First Page Critique: The God Glasses

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Please enjoy the first 400 words of “The God Glasses” from an anonymous submitter. I’ll have my critique after the excerpt. Please contribute constructive criticism in your comments.

***

Ella raced up the stairs as fast as her twelve year old legs could carry her. She had one objective, the same one every time—to escape the terror. She stopped mid-way and listened to her mother scream at her father.

“You never listen to me! You’re buried in your work, your motorcycle, or your sports. We wait for you to come home, but you never do. When you’re here, you’re somewhere else. Why don’t you just go away and never come back? Wouldn’t be much of a change—”

A slap and a heavy fall. Mama moaned—a pitiful sound, Ella thought. Her fists balled up at her sides, her legs shook.

She crept back down to the landing and peered over the railing into the kitchen. Daddy picked Mama up by the hair and backed her tight against the wall, his other hand knotted on her breastbone, pushing cruelly. He towered over her smallness, tattooed muscles bulging under his sleeves, face mere inches from hers. He wrenched her head back, forcing her to look up.

Mama’s wide eyes met hers. She blinked and a tear wetted her bruised cheek.

Ella gripped the rail. It creaked.

Daddy jerked his head up and smiled. He moved his hand from Mama’s breastbone to her throat and leaned in, thrusting his mouth next to Mama’s ear.

“You watch your mouth or I just might leave and never come back!” he screamed. Pulling back, he said, “What would happen to you and the girl if I left? How would you like that—to have to go and beg for help from that old woman up the street? Yeah, I thought not. So straighten up. I’m going out.” He snapped her head back. She fell again with a crash, upsetting the small side table which held his liquor and glasses.

“Clean that up before I get back,” he bellowed.

“Clean it up yourself, you pig—”

Ella ran, long dark hair streaming behind her. She stumbled on the top stair and fell to her face. She picked herself up, raced to her bedroom closet, and yanked the door open. She backed into the corner and sank to the floor, hands tight against her ears.

After Daddy leaves, I’ll go see Grandmother. She’ll tell me again about her God glasses. Maybe she’ll let me wear them.

She rocked back and forth, recalling better times.

***

FEEDBACK

First impressions, I like this author’s voice and the clear concise writing with visual imagery. Good use of the senses. On the surface, there is plenty to get drawn into with Ella. I like that the author stuck with the actions of the domestic violence scene and didn’t stray into backstory or an explanation. I’m rooting for Ella and love that the author has told the story through a twelve-year-old girl’s eyes. Domestic violence through a child’s eyes can be more powerful. Readers will want to protect her, but this first scene feels rushed for the sake of action. Violence like this should be more emotional, especially from a kid’s eyes. Make us feel Ella’s fear and helplessness.

We have clean copy and a solid start, but let’s dig deeper from a bird’s eye view to see how we can strengthen this scene.

ANOTHER OPENING SUGGESTION – The author has a choice to start with action (as in this case) or ground the reader into Ella’s world before the violence happens and build towards it. Anticipation can milk the tension in ways this action opening can’t. Would readers relate to Ella more if they got a taste of her world before the shocking inevitable happens? Should the author build toward a mounting dread that her father will be home or he’s late and both mom and daughter know what that means (without telling readers)?

In this opener, it’s my gut instinct when dealing with a young protagonist to show her world in a short punchy beginning that doesn’t slow the pace. Make every word count and build on what will happen with hints of foreshadowing. As much as I like the action in this opener, I can see how an unexplained growing tension between a mother and daughter can pique a reader’s interest more. Have Ella rushing to finish her homework from the safety of her small bedroom and not quite get it done because her mother yells for her to come downstairs to set the table. That would allow the reader to know what kind of mother she is before everything erupts.

Ella and her mother look at a clock ticking on a wall. When they hear boots climbing stair outside, they tense and wait for the door to open. He steps into the small apartment and he reeks of alcohol. Have Ella read her mother’s cues. Both women know what’s coming. How do they each react? Have patience for the scene to erupt and build on the natural tension.

In this current scene, Ella’s mom aggressively goes after the angered dad and puts Ella in danger. That makes both parents look bad. Is that the intention of the author? I don’t know. Let’s talk about character motivation.

CHARACTER MOTIVATION – This feels like violence that has happened more than once. If Ella’s mother is a battered wife, why would she taunt this man into beating her? She’s overly aggressive with someone who will punch her in the face and put her daughter in danger. It doesn’t feel natural, from a motivation standpoint. If the author would show more of how this anger is triggered and how the reactions would flow, the violence would be more grounded for the reader.

Also, Ella runs scared up the stairs, but turns around and comes back to watch. That feels like a cheat to the reader, to get them into the race up the stairs, only to deflate the tension by having Ella retreat. I can totally see a young kid who might want to protect the mom, stick around to watch. But that’s not how this began.

Make the reader understand why Ella might have a reason to protect the mom. By a slower build toward the violence, we could get a glimpse into Ella’s personality. Is she feisty or a beat dog? Is she ready to fight when her mother isn’t? Ella’s character motivation could be more interesting in this opener.

As a reader, I’m questioning character motives. The author should have patience to let the reader know the hearts of these characters. Contrivances (for the sake of action and tension) don’t allow the reader to buy into the story.

