Tips For Crediting Photos Used In Blogs

Admin Note: Our trusty admin assistant has put together a list of resources and guidelines for using and crediting photos in the public realm. (Thanks, Lynne!)

Images released under Creative Commons CC0 are free of copyrights. You may download, modify, distribute, and use them royalty free for anything you like, even in commercial applications. Attribution is not required.

If you are unsure if the image was released under CC0, indicate the photo’s source, and whether it was purchased or provided as a courtesy.

Getty Images –  You can use Getty Images if you follow their embed instructions: Embedding their images provides a legal way to utilize premium content while respecting creators’ rights, including the opportunity to generate licensing revenue.

Unsplash  – Free (do whatever you want) high-resolution photos. Unsplash grants you a nonexclusive copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash.

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– All images and videos on Pixabay are released free of copyrights under Creative Commons CC0. You may download, modify, distribute, and use them royalty free for anything you like, even in commercial applications. Attribution is not required

Pexels –  Best Free Stock photos in one place. Issued under Creative Commons CC0. You may download, modify, distribute, and use them royalty free for anything you like, even in commercial applications. Attribution is not required.
– a collection of 39,727,644 freely usable media files to which anyone can contribute – Almost all content hosted on Wikimedia Commons may be freely reused subject to certain restrictions (in many cases). You do not need to obtain a specific statement of permission from the licensor(s) of the content unless you wish to use the work under different terms than the license states.

  • Content under open content licenses may be reused without any need to contact the licensor(s), but just keep in mind that:
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    • some licenses require that if you modify the work, your modifications must also be similarly freely licensed; and finally.

Shutterstock – Discover over 125 million royalty-free images, video clips and music tracks.  – free images and some for purchase.

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Are We Having Fun Yet?

by Larry Brooks

A few of you know that I used to play professional baseball. During my very first spring training, all the pitchers were subjected to sprints and conditioning drills in the humid Florida heat, to the extent many of us were losing our breakfast on the third base line. Every day, as many of us were near collapse, hands on knees, visibly sucking oxygen, one of the coaches would yell with glee, “Are we having fun yet?”

Various forms of cursing ensued between the collective desperate gasps and the heat exhaustion. But we were professionals, and nobody dared quit the process.

Only later, when my career was over and I was treading water in the real world, did I realize how much fun I actually was having.

One of the first pieces of business I tend to when I begin a writing workshop is throwing out this question:

Who here wants to write for money?

Almost every hand goes up. Some dislocate a shoulder, such is the urgency of their response. There are, of course, the one or two arms-crossed resisters who like to believe they’re different, or perhaps above participating. Maybe they just don’t understand the question.

Then: Who here wants to make this their day job?

Same hands, same slackers. Or perhaps, the rare (very) hobbyist writing stories for the grandkids who is merely curious.

Then this: Those of you with your hands in the air either consider yourself a professional, or you want to become one… yes?

I then assure them that the first step to becoming a professional isn’t to cash a check, but rather, to go about the business as if they were already a professional author.

The only criteria for being a writer is to write. That said, there is a right way and a less-right way to go about it… and the right way can be darn hard.

And if you find hard something that isn’t fun, then perhaps you exist within a paradox unique to us.

Writing may indeed be a different breed of profession.

Because it seems that some writers who would enthusiastically raise their hand claim that they are selecting their process and perhaps their criteria for excellence based on something that would get you fired in any other job.

They do things their way, because their way is fun.

And they happily, almost proudly, claim to skip the hard parts in the name of fun.

There continues to be a loud debate, here and elsewhere, about the writing process.

And within that debate, one opening line shows up in the comment thread of almost every post on this topic. In it the writer says something like this: I don’t outline. I tried it once, but it took all the fun out of it. It’s more fun to just let the story emerge as I write. Which is why I don’t really know much about my story as I write it. It’s fun to figure it out as I go.

Okay, that’s a mash-up of the common forms of this opening push-back.

It happened yesterday in the thread from Jim’s post. It’s happened in response to my posts many times, because I’ve written about this subject many times (check this out, it’s a virtual wrestling match).

Imagine, though, other professions in which fun is never spoken aloud.

Every summer a hundred young men gather at Fall Camp to see if they can make the roster of an NFL team. This experience is nothing short of an exercise in torture, all in context to seeing who is fit enough, tough enough and resilient enough to play at that level.

Imagine a first round draft choice saying this: Well, camp would be a lot of fun if we didn’t have to do all those conditioning drills, because I’ll just be strong enough when the real game happens. It’s just not fun. Games are fun, but all this preparation stuff, I dunno, it’s just a lot of hard work.

Flip this analogy to medical school. Law school. Architecture school. Prepping for the CPA exam. Training to be a pilot. Or a teacher. Or a checker at Safeway. Or just about anything else that presents an expectation of what the skill set and end output needs to be.

That’s the key, right there: the skill set and end outcome of writing a novel are not something you get to negotiate or short-change. Your process, yes… it’s yours for adopt, it is what it is, and that fact is what is different about writing. And part of what makes it hard, as well. Because the product you put out… that’s not something you get to negotiate. Rather, you need to reach for a bar that already exists.

If your process doesn’t get you there, then perhaps you need to look at that process. If you want to play at a professional level, then you need to summon and master professional-level skills, for professional-level output.

And if the hard work of doing that strikes you as something that’s not fun, and if you use that excuse to do it your way, even when your way presents a compromise… that’s actually fine. You get to choose.

But the end-product, and the marketplace into which you intend it to go, won’t cut you even the tiniest bit of slack.

The requisite form and function of a novel applies to pantsers and planners alike, those who put in the time to study and those who are just having fun, alike. No difference whatsoever.

So if writing an outline isn’t fun for you, fine. If you can make your story functional that way, have at it. Thing is, that very decision has derailed more writers than you know. Not because of the outline itself as a tool, but rather, the nature of the process you substitute for it.

Here’s my point. If you truly understand the criteria of a story that works…

yes, these criteria can be defined, listed and learned… and if your process, facilitates the reaching of that high bar, then you’re fine. You may have elected the long road to get there, because without exception, writing a draft in which you don’t know the essential parts, transitions and end-game of your story is merely one of the several ways to search for your story, rather than the execution of draft itself.

And if you’re shorting that pursuit because it’s not fun for you… well, this is like your surgeon skipping the part about anesthesia because she doesn’t find anesthesia all that much fun.

A bad analogy, perhaps, for this reason: the surgeon has someone next to them in the O.R. that does find the practice of anesthesia, if not fun, then rewarding enough to practice it. But novelists are alone in a room with the patient (your story), and if you don’t find the requisite best-practices to be fun – and if you’re not really qualified yet to count on them to emerge organically on their own – then this disconnect can become a factor in the outcome.

It can explain why you may be frustrated.

But wait, says about 40 percent of the writers reading this. I don’t outline because it doesn’t work for me. Well…

Outlining is only one aspect of this cause-and-effect dynamic.

First of all, “not being able to outline” is not something to brag about. It’s not a good thing, it’s actually a blind spot in your storytelling. It’s like a pilot saying, I am afraid of heights. Please blindfold me until we get to cruising altitude and I’ll take it from there.

