The Agony and Ecstasy of Starting Over

If the wine is sour, throw it out. — Michelangelo

By PJ Parrish

Have you ever wanted to just say the hell with it and give up?

I have. I’ve been publishing fiction in one form or another since 1980 and I can’t count the number of times I have wanted to pack it in and go drive the cart at the airport for a living. Sometimes it was a bad editor who brought this on. Or being dropped from a publisher (twice). Or doing too many book signings where the only people who showed up were the staff and a homeless guy trying to get out of the rain. Or being caught in the dreaded Barnes & Noble Death Spiral. (this is an official term for the dynamic of mediocre-sales-so-we-won’t-stock-you-but-no-way-to-increase-sales-because-we-won’t-carry-your-books.

Or sometimes it was simply because I thought I had run out of energy or worse, ideas. But maybe the worst kind of giving up is the one where you have invested a lot of time and energy into a book and there’s this little voice inside your head whispering, “This is pure crap.”  And you know the voice is telling you the truth.

When is it time to give up on a story and start over?

Michelangelo is the one who got me thinking about this. Or actually, Charleton Heston. Last weekend, my bad cold had me mainlining old movies and I happened upon The Agony and the Ecstasy.  Charleton Heston as the artist and Rex Harrison as the pope who commissions him to paint the Sistine Chapel. Good movie, based on the bestselling novel by Irving Stone. Michelangelo is maybe a couple hundred feet into his backbreaking project but he’s haunted by self-doubt — especially over the fresco he has painted depicting the face of God. He retreats to a tavern, where he sketches the peasants as models for apostles. But it’s God’s face who taunts him. Michelangelo takes a drink of wine, spits it out and yells, “This wine is sour!”  The tavern owner tastes it, agrees, and uncorks the cask onto the floor, saying, “If the wine is sour, throw it out!”

Michelangelo has his epiphany. He goes back to the chapel and takes a scythe to God’s face, scraping it off.  A year of work demolished. He starts over.

If the wine is sour, throw it out.

Flashback to 1998. I am writing my first attempt at a mystery. My first chapter opens with a Miami homicide detective sitting in a fishing boat in the Everglades. She is thinking…mourning…remembering…her husband who got blown up in a drug deal gone bad. Do you see the problem? She is thinking. She is…doing nothing. If you don’t get it, go back into TKZ archives and search for any of James Scott Bell’s posts on characters thinking and not doing.

I finished that first book and sent it out to agents. I got oh, maybe twelve rejections. Not one agent was kind enough or smart enough to tell me what was wrong. I tossed the whole book and started over. About two years later, the first book in the Louis Kincaid series got published. (For the record, it opens with Louis unearthing a shallow grave in rural Mississippi and finding a skeleton with a rotted noose around its neck).

Okay, flash forward to now. After our book She’s Not There was published last year by Thomas & Mercer, they asked to see a sequel that centered on a subplot featuring a secondary character named Clay Buchanan. Six chapters poured out of my laptop. I was on a roll.

Then this little voice started whispering. I ignored it, plowing on through a hundred pages. Finally, I went back and re-read Chapter 1.

I had opened with my protagonist Clay Buchanan sitting in a boat in an Arkansas bayou. He is a skip tracer by trade but also an avid bird-watcher.  He has come looking for a woodpecker that’s supposedly extinct. But he is thinking about his wife and infant son who disappeared ten years ago. This quest is supposed to a metaphor for his hopeless search for something lovely that he knows is really dead. Beautiful chapter, full of poignancy, dripping with Spanish moss and symbolism.

You’d think I would have learned something in twenty years.

Yesterday, I threw it out, all hundred pages.  It took me five months to get to this point. That’s a lot of wine on the floor.  But it had to be done. The idea for the book is solid but the first five chapters are not working. I knew it in my heart.

Why do we resist starting over? Well, after twenty years, I’ve got my thoughts.

Deadlines: It may be an actual contract deadline, or one you set yourself (I will finish this book by July! I will write 1500 words per day!) It is also the pressure of our genre, the idea that you won’t get noticed or survive unless you can produce good books at a steady clip.

Deadlines can be bad — the tyranny of the ticking clock can make you burp out some bad stuff.  But deadlines can be good — a finite amount of time forces you to write instead of playing Spider Solitaire or folding laundry).  Deadlines can make you angry. Deadlines can make you feel frustrated and exhausted. As a classic procrastinator, I’ve learned it’s best to try to embrace a deadline. Think of it as having a pet porcupine.

Self-doubt: This can be bad because it can eat away at your soul. (I’ll never get published. I can never write as well as fill-in-the-blank. I’m out of good ideas.). But self-doubt can be good because it forces you to slow down, reassess and reflect. When things look dark, sometimes it’s not a bad idea to pump the brakes so you don’t drive off the cliff. If your novel is going badly, you might need to set it aside, let the frustration cool, and go back later. Divorce or reconciliation? It’s easier to decide with a clear head instead of a heavy heart.  Some books can, with hard work, be saved. Others have to be abandoned.

Negative people: This can be bad because sometimes you have to literally live with these folks. Your spouse might not be supportive enough. Your friends might tell you your wasting your time. Your “real” job screams at you like a harpy. But it can be good if you’ve got someone in your life who can, with a clear critical eye and kind heart, tell you when your book has lost its way. All of us want praise. But what we really need are folks –a trusted beta reader or a good critique group — who will tell us “This ain’t working.”

Now I can hear some of you saying, “Okay, that’s the agony. When does the ecstasy kick in?”

I can’t say. It’s a personal thing. Each of us handles disappointment and defeat in his or her own way.  I can only say that once I made the decision to throw away the first hundred pages of Clay’s story, I felt…good.  Like Michaelango, I had a clean white canvas again. I’ve been here before. I can do it again. I’ve only got, oh, about 100,000 words to go…



First Page Critique: Somewhere in Texas

Today we’re reviewing the first page of a historical novel entitled ‘Somewhere in Texas’. As always, my comments follow

Title: Somewhere in Texas

Autumn, 1850

McLennan County, Texas. 