DIALOGUE – There are two long dialogue groupings – the first one when the mom goes after the dad. The second comes when the dad yells back. Because these are grouped together, they feel contrived and forced. Arguments, especially when there is violence, they are more believable if there is an exchange with shorter lines. Let the action ratchet up the tension and have the dialogue be punchy and shorter. More natural.

Have the dialogue get louder. Maybe have a neighbor yell and pound the thin wall, “Shut up or I’ll call the cops.” Then finish with the violence that will stop both parents. I can see him yelling down at her as she struggles to stay conscious.

“See? You drive me crazy. You always ask for it.”

RESEARCH – Abusers often blame their victims. It wouldn’t hurt to research the psychology behind domestic violence. Good research on motivation will add authenticity. Although there are lots of good books on the subject, I often look first at online articles on any given topic. These type of articles can inspire ideas on how to add impact to a scene. Here is a link to “The Psychological Wounds of Domestic Violence.”

COMBINE THE YELLING LINES? The long diatribe has the potential of losing the interest of the reader if it’s lumped together, without much grounding. Below is an example of breaking apart the dialogue groupings and combine them, with tensions escalating toward his first assault on her.

“You never listen to me!”

“Watch your mouth.”

“You’re buried in your work, your motorcycle, or your sports. That’s what matters to you. Not us.”

“Give me something to come home to. Look at you. You’re a mess.”

“Why don’t you just go away and never come back? Wouldn’t be much of a change—”

“Oh, yeah. What would happen to you and the girl if I left? How would you like it if you had to beg for help from the old woman? You don’t know how to make it alone.”

“Being alone is better than being with you.”

“You ungrateful pig.” (He strikes her)

WHAT WOULD ELLA DO? – What options does Ella have as a twelve-year-old child? Even if you didn’t change this scene much, I wondered what was going through Ella’s mind as she sat at the top of the stairs and watched her dad beat her mother. She must be in agony. I wanted the author to show the conflicts that must be raging through her. For Ella to sit on the stairs, without lifting a finger to call police or help her mom, that did not feel normal.

If you have the neighbor call the cops, the sirens could be wailing before he storms out, leaving Ella and her mom to deal with the aftermath. Ella would want to see if her mom is okay, wouldn’t she? Would she try to stop her father? The combination of Ella crying and fending off the old man, along with the cop sirens coming, could be enough to make the wife beater leave. But Ella running to hide in her closet, without checking on her mother, doesn’t seem heroic.

That’s why it matters to build on Ella’s world, even a little. A stronger foundation gets the reader in the girl’s corner from the start. We get a glimpse into her home life and how she feels toward her mother and father.

TITLE – I’m not sure what God’s Glasses have to do with the story. I like the title but I’m not sure why yet. It piqued my interest, but don’t rush to have Ella thinking about the old woman and God’s glasses. That feels like a contrivance for the sake of having a better opening scene cliffhanger. Be patient as the story unfolds. I’m sure there is something magical about God’s Glasses and Ella.

SUMMARY – This is the kind of story that would make it through a writer’s group reading with flying colors. It’s clean copy and there’s a lot to like about it. But as I read this strong opening, I had questions in my mind. Character motivation is a big one. Make it believable and real. Then ask yourself, is there a better way to start this? I don’t know if Ella will be a main character. I presume so, given the title, but it’s doubly important to have the reader think favorably of her from the first page. Or at least, be intrigued enough to turn the page. Have patience to portray your character. I normally love to start with action. Many of us do, here at TKZ. But with this opening, I thought a more deft hand in Ella’s portrayal was needed. What do you think, TKZers?

DISCUSSION:

Let me know what you think of this story, TKZers. I’m pretty sure we would all turn the page of this story, but what would you do to make this intro stronger?

Do you have different ideas on how to make this opening stronger?

Are there relationship elements between Ella and her parents that would enhance this scene?

 

2+

Blue Menace: First Page Critique

Photo credit: Canva.com (author pro access)

Greetings, readers, writers, and population at large. Today we have a first page critique of a futuristic story about a young woman with the colorful name of Diamond Blue. Please read the submission, and my comments, then let our dear writer in on your thoughts.

Working Title: Blue Menace

Diamond Blue scrambled around her small bedroom, grabbing clothes and accessories at random, shoving them in her backpack.

She looked at her wrist. Crap! Ten minutes to get to the ship, and maybe another twenty before the cops figured out what she had done.

In the bathroom, she held the backpack up to her side of the shelf and swiped everything in. She rested the bag on the vanity and pushed at the jumble inside to close the zip. As she finished, she glanced at the mirror – red face, sweaty, and wild-eyed. Oh sure, they’d let her on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.

She splashed water on her flushed face and ran her damp hands over her long sapphire-blue braids.

Deep breaths.

The memory flashed of her best friend, Rina, surrounded by a swarm of armed cops. She shook her head to clear it. If she didn’t get moving, it would all be for nothing.

She turned out of the bathroom, swinging the backpack onto her shoulder, and crossed the living room. She and Rina weren’t messy flatmates, but the remains of yesterday’s hasty planning session was strewn across the coffee table – pizza, wine, chocolate. Diamond grabbed the last few squares of chocolate and popped them into her mouth. Breakfast of champions.

At the front door, she waved her hand over the sensor. It slid across the opening and disappeared into the opposite wall.

Diamond pulled the hood of her sweater over her hair, leaned out and checked the corridor.

Her neighbors in this quadrant of Residential Floor Three liked to start work a little later than most. There was no one around.