Outlining, in a broader sense, is simply the means, a proactive effort, of creating a vision for the story, front to back. A plan, even though that word isn’t fun for you. It, too, is what it is. A vision or a story plan is not a contract you sign that commits you to it (a common rationale for it not being fun, but that’s a story you’re making up, but a plan is totally flexible), because certainly you may evolve that vision toward an even better outcome as you go along.

Great storytellers than don’t outline absolutely do have a vision for the story in their head. And they almost always add and revise as it unfolds on the page. They also command a functional working knowledge of how to drive the story ship… because they’ve earned it. However they learned it.

The alternative – discovering your story as you write a draft – is (the forthcoming redundancy is deliberate, because not the context may be clearer) merely a means of story development. One of several. And as such, the requisite forms, functions, parts (including the ending) and impact (story physics like emotional resonance, nature and source of conflict and antagonism, extent of vicariousness, hero empathy and an optimized narrative strategy) that apply to every other form of story search apply to the make-it-up-as-I-go option, as well.

If you’re in this for the fun of it, first and foremost (and if you’re skipping over important steps, then it is first and foremost for you), then you may be missing the essence of the professionalism required. Which is exactly that roster of forms and functions… stuff you don’t get to make up, not even for a moment.

Perhaps it might better serve you if, instead of the fun of it, you’re in this for the rewarding experience of writing a story that really kicks butt. That knocks readers out of their chair.

Like any surgeon or pilot, the reward is when the patient survives and the plane lands safely.

And if your response to that is, Well, writing a novel isn’t brain surgery, ask an experienced professional if they agree… now you’re just counter-punching. In fact, ask a doctor who has attempted to write a novel if they agree.

It just might be as complex as brain surgery after all. I’ve actually had a brain surgeon tell me it is, once he encounted the moving parts required of it.

That old meme about “the journey is the reward?” Maybe not. That’s the rationalization of a legion of unpublished writers who tried to do their way, when their way is, primarily, the fun way.

When your way embraces that list of parts and essences, aligned and combined at the level required, then you’ll be within your next 400 pages of that rewarding experience.

A final story… that is not an analogy.

My son was his high school’s valedictorian, and it enabled him to get into a prestige university. But during his freshman year he did what so many freshman do… he partied.

Because it was fun. For a while he was sure this was what college was all about.

Meanwhile, he and I had an agreement in place from day one, and it wasn’t unreasonable or negotiable: earn a GPA that at least meets the academic requirement of your fraternity, which frankly, shouldn’t be all that challenging to you. Yes sir, he said. No worries, he said.

All freshman year long he told me he was killing it in class.

But then the finals happened in May.

No surprise… he was far short of the bar we had set. I mean, far short. Like, frat house probation kind of short.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want him to have fun in college – certainly, his socialization was part of the mission at hand – but in any endeavor that is worth tackling, something that will become the foundation of a dream that will spring from it, “fun” becomes a lesser calling.

Wrapping your head around the fundamental principles of writing stories is like that, too. It isn’t’ about what is fun. If that’s your priority, work at Disneyland.

Because in college and with writing a novel, the ultimate reward will require a massive amount of hard work – not just effort, but mastering some really tough principles in an artful way – leading to a higher understanding that informs an ability to take those skills forward into a professional marketplace.

A marketplace teeming with professionals who have mastered those very principles.

There isn’t a professional in any occupation out there – and this includes writing novels – that isn’t informed by a keen understanding of certain core fundamental principles… and sooner or later, fun has to acquiesce to a higher pursuit of an ultimate reward.

And when you hold that in your hands… now that is really fun.

Nobody ever hired a college graduate because they had fun at school.

Nobody ever sold a novel because they did it the fun way. Unless for that writer, the fun way embraced a complete integration of an understanding of what is required… and when that happens, it’s almost certain that the true fun of it all stemmed from it, and not skipping the hard parts.

Outlining is not required. But understanding the terms of what your vision for a story becomes… that is required. Because it’s too complex to just back into.

How do you know what is required? Where do you get that list? If you have to ask, then maybe you’re already shorting yourself in the proposition.

And so – back to my son for a moment – the contract had been violated. The terms of coming up short called for him to find funding – in the form of loans that he’s still paying off to this day, and for a few more years to come – to cover his second year at this school.

All hell broke loose at home…

… until it didn’t. He finally got it. In fact, he embraced his accountability for his end of our agreement, refusing to do it any other way. As a result, his GPA in the first semester of his sophomore year was 3.65. And while we celebrated that, he understood that a higher goal remained: to graduate with a GPA above 3.00.

Which he did.

He also had fun that year. It was all a question of priorities and the willingness to do the hard stuff.

Cut to his final week of school concluding his senior year. He had worked as a campus tour guide for incoming high schoolers (most of whom were also valedictorians… it was that kind of school), and on his final day of leading the tours a bunch of us, including my wife and I, were there.

In a classroom that concluded the tour with a Q&A session, one of the new Dads asked my son to tell us what his most rewarding experience had been over the last four years at this institution.

He thought a moment. You could hear a pen drop.

And then he told the group this story, the one I’ve just told you. He looked right at me when he concluded by saying, “I had a lot of fun here, especially at first. But that fun was taking me down the wrong road, littered with the discarded college dreams of many like-minded freshman. My Dad almost literally picked me up off the wrong road and put me onto a better one, a higher road, and while I had an immense amount of fun over the last three years here, the answer to your question is that the most rewarding part of it all was the realization that fun isn’t the point. The work is the point. Doing the hard stuff is the point. Changing into something higher and better is the point. And realizing that the world has opened up for me because of that learning… that while the journey was a blast, the real reward was in the final outcome.”

Needless to say, this Dad was a bit of a puddle.

So go ahead, have fun.

But if you’re skipping the hard parts, it may not be because you can’t do it, but rather, that it isn’t what you signed up for.

Reading a story by a pro makes it all look so easy. Maybe that’s what you signed up for.

But writing great sentences and paragraphs… that’s not the hard part.

Unspooling a story that nails all the moving story elements in the right way at the right level, with all those story physics humming with the grace and the growl of a cheetah at full speed…

… that’s the hard part, and the best part of the work. Worth every sleepless night and deficient draft it takes.

That’s why you’re here.

Because you put your hand into the air to claim your dream of becoming a professional.

And I’ve never once, in thirty years of doing this, heard a proven professional or anyone who teaches the craft to those who aspire to be one, say that they did it for the fun of it. Or that fun was even part of the process.

Rather, they’ll tell you how rewarding it all can be.

Understand the difference and live into that understanding, and everything about what has frustrated you will change, while everything you once considered fun will have evolved into something even more satisfying.


If you’re interested in going deeper, I have a book on those forms and functions and essences that goes beyond structure, called Story Physics.


Eventually, You Have to Bring Order to the Story Stuff

by James Scott Bell

Last week my lovely wife and I were in New York for ThrillerFest, and as usual found time to enjoy some of the city. We did the Strand bookstore (where I scored an autographed Mickey Spillane from a spinner of used paperbacks), then walked up Park Avenue to my favorite building in all of New York: Grand Central Station, the beaux-arts beauty of midtown.

