First Page Critique – Miss Bryson Loses Her Hat

Jordan Dane


Image By Frode Inge Helland - Wikipedia Commons

Image By Frode Inge Helland – Wikipedia Commons

An anonymous author has submitted the first 400 words of a work-in-progress. Please enjoy Miss Bryson Loses Her Hat and I’ll have my two cents on the flip side. Share your constructive comments to assist the author in making this intro shine.

Scene one
Once a girl crashed to the floor with a bone-shaking thud before a thousand people, it gave her a clarity of mind she lacked prior to the event. In Lara Bryson’s case, it elucidated too late the hazards of satin slippers on a freshly polished floor, and illuminated, in a flash of searing insight, the vagaries of a God who, in blessing her with an angelic voice, tempered it with the less benevolent bestowal of two left feet.

Yes, He seemed to say, in a voice Lara imagined as a rolling thunderous crack rending the heavens, she could sing as gloriously as the seraphim, just never in company, and never anywhere requiring the use of her legs.

If only He’d bothered to tell her this before she sold every possession, expended every shilling, and endured sixteen perilous hours battened to the top of a London Mail Coach.

Even a hint five minutes earlier would’ve sufficed.

Instead, Lara lay crumpled and mortified. The roar of adulation that had provoked a warm tingling sensation to cascade like a waterfall through her limbs moments before replaced with the frenzied gasps of a mob titillated by the unexpected sight of a lady splayed out like a ragdoll.

Even more lowering, the dismal conviction that her promise to her dying mother to sing for the Queen would remain forever unfulfilled settled like a rock in Lara’s heart.

The clip, clip, clip of boots dashing across a wooden floor interrupted Lara’s fit of the blue devils. She guessed she had about thirty seconds to find a dignified way out of the Ballroom before the crowd reached her.

Or she could crawl.

The odds poor she’d get upright in a graceful manner, and stay there, slinking away on all fours seemed not only the best option, but a fitting end to her wretched evening. Her decision made, Lara clamped her eyes shut, and prayed silently; God, if you wish to keep alive what little trust I still have in You right now, then at least clear a path for me to slink out of here.

“Clear a path everyone, and give the lady some air.”

Lara gasped; never before had she received such a direct answer from above. The request for air an inspired touch. An exotic woody scent drifted over her. Sandalwood. Interesting; she’d thought myrrh.

The voice spoke again, “Are you hurt?”


The intro is reminiscent of the beginning to a fairy tale as it starts with, “Once a girl…” The tag line Scene One reminded me of a script. I’m not sure why it’s there. But overall, I enjoyed the proper British tone of the author voice and the way the girl’s plight was detailed–it’s like Downton Abbey meets Bridget Jones–with an undertone of controlled humor. I sense a Cinderella story coming, although I can’t be sure in this short intro.

Here are a few things for the author to think about:

1.) Add More Mystery – Who are the 1,000 people? In the first sentence, we hear of the girl’s fall. The audience is not emphasized much until we get a hint at the promise she made to her dying mother, to sing for the Queen. If this is indeed a performance for the Queen, why not play that up more? Or at the very least, hint at the once in a lifetime opportunity, the titillation of the crowd, the tension as she builds to the moment where she walks out. The fall is put into the first sentence, very anti-climactic, because the author chose to focus on her mortification in great detail.

2.) Flip the Scene – Imagine this scene starting another way. As the girl’s mind prepares for her big moment (a moment the author holds back but only hints at), she’s haunted by the promise she made her mother on her deathbed. Tension builds. Her palms sweat. Every movement in her routine replays in her head as she waits in the wings of the stage or outside the ballroom, but the crowd noise and her mother’s face haunt her. She is introduced and the music starts. When she walks out under a glaring spotlight, she sees the silhouette of the Queen in the shadows. Everything is the way she visualized it and her mother’s voice fades in her mind. The stage is set for perfection, but that doesn’t happen. The end of the intro comes when she falls. Every reader will want to know – what comes next?

3.) Use of Humor – There is definitely charming humor written into this piece. It appeals to me, very much. But keep in mind that humor can diminish intrigue or lessen the danger in a scene or shift the focus if it’s used too much. (As an example, a smart mouthed detective can appear too confident and invincible if he doesn’t act afraid when a gun is pointed at him. Over time and as the pages turn, the reader becomes insulated to any danger and never fears for the protag’s life.) In this case, we are drawn into Lara’s cynical, self-deprecating humor about the wreck of her life and her big fall when she may resonate more with the reader if there’s a focus on the action, rather than her internal monologue. A sparing use of her humor could be used after the fall, but let the reader feel her anticipation of a promise fulfilled before we know what happens. I get the feeling this author is quite funny, but less can be more to make Lara endearing. Let her think big before reality sets in. It will make the punch line better.

4.) Who is her Prince? – I know this is only 400 words, but I am really intrigued by who this person is at the end. Her savior. This is a tribute to the author’s writing and the set up. There is a lot of internal monologue as the scene progresses, when what I really wanted to know is mentioned above and who this person is at the end.

5.) Scenes are Mini-Stories – I think of each scene in a book like a mini-story. There’s a beginning, middle and end. Each scene should progress the story forward with at least 1-3 plot points. If an author does this, the writing will be tight and each scene serves a purpose. There’s also a character journey within the scene where the protagonist will grow, learn something to advance the plot, or raise more questions to foreshadow what might be coming. With this in mind, I like the intro to a scene to have a strong opener, a tight middle with mystery elements to intrigue the reader, and a foreshadowing of things to come that will keep the reader turning the page. In Miss Bryson Loses Her Hat, this mini-story can be accomplished by sticking with the action building to her fall, with only a hint of how important this is to her and who she is dancing for. The big conclusion of the fall and who comes to her aid can be the foreshadowing and make a great page turner. (Another trick to make a page turner is to split a scene and carry it over into the next chapter. It’ll keep readers up late and you may get an email in the early hours saying, “I can’t stop reading.”)


I really want to turn the page and read on. Kudos to the author. Overall, I love this author’s voice, but even with that talent, there is still a need for how to create and build on an introduction. Elements of mystery are very important, no matter what the genre. I like to tease the reader with questions as they read on, then build on the suspense to answer those questions as the reader finishes each paragraph. Add more mystery elements as the scene progresses and you’ll hook them deeper and in multiple ways.


