First Page Critique: ALEXA


The Party Busload of Exposition (GoDaddy Stock photo)


Dearest Readers,

Step into the Kill Zone Critique Parlor, where today’s Brave Author has a tragic tale to tell. Pull up a tuffet, and buckle up. I have Thoughts.



Tom’s death changed everything.

I sat in my car, the engine idling, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian. I wasn’t cheered.

It was only twelve weeks past his funeral. When I wasn’t sobbing, I was frowning at the myriad details I’d had to deal with in the days following the end of life as we know it. That’s how I thought of it. I’d packed up the furnished rental, mailed out change-of-address forms and done my best to put on a brave face for TJ. I was exhausted from the long drive that brought us to Ohio.

We’d been planning the move before Tom…went away, but now I was making it alone. Well, with TJ. Tom inherited the yellow house from his grandmother when she passed away six months ago. He’d flown out to look it over and reported back that it needed some updating but had good bones. He said there were lots of rooms, which sounded like heaven in comparison to our tiny two-bedroom in the city. “It has a huge country kitchen,” he said with a grin, poking me in the side and causing me to jump and make a face at him. At the time I was chopping veggies in the postage-stamp that passed for our current kitchen. I leaned my head back against his shoulder and sighed, daydreaming of twirling around in our future house, giddy at all the space.

I’m so angry at the goddamn drunk driver who snuffed out my husband’s life on March 16, 2017. March 16, 2017…a day that will live in infamy. Oh, ha ha. Bitter much?
I guess I have a right to be. All that crap about forgiving. I will not forgive the one who stole his life…and my life and TJ’s.

Maybe with time. Everyone’s quick to say that holding on to the hate I feel for Mr. George Goddamn Daniels will only poison me and not bring Tom back. I feel the poison in me now, but I embrace the huge empty hole eaten away by the acid-generating hatred. I don’t want to feel good, because everything’s bad now. Maybe with time….

I glanced in the rearview mirror at TJ. His face was sad, like mine. He gazed at the yellow house, not moving to open the car door. Maybe the two of us could stare it into becoming our home.
“Ready, buddy?” I asked as I opened my door. My heart broke at his wan smile and “Sure, Mom.”


Let me say right off that I’m impressed with the voice of this story. The narrator’s voice is confident and mature. Believable. The sentences are tight and declarative–my favorite. Let’s talk story.

My understanding is that ALEXA is about a newly-widowed woman and her young son who are moving into the house her husband inherited from his grandmother before he was killed by a drunk driver named Mr. George Daniels. The new house is somewhere in Ohio and they’re coming from a bigger (?) city, where they’d lived in a two-bedroom, furnished rental apartment. She loved her husband Tom very much, and she and her son are very sad that he’s dead. She feels poisoned with hate, but doesn’t yet want to go of her consuming, awful feelings.

This opening telegraphs that this is a family or personal drama, and neither a thriller nor mystery. It could end up with a romantic story line, but it doesn’t feel like that will be a focus.


This story is called ALEXA, and there’s no evidence that it has anything to do with Amazon’s AI, Alexa. I was confused right off the bat. I know young women named Alexa, and while I would never confuse any of them with the AI, it’s different when I run into the name as a title. Perhaps I’m being picky (“I’m not picky, I have standards.” –Mindy Kaling), but Amazon comes up first in my brain. Amazon has appropriated the name, and there’s no going back.

Is our narrator named Alexa? Was it the grandmother’s name? If so, somehow let us know asap so we’re not left hanging. This seems to me a sad and rather tender story. If I’m mistaken, and they walk into the beautiful country kitchen (What is considered a country kitchen these days? There are many, many online definitions, but my ancient understanding is that it is a large kitchen with maybe a seating area and perhaps a fireplace. I don’t know what image it suggests to others.) to discover that ALEXA has taken over the house and is programmed to terrorize them, then it’s a story that surely takes a shocking turn on Page 2.


May I just say… WHOA THERE, NELLIE!

I was exhausted by the time I finished the first 400 words. I was even more exhausted the second and third and fourth times I read it. I worry because at this pace the novel will only be approximately 60 pages long.

It feels as though you’ve decided to get the backstory out of the way so you can move on and proceed with the action.

We start out very well: “Tom’s death changed everything.”

“I sat in my car, the engine idling, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian. I wasn’t cheered.”

It’s clean. It’s direct. It’s compelling. Though you might consider shifting to present tense with the second line to give the story immediacy and emotional punch.

“I sit in our idling Toyota, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian house. I’m not cheered.”

The third paragraph continues with our narrator relating the many, many things she’s been doing in the past twelve weeks besides staring: sobbing, frowning, dealing, packing, mailing, and putting on a brave face.

In the next paragraph we learn that the family was moving. Tom was also inheriting, looking over, flying, reporting, grinning, poking, and causing our narrator to jump. And she’s making a face, chopping veggies, leaning back, sighing, and daydreaming about twirling and being giddy.

In the fifth paragraph, we learn how Tom died.

In the sixth paragraph, we learn that she’s really, really pissed off at the guy who killed him, and won’t be forgiving.

The seventh identifies the drunk driver.

Then we finally get back to the boy in the car, and the yellow house.


What we have here is a busload of exposition. Exposition–a chunk of narrative or backstory plunked in the middle of the action to give the action context (see what I did there?)–can be a useful tool in small doses. In large doses it distracts from the action of the story and slows it down. Note my second paragraph in the TITLE section above. I digress on what a country kitchen might be for such a long time that the reader probably had to go back and figure out what I said about a country kitchen before I opened the parentheses. Even I had to go back and look!

It’s tough to give the reader just enough information to get them interested, and keep them reading.

The thing to remember is that you’re writing scenes. Sentences build scenes. Scenes build chapters, chapters build books. A good way to start is to write one scene per chapter–even if it makes the chapter short. You’ll keep the reader focused, which is what you want to do. At the end of that scene, give the reader a reason to read on.

Here, you could continue this small scene with the boy bravely opening the car door. (I would discourage you from have her opening her door as she asks him if he’s ready. It’s a weighty moment that doesn’t need an activity.) The reader will naturally want to know what they do and see when they’re out of the car. Does she take his hand? Does he shrink back, used to the smallness of their previous home? Is there someone waiting on the porch?