Neither was her ride. Of all the times for the damn Sliders to malfunction!

The Sliders, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from the public bays near the core to her location based on the quantum chip in her hand.

The chip! Ahh, she was a class-A idiot!

She slapped at the cuff around her lower left arm to wake it up, and re-ordered the Slider in the name she’d stolen in the early hours of the morning – Rina Cavanaugh.

Somewhere on the Justice floor was a Slider hovering around the booking desk, maybe even outside Rina’s cell if it got that far.

She had less time than she thought.

______________________-

This, dear readers, is an example of a quite accomplished opening to a story. We have immediate action occurring in the midst of some troubling event—that desirable in medias res we so often encourage around here. A well-defined setting: sometime in the technological future. Clear, identifiable characters: Diamond Blue and her flatmate, Rina Cavanaugh, the cops. Interesting nomenclature in the story’s world. And a nearly complete scene that doesn’t lose its focus. Check, check and check.

So let’s look at some details, dear writer.

I like the title, Blue Menace. Evocative, and connected to the main character. While I’m not certain, the title and voice make it sound like it’s a YA story.

Opening line:

“Diamond Blue scrambled around her small bedroom, grabbing clothes and accessories at random, shoving them in her backpack.”

This is a perfectly good opening line for a chapter. I’m less convinced that it is telling enough for a novel. If this is, indeed, a novel, I’d like to see the opening chapter—even just a paragraph– be an event in the obviously chaotic world outside the building (or whatever where Diamond lives is called). It can be in the past, such as the scene where Rina is surrounded, or some apocalyptic event that we will eventually learn about. Make the stakes of the story bigger right off.

“She splashed water on her flushed face and ran her damp hands over her long sapphire-blue braids.”

A couple of commas will make the sentence clearer:

She splashed water on her flushed face, and ran her damp hands over her long, sapphire-blue braids.

You could even lose “-blue.” I don’t think anyone would imagine her hair is made of actual sapphires. Though there are a few sapphire stones of other colors (rubies are technically sapphires), they are typically blue. Then again, it occurs to me that her name is Diamond. Is the sapphire reference intentional?

I admire the way you do the reflection description of Diamond, dear writer. Mirrors can be cliché, but it works.

Quoting a character’s thoughts—

Oh sure, they’d let her on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.”

Using italics to hear a third-person character’s thoughts is fine. But if you’re going to use quotes or italics, you need to treat thoughts like internal dialogue, and use me instead of her, and I instead of she. It should read:

“Oh sure, they’d let me on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.”

When you quote this way, you can make the thoughts sound a little more natural, as in,

Sure. Like they’ll let me on board looking like a crackhead after a five mile run, no problem.”

Later, Damn Sliders. Of course they choose now to screw up!” and Holy crap, I’m an idiot!

A matter of agreement—

“The Sliders, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from the public bays near the core to her location based on the quantum chip in her hand.”

I had to think about this one a moment. I’m assuming individual Sliders are referred to as “a Slider.” If so, the sentence should read:

(Simpler, preferred version. Don’t get caught up in exact locations.) A Slider, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from a public bay closest to the requester’s location based on the quantum chip in their hand.

 Or, The Sliders, simple hover-platforms with t-bars to steer, were supposed to come from the public bays near the core to requesters’ locations based on the quantum chip in their hands.

(I know I use “their” as singular in the first one. According to some, that usage is still under debate. I’ve made the change in my work.)

 “She slapped at the cuff around her lower left arm to wake it up, and re-ordered the Slider in the name she’d stolen in the early hours of the morning – Rina Cavanaugh.

Somewhere on the Justice floor was a Slider hovering around the booking desk, maybe even outside Rina’s cell if it got that far.”

Okay, you’ve got me here, dear writer. I’m lost. Am I supposed to understand that she ordered in her own name originally? If the Slider is supposed to come to her based on the fact that it responds to the chip in her hand, shouldn’t it have located her where she is? What does the cuff have to do with it? I finally understand that Rina is locked up on the Justice floor—good news that she’s not dead—but I don’t get the explanation for the Slider mixup.

Perhaps simply drop the whole mistaken Slider thing, unless it will have an effect on the plot later. If that’s the case, just make it as simple as possible, and put the revelation of Rina’s location somewhere else.

What a great start, dear writer. I would definitely read on.

Have at it, TKZers! What are your thoughts and suggestions?

 

 

3+

Behind the Scenes at a Writers Conference

What the well-dressed crime novelist wears to a writers conference.

If you’ve attended writing conferences, you likely had a great time. You chatted with fellow authors, learned about craft, picked up marketing tips, and made important contacts with editors and agents. Organizers strive to make the schedule seamless, the meals hot and tasty, the speakers interesting.

Everything probably ran smoothly and you walked away happy.

You never saw the drama behind the scenes.

And that’s how it should be.

But making it look easy requires lots of preparation plus the ability to drop back and punt when circumstances go awry.

The 29th Annual Flathead River Writers Conference wrapped this past weekend. By all accounts, attendees went home happy, loaded with new tools, inspiration, and fresh energy.

Jeff Giles, Ben Loehnen, Haven Kimmel

The speakers were excellent as well as great fun, as this photo shows. Mugging for the camera is Jeff Giles, Vanity Fair Hollywood editor, Simon & Schuster editor Ben Loehnen, and Haven Kimmel, author of A Girl Named Zippy.