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

2.) Would you keep reading?

3.) Can you imagine this premise starting differently?


Hail Thee, Book Festival Day


With my table mate, the irrepressibly talented Amy E. Reichert (l), at Books by the Banks 2016


If there’s one occupation I never imagined pursuing again, it was being a salesperson. During high school, in between various food service jobs, I worked a Christmas gig selling office supplies in a mall kiosk, and later sold ladies clothes in a rather grim department store. In college, I was hired by a temp agency to cold-call businesses over the phone to get appointments for the woman who did the actual selling. I was petrified of cold-calling. They gave me a script, which I’m sure had been developed by corporate sales professionals. I hated every moment of those calls. I dreaded going to work, and energetically did every other part of my job that didn’t include cold-calling. They should have fired me, but they didn’t, because I worked hard to make myself otherwise indispensable.

I’m on an extended book tour for The Abandoned Heart all this month, and the early part of November. Tours are a lot of fun. I like to drive, so I don’t mind hopping in the car to do a reading, conference, or festival that’s within a one-and-a-half-day traveling radius. When I started touring almost ten years ago, the norm was single- or two-author bookstore appearances. But there are a lot fewer bookstores these days, and a lot more authors looking for readers.

Enter the book festival. Book festivals are a blast, and a win-win-win (-win) for authors, booksellers, libraries, and charities. They foster a love of books and a love of reading in both adults and children. (If you follow this link, you will disappear down a path leading to pretty much every festival in the known world, and may find yourself imagining that you, too, should definitely be invited to the Blenheim Palace Festival in the U.K. or the exclusive The New Yorker Festival. Ignore the fab photos of the famous actors—you know everyone really will be there to meet the writers!) Book festivals enjoy an economy of scale undreamed of by a single bookstore or library. There’s lots of room for authors and their books, and readers are wonderfully motivated to meet their favorite authors and have their books signed. Plus, a festival is a great opportunity to hang out with other writers.

The flip side is, of course, that you’re cheek-by-jowl with your competition. Friendly competition, but still competition. Writers are there to sell books, and readers are there to buy them.

This past weekend, I was at a table at Cincinnati’s wonderful Books By The Banks Festival, which featured around 150 authors. It was the festival’s tenth anniversary, and I’m not surprised that it continues to thrive. The volunteers are incredibly dedicated, the authors seemed delighted to be there, and it was bustling with readers all day long.

I saw three kinds of authors there: 1) Super-famous authors who had all-day lines; 2) Bored-looking authors who waited—often in vain—for people to come and talk to them; and 3) The rest of us—writers who spent most of the day standing, chatting, laughing and, yes, selling.

I didn’t leave my table often, but as a reader, I found myself pretty overwhelmed. Even though I don’t much read YA or children’s literature, I still buy gifts, so every book was a possibility. And there’s something magical about picking up a book and having it signed—right there—by the author. I still geek out about it.

Something about being face-to-face with readers trying to make a choice between one of my books and another writer’s book reminded me how intimate the relationship between reader and writer is. As writers, we are engaged in a kind of seduction. A tease. Our words must immediately entice a reader—bonus points if a killer cover piques their interest first. During a personal appearance, the writer, rather than the book, has to do most of the talking. That’s what she’s there for: to answer questions, to give the inside scoop, to facilitate the decision without being pushy. It’s a sales transaction, but a delicate one. The buyer is purchasing something with which they will spend long, intimate hours. It’s way more like speed dating than going to the local independent for coffee and a browse. Few readers buy carelessly at book festivals.

I found myself a little annoyed by the bored-seeming authors. I wanted to ask why they even bothered to come. It’s entirely possible that they were shy. After all, most of the 150 authors in attendance got there because they spent many, many hours alone in order to get their books written. But shyness isn’t an excuse. Unless you’re Diana Gabaldon, J.K. Rowling, or Stephen King, you’re going to need to make an effort to sell books. (To be fair, all three of these writers are engaging and interesting people who speak up about their work.)

As difficult as I find it sometimes to come out from beneath my writer-rock, I love connecting with real live readers, and not just the hypothetical ones in my head. The ones in my head frighten me a little. The ones I meet on the road are always friendly and generous, and they renew my energy for writing for them. Truly, salesmanship is the least of it. There are times when I feel a little silly hawking my wares (books), but when I connect with a reader, and I see that spark of joy in their eyes when they slide a book across the table, saying, “Will you sign this for me?” any thought of selling or having sold something slips away. It’s just the two of us, with happiness in between, and I think, “Yes. Yes, this is why I do it.”


Have you attended a book festival? How do you feel they compare to individual author events?


Laura Benedict’s latest novel is The Abandoned Hearta dark suspense thriller. Learn more about her at


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First Page Critique: Caribbean Nights


For your consideration…we have a new First-Page submission from one of our writers. Thanks, dear writer, for taking part in our TKZ critiques. We all learn from this!  My general comments will follow and then I will revert to red because this works best for me when I can treat it like I do the pages from my critique group pals (we use Track Changes.) — PJ Parrish

Caribbean nights

One block away from the ‘suggested’ tourist area and the town of Falmouth, Jamaica reverted to its true form. Decades old cars, competing with bikes and pedestrians filled the streets. Half naked children darted about. Old women hung out of windows from upstairs apartments. Rail thin girls with tight fitting shorts looked for the next patron in need of human companionship by the hour. Young men with hungry eyes and menacing faces clustered on corners. The sun burned bright in the Caribbean sky yet there was no joy to be found here. It was for no small reason tourists were reminded to stay with their group.

Jordan Noble walked down the broken pavement of the hilly street. His eyes constantly moving – ‘head on a swivel’. It was a poor neighborhood and he dressed as accordingly as he could. His Tag Heuer stayed in his stateroom. In its place, an eleven-year-old G-Shock. He wore a white ‘wife beater’ and dark green shorts. Nothing could be done about the Maui Jim sunglasses – if they attracted attention, he would just have to deal with it.

At a corner he stopped to orientate himself. One corner was a market of sorts. Opposite it, a bar, long boarded up and closed. Yes, this was the place. He turned at the bar and went down an alley. Immediately, in the shade of the buildings, the temperature dropped at least twenty degrees. He had just made it to the middle, when two young men appeared at the opposite end. One was shirtless, all lanky and wiry. His companion wore track pants and a Bob Marley T-shirt. Shirtless stepped into the alley. His eyes were wide – the whites completely surrounded the coal black pupils.