“I did not travel five-hundred miles cramped in stuffy stagecoaches, with the never-ending prattle of gossiping women, to wait now.” Father’s voice grew in volume as Ellena Bradbury drew the curtain back and peeked through the narrow carriage window.

The cowboy he addressed set his battered hat on his head. “Suit yourself, mister. Y’all can wait in the house for the boss.” He motioned to his right, then turned to lumber away.

Father pulled the carriage door open, his thin lips tight beneath an equally thin mustache, as he offered his hand. “Come, Ellena.”

Ellena shifted away from the window. “’Twas a long drive from the village.”

“After traveling so great a distance from Louisiana to Houston, the short drive seems especially lengthy.”

Ellena slipped from the muggy carriage into blazing Texas heat, and drew in a deep breath.

A huge, single-story house stood before her, its crude plank siding dark in the shade of a wide porch. Black and white spotted chickens pecked the barren yard, only to lift their heads and squawk in alarm when they saw her.

Beyond the structure, McLennan County rolled away in pastures of sun-dried grass.

Beautiful, though not as picturesque as home.

Ellena pivoted and clasped her hands. “Where are the horses and longhorns?”

“Hush.” Her father’s blue-eyed gaze pointed beyond her as he arched dark brows.

Behind him in the high seat, the carriage driver lifted the reins to slap them against the horses’ backs. He stilled then inched up to stand. “Lord, have mercy.” His base tone sent a shiver through Ellena.

She spun around, but everything was as it should be. House in place. Peaceful, dry pastures waived in the breeze.

What did the carriage driver see from his high perch? Ellena stood on her tiptoes. A red-tailed hawk sailed through the sky, screeching as it dove low and out of sight. Father stepped to her side and a wind gusted only to cease into eerie stillness.

The hairs on the back of her neck rose. “What is it, Father?”

The pounding of a horse’s hooves on earth sounded far off. Ellena held her breath as the pattern grew louder.

A man raced around the side of the house on horseback, his red shirt bright against a black vest. “Stampede! Stampede!” He reined in near the porch, his lean muscular body taut as his gaze met hers then narrowed. “Run!”


Overall, I think this first page successfully evokes a sense of time and place and introduces a dramatic initial element which has the potential to keep a reader turning the pages. I liked how the writer chose to begin with an approaching stampede, but there were a few minor issues which almost pulled me out of the story, and I think there were a few missed opportunities to make this first page even more compelling.

The first of these was backstory: Now in a first page we certainly don’t want any dump of backstory information, but I did want just a sentence or two to give me a little more context for Ellena and her father’s move to Texas – something that would add emotional depth to the characters and their feelings upon their arrival. Initially in this first page, it sounded like they were coming to a place they’d recently bought, but when the cowboy tells them dismissively they can wait for the boss, I wasn’t entirely sure why they were there (which is fine, but I’d prefer a hint so I care more about why they’ve come). Dropping just an intriguing snippet or two would do – anything to make this first page also stand out in terms of specificity. At the moment it verges on being a little too generic (outsiders coming to ranch, unprepared for the realities or dangers etc.). I’d like to feel more intrigued…Why have they come from Louisiana? What have they left behind? Why is it just Ellena and her father?

Specificity when it comes to characters also provides much needed emotional resonance. I wanted to understand how Ellena felt about coming to Texas so I could care more about her as a character. The line ‘Beautiful, though not as picturesque as home‘ is the perfect set up for just a sentence or two to capture her emotions and contrast her expectations to the realities she sees before her.

Another aspect of specificity is the use of dialogue. I thought the dialogue in this first page sounded reasonably authentic (though I’m no expert on 1850’s America) but perhaps it could have been used to capture her father’s Louisiana accent (if he has one) or to give the reader a better sense of their background. Both Ellena and her father sound more upper-class, almost English to my ear (especially with Ellena saying ’twas a lengthy drive the village’ – would they even use that term for a town in Texas??) so it would be helpful to have some context for this.

I did get a little confused towards the end of this first page with the paragraph: Behind him in the high seat, the carriage driver lifted the reins to slap them against the horses’ backs. He stilled then inched up to stand. “Lord, have mercy.” His base tone sent a shiver through Ellena. I’m not familiar with horses but wouldn’t slapping the reins against their backs signal them to start moving? Also I wasn’t sure what ‘stilled then inched up’ or  ‘base tone’ really meant.  Similarly, I thought saying the man ‘raced around the side of the house on horseback’ sounded clunky. These are all easy fixes, but they will help keep a reader grounded in the scene.

Finally, I would perhaps edit out the descriptions of people’s gazes / eyes and focus more on the landscape to give a sense of foreboding – for instance the phrase ‘blue-eyed gaze pointed beyond her as he arched dark brows‘ seemed a little clumsy. And, finally, a nitpicky comment:  When the initial title specifies ‘McLennan County, Texas’, I’m not sure it adds anything for the reader to then say: McLennan County rolled away in pastures of sun-dried grass. Just keep one or the other – it is repetitious on a first page to have both.

Overall, kudos to our brave writer for submitting this – I think it has the makings of a compelling first page! What do you think fellow TKZers?


