Emotion Must Be Earned: A First Page Critique

By John Gilstrap

Here we are again, presenting the work of a brave author willing to invite friendly fire.  This one arrived to me untitled, and is presented as such.  The italics are mine, just for the sake of clarity. I’ll see you on the other side.

Quinn Larson slipped into the gallery’s back row, settled on the hard edge of a plastic chair, and waited for the execution to begin. In her nightmares, this room had been a chaotic jumble of torches, pitchforks, and angry words. Instead, she found a handful of stoic men and women holding each other up as they took seats. A few stole curious glances at her with lifeless eyes. The warden entered next, escorting a frail woman starved as much for sanity as food. She picked at the skin on her patchy arms around the fraying sweater cuff as he helped her into a chair near the door. Quinn pulled her own hoodie tighter, the edges going much farther around her body than they used to. She probably should have dressed up, but the act of walking through the door took all her focus. It had been ten years since she’d been to the prison or seen her father. He’d written her, but the letters sat, unopened, in a pile on the back corner of her dresser.

Members of the press filed in, scribbling morbid fascination into their little notebooks. Phones and video cameras had been confiscated at security and Quinn took wicked pleasure that the prison forced them to write things down the old-fashioned way. She had no use for reporters. Not when they’d picked the flesh from her bones after the trial and certainly not after the circus they made of her sister’s death. She still wore the scars of their callous disregard.

Special Agent Dawson swaggered in next, the execution his final moment in the spotlight. He’d hunted down the monster, bringing an end to a gruesome fairy tale. He came up the aisle ahead of Quinn in the center of the row, scoping out the view. Then, he glanced at Quinn.

“Miss Larson.” He inclined his hat before removing it. They were two tiny words, just a few letters each, but they sent a live current through the assembled spectators. Some turned fully in their chairs to get a look at her, their expressions full of contempt, and her skin crawled. She was an infection to their grief, the painful itch of a murderer’s daughter in their midst. The humiliation of it rose up the back of her neck and blossomed across her cheeks. Even in the heavily air-conditioned room, her face flamed.

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It’s Gilstrap again.  I think the premise here is very strong.  A daughter coming to witness her father’s execution is pretty stuff.  Clearly, Quinn and her soon-to-be dearly departed daddy are not what we’d call close.  I can only imagine the stress of feeling the heat of so many stares when people realize who sits among them.

Alas, I have not choice but to imagine those things because they are not here on the page.  The piece, as submitted, impresses me more as notes for the author than as an actual bit of drama.  It’s the emotional equivalent of bland spaghetti sauce.  It’s the right color, all the elements appear to be there, but it’s missing the spice that makes the offering come alive.

My first thought is that the author has chosen the wrong place to begin the story.  We make much here in TKZ of acting first and explaining later, and for good reason.  But this scene is more emotion than action, and emotion needs to be earned.  That’s a problem here.  I don’t know whether I’m supposed to be in Quinn’s corner, or if I’m supposed to be as appalled by her presence as her fellow spectators are.  Maybe the author should start a few minutes earlier, perhaps with an interaction with the guard at the security station, where a few lines of dialogue would give us a clue as to her status on the observer tree.

I think if there were a quick interaction with Agent Dawson, in which she asks to remain anonymous, his greeting to her in from of the others would pay off as an act of betrayal–if that’s where you’re trying to go.  Have her encounter a reporter and tell him to go to hell.  Lead us into her world.

Bottom line: the author hasn’t triggered empathy from this reader.

At a more granular level, some of the writing gets in its own way.  Take, for example:

“In her nightmares, this room had been a chaotic jumble of torches, pitchforks, and angry words.”  Remember that this is the reader’s first encounter with any of this story.  When you refer to torches, a time frame is set in my head, and even though you counter it in later passages, the contradiction is jarring.

“. . . handful of stoic men and women holding each other up as they took seats.”  I’m not sure this is possible.  One is either sitting or being held up, it can’t be both–unless there’s a robbery involved, in which case the meaning of “held up” changes altogether.

“The warden entered next, escorting a frail woman starved as much for sanity as food.”  How does Quinn know whether the woman is sane?  She can appear stressed (“She picked at the skin on her patchy arms around the fraying sweater cuff” does a nice job of that), but stress and sanity are entirely different things.