“Hey there, mon,” he said. “You looking lost.”

Jordan didn’t break stride. “I’m good. Thanks.”

Shirtless looked back to Bob Marley then to Jordan. “Hey, no problem, mon. No problem, mon. Still, sometime we lose our way, ya know. It happens, ya see.” Bob Marley walked a step or two to the right. Between him and Shirtless the exit was blocked. Jordan came to a stop and sized them up. If they had just jumped him, it may have been a fight. But now, their body language suggested no formal combat training or, for that matter, general good health. They were counting on their superior numbers to put the fight in their favor.


Let’s start with some general reaction and comments. Things I like about this: There is no confusion about where we are in the world and who is the center of attention ie the assumed protag Jordan Noble. (given that name, how can we NOT think he’s the hero?). I don’t even mind the fact that the crucial first graph is given over to description (but more on that in a moment as to how I think it could have been tweaked to strengthen intrigue). The physical movements of the characters are clear and concise. I only mention all this because one of my pet peeves on our First Page submissions is plain old confusion over who, what, and where things are going. But this writer is moving through the narrative with efficiency, signaling that we are watching a guy we should assume is the hero en route to something bad. (he seems vaguely wary about something…more on that later).

Here is where I think things could have been better: First, this is sort of a cliche opening in thrillers — I ASSUME Noble, being noble, is some kind of good-guy operative (CIA, lone wolf, PI, James Bond) walking toward a situation. But I’ve read this opening a thousand times. How do you think an editor or agent is going to feel? There isn’t much fresh here — including the style, which feels a little dated — and that is a problem in today’s mystery/thriller marketplace. In the “old days” when you only had a handful of writers competing for shelf space and the hero-world wasn’t overpopulated, this might have worked. But not now.  The stakes are so much higher. Your protag can’t be prosaic. You have to write something unique or write it uniquely.

Also, while there is a sense of something impending, it is very vague and isn’t very interesting. A guy (unarmed and with no defined mission) is walking through a maybe-dicey neighborhood and comes upon two men whom he sizes up as rag-tag. The only threat he apparently feels is losing his expensive watch because he decided to leave it back on a boat. The men don’t even really confront him. Except for a dilated pupil or two, they come across as harmless. They could be sizing him up to ask if he’s looking to buy some Ganja.

Now let’s get specific. About the opening graph: At first, I didn’t mind that it opened with pure description. But the more I re-read it, I realized I was wrong.  If you open with description, it has to be dazzling and somehow enhance the story’s tone. This first graph is too Frommer’s travel guide and generic. (naked kids, old cars, prostitutes). I don’t feel this, or smell it, or even really see it.  Worn phrases like “men with hungry eyes and menacing faces” are not yours to use; others got first decades ago. (see pulp detective mags from the ’40s).

Now let’s look closely at the opening:

One block away from the ‘suggested’ tourist area and the town of Falmouth, Jamaica reverted to its true form. (Not sure what this all means. Falmouth is a nice tourist town with cruise ships etc. So do you mean if you step one block outside the city limit? And what does “true form” mean? Slums?) Decades-old cars, competing with bikes and pedestrians filled the streets. Half naked children darted about. Be specific and use all the senses when you describe. How about something like: A rusty Buick Rendezvous crawled through the maze of brown kids on bikes and thin women balancing baskets on their heads. Above, old women perched like crows on the railings watching the painted girls in tight shorts prey on white men in Bermudas and ball caps. That’s not great but it’s specific. Old women hung out of windows from upstairs apartments. Rail thin girls with tight fitting shorts looked for the next patron in need of human companionship by the hour. Young men with hungry eyes and menacing faces clustered on corners. I would lose this because you say it with real action coming up. The sun burned bright in the Caribbean sky yet there was no joy to be found here.It was for no small reason tourists were reminded to stay with their group. That last line: You already said this and it’s sort of stating the obvious. Don’t TELL us SHOW us.

Now let’s look at your second to the last line above, because I think it’s a lost opportunity. The sun burned bright in the Caribbean sky yet there was no joy to be found here. First off, it’s a good technique to end your opening graph with a great kicker. The writer ALMOST had it!  The writer was working toward a metaphor that although everything is sunny and bright, darkness is just around the corner.  But this is, again, a little cliched. And I don’t think “joy” is the right word here at all.  If you are going to go for the “weather-sun” metaphor, the light-vs-dark metaphor, you better make it sing. And yes, the sun IS different in the tropics — it comes at you harsh and more direct the closer you go to the equator, quite unlike the sun in say, Paris, which makes everything pinkish and pearly. In Jamaica, there is no room for soft shadows.

The sun burned white-hot in this place, so fierce and direct overhead that the shadows were cut deeper and darker, with no room in between to hide. 

That’s the best I could come up with on short notice but you see my point? Make the metaphor (or weather if you use it) STAND for something. Maybe the hard light in the tropics stands for the mission of this white-hat hero? Or does it stand for the black-and-white morality of a Sam Spade anti-hero? It’s not just weather…

I would suggest you re-order your opening two graphs. Maybe give us one really great zinger line about the light-vs-dark. Then go right to “Jordan Noble walked out of the sun and into the shadows of whatever street…” Then give us a juicy graph of what HE is seeing (and smelling?) as he walks. Or start right out with his name: Jordan Noble walked out of the sun into the shadows. This way you are shifting the point of view from you the writer (mediocre telling) to him the hero (great showing. yay!).  And this is important — put us in his head, not yours, and show us this neighborhood from HIS consciousness.  It would begin the process of the reader bonding with him. By introducing him by name and THEN going into a description of this scene from his perspective, you are accomplishing two things at once: establishing your setting and letting the reader get to know your hero.  Where, for instance, does he live or work before this? Is he a man of experience and world-travel? Is this is first trip to the tropics after living in Montreal all his life?  The only thing you tell us about his man is that he apparently has expensive taste. That’s not enough. We don’t need his life resume here, but don’t miss small chances to weave in tidbits of backstory about your characters. Noble would see this scene in Jamaica and thus describe it for the reader through THAT prism of experience.