As a conference committee member and sometimes co-chair, I’ve worked many of those 29 events.

Some years are a blast. Other years, s**t happens.

Manuscript evaluations by editors and agents are always major draws for attendees. Slots fill fast and the back-up wait list is long.

This year, three weeks before the conference, the guest agent suffered a family medical emergency. He remained hopeful he could still attend but the outcome was too uncertain to predict. We told him to take care of his family and that we would find a replacement.

We organizers felt terrible for him. But we also had 100+ attendees to worry about. Many travel from other states and expect to hear an agent. We had to deliver. Out went a wild flurry of phone calls and emails.

But…August is traditional vacation time in the publishing industry. Some were out of the office and unplugged. Others already had commitments and couldn’t come on such short notice.

As our panic grew and time evaporated, a hero stepped up. A couple of years before, Barbara Schiffman had been a big hit at our conference. She’d worked for decades in the Hollywood film industry, doing story analysis and script evaluation for producers. Recently, she semi-retired and moved to nearby Whitefish, Montana. She graciously agreed to substitute, including doing manuscript critiques.

Whew! Saved!

One year, a much-anticipated horror author was sidelined by airline snafus. She departed New Orleans on Friday morning and was supposed to arrive in Montana by 4 p.m. in time for the welcome dinner for speakers.

At noon, she called from Houston where she was stuck. A weather system caused a domino effect, delaying all flights. The poor woman spent nine hours in the Houston airport trying to reschedule. The upshot: the airline could deliver her to Montana at midnight the following day…after half the conference was over. She wound up going home to New Orleans, unfortunately with a new horror story to tell.

Years ago, a renowned true crime author agreed to present. We were over the moon to have such a big name. Registrations poured in. Even non-writers paid to hear her speak.

But…she was a nervous flyer. First, she said she’d drive. Then she decided her health wasn’t good enough to drive. Could she take a train? I looked into arrangements but the cost was four times that of a plane ticket. Our group is nonprofit and the money for a train ticket wasn’t there.

She nearly backed out several times. I spent hours on the phone with her, trying to reassure her. Finally she gathered her courage and got on the plane.

She was a huge hit–the attendees were thrilled. Best of all, she herself had a fabulous time and loved every minute.

At the end of the conference, she clasped my hands and said, “I am SO glad I came! This is the best conference I’ve ever been to. And to think I almost didn’t come.”

Whew!

Most speakers are wonderful, gracious people who want to help other writers. In 29 years, I can count the clinkers on the fingers of one hand. But those few clinkers really leave an impression.

One year, a big-name mystery author was supposed to teach a three-day intensive workshop. He showed up with his girlfriend and they were fighting. He then told us he shouldn’t have come because he was on deadline.

Uh, you didn’t know that when you committed to teach?

The first morning, he grumbled and complained for three hours to his students about his deadline and troubles with his girlfriend. After lunch, he pitched a fit, saying he couldn’t possibly write in his hotel room because his girlfriend was irritating him. “I’m not hard to please,” he claimed, “just find me a quiet place with a table.” So I found several alcoves in the hotel where he could write. He couldn’t stand any of them.

The second morning, more whining, no teaching. Students were irritated and their complaints were totally valid.

The third morning, he put in a halfhearted effort to review a few manuscripts but the class was a disaster. We wound up refunding tuition to his disappointed students.

At the party on the last evening, in front of everyone, he apologized to me for his behavior and presented me with a T-shirt…that advertised his books.

Can you spell E-G-O?

Hiccups aren’t always with speakers. Once in a while, volunteers throw sand in the gears. One member was obsessed with finding an agent. He found out when the agent’s flight was scheduled to arrive, even though someone else had been assigned to do airport pickup. He showed up early, grabbed the agent, took him out to dinner, and badgered him for three hours about representation.

This happened before cell phones so we couldn’t call the agent. We knew he’d arrived on the plane but he’d disappeared. No one could find him.

Finally, the dazed agent arrived at the hotel. He told us he wasn’t thrilled that we’d sent this obsessed writer to pick him up. We apologized profusely and explained the guy had acted on his own, totally without our knowledge. Fortunately, the agent had a sense of humor. He probably told that story at future conferences as a cautionary tale of how not to impress an agent.

Needless to say, the kidnapper didn’t receive an offer of representation.

For every horror story, there are at least a hundred tales of writers who were inspired to finish a book, take the plunge into publication, or step up to the next level in their careers.

This year, attendees came from all over Montana, as well as Texas, California, Indiana, Iowa, Colorado, Missouri, Arizona, and Canada.

I’m introducing Gabe Grende, up and coming Orson Welles

Several young writers were at their very first conference, including a 16-year-old filmmaker. Gabe Grende is a local high school student who started working in video six years ago. He recently attended a film school taught by Michael Polish and Kate Bosworth. Gabe so impressed Michael that Michael took him to Puerto Rico for a location shoot of a Mel Gibson movie.

Gabe agreed to film our conference and we can’t wait to see the finished product.

Meeting a student who’s eager and already accomplished at a young age gives all of us hope and inspiration.

 

Writing conferences are lots of work. Are they worth it?

Oh, yeah!

~~~

TKZers: What’s the best lesson you learned at a conference?

If you’ve volunteered, how did working behind the scenes increase your understanding of the business?

~~~

Debbie Burke’s new thriller Stalking Midas is available here.

5+

What book made you a reader?