Why do I love it? Start with the clock tower sculpture, because it captures the robust spirit of classic New York, back a hundred years ago when the city was the unapologetic colossus of commerce. That’s why you have the three Greek gods above the clock. Mercury, god of merchants, dominates the piece, with Hercules (representing strength) and Minerva (representing the arts and professions) on either side. I love coming out of the subway stop, looking up and seeing this magnificence.

Inside Grand Central, the main concourse always seems larger than I remember. You can’t help thinking of Cary Grant at the ticket window in North by Northwest, or any of a number of movies from the 30s and 40s featuring New Yorkers getting on trains. There’s a dining concourse below, with our favorite oyster bar. Cindy and I shared a dozen, along with a nice chardonnay.

And we attended the International Thriller Writers Awards banquet, where I was honored to receive the award for Best E-Book Original (for Romeo’s Way). (And thank you for all the kind comments that have already been posted here at TKZ.) It was a delight for Cindy and I to share a table with the amazing Joanna Penn and her husband, Jonathan (Joanna, writing as J. F. Penn, was a Best E-Book Original finalist for her novel Destroyer of Worlds.)

The coolest thing about ThrillerFest is all the off-the-cuff conversation with fellow writers, usually at the hotel bar following the day’s proceedings. That, in fact, is where I caught up with brother John Gilstrap and one of our longtime TKZ commenters, Basil Sands. We were soon joined by weapons expert Chris Grall, and it wasn’t long before John and Chris were instructing us on the best way to cut people to ribbons with a sharp knife … and exactly what a body does when hit by a blast from a shotgun.

Also got to chat with TKZ emeritus Boyd Morrison and current blogmate Mark Alpert.

Reed Farrel Coleman (photo by Adam Martin)

Another guy I always like to see at these conventions is Reed Farrel Coleman. Reed was an ITW Award finalist for his novel Where It Hurts. At the Awards “after party” I had a chance to ask him about his writing method, as I’d read in interviews that he describes himself as a pure “pantser.”

I started by asking what his novel was about, and Reed gave me the backstory of his lead character, Gus Murphy. How he was a cop with a family, but now is divorced and off the force, working a low-end job, drowning in grief due of the death of his son. “That’s where the book starts,” Reed said.

“So you start with a character and a set-up, and then start writing?” I asked.

Reed nodded, then added that he goes “over and over” the first fifty pages until he feels they are just right. Then he moves on.

“How many drafts to you do?”

“One,” he said, with a definite twinkle in his eye. Then he quickly added that he revises and revises as he goes along, so in effect he’s doing multiple “drafts” by the time it’s all wrapped up.

I wrote Reed a follow-up email. “My thought is that as you are making your way through after those first fifty pages, your brain is starting to come up with future scenes. IOW, the ‘outline’ is taking shape organically, in your imagination, and you start to write toward those scenes.”

Reed answered, “Yes, unconsciously, at least, knowing those early pages cold lets my mind work on an outline for the rest of the book. I don’t think of it that way, but it’s a fair assessment of what’s going on.”

And Reed, of course, understands beginning, middle, and end. He knows what has to happen for a character to pass through the “Doorway of No Return” and into the confrontation of Act 2. When I teach, I tell students the main character better be through that doorway, at the latest, by the 20% mark, or the book will start to drag.

Guess what happens at the 20% mark of Where It Hurts? Yep:

When I heard the sirens, I went back around to the front of the house and waited. But I was through waiting to make up my mind. I was in now, with both feet.

And just to amuse myself, I went looking to see if Reed, by way of his storytelling DNA, had included a mirror moment. You bet he did, and right in the middle where it belongs:

Was this, I wondered, what it was like coming out of a coma? Is that what Krissy, Annie, and I were doing? Were we coming around at last? Had enough time elapsed? Had we all finished acting out? Had we finally proved to ourselves and one another that no amount of pain or grief or self-flagellation or magical thinking or deals with God or guilt or fury would restore to us what we had lost? Was it okay to live again?

My goal as a writing instructor is to “pop the hood” on what writers have technically accomplished (even if they don’t realize how they did it), take it apart, and explain how any writer can assemble similar parts for a similar effect.

Reed’s method is one way to go about things. (See? I come in peace, my pantsing brothers and sisters!) By churning over those first fifty pages, Reed is firming up the foundation for his entire novel. By rewriting his previous day’s work, he’s letting his mind suggest scene possibilities that build upon that foundation. “Plotters” do the same thing, only the churning comes before the writing as they prepare a map, strategy and tactics.

The important thing is that the writer, sooner or later, brings order to the story stuff. That’s what structure is all about. It’s getting things lined up so the readers can best relate to the tale you want to tell them. Even more, the story you want to move them. Without order, no matter how “hot” or “creative” you feel about what you write, most readers are going to be frustrated or, worse, annoyed.

My advice: try to avoid that.

I love New York, but it’s always great to get back to L.A., where I am currently in the process of bringing order to my next Mike Romeo thriller.

What about you? Where are you in the “ordering” process? 



By Mark Alpert

I’m in Maine this weekend, at a lake house that’s not very far from where Stephen King hangs out during the summers. Tomorrow my wife and I will pick up our daughter from summer camp, but in the meantime we’re having some fun.

Not coincidentally, I’m working my way through the entire Stephen King oeuvre. These are the King novels I’ve read in just the past twelve months: Firestarter, Tommyknockers, ‘Salem’s Lot, Carrie, and End of Watch. In all, I’ve read about thirty of his books, and I still have another thirty to go.

And last weekend I was at ThrillerFest, where I got a chance to personally congratulate James Scott Bell for winning the ITW Thriller Award for Best E-Book Original Novel with his terrific Romeo’s Way. Let’s hear it for Jim!


Dictate Your Next Book – Key Resources & Tips

Jordan Dane

@Jordan Dane

Have you ever considered dictating your next book or used voice recognition resources to dictate your book? I must admit that the thought of this scared me. I’m such a visual learner and have a process I’m comfortable with. I connect that comfort to my ability to craft a book, so the idea of messing with my comfort zone gave me the jitters. Here are some things to consider:

Dictating is free – If you’re uncertain about investing in this process, you can test the waters for free. Google Voice Typing and Google DOCs has a feature you can try. HERE is a link to the step by step instructions for Google. For other free apps, visit this LINK.

Voice recognition software has gotten better. (For MAC users, Google Voice appears to be a better option than Dragon/Dragon Naturally Speaking even if Dragon is made for MAC users). Dragon may be another software to try for PC users.) HERE is a list of top-rated recommended voice recognition software with feature comparisons.

Health Issues – For those concerned with carpal tunnel for your wrists or too much sitting, dictating can ease the strain on your body from long hours of sitting.

Dictating is much faster than typing the words, so less time needed for writing in a day and more effective use of your time when you’re in the process.

More writing and less editing – I am a big editor as I go. I hate leaving mistakes behind, so I have a rolling edit process. This could get more on the page faster and still leave edit time at the end of the day.

Dictating your book can allow you to do it using your cell phone (once you’ve set it up) and you can do this anywhere. No more excuses that “I have to go home to write.”

If cost is a concern, there are free apps or software readily available that won’t cost you a penny. You may eventually want to buy a microphone or acquire different software for voice recognition, but don’t let that be an excuse to not try it. Go for the free versions in your Google Play Store and dip your toe into something new.