Let’s move on down these mean streets…

Jordan Noble good! We get his name. walked down the broken pavement of the hilly street. What street? C’mon, you can find one on Google Streetview!. His eyes constantly moving – ‘head on a swivel’. Why is this a fragment? And why in quotes? It was a poor neighborhood your description should SHOW me this; you shouldn’t TELL me and he dressed as accordingly as he could. Not sure I know what you mean by this? That he tried to dress to blend in? His Tag Heuer stayed in his stateroom. I tripped over this and had to do a Google to figure this out. I thought at first you were talking about guns, then realized it is merely a watch! Must say I was a tad disappointed because I thought the guy was packing heat which at least made him more interesting. In its place, an eleven-year-old G-Shock. He wore a white ‘wife beater’ I find this off-putting. Can’t we just call it tank-top? and dark green shorts. Nothing could be done about the Maui Jim sunglasses I don’t get this: couldn’t he just have left them back on the boat with the watch? Now if you want to use it to say something about your hero, that’s cool…ie, he could ditch the watch but he wasn’t about to give up his Maui Jim sunglasses, even for this job – if they attracted attention, he would just have to deal with it.

At a corner he stopped to orientate himself. One corner was a market of sorts (sorts? what sort?). Opposite it, a bar, long boarded up and closed. Yes, this was the place. Okay, this is the FIRST HINT of intrigue. And it’s not enough. He could be looking for a hamburger given the nonchalance here. We have to turn up the heat a little here. Give me a reason to care about what is going on. Hint about the mission; why is he here? You don’t have to spill it all and you shouldn’t. But we have to be teased. He turned at the bar and went down an alley. Immediately, in the shade of the buildings, the temperature dropped at least twenty degree. There’s that sun/weather metaphor again but nothing is done with it. He had just made it to the middle, when two young men appeared at the opposite end. One was shirtless, all lanky and wiry. His companion is he chubby by contrast since you mentioned the other’s stature? wore track pants and a Bob Marley T-shirt. Shirtless This is also something of a cliche in crime fiction, differentiating nameless characters via descriptive shorthand. stepped into the alley. His eyes were wide – the whites completely surrounded the coal black pupils. You have him moving on toward the men so he can’t possibly see the pupils yet.

“Hey there, mon,” he said. “You looking lost.”

Jordan didn’t break stride“I’m good. Thanks.”

Shirtless looked back to Bob Marley then to Jordan. “Hey, no problem, mon. No problem, mon. Still, sometime we lose our way, ya know. It happens, ya see.” Need new graph here. Bob Marley walked a step or two to the right. Between him and Shirtless the exit was blocked. Jordan came to a stop and sized them up. how close is Noble now? Now is the the time for the line about the eyes and now they might be pin-balling nervously around. Plus you really need to make these dudes threatening. If they had just jumped him, it may have been a fight. But now, their body language suggested no formal combat training or, for that matter, general good health. They were counting on their superior numbers to put the fight in their favor.

Okay, back to my comments again:

Again, nothing is really happening here and I get no sense of danger from Shirtless and Marley. And you haven’t taken us at all into Jordan’s thoughts as to why he should be fearful. Maybe if we knew something about why Jordan is here and what is going to happen when he gets to “the place,” we might feel involved and interested. As I mentioned in the red comments, I thought he was at least carrying a gun but even that isn’t true. Why do I care about this man? He seems like just a tourist who has lost his way.

In conclusion: This isn’t a bad opening. It is clear and capable. But Jordan feels like a cardboard hero at this point because we get no sense of him as a man and no hint at what his mission is or what the stakes might become.  As I said, in today’s market, this isn’t enough. 


  • Rework that crucial opening graph so it’s less a travelogue and a give us a reason to read on. We need at least a hint of tension, intrigue or danger.
  • Get more specific in your descriptions.
  • Get inside Jordan’s head. We want to see this scene from his point of view, not yours.
  • At least hint at what this guy is doing here and what the stakes are. Something has to happen. Something must be disturbed.

Thanks brave writer!  I’ve been maybe a little hard on you not because this is bad but because it is good and shows some real promise. This is a good start…just needs some spice. Hope this is helpful.


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Puppetmastery of The Hero’s Journey

by Larry Brooks

Some of you may have seen this before. If so, always worth another pass, because it’s a hoot.

If not… you’re in for a fresh hoot. This is The Hero’s Journey, as (this, I promise) you’ve never seen it presented before.

Two quick things: turn it up, listen to the “dialogue” in the film clips within. Pretty clever. And, notice the black and white portrait of Joseph Campell on the wall (he who basically invented “the hero’s journey).”

And despite all the hootiness, there’s some real meat here to learn about storytelling.  Enjoy!



Add A Character, Up Your Word Count!

by James Scott Bell

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-7-27-53-amSo it’s NaNoWriMo time again. Every November writers all over the world clack away at their kekyboards to complete the first draft of a 50k word novel in one month.

Are you in?

How do you feel? Excited? Afraid? Wondering how you can possibly average 1667 words a day?

All of the above?

Good. Because writing should give you the stomach flutters. That’s how you know you’re engaged and connected. The really good stuff only bubbles up when you are writing out on a limb. You want to push yourself forward, reach for heights you haven’t reached before.

NaNoWriMo is that reaching up on steroids. It’s fun and always a great discipline, even if you come up short of the 50k mark.

Now, just as in the normal writing world there are those who like to wing it with practically no planning at all, and those who want to have at least a roadmap before starting the journey. The great thing about NaNo is it’s for any style of writer.

Today, I want to offer a couple of tips for that fearful moment when you’re 10 – 20k in and you have absolutely no idea what to write next.

One tip was in my recent post about asking what the bad guy’s doing. If you’re stuck in the middle, take half an hour to think about what your antagonist is up to off stage. Have him planning his next few moves. Then go back to your protagonist who will feel the permutations of those moves.


Raymond Chandler

The other tip I have for you when you get stuck is to do a variation of Raymond Chandler’s advice about bringing in a guy with a gun.

Yep, introduce a new character.

But what character? How do you choose?

Here are a couple of suggestions:

  1. Open up a dictionary at random. Find a noun. What kind of person pops into your head who you would associate with that noun?
  1. Spin the Writer Igniter. You can also use this cool app to choose a scene, a prop, or a situation.