I’ve been reading some of the previews of the upcoming version of Little Women (though seriously, how many film versions do we need?…) and it got me nostalgic for the days when my sister and I would reenact scenes from the book (I was always Jo, she was always Amy). Looking back I realize just how definitive this book was in turning me into a lifelong reader – and when I see books like ‘How to Raise A Reader’, I wonder if some books really do turn out to be pivotal in inspiring someone to love reading. I know for my sister at least, there really wasn’t any one book (or books) that proved critical to turning her into a lifelong book lover. In fact, growing up she was indifferent to many of the books I adored and, though we played ‘Little Women’, she didn’t actually read that book until she was a young adult. I wonder if for her it was just a matter of timing – finding that one amazing book at the right time in childhood that would make all the difference – because, even though she is a great reader now, she was never as passionate (nor as voracious) a reader as I was as a child. This got me questioning whether many ‘non-readers’ simply never found that one pivotal book in childhood that inspired them to read…

For me, Little Women was one of many books that inspired my love of reading. I remember how much I wanted to be just like Jo, how I wished she’d married Laurie (I really hated Amy for a while!), and how much a wept over Beth’s death. Little Women wasn’t the only book I remember reading vividly – there was also C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Madeline L’Engle’s ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, and Elinor M. Brent Dyer’s Chalet School Series (which I read and re-read for many years). When I think back to my childhood reading experience, these are the books that really stand out for me – with the memories of the first time I read them indelibly imprinted on my brain. When I look at my own children, I feel grateful to have witnessed their own ‘book’ moments that turned them into lifelong readers – but then I wonder what happens to those kids that never find that special book, or who never have those moments which turn them into book lovers…?

So TKZers, what were your early reading experiences like? Was there a particular book (or books) that turned you into a reader? Do you think it’s getting harder for kids to experience this? (asked against a background of dread that ‘screen time’ has now replaced book time!)

3+

Some Healthful and Practical Writing Advice

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We here at TKZ care about writers—how they write, of course, but also how they can stay healthy. Today I bring you some venerable wisdom on both counts.

First, on health:

Over at Project Gutenberg I happened upon the definitive treatment of the healthy side of coffee, published in London in 1721, with the snappy title of The Virtue and Use of Coffee With Regard to the Plague, And Other Infectious Distempers. We all know coffee gives you a lift in the morning, among other benefits. But until I read this little book, I had no idea of the number of infirmities a daily cup of joe can overcome. To wit:

[Coffee] cures Consumptions, Swooning Fits, and the Rickets; and it helps Digestion, rarefies the Blood, suppresses Vapours, gives Life and Gayety to the Spirits, prevents Sleepiness after eating, provokes Urine and the Catamena.

It contracts the Bowels, and confirms the Tone of the Parts, being drank after Victuals, provided it be fresh made; for if it stands but two or three Hours, it loseth much of its Virtue. … It is an effectual Remedy against Worms in Children; so that if the Mother drinks frequently of it when she is With Child, the Infant will not be troubled with Worms, during its first Years.

’Tis likewise useful to such as are afflicted with Rheumatick or Gouty Humours. The Dutch Physicians commend the Use of it in Intermitting Fevers, and hold it to be good against Infection; because of the great Refreshment it gives the nobler Parts of the Body, and its sudden Effect upon the Spirits, which are wonderfully recreated by it. And it is apparently the Opinion of all Physicians who have yet wrote concerning the Plague, That such Bodies whose Spirits are the most overcome by Fear, are the most subject to receive Infections. And again, That the Spirits must be refresh’d only by such Liquors, or Preparations, as will not promote Inflammations. And of this nature, say they, is Coffee, which by a right Use supports the vital Flame, and defends the Body from Pestilential Infection. And as such it is generally recommended, as a necessary Drink, at least twice a day; the first thing in a Morning, and at four in the Afternoon.

Got that? Drink coffee first thing in the morning and at four in the afternoon, and your kids won’t get worms.

Now, about writing. Louisa May Alcott wrote this letter sometime in 1878:

I can only say to you as I do to the many young writers who ask for advice—There is no easy road to successful authorship; it has to be earned by long & patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties & trials. Success is often a lucky accident, coming to those who may not deserve it, while others who do have to wait & hope till they have earned it. This is the best sort & the most enduring.

I worked for twenty years poorly paid, little known, & quite without any ambition but to eke out a living, as I chose to support myself & began to do it at sixteen. This long drill was of use, & when I wrote Hospital Sketches by the beds of my soldier boys in the shape of letters home I had no idea that I was taking the first step toward what is called fame. It nearly cost my life but I discovered the secret of winning the ear & touching the heart of the public by simply telling the comic & pathetic incidents of life.

Little Women was written when I was ill, & to prove that I could not write books for girls. The publisher thought it flat, so did I, & neither hoped much for or from it. We found out our mistake, & since then, though I do not enjoy writing “moral tales” for the young, I do it because it pays well.

But the success I value most was making my dear mother happy in her last years & taking care of my family. The rest soon grows wearisome & seems very poor beside the comfort of being an earthly Providence to those we love.

I hope you will win this joy at least, & think you will, for you seem to have got on well so far, & the stories are better than many sent me. I like the short one best. Lively tales of home-life or children go well, & the Youth’s Companion is a good paying paper. I do not like Loring as he is neither honest nor polite. I have had dealings with him & know. Try Roberts Brothers, 299 Washington St. They are very kind & just & if the book suits will give it a fair chance. With best wishes for a prosperous & happy New Year I am your friend

L.M.A.