“I’m so angry at the goddamn drunk driver who snuffed out my husband’s life on March 16, 2017. March 16, 2017…a day that will live in infamy. Oh, ha ha. Bitter much?
I guess I have a right to be. All that crap about forgiving. I will not forgive the one who stole his life…and my life and TJ’s.”

There are a lot of critical emotions here. We don’t need them all on the first page. She has a good, direct, confiding tone. But it’s too soon to jump into this. Sure, her feelings are complex. Right now, she’s just arrived at this house. Slow it down.

An aside– Mr. George Daniels is the drunk who caused the accident. It’s probably just me, but I couldn’t help but think of George Dickel and Jack Daniels as though the two whiskey brands had morphed into one drunk person.

“Maybe the two of us can stare it into becoming our home.” This is a beautiful line.

I don’t often suggest rewrites, but here’s a brief beginning. I can envision them getting out of the car, continuing, but you can too.

Tom’s death changed everything.

I sit in our idling Toyota, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian house we were supposed to move into together. I’m not cheered.

Our son T.J. sits in the backseat. In the rearview mirror, I see that he, too, is staring at the house. Maybe the two of us can stare it into becoming our home.

“Ready, buddy?” I ask. It’s been twelve weeks since we buried his father, my husband. My heart breaks at his wan smile, and the way his sad eyes meet mine in the mirror.

“Sure, Mom.”

Get to it, TKZers! I’ve left a couple things unaddressed because I want you to have some fun. What have I missed?


First Page Critique – Freets

by Debbie Burke


Today, please welcome a brave Anonymous Author with a story entitled Freets.


By –


The coffin was nearly ready. Andy Turbett knuckled sweat off his brow and stepped back to get a good look at the lid. It was as fine a piece of wood as he’d ever had on his bench and the work was going well. Hmm, maybe a tiny shave off the side. He reached for a spokeshave just as Ruth came into the barn, toting some colourful paper stuff under her arm. Bright sunshine framed her.

“Andy,” she said, nodding, with her bunchy smile.

“Hello, lass. Come to check up on me, have tha?”

She looked at the side panels and base of the coffin leaning in a corner, waiting to join up with the lid. “Oh, you are getting on fast. I did come to say maybe we won’t need it so soon after all. Not if Dan has it his way.”

Andy blew at the curls of wood that he’d planed off. They joined the rest of the wood debris on the long dirt floor.  “Ah, well. Can’t say I disagree with him there.”

“Grandad needs to die,” Ruth said.

Andy made a non-committal sound. Her husband would never let her do it, and what he said went. Not one to let the wife put her foot out the door first after the wedding, wasn’t Dan. “What’s that paper?” he said, to change the subject.

“Oh, I made a banner to hang in the tea-shop. Tha won’t miss this afternoon, will tha?”

“Nay. Got to wash and change first, I’m sweating like a beast.” He took a pull from the pint-glass of water on the floor. Warm and dusty, but it’d do. “This weather. Got to be a record.”

“That’s what they’re saying.” She watched him. “There’s some houseleek growing by the rocks in the woods, I’m going tomorrow if tha wants me to get -”

“Nay,” he said. “Nay.” God, this little apple-cheek lass scared him sometimes. He took up the spokeshave again.

“Oh, Andy. I do wish tha knew it’s all right if tha treats it with respect.”

“Nay, best to leave ’em alone. I know tha thinks different, being so young and -” There. He should have kept his mouth shut after all; she wasn’t one to take offence, but you never knew, what with her thinking herself as much a daughter of the village as Fiona, his own wife.


With TKZ first page critiques, the focus is usually on what’s not working and how to best fix it. Once in a while, a submission comes in that is so good, it’s more useful as an example of how to do things right.

Freets is such a submission.

However, I have to say that title put me off. How many readers know what a freet is? I didn’t. How many will take the time to look it up?

According to, freet is:

  1. A superstitious notion or belief with respect to any action or event as a good or a bad omen; a superstition. quotations ▼
    • 1824, John Mactaggart, The Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia, page 263:

If the old “freet” be true “ that those who fall when at the handspake aneath the corpse, will soon be the corpse themsell,” there would soon be a good few corspes; for at these “druken” concerns, the bearers are falling some of them every now and then.

  1. A superstitious rite, observance, wont, or practise. quotations ▼
    • 1903, Samual Ferguson, The Fairy Well of Lagnanay:

Oh, sister Ellen, sister sweet, Come with me to the hill I pray, And I will prove that blessed freet!

  1. A charm.

Okay, once we understand the meaning, Freets has the components of a great title—identifies a story problem, hints at the conflict, and evokes a wonderfully sinister tone.

However, the obscure meaning is a big negative. Perhaps the author can add a subtitle. A vivid, compelling cover is a must; otherwise, browsing online shoppers may pass it by because of the unfamiliar word. Also, define freets in the book description or jacket copy.

That’s the biggest nit I have with this submission.

At TKZ, we talk a lot about starting with action rather than static weather descriptions, backstory, or a character contemplating her navel. Jim Bell recommends opening a story with a “disturbance,” which doesn’t have to be violent or loud.

This submission avoids those common pitfalls. Each sentence is deliberately crafted and performs multiple functions, drawing the reader deeper into the story. I’m going to examine individual sentences and explore why they work.

Sentence 1 – The coffin was nearly ready.

This quiet, simple, declarative sentence caught my attention immediately. Death is a monumental disturbance yet the matter-of-fact tone sets an understated mood. The implication is that death has already occurred or is imminent. I’m guessing the genre is mystery, suspense, or horror so death is likely to mean murder.

Consider making this first sentence its own paragraph for more dramatic impact. See Kris’s excellent post on paragraphing.

Sentences 2, 3, 4Andy Turbett knuckled sweat off his brow and stepped back to get a good look at the lid. It was as fine a piece of wood as he’d ever had on his bench and the work was going well. Hmm, maybe a tiny shave off the side.

Andy’s character is introduced without superficial details about age and appearance but instead drills straight into his values, beliefs, and skills. He is a diligent woodworker who appreciates quality materials, is a perfectionist, and takes pride in his craft. “Knuckled” is a great active, visual verb.

Building a coffin by hand suggests the time period is historical rather than contemporary.