Now you’ve got a new character ready to enter the fray. Before he or she does, ask yourself how this character will complicate the lead character’s life. Hopefully, you know enough about writing a novel that your Lead is facing a matter that feels like life and death–– physically or professionally or psychologically.

This new character will be the carrier of a subplot. A subplot needs to intersect with the main plot in some significant way––and a way that complicates matters for the Lead.

A new character like this is good for another 5k words at least

Bada-bing! You’ve added to your NaNo word count.

But what if you’re in the final act of your book? The hard part, where you have to figure out how to tie up the loose ends?

Add another character! A loose-ends tier-upper!

But won’t that seem out of the blue? A Deus ex machina?

Not if you go back to Act 1, or the first part of Act 2, and introduce the character there. You’re the writer, remember? You can go back in time in your own book!

This exercise works for NaNo, but also for any novel where you feel that long middle is starting to sag.

Introducing one complicating character gives you lots of plot possibilities. And I love plot possibilities.

So are you planning to NaNo this year? Have you got your idea yet? Or are you going to just wing it that first day?


knockoutlogolgAnd just in time for NaNoWriMo, my interactive coaching program, Knockout Novel, is $10 off through November…and you own it for life. You can use it to help you plot all your novels (as our recent bestselling guest attests).


First Page Critique: Scylla and Charybdis


Critiqued by Mark Alpert

Well, I finished the manuscript of my latest novel and sent it to my editor at 10 p.m. on October 3rd, meeting my deadline with two hours to spare. Whew! Since then, I’ve been catching up on various long-neglected duties, such as ordering new checkbooks and fixing the faucet on our kitchen sink. Now, though, I have a more pleasant task: critiquing a first page submitted to the Kill Zone by a brave writer who’s willing to withstand our collective, constructive criticism. So, without further ado, here is today’s submission:



The blade cleaved directly through her face. It curved so easily and viciously that it became lodged in the brittle tree behind her. Splinters of bark sprayed out from the impact and into the cloudy green haze of the forest depths. She’d had no time to react, and stared startled as the shredded leaves flew upwards following the path of the sword’s strike. Apprehension filled her body. Her heart pounded – for suddenly she remembered this day.

Grasping the hilt of the sword emerged a shadowy figure from the thicket; its features illuminated just enough to discern a brow furrowed in mild annoyance. The dark emerald mask it wore blurred its identity as if the mist of the forest was hiding a secret. It analyzed its handiwork, staring straight through the girl, then wiggled the sword out of the weathered tree and turned away as if it hadn’t even seen her.

“I had you!” The figure called out into the darkness around it with a young, female voice. The metal of the blade shimmered from soft rays of light that penetrated through the canopy, cutting the shade as if the sword’s edge could slice through darkness itself. Another voice, hiding in the trees, came from above.

“Almost. See how difficult it is when you don’t cheat?” Came the sly, older reply.

The girl stood with her back to the tree, motionless. A larger figure descended gracefully onto the thick leaf-covered soil. A savage young man now stood before her and the sword-wielding figure, and the girl recognized him as her brother.

“Ureylon!” She cried out and moved in to embrace him.

The smaller figure roared and began to swing its sword once more, but this time in the direction of the man. Alarmed, she lunged towards her brother to protect him. The effort was wasted, however, as Ureylon’s own sword passed straight through her and met its assailant. She stepped back and watched the pair spar with their weapons. From the looks of it, it was a practice duel.

“It’s not cheating,” the female shade insisted as it swung with amateurish precision, “if I can’t help it.”

A vision, it must be – the girl said to herself, looking down at her hands. She reached out towards Ureylon and watched as her hand ran from one side of his chest and out the other as cleanly as his sword had passed through her. She was puzzled. Her touch had gone unnoticed.


All novelists face two looming hazards that could annihilate their manuscripts. They are Boredom and Confusion. If your manuscript is boring, you’ll gradually lose your audience, with the more desultory readers abandoning the novel first and the more dogged types eventually giving up too. But if your fiction is too confusing, you’ll lose all your readers at once. How can you keep reading a book if you can’t figure out what’s going on?

I compare these two hazards to Scylla and Charybdis, the pair of mythical dangers described so wonderfully in Homer’s Odyssey. Scylla was a six-headed sea monster that stood on one side of the narrow Strait of Messina, between the island of Sicily and the mainland of Italy. Charybdis was a whirlpool on the other side of the strait. Ships going through the channel had to carefully navigate their way between the two threats; to avoid Scylla, you had to pass very close to Charybdis, and vice-versa.

When Homer’s hero, the wily Odysseus, approached the strait, he chose to steer his ship closer to Scylla. The sea monster attacked the vessel as it cruised past, and each of Scylla’s ravenous heads gobbled up one of Odysseus’s sailors, but nevertheless it was the correct choice. If the ship had passed too close to Charybdis instead, the whirlpool would’ve splintered the vessel and killed the whole crew.

In my analogy, Scylla is Boredom and Charybdis is Confusion. Boredom picks off your readers one by one, which is bad enough. But Confusion dispatches your audience in one fell swoop.

The first problem with this submission is that its title is Untitled. One of the most important functions of a title is to give the reader at least a vague idea of what he/she is about to read. If the title of this submission had been Kill Blade or something similar, I would’ve expected to read the opening of a gory crime novel. But if the title had been something like Swords of the Gods I would have expected the first page of a fantasy novel. It’s important to set up these kinds of expectations in your readers. They help steer your manuscript away from the Charybdis of Confusion.

So my first piece of advice is to never call anything Untitled, even if you’re just showing the piece to your friends. Even a bad title is better than no title.

Okay, let’s move on to the first sentence. I like it. I’d delete the word “directly,” though. It’s an unnecessary adverb. And now that I think about it, the word “through” is also unnecessary. “The blade cleaved her face.” That’s a great first sentence! The next sentence is pretty good too, although it needs some editing – “It curved so viciously through skin and bone that it lodged in the brittle tree behind her.” I’d shorten the next sentence to “Splinters of bark sprayed from the impact” but everything is moving along really well. I’m intrigued! The murderer must have one heck of a strong swing to actually slice through someone’s skull like that. What could explain such power and viciousness?