TIPS to Enhance your First Dictation Try:

1.) Scene Ideas – We all know this, but think about staring at a blank page versus creating a short outline or list of ideas for a scene. Things will always go more smoothly if you have a notion of what you’ll write ahead of time. Take a few minutes to jot down ideas before you start.

2.) Error Time – Voice recognition software is not infallible and you may have additional issues with the dictation process. If you read the written results aloud, this could help find things like odd nonsensical words as a result of pronunciation or the software not capturing the words correctly.

3.) Take A Moment to Think – Before you leap into a sentence, take time to think through what you intend to say. Visualize what you want to say, before you say it. This could save correction time later and also prevent a muddled sentence. Practice will make it easier to dictate as you gain experience.

4.) Edit in Layers – I have a rolling edit process and that would not change with dictating. I like to print out my pages and edit what I’ve written during the day, usually before I go to bed or treat myself to someone else’s book. But depending on your edit process, if you like to create a first draft and revised in a number of draft iterations, you may consider adding a pass through for dictation type errors or adding a ‘read aloud’ phase as another layer to check your work.

5.) Grammar should be double-checked. Since you will be using voice recognition software to insert punctuation, you will need to edit for something that might come naturally to you if you typed it. This could be included in a rolling edit process as I described or in one of your draft fixes. This LINK has a summary of grammar related commands provided by Dragon. To write a line of dialogue, you may have to dictate – new line, open quote, Hi comma Mark period. Why are you sleeping with my wife, question mark, close quote. It will take experience to get used to the punctuation commands, but if dictation saves you considerable writing time, it may be worth it.

Other Revision Tools to Consider for Dictating Projects:

1.) Scrivener – I don’t have the personal experience with Scrivener as others do at TKZ, but here are a few notes I found in my research of dictation. Scrivener’s BINDER, SPLIT SCREEN, and LABELS (for plot line regrouping) can help you arrange sections of your book for a more logical flow. Check the WORD COUNT column in the OUTLINER section to consider pace issues at a glance, if word counts per chapter are a concern.

2.) Checking for Filler Words – My first pass through on edits is to delete and eliminate unnecessary word and tighten sentences. Filler words happen more in dialogue when we speak, but since you are dictating, filler words can appear when you might not expect them because of the change in process. In my research I found reference to a macro that can help you identify filler words. For instructions on setting up this Macro, try this LINK. Overused Words check in ProWritingAid can help with this also.

3.) Check for Longer Sentences – When you dictate, you can create longer sentences without realizing it. As you say the words, you use TONE as you may dramatize your wording, but on the page, this does not come across (things like italics use or internal monologue for deep POV). You may find longer sentences when you dictate and may want to consider shortening some. Two resources that can help with analyzing for long sentences – Hemingway Editor for MAC or PC & the Sticky Sentences/Long Sentences check on ProWritingAid.


1.) Has anyone used voice recognition for writing? How did it work for you? Pros and Cons?

2.) What are your thoughts on trying something new like this?

BOOK BIRTHDAY! The Darkness Within Him releases today – $1.99 Mystery, Suspense, Thriller Ebook 

It’s part of Paige Tyler’s Dallas Fire & Rescue Amazon Kindle World #DFRKW and a crossover with my Ryker Townsend FBI Profiler series (book #4).

SYNOPSIS – FBI Profiler Ryker Townsend is a rising star at Quantico, but he has a dark secret. When he sleeps, he sees nightmarish visions through the eyes of the dead, the last images imprinted on their retinas. After he agrees to help Jax Malloy with a teenage runaway, he senses the real damage in Bram Cross. Ryker must recreate the boy’s terror in painful detail—and connect to the dead—to uncover buried secrets in the splintered psyche of a broken child.


Lee Harvey Oswald and Me

by John Gilstrap

November 22, 2013, marked the 50th anniversary of one of my great research obsessions—the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Last name notwithstanding, I am of Irish Catholic heritage, and in my house growing up, the Pope and President Kennedy were held in equal esteem. When the news came that the president had been killed, my mother was devastated. I was six at the time, and while I couldn’t fully comprehend the enormity of the crime, I knew that Mom was upset and I found her grief unnerving.

In the years that followed, Mom became quite the conspiracy theorist. She consumed all the books by Garrison and the others, and by extension, I likewise became a conspiracy theorist. By the time I was a senior in high school, I knew that there were at least two gunmen and as many as three. I steeped my geeky self in the research, even as I was penning stories on the side. (Look up “babe magnet” in the dictionary. My high school picture is there, labeled, “Not Him.”)

Once I got my acceptance letter to the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and I realized that freshmen had to write a major research project in their first semester, I knew that JFK’s murder would be my topic. Living in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and working a night job in telephone sales, I was in a perfect position to do primary research at the National Archives downtown. In the morning, I would take the bus to Constitution Avenue, and then I would head inside the massive Archives building to the reading room.

This was 1975. The Zapruder Film had still not been seen by anyone outside of official Washington, and the House Select Committee had not yet convened to re-examine the Warren Commission evidence. This was all new territory for me, and I hoped to forge new territory for my future professors.

Here’s how it worked: I would fill out a sheet of paper for what I wanted to look at, whether Warren Commission documents or FBI interviews, or re-enactment photographs, and then I would hand the sheet to a pretty young clerk-lady, and then she would bring my requests to me. It was table service, and as an 18-year-old with braces on my teeth, this was pretty heady stuff. They even called me Mr. Gilstrap. Very, very classy.

After four or five days of taking up space and making copious notes (no photos allowed, and certainly no copiers), I was sitting at my spot at a study table when the cart full of stuff I ordered arrived not with a pretty clerk at the helm, but rather it was pushed by an old guy.

“Mr. Gilstrap,” he said.

I thought I was in trouble. “Yes, sir.”

“You’ve been the source of a lot of curiosity here,” he said. He then went on to introduce himself as Marion Johnson, the curator of the JFK exhibit at the National Archives. He observed that they didn’t often see someone my age being such a dedicated researcher.

I explained to him about the paper I had to write, and about my family’s obsession with all things assassination-related. He seemed interested, and then he said, “Come with me. I think I have some items that you might be interested in.”

I followed him into the bowels of the old building, into a large locked storage room that was under-lit, and stacked floor to ceiling with boxes and file cabinets. “This is all of it,” Mr. Johnson explained. “This is our John F. Kennedy exhibit.”

I don’t remember the place itself well enough to give dimensions, and at the time, I didn’t have a frame of reference, but the room housed a lot of stuff. When he unlocked an area within the storage room that was set off from the rest by a chain link barrier, I knew I was in for something special. Mr. Johnson pulled a wooden case off of a shelf and placed it on a clear spot in an otherwise cluttered table. He donned a pair of cotton gloves and handed me another pair. When the snaps on the box opened and he lifted the cover of the box, I realized right away that I was looking at a Mannlicher-Carcano 6.5 millimeter rifle bearing the serial number C-2766.

That was Oswald’s rifle.

“Can I hold it?” I asked.

“You can lift it,” he said. “That’s all.”

That was plenty. At age 18, I got to hold the rifle that killed John F. Kennedy.