Questions:

What is your beverage of choice when you write?

Where are you on the “long & patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties & trials” road that we call the writing life?

What part of writing brings you the most joy?

9+

Writing and Nesting

By Mark Alpert

This is a momentous week for the Alpert household. On Monday my wife and I will help our daughter move into her dorm room as she starts her first year of college. She’s the younger of our two children — her brother is in Australia now, enjoying a junior-semester abroad — so I guess this marks the beginning of our empty-nest years.

How does raising children affect a writer’s life? Twenty-five years ago I assumed it would be a distraction. I thought I needed to focus on writing fiction and get a book published before I could commit to parenthood. But my attitude shifted one afternoon when I went jogging in Central Park and saw someone in a T-shirt that said, “Don’t Postpone Joy.” It sounds ridiculous, but that corny slogan changed everything.

Instead of hindering my effort to become a novelist, my kids helped it along. My son became the role model for the protagonist’s son in my first novel, Final Theory, which was published in 2008 by Simon & Schuster and translated into more than twenty languages. I realized that a fictional character who’s also a good parent can be very appealing to readers. In To Kill a Mockingbird, we admire Atticus Finch for being an honorable, upright lawyer, but we fall in love with him because he treats his kids so tenderly. The same is true of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter books.

Some of my kids’ passions and mannerisms became character traits of the young people in my novels. When my son was seven, he loved Super Soakers, so the seven-year-old Jonah Swift in Final Theory loves Super Soakers too. In one of the first scenes in that novel, Jonah’s dad explains the physics of a Super Soaker; their dialogue is a rough facsimile of an actual conversation I had with my son. In my third novel, Extinction, the protagonist’s daughter Layla is a grown-up version of my daughter, smart and brave and rebellious.

When my children became teenagers, I was inspired to write a trilogy of Young Adult novels. I wanted to write a series of books that my kids would enjoy. The first novel in the trilogy, The Six (published in 2015 by Sourcebooks Fire), is about a group of terminally ill teens whose lives are “saved” by a revolutionary technology that scans their brains with such precision that researchers can record all the connections among their billions of neurons, and the strengths of those connections as well. The three-dimensional maps of neural linkages are then downloaded into so-called neuromorphic circuits that are designed to imitate human brain cells. (This is a real type of electronics currently being developed by IBM and other companies.) Loaded with millions of gigabytes of memories, skills, and emotions, the neuromorphic circuits resurrect the personalities of the dying teens, enabling them to live on as robots after their bodies fail.

But there’s a catch, of course. The U.S. Army pays for the resurrection of the teenagers because it’s battling an out-of-control artificial intelligence that has taken over a nuclear-missile base, and the military needs human-machine hybrids to combat the genocidal AI. The battle continues in the second book in the trilogy, The Siege, and it reaches a whole new level of ferocity in the concluding novel, The Silence. Needless to say, my kids loved the books, and so did their friends. One of them even mentioned The Six in her college-application essay!

Just as my kids had a big influence on my writing, in return my profession has colored their lives. They’ve both become excellent writers. My son took an American literature course at his college last spring, and one of his assignments was to write a pair of short stories describing the same scene, one story written in the style of Mark Twain and the other written in Ernest Hemingway’s voice. He let me read the stories, and I thought they were fantastic. And last winter, when I was revising my latest manuscript, I asked my daughter to read it and give me feedback. The main character is an extraordinary 17-year-old girl, a modern-day Joan of Arc, so I knew my daughter could offer some useful suggestions. (I’ll provide more details about this forthcoming novel, Saint Joan of New York, over the next few weeks.)

But first our family will perform the bittersweet rites of separation. My wife and I will help our daughter lug her suitcases to her dorm room. We’ll probably annoy the hell out of her by asking if she has enough toothpaste and laundry detergent. We’ll say our goodbyes and try to gracefully leave the campus.

And then I’ll wonder: Okay, what am I going to write about now?

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Putting the Power Back: 8 Ways to Fix a Stalled Mystery

By Elaine Viets

Is your novel stalled like an old car on the railroad tracks, and your deadline is bearing down? You can’t get the thing jump-started, no matter what you do.
We’ve all been stuck in that situation. Here are a few suggestions that might help you get your work moving again.

1. Are you using all five of your senses?
Can you see, hear, smell, touch and taste things? Can you hear the night wind? Smell your character’s aftershave? Hear his voice? Feel her soft hands?
If not, your writing will be dead.

2. Are you being general or specific?
Generalities are dull and lifeless. Specifics perk up your writing.
“He wore old pants” is general.
“He wore old jeans that sagged at the seat and were oil-stained at the knees” is specific. It’s descriptive. It makes your reader wonder: Where did the oil come from? Is he a mechanic or is there some other reason?

3. Are you showing or telling?
This is an old one, and TKZers have often addressed it. But it never hurts to check if you are writing an essay or a novel.
Tell: She was mad.
Show: Her face grew red, and she pounded the desk.
Tell: She loved her son.
Show: She stayed up all night making a Halloween costume for him.

4. Ask yourself: Why is your character doing this?
Because you want to write a novel — or because this is the natural way to act?
Do you have a strong enough motivation? If not, you don’t have a chapter.