Sentence 5, 6He reached for a spokeshave just as Ruth came into the barn, toting some colourful paper stuff under her arm. Bright sunshine framed her.

Spokeshave is clearly a tool of his trade, even though the term was unfamiliar until I looked it up (see illustration). It also confirms a historical period, because he doesn’t reach for, say, a power sander.

Spokeshave – Wikimedia Commons

The spelling of colourful indicates the locale may be the British Isles.

The second character, Ruth, is introduced. Setting details (a barn) and weather (bright sunshine) are also established in an active way rather than as static description. The sun isn’t just shining—it frames Ruth, doing double duty as a weather report and an active verb.

Sentence 7“Andy,” she said, nodding, with her bunchy smile.

Bunchy is another unfamiliar word yet it evokes a great visual of a big mouth with lots of teeth. Turns out it’s an adjective, dating back to about 1400 AD, that means protuberant or bulging.

Sentence 8, 9“Hello, lass. Come to check up on me, have tha?”

Lass and tha are additional indicators the setting is Great Britain. Tha easily translates to you without stopping the reader. When I looked it up, I found it is Yorkshire dialect.

Sentences 10-13She looked at the side panels and base of the coffin leaning in a corner, waiting to join up with the lid. “Oh, you are getting on fast. I did come to say maybe we won’t need it so soon after all. Not if Dan has it his way.”

When Ruth says they might not need the coffin yet if Dan has his way, I’m totally hooked. Who is dying? More important, who is controlling how and when the person dies? Obviously there is more going on than an ordinary death due to natural causes.

Sentences 14-17Andy blew at the curls of wood that he’d planed off. They joined the rest of the wood debris on the long dirt floor.  “Ah, well. Can’t say I disagree with him there.”

Again, the author incorporates description into action. Curls of wood is a vivid visual. Long dirt floor reinforces the historical time period.

Andy’s response suggests conflict lurking under the surface of apparent calm.

Sentence 18 “Grandad needs to die.”

Wham! The author immediately gets to the core of Ruth’s character. She wants her grandfather dead and appears ready to help him along if he doesn’t go willingly, even though her husband disagrees.

Sentence 19Andy made a non-committal sound.

Sometimes what’s not said is more revealing than what is said. Andy’s non-response shows that not only does he want to avoid a confrontation with Ruth, but he may be intimidated by this outspoken woman who might be capable of murder.

Sentences 20, 21, 22Her husband would never let her do it, and what he said went. Not one to let the wife put her foot out the door first after the wedding, wasn’t Dan. “What’s that paper?” he said, to change the subject.

This statement of opinion reveals more insight into Andy’s beliefs, as well as delivering a glimpse into the relationship between Ruth and her husband, Dan. Not one to let the wife put her foot out the door first after the wedding, wasn’t Dan is an incredibly awkward sentence, yet it sounds authentic to the historical time period. It expresses Andy’s analysis of the marriage in a quaint, archaic way that’s still understandable to contemporary readers.

Sentences 23, 24“Oh, I made a banner to hang in the tea-shop. Tha won’t miss this afternoon, will tha?”

Apparently a public meeting is planned about an unspecified topic. Grandad? Or something else? The author is dropping questions like breadcrumbs. The reader will follow the trail to find answers and keep turning the pages.

Ruth adds another slightly veiled threat to Andy that he better show up.

Sentences 25-31“Nay. Got to wash and change first, I’m sweating like a beast.” He took a pull from the pint-glass of water on the floor. Warm and dusty, but it’d do. “This weather. Got to be a record.”

“That’s what they’re saying.”

This gives another revelation of Andy’s character as well as amplifying the weather and setting. He works hard and appreciates the small reward of a warm, dusty glass of water.

At the same time, these innocuous sentences show him trying to change the subject to avoid the unease of talking with Ruth. The author makes the setting description do double duty to point out conflict and tension.

Sentences 32, 33She watched him. “There’s some houseleek growing by the rocks in the woods, I’m going tomorrow if tha wants me to get -”

Already the reader has the sense that being watched by Ruth makes Andy uncomfortable. I didn’t know what houseleek was but, right away, I suspected poison.

Houseleek – Wikimedia Commons


Turns out it’s a succulent plant, also called hens-and-chicks, that was used medicinally to treat diarrhea, burns, and mouth ulcers. Even so, Ruth’s sinister aura makes the reader wonder how else she plans to use houseleek.



Sentences 34-37“Nay,” he said. “Nay.” God, this little apple-cheek lass scared him sometimes. He took up the spokeshave again.

Andy interrupts Ruth and repeats Nay twice for emphasis. Short, punchy sentences mirror his fear. He’s worried enough to pick up a possible weapon. Additionally, the reader learns more about Ruth’s physical appearance.

Sentence 38“Oh, Andy. I do wish tha knew it’s all right if tha treats it with respect.”

Ruth chides him while reinforcing the hint that houseleek is potentially toxic if not treated with respect. She’s also trying to reassure him. I can almost hear her next statement: “One little taste won’t hurt tha a bit. Here, try some.”

Sentences 39-42“Nay, best to leave ’em alone. I know tha thinks different, being so young and -” There. He should have kept his mouth shut after all; she wasn’t one to take offence, but you never knew, what with her thinking herself as much a daughter of the village as Fiona, his own wife.

Andy challenges Ruth and immediately regrets his statement. Uh-oh, you never knew if Ruth might take offence. The unspoken threat is clear—she may be capable of evil acts. He also appears to think she’s presumptuous, considering herself a daughter of the village as much as his own wife. That indicates Ruth is an outsider, who has brought youthful, possibly dangerous beliefs and omens–freets–to the village.

By now, I’m eager to turn the page…except the submission is over. Drat!

Today’s brave author provided a case study of how to effectively open a novel. Each sentence does double or triple duty—showing description incorporated into action, and revealing character and conflict. There is no pointless meandering.

While we don’t yet know the specifics of time period or locale, carefully chosen details give enough hints without bogging down in exposition. Each sentence builds on the previous one, inexorably marching forward, carrying the reader into a story full of intrigue and promise.

In one page, the author establishes s/he is as skilled in the craft of writing as Andy is in woodworking.

Thank you, Brave Author, for submitting this excellent page. Keep us posted when it’s published.


Just because I was taken by this piece doesn’t mean all readers will be. TKZers, do you have differing opinions or points? How might you handle the story?