What’s the Deal on Dreams in Fiction?

by James Scott Bell

Check out this first page from a brave author:

The house alarm is screaming out, not the early-warning beep but the piercing you’re-totally-screwed-if-you-don’t-move-now squeal. I don’t know how long it’s been going off, but it’s too late for me now. The searing oven-blast heat within the four corners of my bedroom. The putrid black smoke that singes my nostril hairs and pollutes my lungs. The orange flames rippling across the ceiling above me, dancing around my bed, almost in rhythm, a taunting staccato, popping and crackling, like it’s not a fire but a collection of flames working together; collectively, they want me to know, as they bob up and down and spit and cackle, as they slowly advance, This time it’s too late, Emmy—

The window. Still a chance to jump off the bed to the left and run for the window …

The author is Mr. James Patterson (along with his co-writer David Ellis). The novel is Invisible. Mr. Patterson is “brave” for choosing this opening gambit, for later on in the scene we learn the above is only a dream!

And that simply isn’t done.

At least you would think so if you’ve spent any significant amount of time around writers talking writing. Surely at least once a week, in some critique group somewhere, someone is uttering, as if citing stone tablets, that you must never begin a novel with a dream. Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One (Writer’s Digest Books), is unequivocal:

Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character’s merely dreaming it all. Not unless you’d like your manuscript hurled across the room, accompanied by a series of curses. Followed by the insertion of a form rejection letter into your SASE and delivered by the minions of our illustrious postal service.

Les brings up a practical matter. If you’re submitting to an editor (remember the old days of the SASE?) and you pull the dream-opening thing, it’s almost certain he or she will consider your manuscript amateur hour.

But what do readers think?

The aforementioned Mr. Patterson, it may be safely said, is unequaled in his ability to gauge the pulse of the reading public. He has at least one other novel, Maximum Ride, that opens with a dream. (And last time I checked, Mr. Patterson’s manuscripts are not being returned.)

So what’s the actual deal on opening with a dream?

I don’t like it. There! That settles it.

Okay, just my opinion, folks. But it always feels like a cheat to me to get me caught up in the action, only to have the character wake up.

In all fairness, however, I’m hyper aware of craft. Most readers are not.

Maybe they don’t care in the slightest.

Let me make a subtle yet critical distinction here. One of the most famous openings in literature is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.

Here we have the first-person narrator telling us about a dream. That’s not the same as the “dream fake-out”—beginning with intense action that turns out not to be real.

Practically speaking, then, if you’re a writer seeking a traditional book contract, I would counsel you not begin with a dream, for the reason Edgerton suggests. Most editors won’t go for it.

If you’re self-publishing, you have the choice.

I’d still advise against it.

Here is my further thought on dreams in fiction: Unless dreams are an integral part of the plot (e.g., a character has recurring, prophetic dreams), I would suggest limiting yourself to using a dream only once, if at all.

For what purpose? To show the emotional state of the character at some intense point in the book. Or to reveal backstory that is affecting the character’s psyche. I would also make sure the reader knows up front it’s a dream, as in the beginning of Chapter 15 of The City by Dean Koontz:

Eventually I returned to the sofa, too exhausted to stand an entire night watch. I dropped into a deep well of sleep and floated there until, after a while, the dream began in a pitch-black place with the sound of rushing water all around, as if I must be aboard a boat on a river in the rain …

Another option is to eschew a dream sequence altogether, and simply have the character describe the dream and how it is relevant. Thomas Harris does that in the aptly titled The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling is a young FBI trainee tasked with extracting clues from the notorious killer and creative chef, Hannibal Lecter. Lecter trades her clues for intimate details about her life. At one point Clarice tells Lecter about the haunting memory of being at her uncle’s ranch, when she was ten, and hearing the screaming lambs being led to slaughter. And how she still dreams about it.

Lecter tells her that’s why she’s obsessed with catching Buffalo Bill. She thinks it will stop the lambs from screaming. It leads to the moving last line of the book:

But the face on the pillow, rosy in the firelight, is certainly that of Clarice Starling, and she sleeps deeply, sweetly, in the silence of the lambs.

To summarize my take:

  1. Don’t open with a dream fake-out.
  2. Use dreams sparingly (like, once) unless it’s an integral plot element.
  3. Let the reader know up front it’s a dream.
  4. Consider characters talking about a dream rather than giving it to us as a scene. Just make sure the dialogue has conflict or tension. (For example, the character doesn’t want to talk about the dream, but the other character drags it out of her, as in The Silence of the Lambs.)

Now it’s your turn, O Writer and (especially) O Reader. What do you think about dreams in fiction?



Goin’ by Fats’ House

Happy New Year! As promised, what follows is my account of meeting Fats Domino…

(c) Copyright All rights reserved.

One of the first rock ‘n’ roll records that I recall hearing was “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino. I was blessed to have grown up in the 1950s and 1960s, when Top 40 radio was a wonderful mix of rockabilly, soul, rock, doo-wop, country & western, and r&b. It made for some exotic blocks of music — Everly Brothers followed by Barbara George giving way to Ferrante & Teicher and then Rick Nelson — but it was never boring. If you didn’t like a song, you just waited. You’d hear something you would like before too long. It was Fats, however, more than anyone else, who spoke to me. I had a friend (and he’s still a friend) whose older sister, LM,  had one of the best record collections I’d ever seen or heard at that point in time, and it included all sorts of Fats Domino 45s, many of which I’d never heard up until that point. We spent hours listening to them, particularly the ‘B’ sides, which were rarely played on the radio. I remember leaving his house one afternoon, my friend and me and another guy singing Fats’ infectious “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday.” We were 10 years old at the time. We all got old, but the songs never did.

(c) Copyright Capitol Records, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fast forward to 1999. 45s had become a novelty, confined to limited pressing collector item releases. What were called “car phones” were being replaced by “cell phones” and “cell phones” didn’t have cameras or GPS or maps yet. The first iPhone would be released in eight years. Something called “google” was about a year old and something else called “wifi” was slowly making its way into the lexicon. Primitive times. November of that year found me in New Orleans on business. It was during this particular visit that I had lunch with a local musician who we’ll call J and whose extended family had for three generations been an integral part of the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. While we ate a couple of coma-inducing po’boys we talked about the city’s history. He looked somewhat askance at me a couple of times from across the table, expressing wonder at how a middle-aged white guy “not from around here” knew so much about his family and their musical contributions. The wonder turned to amazement when I took him back to my hotel room and played him some CDs of New Orleans music I had brought with me — iPods were two years away — which included recordings his relatives had played on but that he had never heard. We talked a bit more and were almost wrapping up when he said, “Hey, what are doing this afternoon? You got a car? You wanna go by Fats’ house?”