I noticed the .38 caliber pistol that was also in the box. “Is that the gun that killed Tippitt?” I asked. J.D. Tippitt was a Dallas police officer who Oswald shot to death shortly after the assassination.

“It is,” Mr. Johnson said. “But you can’t touch that one.” It seemed rude to ask why, and to this day, I don’t know.

From there, Mr. Johnson led me to a smaller room—a double room, really, with a few chairs on my side, and then a second room I was not allowed to enter that was separated from mine by a glass panel. It reminded me of the perp interview room in every cop show.

“Have a seat,” Mr. Johnson said. “You’re going to see something that very few others have seen.”

Within a minute, it became clear that the room on the other side of the glass was a projection booth. The lights dimmed, and then the screen on the far end came to life with the Zapruder film. Now that those few seconds documenting the fatal shots are so ubiquitous, it’s difficult to explain how thrilling—how heart-stoppingly shocking—it was to watch the events unfold in that little room. There’s no sound on the film, and there was no sound in the room—not even the clacking of the 8mm projector, thanks to the glass—as the motorcade swung the turn from Houston Street onto Elm, and then disappeared behind the traffic sign, where a still-unknown stranger opened his umbrella.

When the president’s limousine emerged from behind the sign, I watched his hands rise to his throat, just as they had in the countless stills I had seen of that moment. Jackie looked over, concerned, and then the top of the president’s head vaporized. Having by then seen stills of Frame 313 of the Zapruder film, I knew about the eruption of brain and bone, but those stills did not prepare me for the violence of it in real time.

I had held the gun that inflicted that wound.

I left the Archives impressed yet shaken that afternoon, and I was more fully emboldened to do my research the way it was supposed to be done. I stated above that I was a telephone salesman during the evenings, hawking Army Times magazine to people who loved to hang up on salesmen who sounded like they were eighteen years old. I hated that job, but it gave me access to a WATS Line, which was a huge deal back in the day—long distance phone calls to anywhere for very little cost. Extraordinarily little cost to me since I wasn’t paying for the service.

Abusing the largesse of my employer (who subsequently fired me, not that I cared), I was able to find and call the key players from the assassination at their homes, and like the staff at the National Archives, they were each impressed that someone my age would be so dedicated to a research project. Among the people I interviewed for that paper were Admiral J.J. Hume, USN (ret.), who performed JFK’s autopsy, Malcolm Perry, the Emergency Room physician who treated the president when he arrived at Parkland Memorial Hospital, and Cyril Wecht, MD, a forensic pathologist from Pittsburgh, who was a serious critic of the Warren Commission’s processes and conclusions. We’re talking long interviews, here, and not one of them ever lost patience with me—not even Admiral Hume, when I asked him what he thought about the accusations that he had botched the autopsy. His answer to that question, in fact, left an impression on me. He painted a picture of enormous pressure and emotion that I have later come to see as similar to the so-called fog of war. They were, after all, human, and the ravaged body of the president of the United States lay naked on a steel slab. I realized what a horrible moment that must have been for everyone in an official capacity.

By summer’s end in 1975, I had already made good progress on my paper. As I recall, it weighed in at something like thirty pages, and it contained photographs ordered from the National Archives, and the content of the multiple interviews that I had performed. When my mother read the paper, she was less than pleased by my conclusion that Oswald was the lone gunman—a conclusion I stand by today, and which has been reinforced by every bit of reliable new evidence that has since been released.

When I turned the paper in, I had no idea that it would nearly get me thrown out of college before I finished my first semester. My professor, Mr. Greene, as I recall, did not believe that a college freshman would do that level of research, and he called me in my dormitory to tell me that he was reporting me to the Honor Council. It took nearly three hours on the phone to convince him otherwise, defending every quote that I collected on my own, and every conclusion I drew.

In the end, I got an A.


First Page Critiques: Making
It Feel Fresh…and Refreshed

All writing is a campaign against cliche. — Martin Amis

By PJ Parrish

This must be the week for catching up on our First Page backlog.  Because here is another entry from one of our faithful contributors. This one is titled OTTER ROCK and appears to be a village mystery (though set in Alaska) in the grand tradition of PD James. In fact, it reminds me of the James novel Unnatural Causes in which Adam Dagliesh deals with a body in a boat on a windswept deserted shore. (More on that later) Thanks, dear anon-author, for participating.

Also, I am adding a second entry, KEEP IT SAFE, after this one. It is a longer version of an entry I critiqued a couple weeks ago. Click here to see it.  I lamented that the author should have included more sample and he/she resubmitted, so here is a longer rewritten version.  This second sample deserves a second look because it shows the value of good rewriting.



No one saw the paint-chipped, wood dory drifting out to sea. They were intent on what the ocean placed in their net.

The old fisherman hobbled along on the charcoal sand beach toward his three adult sons. They waited patiently for him to help them pick salmon from the gill net they had just hauled from the sea, on the east side of Cook Inlet, Alaska. The old man spilled his coffee when he tripped on a rock, disguised by wet, grey mud and volcanic grit. He cussed, turned around, and ambled back for a refill, when urgent shouting diverted his attention.

One of the sons motioned him over and pointed at the tide line. The old man forgot the coffee. He gimped toward them, as they stood grouped around the tangled net on the beach. Their two-hundred-foot, monofilament net lay partially in the water, the other half clumped around something at the low tide line. The tide ebbed, leaving the beach fresh and clean.

As the old man approached, one of his sons moved to meet him.

“Dad, we have a body in the net.”

The old man stepped over to scrutinize the snarled remains. The small body curled in a fetal position, as if asleep in a womb. Layers of moss-covered nylon obscured the face, and he was thankful for it. He inspected a small, bloated foot, then noticed a pink Hello Kitty image on an ocean-stained tee shirt. Sun glinted something poking through strands of tangled hair and citrine seaweed. An earring.

“Dear God. Son, call the troopers,” said the old man, stepping back. His son retrieved a cell phone from his jacket and called 911.


Well, this one’s a little short as well, but we have enough to go on, I think. What we have here is a pretty traditional opening for a mystery — body washes up on shore of remote location, discovered by colorful local person. The disturbance is there from the get-go (yay!) and I trust we will meet the hero in the next chapter or scene. But because this opening has been done-to-death, (see PD James, Benchley’s Jaws, Simon Brett’s The Body on the Beach, Chris Grabanstein’s Whack a Mole) the scene really needs something fresh, and I don’t see it here.  Yes, genre fiction is partially about working within a respected formula, but the formula must constantly be challenged to work anew. There is nothing overtly wrong with this opening. But there is nothing aha! right about it. Which makes me think that an agent, editor, or reader sampling this would take a pass. You don’t take an old house, slap on a new coat of paint, and expect to sell it for 2.5 mil — or 99 cents on Kindle even. If you’re working with old architecture — which is okay in itself — you really need to strip things down to the foundation and find a way to imprint your own unique style on it.

Quick digression: Speaking of dead things in the water, check out the beginning of Raymond Carver’s So Much Water So Close to Home and try not to bang your head on the keyboard next time you write an opening. 