The Ordinary Detective

For today’s blog post, I thought I’d give a brief update on my police citizen’s academy program as we just completed two sessions focusing on the detectives. As far as  research goes, it was a fascinating study in contrasts. We had the hardboiled vice detective who had previously worked undercover – he was full  of colorful anecdotes, expletives and jargon, and had an almost stereotypical demeanor and backstory (a divorced Italian American with a dry sense of humor and total disdain for petty criminals). The other was one of the two female detectives on the force. She was meticulous, low-key and calm, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. When I approached her, you could tell that the other detective was surprised I wanted to ask her the questions, as he was the one that had definitely attracted the majority of interest from the group. Part of the writer in me, however, was quick to dismiss him simply because he represented exactly the type of police detective we see all the time in books, TV, and movies. The female detective in contrast, was almost dull. Her PowerPoint presentation didn’t have exciting crime scenes or drug busts but instead had detailed timelines of burgularies and credit card theft, along with an analysis of a high speed car accident. Not exactly the stuff of movies, but for me, it was far more interesting precisely because it was so…ordinary.

When I approached her to ask her what she thought was the most common mistake made by writers/TV shows about female detectives she had to take a moment to think – because she honestly didn’t have time to read crime books or watch police TV shows.  After work she went home to be with her husband, kids, pets, chickens and horses and, in her mind, did what everyone else did. Being a detective was a job she enjoyed but it didn’t consume her life. So for her the most obvious mistake (apart from female detectives wearing tight clothing and high heels) was that female detectives are often portrayed as being driven, single minded or obsessed with their job. Although it was refreshing to hear such a down to earth approach (given how tortured many female detectives appear in books and movies), she also posed  a bit of a dilemma for the writerly part of my brain – how would I create a character based on her that would be both realistic and interesting? Yet the sheer ordinariness of her world and how she approached crime solving also presented an intriguing challenge. The other, more stereotypical detective would be far easier to portray simply because he represented the kind of detective we see on the screen and page all the time…which got me wondering about writers who have successfully portrayed the ‘ordinary’ lives of local law enforcement in their books…which is why I turn now to you, TKZers for recommendations as well as advice. Who do you think successful portrays the more mundane aspects of law enforcement? Who is the most realistic female detective you’ve read about or seen in movies or on TV? What advice would you give a writer who wanted to portray an ‘ordinary’ detective?


Get Grammatical or Get Lost

by James Scott Bell

No, I’m not telling the ungrammatical to take a hike. But I am saying that without a basic understanding of certain rules of our language, your thoughts will be in danger of getting lost on the reader.

As a public service, here are a few of the errors I frequently come across so you, dear writer, may avoid them:

Uninterested v. Disinterested

Uninterested means not interested in something. Disinterested means objective.

“Many young people today are disinterested in marriage.” WRONG.

A good umpire is disinterested in the outcome of a game, but he should never be uninterested.

Yet virtually every time I see disinterested it’s misused. Maybe people think it sounds more sophisticated. That excuse doesn’t interest me at all.

Begs the Question

You’ll read or hear this almost every day. Like on the news, when a talking head spouts, “He said cows should be outlawed, which begs the question: Where will we get our steaks?”

No! Begs the question does not mean demands that the question be asked. That doesn’t even make sense on its face. If a question demands to be asked, it isn’t begging, is it?

Question begging is actually a fallacy of logic. It means someone has assumed, rather than proved, a premise. Thus, in a debate, you might hear, “My esteemed opponent has begged the question.”

This is a fight we’ve probably lost, but I can’t help digging in my heels. Whenever I hear someone on TV casually drop “That begs the question…” I always beg to differ.

The Wandering I

It was drummed into us as kids that using me instead of I is wrong.

“Me and Henry rode bikes today.”

“No, dear, that’s Henry and I.”

So the kid starts saying things like:

“That belongs to Henry and I.”

Wrong-o. But it’s a mistake made all the time. I heard this on TV the other day: “That means a lot to my wife and I.”


You can easily determine the correct usage by removing the first noun from the sentence. Would you say, “That means a lot to I”? Of course not. “That means a lot to me” is correct, so stick the wife back in there and you’ve got it right.

“Henry and me went to the store.” Would you say, “Me went to the store”? Only if you’re Tarzan. Otherwise, “Henry and I …” is correct.

Its v. It’s

It is so easy to make this mistake, because it’s looks like a possessive since we use the apostrophe that way in other places. The cat’s mat is on the floor can easily become, in another context, It’s mat is on the floor.

It’s (did you see that?) tricky because it’s is really a contraction, a combo of it and is; and its is possessive, but without the apostrophe.

When I’m typing fast, I sometimes make this mistake, and its it’s irritating. Just train yourself to take a little pause and ask, “Do I mean it is?” Then type accordingly.

i.e. v. e.g.

E.g. is short for the Latin phrase exempli gratia, which means “for example.”

“There are lots of ways to lose money in Vegas, e.g., blackjack and craps.”

I.e. is short for id est, “that is.”

“The police who violated the Fourth Amendment—i.e., busted down the guy’s door—should have secured a warrant.”

In other words, e.g. sets up one or more examples, while i.e. supports just one clarification.

An easy way to remember this is to think of the e in e.g. as standing for example, and the i in i.e. as standing for in other words.

Also, when you use either of these babies in a sentence, they are lowercase and followed by a comma, e.g., The boys will get to pick among their favorite games, e.g., Bone Storm and Gilstrap’s Revenge. 


My head literally explodes when I hear people misuse literally.

No it doesn’t, for literally means exactly, in a factual sense. People misuse literally because they think it provides added force to their point: He was literally as big as a house! 

Don’t use literally unless you are trying to make clear an actual fact. And you don’t have to use figuratively at all. When you say He was as big as a house people will understand what you’re trying to convey. You don’t have to gild the lily, as they say (which reminds me that you should avoid clichés like the plague).

Complement v. Compliment

When something goes with something else and produces a nice effect, it complements the other thing. “Her orange scarf complemented her ensemble.”

A compliment is something nice you say about somebody. “The speaker paid Mrs. Hanson a compliment.”

You most often find this error when these words are used in their –ary form, as in this example I came across recently: “If you’re not sure where to begin, try taking a picture of a single book against a simple, complimentary (but not overpowering) background.”