But then I get to the fourth sentence, and I’m confused. How can the victim be staring at shredded leaves? How can apprehension fill her body, and how can her heart be pounding? Her head has just been sliced in two! What’s going on? And then those mystifying words at the end of the paragraph — “for suddenly she remembered this day” — what does that mean?

So I move on to the second paragraph, hoping for some clarification. I learn here that the blade — which I’d assumed was an ax or a meat cleaver — is actually a sword held by a shadowy figure wearing a dark emerald mask. Slowly I realize my mistake: this isn’t a gory Kill Blade type of novel. It’s more like Swords of the Gods. But I’m still not sure. The fact that the sword passed right through the victim without hurting her could mean that something fantastical or paranormal is going on. But it could also be a computer game, maybe some kind of virtual-reality battle. Or the whole thing could be a dream. So I’m still confused. I’m swirling toward Charybdis.

Now you see how a title would’ve helped? It would’ve steered me away from my initial assumption that this was a bloody crime novel. And for the sake of clarity, it might be helpful to identify the blade as a sword right from the start. “The sword cleaved her face.” Still a great first sentence.

As I move on to the next few paragraphs, I continue to look for clues that’ll tell me what kind of book this is. The biggest hint turns out to be the name of the brother who descends from the branches (I think) of the tree that the ghostly girl is standing beside: Ureylon. That sounds like the name of a character in a fantasy novel. But I’m still not a hundred-percent sure, and the effort of looking for clues is distracting me from the story. I think the author can make things a little easier for the reader by giving the ghostly girl a mythic, otherworldly name and mentioning it in the first or second paragraph. If this is indeed a fantasy novel, how about calling her Cersei? (Just kidding. I think that name is taken. Notice, though, that George R.R. Martin stole that name from our old friend Homer, whose Circe seduced Odysseus. And according to the legend told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Circe was the sorceress who concocted a vial of poison that transformed a beautiful girl into Scylla the sea monster. It’s all connected, folks.)

For the time being, let’s use Cersei as a placeholder. Imagine if we replaced the novel’s fourth, fifth and sixth sentences with something like this: “But Cersei was still alive. She wasn’t even hurt. The sword passed through her as if she were a ghost.” That’s a lot clearer, right? For extra impact, I’d put these sentences in a separate paragraph.

My point here is that character names are like titles — they help the reader figure out the story. So if this chapter is being told from the ghostly girl’s point of view, give her a name at the first opportunity. That’s a lot less awkward and vague than repeatedly referring to her as “the girl.”

There are several other confusing things that need to be cleared up. How could the figure in the emerald mask emerge from the thicket after she’s swung her sword at Cersei? Would Cersei really rush to embrace her brother Ureylon when the masked figure is standing right there with a sword in her hands? And what exactly is “amateurish precision”? That sounds like an oxymoron to me.

But the good news is that all these problems can be fixed pretty easily. It’s not so hard to clarify a confusing scene. Very often, it’s just a matter of looking carefully at every sentence and making sure that your prose accurately conveys the pictures in your imagination. In contrast, it can be very difficult to inject excitement into a boring scene. I’d much rather revise an exciting but confusing manuscript than a clear but dull draft.

Now let’s broaden the discussion. What are your thoughts about this first page?


First Page Critique: A Change of Hate

old-monk-useCritiqued by Elaine Viets

Congratulations to the anonymous author who sent in this first-page critique. Submitting your work for a critique is a brave but necessary step toward publication. My comments follow this first page:

A Change of Hate
Movement outside the translucent glass office door caught Madison’s eye. Intrigued by the orange patterns, she watched the flowing waves of color settle, almost motionless. The intense color altered the view through the smoked glass, catching the light from the hall, melding into shadows.
She slid her chair back from the desk and waited.
A slight, almost imperceptible knock, broke the silence. Who knocks on an office door? Madison thought. Watching as the rippling orange movement resumed and the door opened.
She had her answer.
Closing the door gently behind him, a saffron-robed Buddhist monk turned and smiled at the young woman.
The man moved to stand in front of the desk.
In her several years as a legal assistant, this was the first visit by a monk. They were not a common sight in a law office.
Clasping his hands together, he bowed. “Good morning.” His smile accentuated the many nooks and crannies of his face. “Please excuse this interruption. Is this where I might find Mr. Harrison Bennett?”
His quiet tone, hypnotic and calming.
Madison realized she was staring, held by the aura of the man.
“Good morning,” Madison said, regaining her composure. “This is Hawk’s, I mean Mr. Bennett’s office. Do you have an appointment?”
“Ah, of course. An appointment. No, I don’t, I’m afraid,” the man shook his head. “Please excuse me, Miss…?”
“King. Madison King. I am Mr. Bennett’s assistant.”
“I am pleased to meet you, Ms. King. I am sure Mr. Bennett is a busy man. I apologize for arriving unannounced. I find myself in a somewhat difficult situation. I was hoping Mr. Bennett could find the time to speak with me. I knew Mr. Bennett from, well, what seems like a lifetime ago. Perhaps if you told him Thich Quang Duc was here to see him, that might spark an interest. I can wait as long as it takes.” The man bowed again, then sat in one of the chairs, hands folded on his lap, waiting for an answer.
Reaching for the phone, she paged Hawk.
The author has an intriguing setup – a mysterious stranger appears in a law office. This first page shows promise. I’d like to read the novel and find out who this monk is and why he wants to see Mr. Bennett. But the first page is a little too mysterious.
Who is Madison King? The legal assistant is nearly as shadowy as the figure of the monk. She’s described as “young,” but what does that mean? Is she 20, 25, 30? Some specifics could flesh out this woman, and there’s an opportunity in this sentence:
In her several years as a legal assistant, this was the first visit by a monk. They were not a common sight in a law office.
That could be changed to: In her five years as a legal assistant (or however old you want to make her).
What does Madison look like? Give us more details. And use her full name in the first line.
Where are we? Please don’t leave your readers strangers in a strange land. Once again, that sentence could easily give us some clues:
In her several years as a legal assistant, this was the first visit by a monk. They were not a common sight in a (insert city name here) law office.
Is the office used to offbeat clients? Or does this law office serve a more conventional clientele? And what kind of law does Mr. Bennett practice?
About that monk: This sentence says he’s older: His smile accentuated the many nooks and crannies of his face. His tone is “hypnotic and calming.” But give us more detail: Is he tall, short, fat, thin? Is his body bent with age, or is he lean and vigorous?
What time of year is it? What’s the weather? Is it cold outside? Is the radiator rattling? Is the air-conditioner thumping? We need all five senses.
The opening: Movement outside the translucent glass office door caught Madison’s eye. Intrigued by the orange patterns, she watched the flowing waves of color settle, almost motionless. The intense color altered the view through the smoked glass, catching the light from the hall, melding into shadows.
She slid her chair back from the desk and waited.
Think about cutting a little of that description of the colors through the smoked glass. It goes on a bit too long.
Let us know what Madison is feeling. She seems to be alone in an anteroom and someone odd is outside her door. Is she frightened? Does she have a buzzer she can press to alert Hawk that trouble might be approaching? Does she have a gun or pepper spray for protection? Is she trained in the military or has she taken defense classes and feels fearless? Believe me, I wouldn’t sit and wait for a weirdo to walk in the door. I’d have backup.
The office door: Madison is “intrigued” by the movement on the other side of the door. Does she use the office door to size up visitors? Do most visitors wear suits? A slight, almost imperceptible knock, broke the silence. Who knocks on an office door? Madison thought.
Lots of people, when the door is closed. You may want to drop that sentence.
Beware of too many sentence fragments:  Watching as the rippling orange movement resumed and the door opened. His quiet tone, hypnotic and calming. A few give your writing variety. Too many are annoying.

