, without a lot of revision work!) While that is all well and good, there is perhaps a better reason for jumping in—to recapture the joy of writing.

I love the NaNo vibe. Writers writing. Newbies trying. Keyboards clacking. Coffee brewing. Possibilities awakening. It’s a major accomplishment to finish a novel. To do it in one month is astounding.

Of course, it’ll only be a first and very rough draft. But it will exist. You can let it sit for a month and then figure out what to do with it. One likely outcome is that you’ll use it as a “discovery draft” that now allows you to structure a re-write. Another is that the novel never sees the light of day. That’s fine, so long as you get some writing lessons out of it. Analyze the draft. Judge your craft. Make a plan to strengthen your skills.

At the very least you will have proved something to yourself. Unless you’re a full-time writer, averaging 1667 words a day is hard. Doing so for a month stretches you. When you get back to your normal rate of production, try to up it by 10% now that you’ve gone through NaNo.

Here are three other NaNo tips:

Plan

NaNoWriMo is catnip for pantsers. But a little planning (starting today) can make all the difference in your final product.

First, take a day to do some free-form journaling on your idea. Who it’s about, why it matters, why anybody should care. Jot down scene ideas that come to mind, in random order.

Second, take one day to define your concept with a three sentence “elevator pitch.” This will be your plumb line, what keeps you from getting too far away from the essence of your story. Even if you go down rabbit trails, you can use this to get yourself back on the main track. (On the form of an elevator pitch, see my TKZ post here.)

Finally, brainstorm a tentative “mirror moment” for your main character. This beacon of light will help you find your way if you get stuck in the dark.

Write

Check out my 10 tips for powering through NaNoWriMo.

Try to get a “nifty 350” words done the very first thing in the morning (or second, after you get the coffee going … hey, maybe invest in a coffee maker with a timer!)

Don’t edit your work except for a quick review of your daily pages. If you can do that review right before hitting the sack, so much the better. Your “boys in the basement” will work through the night and you can dive into writing the next morning.

Take Part

Go to NaNoWriMo.org and sign up. It’s free, and will give you access to “pep talks” and local groups of participants.

Even if you’re not going for a NaNoWriMo “win,” you can still use November to re-charge your writing batteries. Cheer others on via social media and get excited about their progress. Use that positive energy in your own writing. Set a November goal. Try upping your quota for the month. Or complete the development of a new project.

But whatever you do, do it with a sort of wild abandon. Be a “crazy dumbsaint of the mind,” as Kerouac put it. Repossess your writing mojo. Then spread that out for a year, when you’ll come up to November again!

Anyone planning on doing NaNoWriMo this year? How about your past experience with it? Any tips for those who are about to try?

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First Page Critique: Where To Start The Story

By Mark Alpert

Hooray! Last Thursday I finished the first draft of my latest novel and sent the manuscript to my editor at St. Martin’s. Now, as I await her comments, I’ll take a stab at editing a first-page submission from one of our anonymous contributors.


Title: The Crichlow Chronicles

On the port

23rd November 2016, 9pm

Crichlow bundled his raven dreadlocks into the woogie from his wrist and
slid his cellphone across the pock-marked kitchen table.  The evening
breeze drew a bead of sweat from his temple and brought into the kitchen
the chatter of people moving through the shanty like ants.  But Crichlow’s
mind was elsewhere.  He narrowed his gaze, struggling not to watch Shenice,
almost naked in her cheap g-string busy at the metal sink that looked out
into the tiny yard.  Her narrow caramel back blossomed into rounded
buttocks so supple the sight of them made Crichlow fidget every time.

But he had to focus.  He tapped out two words on his cell almost
imperceptibly.  Even as she was turned away from his gaze, Crichlow could
tell by the slight shift of her hips that Shenice knew he was watching
her.  The words were: “Moving now”, and with that he hit send and lay the
phone down silently, sliding it under the folded Express newspaper.

Far below, the port lights drench the warped tarmac: a crane light traced
the trajectory of a 40-ft steel container, placing it behind a tumbled wall
overgrown with vines.  On spot you would have heard a fat rat squeal its
way along the cracked concrete.  Crichlow, dressed in navy trunks that were
stretched taut across his onyx thighs, stood and took two lithe steps
across the uneven floor of the board house to stand beside her.  He could
feel the heat coming off her lean shoulders and with a finger he delicately
traced the line of her collar bone.  Out of the corner of his eye he noted
the movement of the port crane light far below and swore silently.  He
would have to get down to Wrightson Road and back before the night was
done.  But there was another more pressing matter: first he would need to
tire Shenice to sleep, and he knew just how.  When he had joined the SIA
field agents, the others had joked:  “Prof – there’s always work to be
done.”  He had grinned to peals of laughter from the other men around the
table.  “Know your priorities,” another had chimed in, “then make sure and
get them all done.”

So, tonight that was his plan.