5. Is there any conflict in your novel?
Is there a reason to root for your character? Is there something she needs to overcome? I’ve seen manuscripts where the protagonist is young, talented, beautiful and rich. So what? Take something away: She gets in an accident and is badly scarred. She makes a bad investment and loses all her money.

6. Did you give your readers a sense of time and place?
Readers who don’t know where they are become lost. It’s like feeling around in a dark room for a light switch. Let us know early on where your characters are and what year it is.

7. Are there any scenes in your novel that don’t move it forward?
This one is hard. It’s so tempting to use your novel as a soapbox, and expound on everything from man buns to tourist traffic. Instead of a lecture, use that information to tell your readers something about the novel’s character or the plot. Personally, I like man buns, and when I see one, that suggests the guy will probably be a thoughtful and nonthreatening. So I’d put a man bun on a character I liked. As for tourist traffic snafus – those are saved for villains and to frustrate my characters.

8. If your character seems flat, ask yourself — do I know enough about my character?
Write a short biography about your character. Is he married or single? Does he have children? Where does/did she go to school? What does he look like? Even if you don’t use all that, it will help you know your character and make decisions on the kind of person he or she is.
I had a waitress named Marlene in one of my novels. She was particularly protective of the young female servers she worked with, and chased away predatory male customers. Why? Marlene had had a bad marriage to a man like that. I mentioned that fact in a line or two, but it was a major key to Marlene’s behavior.

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Swell Swag

By John Gilstrap

Up until about a year ago, I thought that bookmark swag was a waste of money and time.  I have since changed my mind.  I may have posted here before that on those awful occasions when a book signing is really just that–a table in the entryway where I wait for people to inquire why I’m there–I no longer just sit passively and wait.  I get up and wander the store, introducing myself as the visiting author, and inviting them to stop by and say hi–or buy a book–as they pass me yet again on their way out of the store.

More times than not, they’ll ask a few questions, and that’s when I hand them my bookmark. As you can see, the bookmark (designed by publisher–Thank you Kensington!) not only has contact information, but the titles of the most recent books and a bit about awards won and such.  Never once have I handed out one of these things without seeing the recipient going on to Google me.

When I was on tour for Total Mayhem back in July, I became truly shameless.  Because I dined alone, and spent a lot of time writing my next book long-hand, I knew that I was raising curiosity, so I made sure to put a bookmark in the check folder after I had signed the credit card voucher.  When you dine in the hotel where you’re staying, that can create an interesting buzz.

Business Cards

For the first time in the history of forever, I actually killed my entire supply of business cards.  As I approached the bottom of the box, I started paying closer attention to other writers’ business cards to see how they were handling what to include and what not to.  Because I pass these things out to pretty much everybody from the maitre d’ to the car mechanic to somebody I meet at a party, the information on the card needs to carry a lot of weight.

Things I considered included:

  1. Email address but no phone number or street address.  (Stephen King’s Misery continues to lurk in my head.)
  2. Standard design and style. This is one of my peccadilloes.  I get annoyed when business cards don’t fit easily into my wallet.
  3. All social media included for quick reference.  I chose not to include the Killzone Blog, however, because my every-other-week posting status would have required narrative.
  4. My entire bibliography.
  5. Had to have a clean look.
  6. Had to have space for people to write notes to themselves on the card.

I’ll let others judge the final product, but I’m happy with it.  I’m also happy with Vistaprint, which is the company I used to create and print the cards.

Special Gifts.

Most swag is intended as a kind of fan service or shameless self-promotion.  Or, merely business communication.  Sometimes, though, people can be so helpful to my research, or in their hospitality, that I offer them special gifts that I designed for just occasions.

Within military and other public service circles, challenge coins are very important.  They are a way of showing pride in one’s unit or department.  I figured that if Jonathan Grave were a real person, he’d most certainly have a challenge coin struck for his company, Security Solutions, so I did it for him.

In addition to offering them up as thank-yous, I also offer them in trade for those who offer similar coins for my own collection.  Over the years, I’ve picked up some pretty cool ones from some pretty spooky places.

So, TKZ family, what’s your swag bag look like?  What works for you as writers or fans or booksellers, and what doesn’t?

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The Fine Art Of
Giving Out Criticism

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” ~H.G. Wells

By PJ Parrish

For most of my adult life, I made my livelihood in the newspaper business. My dream was to work for the Detroit Free Press, but I had to start out instead at a small suburban weekly called The Eccentric. It was a gift in disguise.

I did everything from taking and processing my own photos, to writing obits, to covering city council meetings where the surest thing to get the blood moving was a hot debate about sewers.  The pinnacle of my career was being named editor of the Women’s Life section, Yeah, I’m that old and that’s what it was called in those days. I got to supervise a small staff of eager beaver stringers.

That was my first experience with learning how to tell others that their writing well, might need some work.

I was not very good at it. It took me a long time to learn that doling out criticism is a learned skill. All writers need honesty but it has to come with a healthy side order of kindness.

We talk a lot here at The Kill Zone about how to take criticism. Or its uglier sibling rejection. As writers, we deal with this at every level of our writing lives. Better grow a rhino hide or you’ll never make it, the conventional wisdom goes. But maybe we need to take a moment and talk about how to give criticism.

If you work with a critique group or if you are someone’s beta reader, then you definitely need to learn the fine art of diplomacy. We here at the Kill Zone deal with this all the time as we critique your First Page submissions. And I think I can speak for all of us that it’s often not easy to do this because there is a fine line between being helpful to a new writer and being discouraging.