No, the wallpaper is not paying the book a compliment. 

Now, I admit I am no grammar expert. I still think a gerund is a fuzzy pet you keep in a cage. But when I’m unsure about some usage rule, I’ll pause to do a quick search on the internet, or look up the issue in one of my reference books (my favorite is Write Right! by Jan Venolia.)

So what are your pet peeves of language blundering?


三体 (Three-Body)

By Mark Alpert

After I read an interesting novel, I like to devote some time to thinking about it, contemplating what I liked about the book, what I didn’t like, which characters were the most intriguing, and which plot twists were the most exciting. It’s a useful exercise for a writer. Plus, it’s fun.

This week I finished reading a trilogy of science-fiction novels by Chinese author Liu Cixin: The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End. The novels were published in China between 2008 and 2010, and the English translations came out between 2014 and 2016. The first book in the Three-Body trilogy won the Hugo Award and the third book won the Locus. Former president Barack Obama called the series “wildly imaginative.” (Wow, a blurb from Obama! Very nice.)

I was hooked from the start, because the first chapter was so unusual for a sci-fi novel. It portrayed a scene from the Cultural Revolution, the fanatical anti-intellectual movement that devastated Chinese society during the 1960s and 1970s. Ye Wenjie, a student in Beijing, sees her father, a physics professor, beaten to death in a public square by frenzied Red Guards. Afterward, she’s exiled to the countryside, but soon she’s assigned to work at a military base on a mountaintop where there’s a huge radio antenna. Eventually she realizes that the purpose of this base is to search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.

(Warning: there are some spoilers ahead, but this sci-fi trilogy is so packed with inventive surprises that I don’t think revealing a few of them would truly spoil a reader’s enjoyment of the books.)

The intended point of the novel’s first section is that Ye is devastated by her father’s public execution and develops a very low opinion of humanity in general, so low that she becomes actively nihilist. To be honest, the author doesn’t quite succeed in this task of showing the character’s development. Ye comes across as somewhat numbed by the traumatic events of the Cultural Revolution, but I never sensed her secret thoughts, the formation of her new moral philosophy. In retrospect, Liu could’ve done a better job of portraying the mental leap that Ye made, the seeds of the radical actions that she would take later in the book. Perhaps the author didn’t want to tip his hand, telegraph the surprise he’d planned? As all novelists know, this is a tricky balance. You don’t want to give away the store, but at the same time you also need to build a foundation for an upcoming plot twist, to ensure that it doesn’t seem to come out of nowhere.

In any case, the surprise is powerful. The radio antenna at Ye’s base receives a signal while she’s working alone on the night shift, a message from the Centauri star system, which is our solar system’s closest neighbor (about four light-years away). The extraterrestrials — called Trisolarans because the Centauri system consists of three stars gravitationally bound to one another — have detected radio transmissions from Earth, and their first response is a dire warning from a Trisolaran pacifist who knows all too well the aggressive intentions of his fellow aliens. He urges Earthlings not to respond to any radio messages from Trisolaris, because doing so will reveal the exact position of Earth’s solar system. But because of Ye’s disdain for the human species, she responds anyway: Come here! I will help you conquer this world. Our civilization is no longer capable of solving its own problems. We need your force to intervene.

This message puts an epic story in motion. Even for a highly advanced civilization, the task of conquering another star system isn’t easy. It’s extraordinarily difficult to accelerate spacecraft to even a small fraction of the speed of light, so it’ll take the Trisolaran invasion fleet hundreds of years to cross the void between their star system and ours. Most of the Three-Body trilogy focuses on the Earth’s desperate efforts to defend itself, building its own space fleet during the 21st and 22nd centuries and concocting various strategies to outsmart the Trisolarans. Those efforts are hindered by a fifth column of traitorous Earthlings who, like Ye Wenjie, believe our planet would be better off under alien control. The motives of the traitors seem perverse, but they’re also strangely familiar. As this week’s events in New Zealand showed, our species has no shortage of deluded fanatics.

The three novels, particularly the first one, have some weaknesses. The quality of the writing isn’t stellar (pun intended), although this might be the result of the translation. Many of the characters aren’t fleshed out; Wang Miao, the main point-of-view character in the first book, is practically a blank. I also didn’t get a good sense of what the Trisolarans are like, which is probably the biggest missed opportunity in the trilogy. The novel’s human characters (and by extension, the reader) learn about Trisolaran culture and biology through a virtual-reality computer game that the traitorous Earthlings play; this game, called Three Body, shows that much of Trisolaran history was shaped by the chaotic movements of the three stars in the Centauri system, which alternately boiled and froze the aliens’ home planet in a wildly random pattern. To mitigate the damage, the aliens tried to learn to predict the orbital movements of their three stars, but they never succeeded; as any physicist can tell you, the Three-Body Problem is notoriously difficult to solve, even with a powerful computer. This dilemma helps to explain why the Trisolarans are so eager to conquer our solar system, which is a stable, orderly paradise compared with theirs.

Unfortunately, this fascinating fictional premise doesn’t apply to the real-life Centauri system, which consists of two sun-like stars (Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B) that orbit their center of gravity in a predictable way, and a much smaller red-dwarf star (Proxima Centauri) that orbits the other two at a great distance, also very predictably. (Because Proxima is so much smaller than A and B and so distant from them, there are no mathematical difficulties in this particular Three-Body Problem.) The chaotic orbital dynamics might apply to a planet orbiting relatively close to A and B, but not to the stars themselves. This error would’ve been very easy to fix, so it’s a shame that it crept into the novels. I noticed a few other mistakes in the trilogy: a stellar explosion in the Centauri system wouldn’t be visible from Earth’s northern hemisphere; twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the moon, not fifteen; Pluto and its moon Charon are tidally locked with one another, so the moon would appear to be stationary to an observer on Pluto’s surface. (Liu Cixin, if you’re reading this, please allow me to vet your next manuscript. I’m good at spotting these astrophysical errors!)