He turned his head slightly, away from the opening that was their kitchen
“window” to watch Shenice directly, just as she swivelled round…


The first sentence got my attention, mostly because of “woogie.” I love that word! I could tell from the context that it’s a hair tie of some kind, and after a bit of Googling I learned that it’s a British Caribbean term, used in places such as Jamaica and Trinidad. At first I thought this might also be a clue to the geographic location of this scene, but later on there’s a mention of the Express, which is a newspaper in the U.K., so then I began to wonder whether the characters were Caribbeans who’d emigrated to a port city in England? On the other hand, Shenice is doing the dishes in her G-string, which suggests a more tropical location. I usually like to know right away where a novel is set, so unless the author has a very compelling reason to keep the location secret, I recommend that he/she mention the name of the port city at the very beginning of the piece. (Instead of “On the port,” which is maddeningly vague, especially given how specific the time stamp is — 9 pm on November 23rd!)

The second sentence confused me, though. How could the evening breeze “draw” the bead of sweat from Crichlow’s temple? Is the breeze evaporating the drop of sweat or triggering the secretion of a new one? I’d pick a different verb to replace “drew” – maybe “dried” if that’s what the author means. And the second part of the sentence was even more confusing. Maybe that’s because I think of “shanty” as a single dwelling, but the author perhaps intends it to mean the whole neighborhood of shanties where the scene is set. If that’s the case, he/she should replace it with “shantytown” or something similar. And the ant metaphor doesn’t work here, because the author is describing the chatter of the people in the shantytown, and ants hardly make any noise at all when they’re scurrying around. Besides, no metaphor is needed; just change it to “the chatter of people moving through the alleys of the shantytown” or something like that. In the first few sentences, it’s usually best to keep things concrete. Save the metaphors for later.

I’ve always been a huge fan of nudity, but the image of Shenice at the sink in her G-string struck me as a bit odd. I’m not knocking it; I’m just saying it’s not typical dishwashing attire, even in the tropics. Later on, in the second paragraph, Crichlow senses that Shenice is putting on this show for his benefit, but I think he would’ve realized it earlier. If it happened to me, I’d be like “Whoa!” right from the start. Also, why call it a “cheap” G-string? That seemed kind of petty, as if Crichlow were thinking, “Yeah, she put on a G-string, but it’s not the fancy Victoria’s Secret number, so I’m not impressed.” And then there’s the awkward juxtaposition of the cell phone message “Moving now” right after the description of Shenice’s shifting hips. It’s not until the third paragraph that we realize that Crichlow is describing the decidedly unsexy motion of a crane and a shipping container.

Which brings me to what I think is the main problem with this opening: It’s not starting at the right place. One of the best places to start a thriller is at the inciting incident, the event that sets the plot in motion. In the case of this novel, I think the inciting incident is Crichlow’s observation of the moving crane, which is important enough to him that he sends the news to whomever he’s communicating with on the cell phone. But if this is truly the book’s crucial opening event, the author needs to fully describe Crichlow’s reaction to it: was he expecting it to happen now, or is it happening too soon? Does it make him nervous, or is he taking it in stride like a cool, calm professional SIA agent? (That acronym bothered me too. Is it a real intelligence agency? If it’s fictional, why make it so similar to CIA?) Later on, Crichlow looks at the light again and “swore silently,” which made me think that things were going awry somehow, but I’m just guessing. I want to be in his head more. I want to know what he’s feeling.

Perhaps Crichlow is simply upset that he needs to go out and do some spy work, but he’d rather have sex with Shenice right now. But in the end he decides he has time to do both: first sex, then spying. And that also struck me as odd. His hope is that she’ll fall asleep right after sex, and then he’ll be free to go down to the port, but what if she doesn’t fall asleep afterwards? What if she wants to talk instead? It’s been known to happen. And if the movement of the shipping container is truly the momentous, inciting incident of the book, then it should require urgent, immediate action on the part of the narrator. How long is the sex going to take? I assume that Shenice will need to have an orgasm before she can fall asleep, so we’re talking more than two or three minutes. Won’t Crichlow be worried about the shipping container in the meantime? Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to come up with an excuse — “Gotta go, Shenice, there’s an emergency at work” — and take care of business first?

But this is all assuming that the movement of the container is the story’s trigger, an event of utmost importance to Crichlow. If it isn’t, then the story should start somewhere else. Maybe the inciting incident should happen after the sex: the novel opens with Crichlow lying awake in bed next to Shenice, who’s already fast asleep with a big smile on her face, and he sees the movement of the crane out the window. Then he jumps out of bed, throws on his clothes, runs down to the port, etc. It would be a much faster opening, a much quicker plunge into the book’s plot, and that’s exactly what the reader wants at the start of a thriller.


Barnes & Noble is running a special promotion for my Young Adult novel THE SIX (the first book in the trilogy). Until Oct. 23, you can buy a Nook ebook version of THE SIX for only $2.99. They’re practically GIVING IT AWAY! Here’s the link to the special bargain.

P.S.: And don’t worry if you don’t have a Nook reader; apparently, you can download free software that allows you to read a Nook ebook on a smartphone, tablet or computer.

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