Whenever I get a First Page submission, I go through a distinct process:

  1. First, I read the whole 400 or so words quickly, without any eye toward editing. I try very hard to read it as only a reader would who has just bought the book. Does the opening, at the minimum, pique my interest?
  2. Second, I ask myself: Do I have any prejudices against this TYPE of book that would make me unduly negative or even ignorant? For instance, I’m not a big sci-fi fan, and I recognize that I’m a little clueless about what works in YA these days. So I read such submissions with that caveat.
  3. Next, I ask myself if the submission has something to teach all our readers. It’s not enough, I think, for me to just red-ink grammar mistakes or such. I look for a larger issue in each submission that can help all our writers learn.
  4. Sometimes, you get a submission that just isn’t up to snuff enough to critique. The writer hasn’t yet gotten the very basics of the craft down. It’s pointless to teach English until someone knows their ABCs.
  5. I don’t like doing a submission unless I have something good to say about it.

And that last one is important. Because I remember how hard it was to get feedback when I was trying to publish my first mystery back in the late 1990s. Even though I had had four romances published by a big house, I didn’t really know how to write a mystery and my first two attempts were awful. Luckily, I had an agent who was a hard-nosed New York ex-editor. She frankly scared the hell out of me but she knew how to give honest criticism. She told me I was a very good writer but I didn’t understand the distinct structure of a mystery. She told me to go home and read.  “Start with P.D. James and work your way up to Michael Connelly,” she said. So I did.

Once my mystery career took off, I then had to learn to take criticism from editors. I would turn in my manuscript and wait with a strange combination of eagerness and dread.  Eagerness because I was sure I was going to get heaps of praise. (“This is great! We’re pushing it up to our lead title with a 100,000 first press run!”) Dread because I was sure I was a fraud. (“Listen, this isn’t quite what we talked about when you turned in your outline…”)  The reality fell somewhere in between. I have been blessed to have some really great editors in my three decades of writing crime fiction.  Each one of them understood what some have called the Hamburger Model of Criticism:

Start out by staying something nice about the manuscript.

Insert a big juicy slab of criticism.

End with saying something encouraging.

I think every editor I have ever worked with did this. And it always made the meat patty go down a lot easier.  But here’s the the thing about the meat patty: It has to be constructive. Late in my journalism career, I was the Features Editor at a large Florida daily. I had an editor in chief who every morning took a red grease pencil to mark up every section of the paper. The comments were almost uniformly negative, of the type of “I don’t like this.” One day, in frustration, I asked him WHY he didn’t like something. He said he didn’t know. He was like judge who says “I can’t tell you what’s porn but I just know it when I see it.” Luckily, he was canned before I could quit.

A few other things I’ve learned about giving criticism:

  • Resist the urge to fix the problem. Unless you really have the solution, it’s not a good idea to offer up the answer to another writer’s problem. You don’t know their book; you’re not inside their head. You might be able to tell them they have wandered off the trail and that you, as the reader, feel lost. But it is not up to you to show them which is the RIGHT trail to the end. They have to find their way.
  • Watch your tone. Being snarky is, unfortunately, encouraged in our culture today. (I was curious about where the word “snarky” came from so I looked it up. It was coined by the Star Trek actor Richard William Wheaton in a speech he gave before a bunch of online gamers.) If you are asked for input, don’t be mean. Kindness is in short supply today and writers are like turtles without shells — easy to crush.
  • Don’t take out your frustrations on someone else. Hey, you’re having a bad day. Your own book is falling apart. Your plot has more holes than a cheese grater. Your Dell died and your geek can’t do a data retrieval.  Don’t vent your anger on someone else’s baby.
  • Don’t boost your own ego. Some people like to show how powerful or intelligent or knowledgeable they are, and use criticism as a way of doing that. They are puffing themselves up, challenging others, going all Alpha dog. Nobody likes a bully.
  • Let the person react. Giving a person a chance to explain why they wrote something the way they did helps their ego a bit and often, as they explain, they see where they can improve. It also makes you look fair.
  • Be empathetic. You’ve probably had the same problems the other guy is having. So tell him. Be vulnerable and relate how it was hard for you to understand motivation or the three-act structure. Walk in their shoes.
  • Don’t focus on the person. One of the hardest things beginning writers have to learn is to not take criticism personally. A rejection letter is never about you; it is about your book. So if you’re critiquing something, you might think, “Boy, this guy’s a lousy writer” but never say it. It only makes the other person angry, defensive or hurt. Plus, it makes you look like an ass.

Okay, so you’re done reading a friend’s manuscript. Or you’ve been doing your part in the weekly critique group. You’ve been kind, you’ve been constructive, you’re offering up suggestions that you think might cause a light bulb to go off over the other writer’s head. And then….

They turn on you. They say you don’t understand their genre. Or that if you’re missing the plot points. Or that they intend for you to hate the protagonist. Or that second-person omniscient is the only way the story can be told. I call these folks the Yeah Buts. “Yeah, but if you keep reading, things will get clearer.”  “Yeah but if you read more dystopian Victorian zombie fiction, you’d understand my book…”

You can’t help a Yeah But. Sometimes, they don’t want to hear anything except how great their stuff is. Don’t get angry. Don’t take it personally. You did what you could. Smile and walk away.

As Noel Coward said, “I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.”

 

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