My answers were “nothing,” “yes,” and “hell yes.” It was a trip I had wanted to make on previous visits but given that the New Orleans street system — designed, apparently, by a spider on LSD — was daunting,  I had over the course of a few visits only slowly started to venture into the city’s neighborhoods and out of the French Quarter. So, yes, if J wanted to direct me to Fats Domino’s house — deep, deep in the ‘hood known as the lower Ninth Ward — I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. After a sinus-clearing trip on the freeway with J’s occasionally helpful guidance (“left…no…no, right…no…left…NO, RIGHT! RIGHT! RIGHT!”) through a heavy thunderstorm, we wound up driving down Caffin Street and approaching its intersection with Marais Street I saw what I was sure was the house in question on the right. It appeared to be a shotgun-style duplex, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, with the words “Fats Domino Publishing” spelled out in lights on the front of the house.

When J had asked if I wanted to “go by Fat’s house” I assumed that he meant drive “by,” as opposed to “stopping.” And going in.  As we were um, driving by, however, J said, “Pull over there” pointing to a portion of the driveway which was in front of the house outside of the fence. I did. He got out of the car, then looked at me funny as I remained in the car, still not fully comprehending what was happening. He said, “C’mon!” and I did, turning off the engine and then stumbling a bit as I followed him. My brain and my body hadn’t quite synced up with the concept that I was walking into Fats Domino’s house. J in the meantime had negotiated the fence gate as the front door of the house opened. And there stood Fats.

I have often described myself as being too short for my weight (as opposed to weighing too much for my height) and such was certainly true of Fats. He had the appearance, as he stood there smiling shyly, of being compressed. Still very substantial at 5’4” and over 200 pounds, he nonetheless gave the impression of being possessed of a certain physical frailty. J introduced me as his “manager” (I wasn’t) and I shook hands with Fats (even as I write those words, I still can’t quite believe it) as he ushered us into his house. Please note: we were in Fats’ house, which was a combination annex and office. His HOUSE, actually, was next door, a huge place on Marais Street where he and his family (and several large automobiles) resided. The world-famous Cadillac Couch, however — a three seater fashioned from the tail-end of a Cadillac — was in the annex. Fats waved me over to it, saying something. I at that point in time was very unfamiliar with the New Orleans patois (which varies from neighborhood to neighborhood) and will confess that I couldn’t understand what he was saying. When I continued to stand there, however, he laughed and said, “Siddown!” I did. Carefully. He and J sat and talked for a bit — I couldn’t follow the conversation, but it was something about one of J’s relatives — and after about ten minutes they finished up their business. As we got up to leave, Fats shot me a smile and walked over to a beautiful piano, where he sat down, and then played and sang the introduction and opening verse of “Blueberry Hill.” It would be an understatement to say that he still had the magic. His voice was strong and his playing was complex, confident and flawless. It was if a switch had been flipped on inside of him when he sat down, releasing the muse entrapped from the reserved, seemingly infirm man with whom I had spent the past several minutes.  All I could think was, “I wish that LM were here.”

(c) Copyright Capitol Records, Inc. All rights reserved.

When Fats stopped playing I started to clap but he ducked his head shyly again and waved me off. J said to him, “Why don’t you give him one of those Christmas records?” and he did, handing me a copy of a disc titled Christmas Is a Special Day.  I thought later that I should have asked Fats to autograph it. I was still catching up, however, with what was going on and where I was, standing next to a man whose work I had been listening to for over five decades.  I had no way of otherwise memorializing it either — no camera or camera phone —  but that was okay. We said our goodbyes and I walked out of the “house” (as opposed to the “HOUSE”) into a world which was much different than it had been just a half-hour before.

(c) Capitol Records, Inc. All rights reserved.

The world almost twenty years on from that day is also much different. One constant, however, is that Fats’ music remains timeless. His first single, “The Fat Man,” is considered by many to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Listening to it seventy years after its release one can hear Fats and the assembled musicians, under the direction of bandleader Dave Bartholomew, galloping into a previously uncharted musical territory. Then there is “I’m Walkin,” which, sixty years after its release, was licensed for a FitBit commercial. It’s a perfect pairing, given that one can’t sit still while listening to it. And of course there’s…but I need to be quiet and go away. I’ve prattled on too long. Anyway, that’s my brush with stardom. I’ve met a number of my idols since that time, but my meeting with Fats is in a class by itself.

Your turn now. Have you had any meetings with a major and famous influence in your life that you would like to talk about? I am going to attempt to stay uncharacteristically silent while you inform us, but I can’t promise anything. Thank you.



Reader Friday: That Voice

“The most debilitating thing about writing is that the voice inside us, the voice we trust more than others, says, ‘You’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, what you wrote yesterday really stinks.’ What aspiring writers should keep in mind is that we all hear that voice, and sometimes that voice lies to us. In fact, when it comes to writing, that voice almost always lies to us. Midway through a book you are going to read back and think, ‘This is awful.’ Now it may be awful, but it also may be wonderful and you’ve simply read it so many times your ear has gone deaf. Don’t listen to that voice.” — Randy Wayne White

Ever happen to you? What would you advise a writer who is bothered by that voice?


Legacy in Blood: First Page Critique

By Elaine Viets

Another courageous writer has volunteered a First Page Critique, Legacy in Blood. This first page gets off to a such a rip-roaring start, I think the submission only needs light jiggering. Read Legacy in Blood. My comments follow it.