“Quinn pulled her own hoodie tighter, the edges going much farther around her body than they used to.”  The first two or three times I read this, the image in my head was of her pulling her hood tighter, and I couldn’t figure out how that would tighten around her body.  Now, I realize that by “hoodie” you really meant “hooded jacket.”  Again, because we have no lead-in to this scene, the obligation to be precise in descriptions is critical.

“She probably should have dressed up, but the act of walking through the door took all her focus.”  I don’t see the contradiction here.

“It had been ten years since she’d been to the prison or seen her father. He’d written her, but the letters sat, unopened, in a pile on the back corner of her dresser.”  This is an intrusive bit of backstory.  Not only does it interrupt the present action, it catapults the reader to a place he’s never seen and has no reason to care about.

“Members of the press filed in, scribbling morbid fascination into their little notebooks.”  Morbid fascination? Really?  Because we have not been brought into Quinn’s close third-person world–where we might understand that she’s pissed at the press for good reason–this feels like a POV violation.  How does she know what they’re writing?

“She had no use for reporters. Not when they’d picked the flesh from her bones after the trial and certainly not after the circus they made of her sister’s death. She still wore the scars of their callous disregard.”  Finally, this is a good bit of business, but, again, it’s not earned.  Put her face-to-face with Reporter Bob and let them interact.  Show, don’t tell.  Let us witness the angst through her eyes.  “Callous disregard” is a facile phrase that ultimately means nothing.

That’s all I’ve got before turning things over to the Killzone denizens.  By way of full disclosure, when this critique posts, I will inaccessible to all things Internet, so y’all behave.

4+

Want to Make Your Scenes Come Alive?
Here’s a Cop’s-Eye View

By PJ Parrish

It’s a weird — but illuminating — exercise to go back and read your early works. My sister Kelly and I have been doing this lately as we prep our backlist for re-issue with new covers and better editing (Click here to read James’s salient and funny post on typos from Sunday.)

Sometimes, when you read your early stuff, you get this hard little nub in your gut and you think, “Good grief, what was I thinking?”  Kelly and I sort of feel this way about our first published Louis Kincaid thriller Dark of the Moon. It’s a solid freshman effort, but could have been better. But our second book Dead of Winter was where we began to digest the lessons of craft and find our stylistic stride.

In Dead of Winter, we began to recognize the power of description and mood. We knew the setting — the deep dark of the northern Michigan winter — was critical as a backdrop for the plot of a sniper picking off the cops in a small town. When I was editing the other day, I got to the scene where Louis and his partner Ollie are called out on New Year’s Eve to check out a trash can fire some kids set in the woods. But of course, it’s a trap set by the killer.  Kelly wrote this chapter, and to this day, I think it contains some of the best descriptive writing she has ever done.  She managed to capture not just the dark, cold loneliness of the setting but the visceral terror Louis feels in it.

In an stroke of synchronicity, that same day she also happened to send me a link to a blog post by our friend Lee Lofland.  Lee is a cop who wrote the Writers Digest bestselling book Police Procedure and Investigation. He’s a Macavity Award nominee for best non-fiction mystery, an Edgar Award judge, and is a nationally acclaimed expert on police procedure and crime-scene investigation, working as a writer’s consultant on TV and film. He runs a terrific conference for writers who want a total immersion in the grit of cop work. (Kelly’s going this year for the first time. Click here for more info about The Writer’s Police Academy.) Lee’s motto for writers is “Just Say No to Cordite.” (If you don’t get that, you really need to go read Lee’s posts and a few of John Gilstraps’)

But Lee’s is also a damn good writer in his own right. I’m a regular at his blog The Graveyard Shift. Recently, he had a post that was so compelling I asked him if I could print it for you here. It is about cops, but it is a master class in the power of using your senses, and finding the telling details, to make any scene or character come to life.

Take it away, Lee:

A Cop’s Nighttime Melody: The Sounds of the Graveyard Shift

Many writers have never, not once, set foot inside a police car, nor have they climbed out of bed at 11 p.m. to swap pajamas for a police uniform, Kevlar vest, gun belt, sidearm, and spit-shined shoes. And they’ve not headed out into the night to spend the next eight to twelve hours dealing with the city’s “worst of the worst,” and worse.

Most people have not left home with their family saying, “Be careful, see you when you get home,” and know they’re saying it because they worry the next time they see their loved one will be at their funeral service. “Killed in the line of duty” is what the bloggers and reporters will say.