You’re off to an interesting start, Anonymous Author. Build on it and you’ll have a first-rate novel. Thanks for letting us see your first-page critique.
Readers, what’s your opinion?


viets-brainstorm-smallDeath Investigator Angela Richman is misdiagnosed by Dr. Porter Gravois, a wealthy  insider. Angela has six strokes, brain surgury and a coma. She’s saved by brilliant outsider Dr. Jeb Travis Tritt. Gravois’s murdered and Tritt’s arrested. Drug-addled, hallucinating Angela fights to save the man who saved her. I lived this story. Buy Brain Storm in tradepaper, e-book and audio here:


About Research

By John Gilstrap

Let’s talk research.

I’ve never been a proponent of the old adage, write what you know.  In fact, I think it’s kind of silly.  It’s the rare crime writer who has witnessed a crime, let alone investigated one.  I’ve been fortunate in my own life to be able to look back on some exciting times in the fire service, and in the hazmat business, but those are not the exciting times I write about.  While I’ve been shot at, I’ve never been a position to shoot back.  Basically, I am the three-time survivor of poor marksmanship.  There is a point in every book where at least one of my characters is scared shitless, and those are by far my most autobiographical passages.

Yet I’m pleased to report that I frequently get emails from readers who live the lives I write about telling me that I got it right.  Those letters are always thrilling—way more thrilling than the emails I get about the typo on page 237.

It’s all in the research.  So let’s talk about that.  How can writers learn what we need to know to make our characters smart enough to do the things they do in the stories we write?  It doesn’t have to be as difficult or complicated as some might have you believe.

Research Hack One: Cheat.

The easiest way to pull off the illusion of knowledge is to eliminate the need for reality.  For example, despite have lived pretty much my whole life in Fairfax and Prince William Counties in Virginia, I choose to play out my Northern Virginia police work in Braddock County, Virginia, which does not exist.  That way, I can develop whatever standard operating procedures best serve the story, eliminating a huge research burden.  I don’t need a tour of the jail, I don’t need to know which firearms they carry, what the command structure is, or how shifts are organized.  Do the cops carry their shotguns propped up vertically, or under the front of the seat?  I can make it however I want it to be.  Because the place where the story takes place does not exist, neither do the police agencies, so I can by definition never get any of those details wrong.

Research Hack Two:  Stick to the coast you know.

More times than not, it’s the smaller details of research that screw an author up, and even if you make up cities and counties, you’re going to have to root the reader somewhere in the world.  I’m very comfortable making up locations in the South because I’ve lived here for so many decades.  It’s always the tell of a West Coast writer when a character looks for a “freeway” and gets on “the 495.”  In Virginia, we look for a “highway” and get on “Route 50” or just “50.”  Heading north or south on the Beltway says little unless we know whether you’re on the Inner Loop or the Outer Loop.  For natives, the airports are “National” or “Dulles”.  Maybe DCA for frequent travelers.  Never “Reagan.”  At least not for true locals.  Oh, and we “go to” meetings or “attend” them.  We do not “take” them.

Places like New York and L.A. (and every other famous city, I suppose) have traditions and colloquialisms that can get you in trouble.  So, stay close to home if you can.

Research Hack Three: Think like Willie Sutton

When the gangster Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”

So, where are the repositories for the information you want to know?  Let’s say you’re writing about a cop.  To be sure, there are great established resources available to you, such as a citizen’s police academy, but remember that there you’ll be getting the view of the agency that the public affairs office wants you to see.  A better choice, in my opinion, would be to attend a conference like Writers Police Academy, where you can get to know the far more interesting underbelly of police agencies.  Exchange business cards and you’ve got contacts.

Can’t afford the money or time to fly to a conference?  Try chatting up a cop.  The less formal the circumstance, the better.  In my experience, everyone—Ev. Ry. One.—likes to share stories about what they do.  Find out where cops gather for drinks after work and go there.  Just hang out and listen.  Actually, that’s a strategy for just about any specialty.  Want to write about quilting? Go where quilters go and then shut up and listen.

When I’m in DC, one of my favorite places to go for soft research is Union Station, the AMTRAK/Metro terminal that is maybe 500 yards from the Capitol Building.  There are restaurants there.  If you park yourself near a couple of Millennials in suits, there’s a 90% chance that they’re oh-so-self-important staffers to a member of Congress, and the inevitable one-upsmanship is fascinating.  The best eavesdropping spot near the White House is the very cozy bar of the Hay Adams Hotel, though given the proximity to the presidential palace, the gossip there tends to be less juicy.

One bit of advice for eavesdroppers: Don’t take notes.  For the ruse to work, you’ve got to seem disinterested.

Research Hack Four: Get a superfast Internet connection and use it.