Legacy in Blood

The first time I met Shauna Kelly, she’d come to my rescue and over the years since, that never changed. That time my cantankerous temper and heaping passel of pride teamed up to push me over a line I shouldn’t have crossed.

The whole second grade class of boys surrounded me in the playground with nary a teacher in sight. Not even my colory imagination could conjure me walking away without my ration of lumps. Fat Eddie Langtree had stolen his last lunch from a scrawny kid who looked like he could use the meal and I’d had enough of his bullying.

I lowered my chin and raised my fists as the jackass wall closed in tight. When someone moved to my right, I turned to take a swing, but Shauna Kelly shoved through the line of idiots and stood by me—the prettiest girl in school.

‘You don’t need to do this,’ I’d told her.

‘Shut up.’ Pretty Shauna had her game face on. ‘You’re not the only one who hates bullies.’

It should’ve been ‘game on,’ but something hit me hard—a thing that came from inside me. No one had ever taken my side before. I knew about standalone fights. I’d grown up in the ‘throw away kid’ system and never knew my mother or father. I was on my fourth foster home and I had more in my future. When Shauna stood by my side, the adrenaline came in a rush and I felt the warm sting of tears. No way would I cry in front of Fat Eddie.

For the first time, someone had fought…for me.

I lost a tooth that day and Shauna scored her first black eye. ‘No one wins in a fight like that,’ she told me, but I had to disagree. I’d found my first real friend and I had Fat Eddie and a peanut butter sandwich to thank for that.

That memory of Shauna made my heart ache even more as I wandered through Lafayette Cemetery in the dark. Lost, I’d come to find her again—like a dog missing the only human I ever loved. A rumbling thunder cloud started to cry and I welcomed its fury and its tears. I knelt by Shauna’s headstone and touched her name with my fingers and let my tears fall. As the menacing storm closed in, I drowned in the flood of lifetime memories of me and my best friend.

Not a day has gone by that I haven’t missed her. Now I had to have her back—in the only way I could. I had to find her killer.

Anonymous Author sets an intriguing scene: Two second-grade classmates fight a schoolyard bully and become lifelong friends. As an added twist, one fighter is a girl, and we learn at the end of the first page that she’s dead. Bravo! I’m hooked.
A few tweaks would improve this already good submission.

(1) Is the narrator a man?

I assume he is, but let us know. Introduce him. Give us his name. You can do that early in the selection. Here’s an example, but I’m sure you can find a better way:

No one had ever taken my side before. Me, Billy Smith. I knew about standalone fights. I’d grown up in the ‘throw away kid’ system and never knew my mother or father.

(2) Put this first page in simple past tense:

The first time I met Shauna Kelly, she came to my rescue and over the years since, that has never changed.

(3) Consider making that first line into two sentences. Then simplify the second sentence to “over the years” or something similar:

The first time I met Shauna Kelly, she came to my rescue. Over the years, that has never changed.

(4) Where are we? Please tell us.
Where is this happening? What country or region? What year is it?
I assume this scene is set in recent times because the narrator talks about “growing up in the ‘throw away kid’ system” and “never knew my mother or father.”

(5) If the selection is set in modern times, why use the archaic language?
Why does the narrator use such 19th century terms like “heaping passel of pride,” “nary a teacher in sight,” and “not even my colory imagination could conjure me”? Is this scene set in an isolated community and that’s how people still talk in that part of the world?

(6) Are you British, AA?
The quote style seems to be British English, which uses single quotes around dialogue and other terms. If you’re not, switch to US punctuation.

(7) Fix a confusing phrase in the last line.
The section ends dramatically: The narrator is lost, alone, crying over Shauna’s grave in a cemetery.
He vows to avenge Shauna’s death, but the phrase “have her back” is confusing. At first, I thought you meant “have her back” as in “have her back alive.” On second reading, I realized you meant “protect her” or “save her memory.” You might want to recast that phrase:
Not a day has gone by that I haven’t missed her. Now I had to have her back—in the only way I could. I had to find her killer.

That’s it. Congratulations on an inventive, well-written work. I look forward to seeing this published.



First Page Critique: The Mask

Greeting, TKZers!

Welcome to another installment of First Page Critiques. Today our brave submitter offers us the prologue to a monster story. I love monster stories, so let’s get to it.

This piece came in untitled, but had a chapter title of The Mask. We’ll use that.

THE MASK (Prologue)

A hand twitched on the steel floor, its reflection mirroring its movement in pool of black and red liquid. A few meters away lay the rest of the arm. And strewn about it were the remnants of its other parts. A splintered leg, a collapsed torso. All was still, bathed in the red liquid that once pumped through them. The pool rippled, disturbed by a frantic pair of feet that were very much alive. “Open the door!” a voice shrieked, cracking with desperation.

 Hands pounded on the steel door. “Please!”

The door didn’t budge.

 The man backed away, his breathing frantic. They wouldn’t let him out. Not if they wanted to risk the entire facility. But this wasn’t how he had planned to die at all. He should have expected it, working in a place like this, doing so little for so much money. He should have known better. He could see his mother’s face, scolding him for being so lazy all the time. Now he’d never see her again. I told you so, she would have said angrily, even from her hospital bed. Now she truly was alone. After his father left–

 The thoughts stopped when everything became quiet. Before he could react, he felt a hand brush his arm. It was almost reassuring with the gentle way it traveled up to his shoulder. That thought stopped as well when the hand continued to his throat. It wrapped around his neck, joined with its twin, and squeezed. The man felt the tears that had been building in his eyes spill down his cheeks. The tears travelled more slowly than he thought they would. From the corners of his vision, he saw that the liquid streaming down his cheeks wasn’t clear. It was black. The pain blooming in his neck crept into his skull. He tried to scream. The only thing that came out was the pitch-like substance. It bubbled from his throat, rolled over his tongue, covered his teeth. It poured over his lips, burning all the way down, burning his grasping hands, his heaving chest.