Sure, you all know what goes on during a police officer’s shift—fights, domestic calls, shootings, stabbings, drug dealers, rapists, and killers of all shapes and sizes.

But what those of you who’ve never “been there, done that” cannot honestly and accurately know are the sounds heard when someone take a shot at you. No, not the actual gunshot. It’s the other noises that help bring super-cool details to your stories.

To learn about those sounds, let’s pretend we’re the officer who’s just been the target of a bad guy’s gunfire. We’re chasing the suspect through alleys and paths that wind through dark wooded areas, all while knowing the guy has a gun and he’s definitely not afraid to use it.

You can’t see your hand in front of your face, so you stop and listen. And then it happens…

That eerie calm.

It causes the hairs on the back of your neck to stand tall and straight. Goose bumps come to attention on your arms. A lone pea-sized bead of sweat worms its way down your spine, easing through the space between your pants and the bare skin of your waistline. It feels oddly cool against your fear-warmed flesh.

10-4, I’LL TAKE THIS ONE …

The call came in as “Shots Fired. Suspect is armed with a handgun and caller advises he is still at the residence and is threatening to kill responding officers.”

I was working the county alone, so I asked the dispatcher to request backup from a nearby city and from the state police. The trooper in our county was also working alone. Our roles differed, though. He was out on the interstate writing traffic tickets while I responded to the usual plethora of calls. Either way, we were alone when we approached whatever situation was before us, be it stopping a stolen car with dark tinted windows or heading toward a house where I knew a man was waiting to kill me.

The sound of a police radio is far different when it’s heard late at night as opposed to the same radio traffic during daylight hours. Its an unexplained phenomenon. It could be that dark skies and night air create different acoustics. Or that working the graveyard shift forces dispatchers to work really hard to battle “the thing” that comes out at night to squeeze their emotions into submission. They typically lose the fight which results in a manner of speech that’s without feeling, inflection, and dynamics.

Nighttime radio traffic echoes and travels far. It’s weird and out of place among the stars and creamy moonlight. Dispatchers drone on like robots … “Robbery at …” “Wife says husband hit her …” “Lost child …” “Possible drug overdose at …” “Loud music at …” “Peeping Tom at …” “Customer refuses to pay at …” Shoplifter at …” “Dead body in river …” Dead body in park …” “Shots fired …” “Shots fired …” “Man stabbed at …” Shots fired …”

Back to the man who wanted to kill me.

I acknowledged the call with a “10-4, I’m en route.” Then I hooked the radio mic back into the metal “U-shaped” clip on the dashboard. Next, I pushed one of the many red toggle switches mounted into the center console.

With the push of the button, a faint click occurred simultaneously with the eruption of pulsating blue light. I stepped on the gas and heard the engine come to life. Since I was miles out in the country there was no need for the siren. Not yet.

I pushed the pedal toward the floor until I was cruising along at 70 mph. Believe me, that was pretty fast considering the curvy, hilly road that was before me.

There are no streetlights in the country. It’s super dark. Blue light reflects from trees, shrubbery, houses, mailboxes, passing cars, and telephone poles. It also reflects from the white lines painted on the pavement.

Meanwhile, the radio traffic continues with updates for me and with traffic from city officers and the trooper out on the interstate … “Use caution. Driver of the vehicle is wanted for a homicide in …”

My car radio played in the background. The Oak Ridge Boys went on and on about Bobbie Sue and Elvira while I attempted to straighten the curves by hitting my marks—drive low in the curves, on both sides of the road. Never at the apex. Unless a car is coming in the opposite direction or you cannot see far enough ahead to safely do so.

The blue strobes mounted on top of the car make a clicking sound with the start of each flash. The wig-wag headlamps did the same. The roadway is very uneven with a few cracks and potholes scattered about. They cause the patrol car to dip and roll. The extra pair of handcuffs I and many other cops keep handy by hanging them from the spotlight handle that protrudes from the post between the windshield and driver’s door, sway back and forth and bang together causing a constant click, click, click noise. The sounds are out of sync.

I switched off my lights a ways before reaching the scene—didn’t want to shooter to know I was there—and stopped my car on the shoulder, a bit down the road from the driveway. I called the dispatcher on the phone to let her know I’d arrived. The use of the phone was in case the bad guy was listening to a scanner. I turned down the volume on my police radio. Way down. Remember, the sound travels far. I wished backup didn’t have to do the same (travel far).