I waded, deepening into the dark water. Evening, and the push and swirl of the river as it closed around my legs and held on. Young grisle broke water. Parr darted one way, smolt another. Gravel turned under my boots as I edged out. Watched by the furious eyes of King Salmon. Their immense heads turned slowly, eyes burning with fury, as they hung in the deep current. They were there. I felt them there, and my skin prickled. But there was something else. I braced with the wind on my neck. Felt the hair rise as something touched my boot. Grew afraid at what I couldn’t see. Then of everything that filled my eyes — that other shore heavy with branches, the dark lip of the mountain range behind. And this river that had suddenly grown black and swift. I drew breath and cast anyway. Prayed nothing would strike.

Back to Alaska. What could have made the set-up for our writer’s story work better? A few suggestions:

  • Make it feel like it’s a story only you can tell.  This is set in a real place in Alaska. But strike the literal reference and this could be Anyplace USA, from Maui to Montauk. (One detail I do like is “volcanic grit.”  If the writer knows this place, it doesn’t come across. Neat setting but not exploited enough.
  • Turn the cliche on its head. Okay, dead body on beach. Is there some way to make this unique? I go back to PD James’s Unnatural Causes. She dressed her corpse to the nines — “a dapper little cadaver, its shroud a dark pin-striped suit.”  But…wait for it…beneath the white cuffs of the dress shirt, the hands had been cut off at the wrists. Our writer almost gets there with the baby’s earring but we need more.
  • Slow down. I know that sounds counter-intuitive here but this story doesn’t appear to be a ramrod thriller; it’s probably a “village mystery.” So I am hoping this story is not just about a murder but about its effect on the people of this town.  A little more scene setting could go a long way once you wade deeper into your story. I’d suggest the writer go read Val McDermind’s splendid A Place of Execution and dissect how she handles this. Or read Jonathan Buckley’s excellent dead-Brit-on-the-beach novel So He Takes the Dog, which delves into the psychology of death on a small town. (Creepy detail: Things begin to go bad when a beachcomber discovers his dog isn’t chewing on a piece of driftwood; it’s a human hand.) Please don’t buy into the idea that every mystery must bolt out of the gate. That can be boring in itself.  A well-set scene with local color and mood can be more effective. Every story has its own unique pace. Let your story unfold and seduce, not pounce and poke.

That’s it for my main points. Now let’s go to the edits.

Prologue  Chapter One. Why not?

No one saw the paint-chipped, wood dory drifting out to sea. They were intent on what the ocean placed in their net. I’m not totally against omniscient POV but if you use it, stay with it and milk it for all it’s worth. (click here to read opening of James’s Unnatural Causes. Also check out the omniscient opening of Jim Crace’s body on the beach novel Being Dead. By quickly switching to old man’s POV, this just feels like a gimmick. Why not USE the boat? What if the old man (who knows every inch of this beach) sees the empty dory bobbing out in the water and sense something’s adrift in his universe. (hint of disturbance! Give him a thought about it that tells us something unique about this place.)

The old fisherman hobbled along on the charcoal sand beach toward his three adult sons. Nit to pick: I got tripped up with the image of these guys fishing from the beach and not out in a boat. What kind of fishermen are they? Take a moment to explain that they are set-netting salmon from shore with a gill net and how this works. Again, this can say something special about your setting. Never assume your reader in landlocked Iowa knows anything about fishing. It can also illuminate character. The old man is really tired because they had been out since four setting the heavy nets, etc. Slow down…They waited patiently for him to help them pick salmon from the gill net they had just hauled from the sea, on the east side of Cook Inlet, Alaska. Find a way to insert the place more gracefully. This is you the writer TELLING me where we are; let the old man SHOW us through his thoughts and senses. The old man spilled his coffee when he tripped on a rock, disguised by wet, in the grey mud and volcanic grit. Neat detail! I Googled Cook Inlet and found it is rife with volcanoes! He cussed, turned around, and ambled back for a refill, when urgent shouting diverted his attention. More you telling. Show it. How about:

“Pop! Pop! Come quick!”

The old man turned at the sound of his son’s shouts. 

One of the sons motioned him over and pointed at the tide line. The old man forgot the coffee. He gimped might be just me but this verb feels nasty… limped? toward them. , as they stood grouped around the tangled net on the beach. You’re leaching the tension out of the discovery here. “as they stood…” is boring. Have the man draw up short and SHOW US what he sees. Their two-hundred-foot, monofilament don’t waste detail on the NET; give it to the horror of the baby’s body. The net needs to be described before the body discovery. net lay partially in the water, the other half clumped around something at the low tide line. The tide ebbed, leaving the beach fresh and clean.  The man isn’t there yet. He can’t relate this in his POV; you’ve slipped into the sons’ POV.

As the old man approached, “As” construction deflates tension. Get him there and move on. one of his sons moved to meet him.

“Dad, we have a body in the net.” Can we give this son better dialogue? He sounds like a jaded cop.  “Jesus,” the son whispered. “Sweet Jesus, it’s a…..” And maybe he can’t say it. So you give the old man the next line.

 A baby…it was a baby.

And where’s the kid’s reaction as seen through the dad’s POV?  The son might turn away, even retch? Slow down and give me some human emotion here.  Where’s the other two sons? What are they doing?

The old man stepped over he’s already there. to scrutinize the snarled remains. Snarled? Remains? It’s the body of a baby. This is not a cop or coroner talking. It is a fisherman who has seen many weird things in his net, dead things, but never a human. Get out of YOUR head and into his. This is a horrible moment, ripe with drama but we need to experience through the old man, not you the writer. The small body curled in a fetal position, as if asleep in a womb. Layers of moss-covered nylon the nylon net obscured the face, and he the old man was thankful for it. He inspected did he touch it? Unclear. a small, bloated foot, then noticed a pink Hello Kitty image on an ocean-stained ????tee shirt. If the body is in fetal position, he can’t see the image on the t-shirt. Sun glinted off? something poking through strands of tangled hair and citrine seaweed. An earring. This is a cool telling detail, especially since most babies don’t have earrings. Slow down and give him a thought about it! And maybe it is a thought that says something about this unique place.  A baby with a pierced ear? Nobody in this town did that to their babies. Or do they? I believe it’s common for Alaskan native-Americans to have piercings. Could this figure in? 

Note that you’ve placed your characters in a high-anxiety horror-filled scene. Yet they have no emotions, thoughts, reactions. Slow down and humanize this moment.

“Dear God. Not enough. See above. Son, call the troopers,” police? said the old man, stepping back. His son retrieved a cell phone from his jacket and called 911.  Again, these people feel like robots. And where are the other sons? Maybe just one son to simplify the choreography? 

So, dear writer. Find a way to make your unique setting work to your advantage so the body-on-the-beach feels new. Slow down and humanize your people because we need to feel the horror through them. Good luck and keep going!


And here is that revisit of  Keep It Safe.  I like this more on second look. There is a unique voice at work here and with the longer length and careful rewrite, we get some details and context that makes me want to read more.  I admit that my first critique was biased against this style. That wasn’t fair. You should critique something for what it is, not what is isn’t. Compare this version with the first version. Comments welcome, TKZers!

I levered the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay and a bullet slammed into my back. Below the right shoulder blade. More to the center. A lousy spot where if you have a rash or insect bite it’s impossible to scratch and not look like you’re having a seizure of some sort. If I had known this was the night someone was out to kill me, I would have brought something up from the cellar more unique than a domestic Chardonnay, even though it had a pleasant balance of oak to it.