But Liu’s story is too good to be ruined by a few factual mistakes. The trilogy becomes more and more compelling as the narrative progresses into the 23rd and 24th centuries. The human characters discover that the Trisolarans aren’t the only threat they face. In fact, the whole galaxy is packed with technologically superior species competing for the Milky Way’s resources, and most of these extraterrestrials have no qualms at all about exterminating potential rivals. Any emerging civilization must hide its presence; if it sends out too many radio signals, a more advanced species will swiftly destroy the upstarts’ star system. In the Three-Body trilogy, the universe resembles a dark forest in which hunters are lurking everywhere and the prey must stay silent to survive. This fictional scenario is a clever solution to the paradox named after physicist Enrico Fermi, who famously wondered why humans haven’t observed any signs of extraterrestrials in a galaxy that should (statistically at least) be full of them. We haven’t seen any aliens, Liu says, because they’re all hiding.

Here’s another reason why I liked this trilogy: it shows a future human civilization that blends Western and Eastern influences. In Liu’s novels, China and America remain separate nations, but scientists from both countries team up against the Trisolaran threat. Their cultures intermingle too; people born in future centuries have names that combine English words and Mandarin characters. I visited China several years ago to research one of my novels (Extinction), and I came away with the strong hope that America and China can learn to peacefully coexist. We don’t need extraterrestrials to seal our doom; if we’re not careful, we’ll stumble into an apocalypse all by ourselves.

Want to see another weird connection between fiction and real life? My new novel THE COMING STORM was foreshadowed thirty years ago by a conversation I had with a certain New York real-estate mogul who later decided to run for president. Read this for the details.


7 Hard Truths of Working as a Professional Writer


When we first begin our writing journey, our dreams often overshadow the realities of working as a professional writer.

Which publishing path we chose (self-publishing or traditional) doesn’t make a difference. The products we produce do.

For those of you who are at the early stages of your career, let’s take a look at 7 Hard Truths of Working as a Professional Writer.

For the professional writers in our TKZ family, please add your truths.

Truth #1:

Writing consumes us. We decline more offers for lunch than we accept. We could analyze one sentence ad nauseum, and still not be happy with it. To an outsider, at times we may look like we’re staring into space, but our mind is whirling with ten different scenarios after a character did something unexpected or our storyline banged a hard right instead of a left, even though we’d planned the milestones in advance.

Truth #2:

When you work from home, friends and family assume you have time to chitchat. No matter how many times you mention your deadline, book launch, or any “author” subject, many will breeze right over it with, “Yeah, so, anyway …”

I’ve tried using signs or mugs as a clear signal not to interrupt me (see above pic), but there are those who still barge right in, whether by phone, text, or (gasp!) in person. Not in a callous way; it’s because they don’t understand the amount of brain-power required to plot and successfully execute a novel.

Writers always have multiple balls in the air at once. Yet, from the intruder’s perspective, they think there’s no harm in breaking our concentration for a minute or two (or five or ten), that we can simply return to where we left off as though the disruption never took place.

Easy-peasy, right? Wrong. Interrupting a writer should be punishable by death! At least fictionally. 😉

Truth #3:

Writers spend hours alone in our fictional worlds, and we like it that way. To write professionally, we must be comfortable behind the keyboard. Buy a nice comfy chair; you’re gonna need it. Many professional writers work six or seven days per week, and some hold down full-time day jobs as well. Not everyone has a supportive spouse or makes enough money to write full-time yet.

Truth #4:

Our writing process won’t make sense to anyone but other writers. Don’t even try to explain how a certain song transports you to fictional place or why you have two tiny squares (no more, no less) of chocolate every day as your reward while you read your new favorite thriller.

Writers, did you know daily chocolate* is good for your health? It certainly is, and here’s why:

  • Flavonoids, found in many plant-based foods, including cocoa, can lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain, and make blood platelets less sticky and less likely to clot and cause a stroke.
  • Flavonoids can lower cholesterol.
  • Quality dark chocolate with a high-cocoa content is nutritious, contains a decent amount of soluble fiber, and is loaded with minerals.
  • The fatty acids profile of cocoa and dark chocolate is excellent. The fats are mostly saturated and monounsaturated, with small amounts of polyunsaturated fat.
  • Chocolate contains a stimulant like caffeine and theobromine but is unlikely to keep you awake at night.
  • Chocolate is a powerful antioxidant. One study showed that cocoa and dark chocolate had more antioxidant activity, polyphenols, and flavonoids than any other fruits tested, including blueberries!
  • Consuming dark chocolate can improve several important risk factors for heart disease by significantly decreasing oxidized LDL cholesterol in men. It also increased HDL and lowered total LDL for those with high cholesterol.
  • Dark chocolate can also reduce insulin resistance, which is another common risk factor for many diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
  • A study showed that eating dark chocolate more than 5 times per week lowered the risk of heart disease by 57%.

*I’m referring to a small amount of daily chocolate. Everything in moderation. Too much of anything is never a good idea.

Truth #5:

Our debut is just that, a starting point. It’s where our publishing journey begins. For the first time, the public will read our words, and it’s a terrifying experience akin to standing naked for all to judge. I’d love to say it gets easier, but it doesn’t. I’m as nervous for my thirteenth book to release as I was for my debut. Maybe more so, because the dream of becoming the next “overnight success” isn’t still obscuring reality.

Truth #6:

Many professional writers have health problems. Our bodies weren’t meant to hunch over a keyboard all day, every day. This position can lead to slipped discs, narrowing of nerves in the neck and back, joint issues, carpel tunnel … the list goes on and on.

Remember to take good of yourself! Buy the proper tools of the trade, like an ergonomic chair, a keyboard and/or mouse with wrist support, a sit/stand desk or have the option of switching from the desktop computer to a laptop. Exercise breaks help, too.

Truth #7:

Write for love, not money. The sad truth is, until we build a backlist, writers can’t survive on royalties alone. We can supplement our income in a variety of ways. Some writers coach, some appear on panels or do guest speaking, others offer online courses or webinars. My favorite is mingling with readers at book signings. I make most of my income from May to December. Memorial Day through Labor Day are my busiest time of year, with book signings every weekend.

By studying my area, which is a hotspot for vacationers, I’ve learned where I should appear and when. Year after year, I return to the same venues around the same date. Gone are days of sitting around an empty library, hoping for reader to approach my table, but it took time, consistency, and patience.

There are no shortcuts. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying to you.