The man’s feet thrashed as he was lifted off the floor. The sounds of his kicking boots bounced off of the steel walls. The hands around his throat twitched like the severed fingers littered on the floor. The men monitoring the cameras couldn’t help but involuntarily flinch when the hands twisted with a sickening crunch. The kicking came to an abrupt stop. After a moment, the body flopped onto the floor, a rag doll. The owner of the murderous hands stepped forward into the vision of the camera.

Let me summarize this opening as I understand it:

A man is locked in a steel-lined room with the remains of a dismembered corpse. He’s terrified, and reflects that he should never have taken the job that brought him there, and reveals that his mother thinks he’s lazy. Someone/something that is extremely strong strangles him, slowly and painfully, and he erupts in a burning black liquid and finally dies. Men operating cameras trained on the room see the murderer step into view.

This opening is described as a prologue, and I think it functions as a good illustration of how to set a mood. It’s dark and violent and spare. The scene is a fairly common science-fiction trope: a low-level employee/character is killed by (or sacrificed to) a monster. Tropes can be very useful, but can border on the cliché and should be used carefully.

I’m struggling with the voice. It feels…disembodied. (No pun intended.) It’s not that the voice is exactly passive, but it floats between omniscient (the opening and closing paragraphs) and a relatively close third (the victim). It lacks cohesion. Pick a POV. I would argue for using a close third so we see everything through the eyes of the victim during the prologue. Then jump to the POV of someone in the control room. Hopefully that will be a character critical to the telling of the story.

“A hand twitched on the steel floor, its reflection mirroring its movement in pool of black and red liquid. A few meters away lay the rest of the arm. And strewn about it were the remnants of its other parts. A splintered leg, a collapsed torso. All was still, bathed in the red liquid that once pumped through them. The pool rippled, disturbed by a frantic pair of feet that were very much alive. “Open the door!” a voice shrieked, cracking with desperation.

            Hands pounded on the steel door. “Please!”

This first bit feels like screenplay talk. It’s all scene-setting. A hand twitches. Parts are strewn. A pool of (blood?) is disturbed by a frantic pair of feet(!). All I could think was that the feet of the dismembered corpse were still alive! That was a very weird moment. Then a disembodied voice shrieks, and hands pound on the door. Can you see where I’m going here? Because we started out with random body parts, when we read about other body parts it’s hard to think of them as being attached to a human.

We finally discover that the hands and feet belong to a man who is trapped inside the room with a corpse.

Let’s reimagine the scene as seen through the eyes of the man.

Bill “Red Shirt”* MacNeil stared at the pale hand lying on the blood-soaked steel floor. The corpse’s crushed torso and one twisted leg lay within sight, but it was the hand that struck him dumb. When its fingers arched and twitched, the spell was broken and he ran for the door. Panicked, he stumbled on the slickened floors as he ran, and each time he had to catch himself, his hands were smeared with more of the warm offal.

“Let me out! Open up!” he screamed. He pounded the door with his fists. Breathing heavily, he stepped back, waiting for the familiar sound of bolts thumping into place and the electronic hiss of the door’s seal.


“Dear God, please let me out of here. You can’t do this!”

But hadn’t he known he’d never get out again when he saw the blood everywhere? They couldn’t let him out. They weren’t going to put the entire facility at risk.

If we have some growing sense of the man, even if he is a red shirt, then the trip into his head is less of a surprise.

A couple notes on the murder bit. As you can imagine, I don’t mind seeing a character’s death close up.

Before he could react, he felt a hand brush his arm. It was almost reassuring with the gentle way it traveled up to his shoulder.”

This is a terrific image. But I’m still kind of stuck on the disembodied hand thing. And this hand has a twin! Suddenly I’m thinking that this room is full of body parts that act independently (or in pairs). It’s not until the end of this piece that we learn that the hands are attached to a whole murderer.

Please give us a sense much earlier that there’s an actual person or creature behind him.

Important: It’s physically impossible for humans to see what’s coming out of their eyes and running down their cheeks. He might be blinded by the stuff, but he couldn’t really see it unless he looks in a mirror.

You could easily do our red shirt’s death in his POV. It’s awkward that we’re suddenly outside of his head again. He could be struggling to continue kicking against the walls, then realize he can’t do it anymore. He could black out with his last thought being of his sled, Rosebud. You might even add just a single out-of-POV line about what his blank eyes can’t see. For example, the monster stepping over his body to stare into the eye of the camera.

It’s a good start. With some attention and cohesion, I think it could be a wonderful opening.

*”Red Shirt” is the name given to a stock character in a story who dies at the beginning. It comes from the original Star Trek series, in which the low level characters wore red shirts and were usually the first to die.

What say you, TKZers? Do you agree about the close third POV? Would you do it differently? What further advice do you have for our brave submitter?



A little personal BSP: I have a new book out this week! SMALL TOWN TROUBLE is a cozy mystery. (I love any kind of mystery.) And it’s not just a cozy, it’s a cat detective book! Light and fun. Plus, there are four other books in the series, all written by different authors, with more to come. Read all about it.






Need A Writing Boost in 2018?

Photo via Shutterstock

Are you struggling with that dreaded first page of a story? Remember that you can submit your first page for an anonymous critique by one of the TKZ writers and editors. For details on how to submit your first page, see First-page critiques.

Happy writing in the New Year!

Hey, It Could Happen To Anyone

Photo purchased from Shutterstock

On this day in 1493, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing near the Dominican Republic, saw three “mermaids”–actually, they were manatees, corpulent marine mammals.