There was that bottle or Nieto Senetiner Malbec from Argentina, I was holding for a special occasion, for example. Like the opening but I still maintain this is one joke over the line after the first graph. Get back to the action at hand.  I would still hold this kicker for later. The chard I misread this as a misspelling of shard went flying, the bottle hit my hardwood floor, didn’t break, the amber liquid flowed out. As for me, the impact of the slug jolted me forward. I tripped over my feet and did a full body slam on distressed walnut planking.

There I was, face down, flat on a cold floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps squeegee love it! their way over to me. We’re talking serious, heavy duty, outdoorsman rubber soles here. All I was grateful for at this point is I still wore my bullet proof vest from work. No, I’m not a cop, not a private dick sort of guy, no security guard, ex-military or something like along those lines. I work in a dentist’s office. Name’s Wowjewodzic, by the way. I like this. I had said initially that I didn’t like the backstory thoughts in an action scene. But this writer is going for something specific in style and it’s working. Almost an old pebbled glass detective era feel. Or like he’s Kevin Spacey in the movie American Beauty where he’s already dead and he’s telling us how it happened.  I trust Wowje is very much alive here but this high-style narrative voice works really well for this story and mood. Contrast this with the Alaska story above.  The dead baby on the beach story begs for a slower start with more scene setting and natural emotion from the old man.  This entry is going for something completely different so this smart-alec voice works.

I stayed still, bit the inside of my cheek to distract me from the pain in my back and waited. Waited for the, what’s it called, the ‘coup de – something or other,’ love this line as well. Funny and says something about the man where the bullet enters the back of the skull and you don’t care where it goes next because you’re dead.

Then it occurred to me, this guy, or gal, probably not likely due to the heavy feet, suggest a clean-up here  this guy — not likely a gal, due to the heavy feet — didn’t use a silencer. didn’t use a silencer. This was a full on, make-a-lot-of-noise, gunshot. He wasn’t concerned about the blast drawing attention from the neighbors. Then again, my nearest neighbor was three miles away. And it was raining. It does that a lot in Portland, Oregon. Now THIS is how you gracefully insert the place. And thank you for not using a tagline: PORTLAND, OREGON. A rainy Night in April.

I waited was waiting to take my last breath of air on this planet, when my would-be killer walked away. No kill shot, no turning me over to confirm his success and my death. nice construction here. He just walked away. A stroll in the park. Go figure. I didn’t even try. My thoughts were about how I managed think you need a had managed here to get myself into this mess in the first place. The answer was simple. I offered to help out a friend.  Very nice. Smooth as good scotch.

Notes: Notice the writer’s pacing here, the use of long sentences balanced with sentence fragments. And look how much info he had packed into his beginning: Action (the hero is down), place (Portland), character (he loves good wine and he works in a dentist’s office of all things!) Plus he tried to help someone out and it has backfired (so to speak.)  Thanks, writer, for resubmitting and giving us a quick lesson in the power of rewriting.



First Page Critique

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is a fantasy entitled A Turin Mercenary. My comments follow.


I sat silhouetted on my warhorse on the top of the hill.  I wanted them to see me.  A band of brigands had noticed me when I left the town of Ashton this morning.  I knew they would follow me.  I decided to make a stand.

It was midmorning.  The sky was clear, but it was cold.  It was the beginning of winter in the Realm.  I had taken off my warm cloak and gloves and let the cold invigorate me.  I took a deep calming breath and prepared myself for battle.

I could see the four of them riding on the road toward me now.  All too often, there were brigands that made their living by robbing people.  A lone female mercenary against the four of them.  They probably thought I would be an easy target.  I think not. Because I made my living by stopping them.  I allowed myself a little smile.  I made sure they would never harm anyone again.

The lead brigand whooped out loud when he saw me.  He drew his broadsword and held it high in the air.  The three brigands behind him drew their swords raised them as well.  They turned off the road and sent their horses at a gallop up the hill toward me.

I had given Talon the order to stand still and placed him with his left side parallel to the road.  A tactical maneuver.  In my left hand, was my longbow with an arrow notched.  I held the black bow vertically so it was hidden with my black horse, tack and clothes. The brigands would not see the bow until it was too late.

I waited patiently for them to come closer within range.  I calmly took in their expressions as they got closer, their faces tense with sneers of rage.  It was time.  I quickly lifted my bow up and drew back the bowstring.  I aimed and released the arrow at the lead brigand.  The arrow hit him square in the chest.  I immediately pulled another arrow from my back quiver, drew and fired.  The arrow hit the second brigand in the chest.  I saw the disbelief on the two remaining brigands’ faces when they saw their companions fall.

I dropped the bow and gave Talon the command to charge.  My warhorse responded with quick acceleration.  I drew my rapier and rode straight at the third brigand…


It’s always tricky with fantasy as a writers needs time for world building – so a first page critique can be hard to do, as we really only get a glimpse of this. Nonetheless, I think this first page demonstrates that, even in fantasy, it is critical to draw a reader in right from the starts with specifics, firmly rooted in whatever world (be in real or fantastical) the author has created. With this first page, we have some tension, a little character development and action, but I think what we most miss is the specifics to add color and texture to the scene. My comments therefore center on world building, characterization and POV.

World Building

In this first page we get a sense of the world but little in the way of specifics. For example, the world is called ‘the Realm’ but we know nothing about it, except that the character is a lone female mercenary who is waiting for a groups of brigands to attack. We don’t really get a sense of her role, motivations, or place in the ‘big picture’ of the novel beyond this (I admit, thought, with a first page only, that is often a hard task). I would have liked more detail that enabled me to see, hear, and smell this world, and enough to enable me to distinguish this story from many other medieval/fantasy novels. One of the key issues I had in this regard was the use of the word ‘brigands’ – which is used eight times on just the first page. This kind of repetition drains the scene of color and specificity – likewise the use of ‘lead brigand’, ‘second brigand’ and ‘third brigand’. Apart from their faces being ‘tense with sneers of rage’ I can’t picture or distinguish one from the other. Such an action scene as a first page would definitely benefit from richer descriptions.


I like how the lead character is a kick-ass lone female mercenary, but I needed a little more to truly believe and root for her as a character. It seemed strained to me that she would merely wait in the open and the brigands would oblige by attacking – what was their motivation for doing so? Does she look rich enough to be worth robbing? Why is she a mercenary (even just a hint on this would make her more intriguing)? At the moment she seems a little generic – and again, it’s really a question of giving us more specifics and making her seem more human (is she nervous at all? If she’s so confident – why? Have her experiences in the past hardened her?). This also leads to the question of voice, which I found wasn’t quite fully formed as yet.


The ‘voice’ in this first page is clearly the mercenary and yet I didn’t get a sense of her voice strongly enough as yet. Perhaps it was the vague drifting into third person/omniscience (e.g.. ‘A band of brigands noticed me’) or the odd change in tenses (‘I think not’) or the short staccato style sentences (which can work, but here, felt a little bland). For a fantasy novel to grab me, I need to be fully invested in the main character from the get-go. Although I liked the action in the scene, I feel that a bit more attention to the lead character’s voice would go a long way to upping the tension and stakes.