I haven’t even broached the subject of marketing, piracy, or endless “buy my book!” emails from total strangers who expect you to promote “the book that’ll change the world!” to your audience. You might be surprised by how many new writers believe that, and I seem to attract all of them.

All that said, I love this profession. There’s nothing else I’d rather do.

What are some other hard truths of working as a professional writer? If you’re beginning your writing journey, is there something you’ve wondered about but never had the chance to ask? Now’s the time.


Scene Construction

By John Gilstrap

Last week, I received this [very] brief email from Bobby, a viewer of my YouTube channel: “can you make a future video on how you write scenes and the length they sometimes are?”

I responded to him that of course, I’d be delighted to do a video on the topic, but then I realized that I wasn’t entirely sure what constitutes a “scene” when it comes to a novel.  In a screenplay, scenes are self-described by slug lines:


But novels aren’t formatted that way.  We use paragraphs and space breaks to denote POV switches, but that’s because we can deploy the thoughts and perspectives of characters occupying the same space, a powerful tool that does not exist in a screenwriter’s ditty bag.

According to The Writing Cooperative, “A scene is a section of your novel where a character or characters engage in action or dialogue. You can think of a scene as a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Usually, you’ll start a new scene when you change the point of view character, the setting, or the time.”

I’m not sure I agree with this.  If George and Martha are having a fight, and we cut away to Midge’s POV as she listens to the argument and passes judgment on them, that seems to me to be the same scene, but from different POVs.

This is what happens when you’re a home-schooled writer.  I don’t have the vocabulary to explain much of what I do, and the more I search for it, but more irrelevant the vocabulary seems to the actual process of writing.  Thus my philosophy, “Think less, write more.”

But I still owe Bobby an answer, and for the sake of this post, I’ll rename what The Writing Cooperative defines as a scene to be a space break.  And I mean that literally–an extra space on the page to indicate a switch to a new POV, or even to a parallel story line.

Gilstrap’s Rules For Space Breaks/Scenes

  1. There are no rules.  Use whatever works for you. That which works for me in my writing may very well suck in your writing.
  2. Know why your characters are doing in this scene and how this interaction contributes to the larger story.
    1. If the scene does not develop a character or propel the plot (preferably both, and at the same time), it does not belong in the story.
  3. Know whose point of view is the most dramatic for the presentation of this action.
    1. If Character M’s POV is the key to action that occurs in the second or third act, Character M needs at least one POV scene earlier in the story.  The reader will feel cheated if an otherwise secondary character steps into the spotlight for that One Important Reveal.
  4. Each scene should have a beginning, a middle and an end.
    1. In the scene I’m writing in my current WIP, Hellfire (July, 2020), we’re introduced to Grant, who will become a significant character in the story.  He’s in jail as we meet him, and he anticipates good news very soon (the beginning).  When the news arrives, it is entirely different than what he expected (the middle).  And then it hits him just how really bad the news is (end).  I haven’t finished the scene yet, but I expect that it will all play out in 7 pages or so.
  5. Conflict, conflict, conflict.
    1. Two people who like each other and are in agreement that the unicorns look really pretty against the backdrop of a rainbow paint a picture bu they do not advance a story.  Our own James Scott Bell refers to this as Happy People in Happy Land and it is first on his list of “The Five Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes (& How to Fix Them)” [We can discuss the choice of an ampersand in the title later.]  Taking him completely out of context, he also believes that the best novels “have the threat of death hanging over every scene.”  The linked article is really worth reading.  You know, when you’re done reading this.
  6. Strive for consistent space break/chapter break lengths.
    1. This is an imprecise science at best.  I shoot for chapter lengths of 12-15 manuscript pages, with two space breaks per chapter (maybe three).  I do this because I write long to begin with, and I think 40 chapters is about right.  One chapter per space break interrupts the “fictive dream” too frequently for my tastes.  (And 180 chapters is silly.)

So, that’s my cut at Bobby’s question.  It’s your turn, TKZers.  I haven’t done the video yet, so what am I missing?



First Page Critique:
From the Mouths of Babes

By PJ Parrish

Good morning crime dogs. Today, for our First Pager we’re back in the land of the young again, this time with a five-year-old as our tour guide. I’ll let you take a read and then we’ll regather to talk.  In the meantime, I’m going to try to get Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “That Smell” out of my head.

Love Kills

“Eww! What stinks, Daddy?”

“I don’t know, Squirt.”

“Don’t call me that. I’m not a squirt.” Five-year-old Mandy thrust out her lower lip. One, because Daddy called her squirt, which meant he didn’t think she was a big girl at all, and two, because he was trying not to laugh and that made her mad.

“Am I allowed any kind of nickname?” her father asked

Mandy thought about it. It wasn’t like you could shorten Mandy into much, but having a nickname that didn’t make her feel bad would be nice. Everybody called her cousin Jason, Sport. That wasn’t a wimpy nickname. She decided it might take time to pick the right one. It was important. “I’ll let you know.”

“Okay, Squi….Mandy.” He squeezed her hand a little tighter as they walked the narrow path at the edge of the Sugar River. A silvery layer of frost covered the ground and it felt crunchy beneath her rubber boots. She pictured animals using the trail to get a drink of the river water and wondered if any of them ever slipped on the icy edges and tumbled in. The trees and bushes were still bare and the weather was what Aunt Jenny called iffy, which meant even though it was spring break her dad still dressed her in a winter coat on adventures like this first day of fishing.

Daddy held her hand and carried fishing poles and a tackle box in the other as he searched for the perfect spot to drop their lines in. Maybe she shouldn’t have made a big deal about her nickname. After all, she was the one Daddy took fishing. Not Jason.
“Let’s try the other side of that big rock.” He pointed a few feet ahead at a giant stone sticking up on the bank.

The breeze picked up and the smell got worse. Even worse than when her dad forgot the thawed chicken in the microwave and it took him two days to figure out what was stinking.

“Pee-ewe, what is that?” Mandy wrinkled her nose.

“Whew. No idea, but you’re right baby girl, that reeks.”

Another nickname she hated. Baby girl. No one in Kindergarten wanted to be called baby-anything. Mandy bit her tongue and forged ahead over the uneven land.

“Must be a dead animal around somewhere. Should we move or can you handle it?” he asked.