Columbus relayed the disappointing news that these mermaids were “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Photo purchased from Shutterstock


Tips to Include Pets in Fiction

By Sue Coletta

I love writing pets into my stories. Not only is a great way to show a killer’s soft side, but they’ve become important family members for my main characters. In my stories, I’ve used a Rottweiler, English Mastiff, St. Bernard, a calico, tabby, and all-black cat, pet crows, and a black bear.

I’ve even borrowed a friend’s Bulldog, but I felt so responsible for him, I couldn’t include him like I’d originally planned. God forbid I returned him emotionally scarred from the experience. It’s much safer to create a fictional pet.

Need a way to show your character’s quirky side? Include a bearded dragon, snapping turtle, boa, tarantula, or exotic bird.

Is your character adventurous? Give him a pet moose, lion, leopard, or tiger to love. How ‘bout a pet elephant? When writing about pets let your imagination soar.

Fit the pet to a specific character to cue readers about their personality. By using well-thought-out animals, it can say a lot about who they are, where they live, or even, their state of mind. It’s also fun to juxtapose. Give a tattooed biker a Chihuahua or toy poodle. Readers will love it!

A few things to keep in mind when writing pets into fiction…

If you kill the pet, you better have a damn good reason for it, a reason readers will understand.

For example, not long ago my husband and I watched John Wick. [SPOILER ALERT] I fell in love with the Beagle puppy his dead wife sent from the grave. When the bad guys murdered the dog I almost shut off the movie. If my husband hadn’t begged me to keep watching, that would’ve been it for me. Turns out, this moment kicked off the quest (First Plot Point in story structure). Not only is it an important scene, but if it didn’t happen there’d be no story. See? Understandable reason why he had to die. John Wick would not have gone ballistic over a stolen car. The puppy was the only thing left he cared about. It had to happen.

The safer option is to not harm the pets.

Why Does the Character Have That Specific Pet?

As I mentioned earlier, you need to know why the character chose that pet. Is he lonely? Does a couple use their pets to fill a maternal/paternal need? Are you using that pet as a way to show the character’s soft side? Does the pet become the only one who’ll listen to their fears, sorrow, or hidden secrets? In other words, for an introverted character, pets can assume a larger role in the story so your character isn’t talking to him/herself.

As the writer, you need to know why that dog, cat, bird, lizard, or bear is in the story and what role they play. Does a K9 cop track criminals? Did your criminal character train a horse to be the getaway driver? Does the killer feed his pet hogs or gators human flesh? Knowing why that fictional pet exists is crucial.

What’s the Pet’s Personality?

Animal lovers know each pet has his/her own personality. If you’ve never owned the pets you’re writing about, then I suggest doing a ton of research till you feel like you have. For example, while writing Blessed Mayhem I needed to know how crows communicated and how people could interpret their calls. What separated a crow from a raven, what they felt like, what they smelled like, what foods they enjoyed most. In order to make the characters real I spent countless hours of research into the life of crows. I even went so far as to befriend a crow of my mine. Turns out, Poe was female. It didn’t take long for her to bring her mate, Edgar. When they had chicks, they brought them too. It’s turned into a very special experience (story for another time).

What Does the Pet Look Like and How Does S/he Act?

First, you must know the basics … their markings, voice, breed, habitat, diet, etc. Then delve deeper into the expressions they make when they’re happy, content, sleeping, aggravated, and downright pissed off. Every animal has their own unique personality, mannerisms, and traits. Evoke the reader’s five senses. Don’t just concentrate on sight. By tapping into deeper areas, our fictional pets come alive on the page. A scene where the hero or villain cuddles with a pet can add a nice break from the tension, a chance to give the reader a moment to catch their breath before plunging them back into the suspense.

Plus, pets are fun to write.

Does the Basset Hound snore so loudly he keeps the rest of the family awake? Is he now banished to the garage at night? Does the German Shepherd’s feet twitch when he’s dreaming? Does the Mastiff throw his owner the stink-eye when he can’t reach his favorite toy?

Let’s talk dogs. They do more than bark. Use their full range of grunts, moans, groans, happy chirps, and playful growls when your character plays tug-of-war. For cats, nothing is more soothing than a purr rattling in their throat as your character drifts asleep. Soft claws can massage their back after a brutal day.

Years ago, I had a pet turkey who used to love to slide his beak down each strand of my hair. This was one of the ways Lou showed affection. I’d sit in a lounge chair with a second lounge chair behind me, and Lou would work his magic till I became putty in his beak. He knew it, too. After all that hard work, I couldn’t deny him his favorite treats.

Symbolism and Locale

Need an already-creepy area to become even more menacing? Have vultures, eagles, or other carrion birds circle overhead. Use coyotes’ eerie chorus of howls. Crickets and tree frogs symbolize a desolate country milieu or swampland.

Dead silence also works well, but sometimes you need that extra oomph to evoke the correct emotional response. Anyone who’s ever spent time outside, in the dark, with only wildlife around for miles, can tell you their calls have a way of raising all your tiny body hairs at once.

Ever hear a Fisher cat? Their cries sound like a baby being slaughtered. This the best YouTube video I could find, but around here they’re even more sinister. When a Fisher cat screams it’s a tough sound to ignore.

If your character is camping or lost in the woods, ground the reader with the songs of nature and a crackling fire.

Near a lake, use water lapping against the shore.

Listening to nature and animal sounds can also be a great way to trigger the muse.


If your characters are snuggling with a pet in the first few chapters, then you must include them in later scenes as well. Otherwise, the home environment won’t ring true. Where’d the dog go? He was in Chapter Three and now, he’s gone. What happened to him? Animal lovers will notice his/her absence.

If your villain is killed and you’ve gone to great lengths to show how much he loves his dogs, then make sure the reader knows what’ll happen to those dogs after his death. Did your hero just orphan them? Or did the villain write them into his will? Maybe he or she has a family member that will care for the dogs. The tiny details matter. Think of it in terms of yourself. If you own an African Gray, then chances are s/he will outlive you. What provisions have you set in place for his/her care after you’re gone? Same goes for fictional pets.