I understand that professors are loathe to accept Wikipedia as a legitimate source, and when the time comes for me to submit a dissertation, I’ll keep that in mind.  Meanwhile, I’ll remain devoted to it as a bottomless source of really good information.  Never once have I been disappointed when seeking the finer points of weaponry, for example.  I don’t get into the depths of gun porn in my books, but when arming my good guys and bad guys, it’s good to know how much the weapon weighs, how many rounds it holds and what it looks like.  Want to see the same weapon in action?  I guarantee that YouTube has at least two videos of somebody shooting something with it.

Google Earth and its Street View feature are a godsend.  The closing sequence of Final Target includes a chase down the rural streets of Yucatan.  Thanks to Google Earth, I was able to travel the entire route with a three dimensional view, all without the burden of having to go to a place where I’d rather not be.

Research Hack Five: Know the difference between a research trail and a rabbit hole.

We’ve all been there, I’m sure.  You start out looking for the year when the Ford Ranger went out of production, and an hour later, you’ve chased links to a sweet video of singing penguins.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The secret to doing my kind of research is to abide by a certain self-imposed intellectual laziness. When I’m writing a scene and I come across a place where I realize there’s a hole in my knowledge, I drop out to the Interwebs, find out exactly what I need for that scene, and then back out.  Remember this: It’s not important that you know how to do all the things your characters do—or even to know everything they do.  Your job is simply to convince readers that the character knows enough to pull off the story they’re starring in.

Research Hack Six (and maybe it should be Number One): Respect your sources’ time.

As a weapons guy, I’m happy to help people choose a firearm for their characters, but it’s annoying when the discussion includes the difference between a pistol and a revolver.  That kind of basic information is available anywhere.  It is many times more fun to talk about important details with someone who has already done a reasonable amount of research.  Use your human resources for the esoteric details of verisimilitude, not for the 101 level of whatever you’re researching.


Forget Rewriting Your Book
Rewrite Your Attitude


“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” ― Jean-Paul Sartre

By PJ Parrish

I apologize ahead of time for being crabby today. Had two encounters with unpublished writers this month. This is kind of like a Yeti sighting but in some ways more terrifying. Because you never know if they’re going to turn on you.

I like helping folks get their manuscripts and careers off the ground. Maybe it’s partly because I set out in life to be a teacher but way back in 1972 when I got out of college, I couldn’t find a job. But mostly, it’s because I was an unpublished author once, rejected by every publisher in New York (yes, every single one) before someone took a chance on me. (Thank you John Scognamiglio at Kensington books). I know the heartbreak. I know how hard and utterly confusing this all is. But I also know — learned this through a couple decades experience publishing books now — how important having the right attitude is. In fact, attitude might be more important than talent in this game. So when I meet an unpublished writer with a bad attitude, I have learned not to waste my time or breath trying to help. Well, actually, this isn’t true.  I still haven’t really learned my lesson because it’s hard to know what kind of attitude you’re dealing with until you get knee-deep in their weeds and, as Jean-Paul says above, you don’t always know what’s been done to a person and how that will manifest itself in their attitude.

Back to the two writers. I had known both of them for a while and had even worked in the newspaper business with one for years (Shoot, he had even been my boss briefly).  I offered ahead of time to read the first 30 pages of their works in progress and give them my feedback. One lived nearby so we met for coffee. The second had moved away up to Pennsylvania but I told him we could talk via emails. Here’s the thing: I pretty much knew before I read their manuscripts which one was going to get published and which one wasn’t.  See if you can:

Unpublished writer A:

Wrote eight books.
Tried writing both romance and mysteries.
Has had all eight books rejected by editors.
Just finished a ninth book.
Queried 12 agents and got one to take her on.
Agent-submitted ninth book was rejected by five New York editors who all said book had promise but was too slow and lacked suspense.
Is still working on Book 9 trying to fix pacing problems.
Is reading books on how to write suspense.
Attended Killer Nashville over summer.
Is thinking she should submit the book to small presses instead of the biggies just to get her foot in the door.
Is working on a new idea and outline about a female PI series just in case an editor wants a series instead of a standalone.

Unpublished Writer B:

Finished one book.
Bought an established author’s critique at a writers conference charity auction. Established writer sent back critique of the first 50 pages with suggestions to improve book.
Didn’t change a thing.
Sent queries to agents. Was very offended by the “lack of personal tone” of the rejections.
Got an eager Florida-based agent to take on him on.
Didn’t change title after agent suggested it wasn’t very marketable.
Book was rejected after multiple submissions.
Didn’t change a thing.
Is looking for a “more connected” agent.
Self-published the book and sent a copy to the established author asking for a blurb. Finally started a new story.
Didn’t like my suggestion that he hone his story down to a single POV and make his plot linear, cutting the confusing flashbacks. Said the book “needed multiple POVs because of the story’s complexity demanded it” and that his book was “not really genre fiction but more literary, like Mystic River.”
Thinks there is a cabal in New York publishing designed to keep authors who have self-published from participating in the traditional system.
Has lots of ideas…

I think you get the idea. Too bad unpub B never will. Yes, you can still write the book you want to and get it published. No, you don’t have to sell out. But you have to be smart.

Being smart means learning your craft and walking before you run. (I’m guessing Unpub B never read the five Pat Kenzie Angie Gennaro books Dennis Lehane published BEFORE Mystic River…even though Mystic River was one of the first manuscripts Lehane finished.).

It means listening to good advice when you are lucky enough to get it.

It means not taking every rejection personally. An agent or editor sends out a hundred SASEs a week and when they say no they aren’t rejecting you. They are rejecting your work. There is a difference.

It means writing maybe ten books before you get it right.

It means not automatically expecting the “big” writers to reach down and pull you up. If it happens, consider yourself blessed and give back when it’s your turn. But don’t whine if it doesn’t happen.

It means increasing your chances by making your work as marketable as you can without being false to the writer you are.

It means not not looking for short cuts.

It means not giving up.

It means having the right attitude.

{{{Sound of me taking in a big inhale and bigger exhale}}}}

Wow. I hope that didn’t sound mean. Thank you, dear friends, for listening to me vent.


Postscript: As I was finishing this Sunday night, I got an email from Unpublished Writer A. She got a nice response back from a small press asking to see a full manuscript. I will keep you posted. I think she’d going to make it.