Okay, a caveat. I sometimes wonder if we shouldn’t ask our contributors to tell us what genre or sub-genre they are working in.  It would make critiquing a submission clearer and maybe fairer. Given we have only 400 or so words here, I have to guess at the writer’s attempt, with few clues. The title Love Kills suggests crime fiction and I’d bet my last brass farthing that the eww-worthy smell isn’t a dead fish but a ripe body bobbing in the water. But beyond that, I can’t begin to guess who the target audience is for this book.  Children?  Doubt it.  Young adult? The narrator’s too young for that. Adults? That’s my guess here, and if that’s the case, we have to talk about the viability of child narrators.  But first…

I like this. It is cleanly choreographed, meaning I can tell exactly what’s going on. The interaction between father and daughter is sweetly rendered. My dad used to take me fishing when I was a tadpole and I treasured the time with him. There are some nice spare details like the crunch of boots on ice that tells us it’s cold, maybe in the netherworld months of early November or March.

But what I really like is that the writer has successfully captured the voice of the narrator Mandy. The simple syntax and apt word choices conjure up a five-year-old who is beginning to assert independence and wants to be seen as older. I like the line about weather that her aunt called “iffy.”  Kids are aural magpies — they pick up on the odd things adults say. I like that Mandy is worried about the animals. All nice telling details! I think the writer does a spot-on job of creating a believable and winsome 5-year-old girl.


If we are reading crime fiction intended for an adult market (I am assuming here), then I question the wisdom of opening from a very young child’s point of view. The opening scene or chapter of your book is critical to getting your reader to bond with the character, and who you choose to put in the spotlight in the early going tends to signal to the reader that this is your protagonist, the person whose journey they are about to share. Is Mandy the protagonist? I don’t know.  But the spotlight is square on her in this scene.

Which leads to the next question. Can Mandy carry an entire book on her tiny shoulders? Few child narrators can.  And few writers can successfully pull off an entire novel written only from the point of view of a very young child like Mandy. Child narrators are common in kid’s literature. But not so much in fiction for adults. It can feel very liberating to write from a child’s POV.  They usually don’t have an ax to grind and they see the world in matter-of-fact ways. But because they are limited in experience and sophistication, they can’t be a truly reliable narrator. 

When I read this submission, I wracked my brain for examples of similar-aged narrators but came up short. The only example I could remember is Room by Emma Donoghue (2010) It is narrated by 5-year-old Jack who has been confined to a single room all his life, knowing only his mother (who was also captured and confined at an early age). His vocabulary and understanding of the world is very restricted.  Room has been roundly acclaimed. I couldn’t finish it.

I book I did love was Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980). It opens with an unnamed 5-year-old girl running scared through the woods, separated from her cave family during an earthquake. She survives a bear attack and is found, near death, by another clan. But Auel used a third-person omniscient point of view, so the reader can trust exactly what is happening.

Then there’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout Finch, the first person narrator, is only six years old when the novel begins, and eight years old when it ends. But the narrative has almost a memoir feel to it, as if we’re listening to a much older Scout telling us a story about what happened. It is a masterful sleigh-of-hand on Lee’s part that we believe we are hearing the blended voices of a 6-year-old (who, very childishly, calls her 50-year-old father “feeble”) and her older more knowing self.

Back to our writer’s story:  As I said, given the small sample here, we can’t know if Mandy will remain the sole narrator.  My instincts tell me she won’t. But if she is not meant to carry the story’s narrative weight, then I question the wisdom of opening with her voice, as sweet as it is. Where can you go from here?

Some things to remember if you’re contemplating using a child’s point of view:

  • You need a compelling reason why a child is the right person to narrate your novel.
  • You need to make sure the child is old enough to reliably convey information and events for the reader. Children younger than six aren’t developed enough for this. Even teens have their limits. (There’s an understatement!)
  • Do some research to get the child’s voice tone-perfect. Many of you have kids, so this is easy. The rest of us, well, we need to hang out at Chuck e Cheese maybe. And keep that voice consistent over the course of the story.

If the writer is available, I would appreciate hearing from him/her as to why they chose to open with Mandy as narrator and whether she will continue on into the book. The rest of us — what say you?



What Did You Say? Writing Realistic Dialogue

By Elaine Viets

My agent just sent me his suggestions for rewrites on my fourth Angela Richman mystery. Most of his criticisms were about dialogue: it was too long, too wooden, a speech turned into a rant. Based on his critique, I developed these dialogue tips:

Six Dialogue Tips By Elaine Viets

(1) Listen to How People Talk
Go to a bar, restaurant or a coffee shop or a McDonald’s and listen to conversations. I love to eavesdrop on conversations. They help me pick up the rhythm of real speech – and sometimes I hear things I can use. Like the man at the bar who talked to his friend about how to kill his wife. They discussed various fatal scenarios until he finally concluded that he should “accidently” push her radio off the shelf into water when she was in the tub. I was about to call the police when I realized the two men were plotting a novel.

(2) Don’t be too realistic
People say “uh,” and “er” and rarely speak perfectly. They interrupt one another. You need to make your dialogue believable without making it absolutely realistic.

(3) Beware of stereotypes and accents
If your character speaks with an accent, point it out for a sentence or two: He spoke with a heavy Russian accent – but don’t make your readers wade through it for pages.

(4) Cut the small talk
You don’t need all those hellos and good-byes. Normally, they add nothing to the story. If your scene starts with a wife coming home from work and it begins this way:
“Hi,” she said.
“How are you?” he asked. “How was your day?”
Skip the hellos and start with “How was your day?” And let us know if the couple kiss. That could be a key to their marriage.

(5) Break up the dialogue with action
If two characters are talking over breakfast, have them pour syrup on their pancakes, sugar their coffee and cut up their bacon between sentences.

(6) Avoid dialogue tags
She sputtered. He chortled. She raged. He observed. She exclaimed. He interjected. She purred. These are all dialogue tags. Now forget them.
Dialogue tags attribute a line of dialogue to one or other of the characters, so that the reader always knows who is speaking. Tags should be invisible.
All you need are “he said” and “she asked.”

(7) Avoid the “You know, Jim,” syndrome
That’s an information dump disguised as regular dialogue: “You know, Jim, if you want a tax break, equipment that qualifies for the Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit includes solar, wind, geothermal and fuel-cell technology.” Nobody talks like that in casual conversation – not even a salesperson.


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