Aging Pets

Everyone ages, even fictional pets. Sometimes the years aren’t kind. Does your dog character limp from arthritis? Then you can’t let him charge out the door with a spring in his step. He needs to lumber into a room. He’s slower than your younger animal characters. His muzzle now has gray. Around the eyes are graying too. Maybe he takes medication for achy joints. By including the aging process readers can relate. We’ve all had older pets, and it broke our hearts to see them age. Unfortunately, your fictional pet needs to age. We can prolong this process, but we need to at least show them slowing down. By doing so, we can also show the emotional angst it causes our character to see them this way.

The Day-to-Day

Does your fictional dog have a favorite squeaky toy? Does your cat like to get high on catnip? Maybe s/he knows where your character stashes the bag, and every time they leave the house the cat gets wasted. Maybe your character goes to the local butcher every Saturday to buy the family dog a bone. If your fictional dog is panting in the summer heat, please give him a bowl of water to cool off. Whatever you do, don’t lock him inside a car in ninety-degree heat.

Ever see a dog drunk on apples? It’s hilarious! Let your fictional dog eat fallen apples, then show him stumbling back to the house. How about peanut butter? Peanut butter and animals can be a winning combination. Does your fictional cat walk on the counters? Does your fictional dog beg for food at the dinner table? On the sly do your children characters slip bacon to him? How ’bout cauliflower, and even the dog spits it out. You get the picture.

Have fun with your fictional pets. I do. They’re some of my favorite characters to write.


What are some ways you’ve used pets in your writing? Have you ever created an exotic pet?

2017 winner of #RBRT Readers’ Choice Award in Mystery/Thriller. Available in paperback and ebook. Look inside HERE.


Review Your Fiction Fundamentals

by James Scott Bell

Things change.

For instance, as of January 1, recreational marijuana use is legal in California. I can’t help but wonder how this is going to affect our traffic problems. I think I know: Now, more than ever, California drivers will seldom leave a turn unstoned.

Ba-dump-bump. Thank you. I’ll be here all week. Tip your waiters on the way out.

Other things don’t change. Grant is still buried in Grant’s Tomb (isn’t that a marvelous coincidence?)

And the foundations of great fiction remain solid and true.

You still need a character and you still need a plot. A plot is the stuff that happens to a character that forces him into a battle requiring strength of will. If you don’t have those elements, you don’t have a story. You might have a slice of life, or a character study. You might even have an “experimental” novel, which is also defined as a novel no one reads.

So know your fundamentals.

But also realize that conditions around you change, which may require applying the fundamentals in a slightly different way.

Case in point: The Golden State Warriors.

Basketball fundamentals include dribbling, shooting, passing, setting screens, playing defense. A coach figures out ways his team can do these things to create high-percentage shots and stop the other team from doing the same.

In the “old days,” the ideal offense was designed around a dominant big man, like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, or Shaquille O’Neal.

But things have changed because of a couple of kids named Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. These are the two guards on the Golden State Warriors, and they are the best three-point shooters I’ve ever seen. They have made the Warriors the pre-eminent team in the NBA by virtue of their ability to score from twenty-five feet or more.

Now, common sense would tell you that a fifteen-foot jumper has a better chance of going in than a twenty-five footer. And you’d be right. But sports has been taken over by analytics, and the numbers say that a three-point shot, even at a lower percentage, has a higher overall value than a two-pointer. You can look it up.

What’s happened as a result is that the NBA has become three-happy. A big man doing battle below is no longer seen as essential to a championship. Indeed, it may be a liability. If you’re a seven-footer these days, you’ve got to be able to fling the rock. Broad and bulky has been replaced by lean and lithe (e.g., another Warrior, Kevin Durant).

The antiquated notion of trying to get close jumpers, layups and dunks has given way to schemes designed to spring shooters outside the arc. The same fundamentals (passing, screens, shooting) are in play, but applied in a different way.

Which brings us back to fiction writing.

A hundred years ago, the standard point-of-view for a novel was omniscient, often with the authorial voice intruding into matters, as in the opening pages of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900):

When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility. The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye. Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms.

You almost never see this style today. Hemingway—the Steph Curry of his day—exerted tremendous influence in the 1920s by way of character-centric minimalism (the very opposite of what Dreiser did, above).

By the 1990s, the trend was toward immersive (or deep) POV, which keeps author voice out entirely (unless that voice is itself the point of the novel, e.g., Tom Robbins, Douglas Adams).

It also used to be common—even expected—to have adverbs attached to dialogue attributions. For example, here are some clips from a single page in a1929 novel, The Stray Lamb by Thorne Smith:

“Off again, major,” Sandra said resignedly . . .

“Not a scrap of evidence left behind,” Mr. Long optimistically informed the party . . .

“That depends,” answered Thomas consideringly . . .

Ack! Do that now and your book is likely to be set aside contemptuously.

So … what are the current conditions for the writer of fiction? We all know attention spans are shorter and demands for our time and money louder and more pervasive. Which means getting and holding the attention of the reader from the jump is a major challenge.

The fundamentals are still there to help you, by focusing on the crucial questions:

  • Is your POV consistent and immersive?
  • Is your dialogue crisp and compressed? Can it stand alone without being propped up by adverbs?
  • Is your structure solid? When your book starts to “drag,” do you know why and how to fix it?
  • Are your scenes organic? Do they all have a connection to the overall plot?
  • Do you know how create “jump off the page” characters?
  • Are you aware of the “speed bumps” that interrupt the fictive dream?

We’ve talked about goals and resolutions this week on TKZ. A good thing for the new year. This is my gentle reminder to include craft study on your list. That way, even if you live in California, your books won’t go to pot.

What’s something you’ve recently learned about the craft of writing that is serving you well? What’s an area you need to revisit and shore up?