Overall, I think this page has good action but lacks some ‘color’ in terms of world-building details, POV and characterization. If the writer spent a bit of time enhancing these elements this page would be all the stronger for it.

TKZers, what do you think?



Act First, Explain Later

by James Scott Bell

Today we have another of our first-page critiques, this one with the title Darkness and Blood. Let’s have a look and discuss it on the other side.

A few minutes past midnight in the south of France.
     Pablo de Silva, ex-CIA agent, awoke from the half sleep of a man on the run always fearing capture. Had he heard a noise somewhere outside his farmhouse? he wondered. Intelligence operatives had found his hideaway to snatch him back to his former boss? Terrorists, avenging the killing of one of their own, had tracked him down? Or a jealous husband set on murdering his wife who had fled his beatings and who now, de Silva worried with a glance at her, lay just as uneasily beside him.
   “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” What is it, Pablo? she asked in a whisper. “Something wrong?”
   He whispered back, “Je ne sais pas,” and put a finger to her lips. “Quiet.” He listened a moment longer in the absolute stillness of the country night, trying to place the sound. After a moment longer, sure now he had heard something, he patted her warm naked thigh; stay here, his intimate gesture implied. He leapt from their bed and, tiptoeing in a crouch, he was at the bedroom’s threshold. A quick dash across the darkened living room, and he was at one of the two windows that overlooked the dirt drive. He knelt, feeling the cold wooden floor on his knees, and, parting the curtain, peered out. For a moment, squinting past the partly opened shutters, he saw nothing except the thick blackness of night. He only heard the same sound that kept him tense, a mechanical rattle. It came from a car, he saw at last, its headlights out, its menacing silhouette looming closer to the end of his farmhouse’s drive, and he realized they didn’t have time to flee.
     “It’s him, I know it. He’ll kill us both, Pablo.”
     De Silva glanced over his shoulder. “Stay in the bedroom.”
     “He’s that kind of husband. He’s crazy with jealousy.”
     “Do as I say and lock the door.” De Silva peeked out through the curtain again, ending further discussion. Only one car, not several. Parked about ten feet from the stone steps leading to his front door. Three men in silhouette in the car; a fourth in darkened outline, above average in height, stepping out. Four men in one vehicle, not a convoy bringing a snatch….


We have here the makings of a great opening scene. Ex-CIA on the run, bad guys want him, not to mention a jealous husband. What I think we need is some slicing and dicing to move things along more briskly. My suggestions are for that purpose, but I don’t want them to distract from the overall point that this is a nice set up.

The axiom act first, explain later applies here. Readers who are caught up in a tense scene will wait a long time for fuller information to come out. In fact, they prefer it. One of the pleasures of reading a thriller is to guess at what’s going on before all is made clear.

Thus, I’d cut the first line. It’s going to become evident this is night soon enough. And the France bit is implied by the dialogue. The exact location can be dropped in at another point.

So let’s look at that all-important first paragraph:

Pablo de Silva, ex-CIA agent, awoke from the half sleep of a man on the run always fearing capture. A man on the run always fears capture. The opening line works better without the redundancy. Had he heard a noise somewhere outside his farmhouse? he wondered. We are in his POV, so the he wondered is not necessary. (Regarding POV and exposition, even ex-CIA agent could be cut and saved for later.)

The rest of the paragraph is packed with exposition, three possibilities going through Pablo’s mind. It’s a bit much for a reader to process. It slows the action. Why not keep us guessing? Consider cutting this part. By the end of the page we’ll still know there’s a jealous husband out there, and that the ones outside are a group.

Next we have:

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” What is it, Pablo? she asked in a whisper. “Something wrong?”

First of all, for foreign phrases, the norm is:

  1. The phrase, italicized.
  2. The attribution.
  3. The translation.

Like this:

Dónde está mi ropa interior?” he said. Where is my underwear?


Qu’est-ce que c’est?” the woman whispered. What is it? (You added Pablo to the translation when it wasn’t in the foreign. It must be an exact match. Also, the phrase “Something wrong” stands out. Is it in English? Then why did she speak French? It’s also redundant. What is it? already implies something is wrong).


He whispered back, “Je ne sais pas,” and put a finger to her lips.

To be consistent, you ought to make it:

Je ne sais pas,” he whispered back. I don’t know. He put a finger to her lips. I’d cut “Quiet” because that’s implied with the finger to the lips.

Now we have a long paragraph, and I’m going to make a very simple, yet effective suggestion: White space! It’s no secret that these days many busy readers are intimidated by long blocks of text. So make it easy for them by adding breaks, like so:

     He listened a moment longer in the absolute stillness of the country night, trying to place the sound. After a moment longer, sure now he had heard something, he patted her warm naked thigh; stay here, his intimate gesture implied.
     He leapt from their bed and, tiptoeing in a crouch, he was at the bedroom’s threshold. A quick dash across the darkened living room, and he was at one of the two windows that overlooked the dirt drive. He knelt, feeling the cold wooden floor on his knees, and, parting the curtain, peered out.
     For a moment, squinting past the partly opened shutters, he saw nothing except the thick blackness of night. He only heard the same sound that kept him tense, a mechanical rattle. It came from a car, he saw at last, its headlights out, its menacing silhouette looming closer to the end of his farmhouse’s drive, and he realized they didn’t have time to flee.

In the above section, I’d cut After a moment longer, sure now he had heard something… It is part of a really long sentence and isn’t needed. We can guess all this from the action. Also, and this is one of my personal bugaboos (so feel free to ignore it, although you ignore it at your peril!) I hate semi-colons in fiction. And I’m not alone! If you care to, you can read my reasons here.

I’m okay with Pablo patting her warm naked thigh. But then you don’t need stay here, his intimate gesture implied. That’s a POV violation, since it’s not Pablo who would pick up the implication, but the woman. And anyway, the pat itself is enough.

With all that said, this part could read:

     He listened a moment longer in the absolute stillness of the country night, trying to place the sound. He patted the woman’s warm naked thigh and leapt from their bed.
     Tiptoeing in a crouch, he was at the bedroom’s threshold.


For a moment, squinting past the partly opened shutters, he saw nothing except the thick blackness of night.

I’d make it, simply:

He saw nothing except the thick blackness of night.

The reason is that of course it’s a moment. Everything in the scene is a moment, and unless you are conveying something like a moment later it’s not needed. The squinting part is already implied by the peering out.

And I bring this up for another reason. The –ing construction is repeated throughout. I’m not a grammar guru, but I believe this is called a present participle phrase:

trying to place the sound
tiptoeing in a crouch
feeling the cold wooden floor
parting the curtain
squinting past the partly opened shutters
ending further discussion
stepping out

There is nothing grammatically wrong with a present participle, and on occasion it can add variety to the style. But overuse can get taxing. So just be aware of it. There’s never anything wrong with converting one long sentence into two shorter ones … and ditching the –ings.

Okay, that’s a lot of notes. The remainder of the page works for me (okay, one more note: I’d cut the line ending further discussion as that’s evident from the action).

As I said at the top, this is a compelling opening scene. Edit it a bit and I would definitely turn the page to see what happens next!

Your turn, TKZers. Help our brave author out with your own notes. I’m on the road today but will try to check in.