I opened my car door slowly to avoid making any noise. The interior light was not operational—disconnected in police cars to prevent illuminating the officer and/or blinding them to goings-on outside the vehicle.

As I slid from the seat my leather gun belt creaked and squeaked and groaned, as leather does when rubbed against other leather or similar material. To me, the sound was as loud as Fourth of July fireworks. My car keys (in my pants pocket) jingled slightly with each step. So I used a hand to hold them against my leg. The other hand was on my pistol.

I walked up to the house to peek into a window before knocking on the door. I wanted to see if I could, well, see anything. But, as I closed in on the side the house a large mixed breed dog stepped into view, showing its teeth and upper gums. The animal with matted-hair and a crooked tail growled one of those slow, easy rumbles that comes from somewhere deep inside. I held out a hand for it to sniff. It backed into the shadows.

A quick peek inside revealed a family of five. A woman with two black eyes and three crying children. Two girls, not quite teenagers, but close, probably, and a wiggling and squirming baby. A man stood near a tattered recliner and tall floor lamp. He held a pump shotgun in his right hand. At the moment, the barrel was aimed toward the floor. He yelled a few obscenities and started to pace. Then he looked straight at me, or at least it seemed like he looked at me.

My heart pounded against the inside of my chest. It bumped so hard I could hear the sound it made with each beat.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

From somewhere deep in the shadows.

Grrrr ……..Growl …..

From inside the home.

A baby crying.

A woman pleads and sobs.

A young girl. “Please, Daddy. No more!”

Sirens wail in the distance, beyond the black tree line that connects sky with earth. Sounds travel further at night, right?

The air-conditioning unit beneath the window snaps on. Its compressor humming and fan whirring. The metal casing rattles slightly. Probably missing a screw or two.

I knew what I had to do and started toward the door with my leather shoes and gun belt squeaking and keys jingling and heart thumping. As I reached for the knob I took a deep breath.

The expansion of my chest pulled at the Velcro that held my vest tightly against my torso.

Crackle. Crackle. Crackle.

Right behind me now.

Grrr …. Growl …

Crying.

Screaming.

Whir.

Thump. Thump. Thump!

Jingle

Squeak.

The door.

Turn and push.

“Drop the gun!”

BANG!

BANG!

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Crying.

And crying.

“10-4. Send the coroner.”

So, my friends, those are the sounds of working the graveyard shift …A Cop’s Nighttime Melody.

Me again. Note Lee’s use of the telling details here: the out of sync jangle of the extra cuffs. The sweep of blue lights on a mailbox in the night. How acoustics seem different in the dark swirl of lethal fear. And notice how he switches his narrative style — slow and legato when the cop is merely driving through the night then moving to a sharp staccato style during the action of t he shooting and take-down. All these are markers of a good novelist. Lee isn’t telling you how much terror a cop feels. He’s showing it to you and making you experience it through your senses.

I’ve never worn a badge, carried a gun or had to go through a door not knowing if I’d make back out alive. But I write about cops every day, so I can only hope to try to live vicariously in the skin of those who do. And then try to make the reader see what I am trying to see. It’s what writers do. It’s what we have to do to make readers feel.

Thanks, Lee. We’re all still learning here.

Postscript: I am traveling to NYC today for Edgar duties, so might be delayed in responding here. Talk amongst yourselves!

10+

Beach Reading

I am in Cancun, hopefully sunning myself (with an appropriately large hat and SPF 100 on),  for today’s blog so wanted to get some beach reading recommendations. I’ve managed to convince my husband to read the excellent Australian mystery by Jane Harper, The Dry, while I indulge in some YA reading and research for my current WIP. I’ve also got James Comey’s  A Higher Loyalty to read – but I’m not sure that qualifies as much of a beach read! On spring break I started to read Sarah Perry’s Essex Serpent but found it was too dark and damp to read at the beach…so that’s been set aside for a rainy day. It’s funny how you need just the right combination of intrigue and atmosphere when you’re trying to relax:)

So TKZers, what are you looking forward to reading this summer? Are there some juicy new mysteries or thrillers you would recommend for by the beach, by the lake, or for up in the mountains? I’m planning on spending quite bit of time up in the mountains this summer while my boys are on Boy Scout and Avid4 camps – so I need some good recommendations for books that can keep me up turning the pages at night. I haven’t had one of those reads in ages!

Thanks in advance! I’m hoping to be able to check in on your recommendations while sipping cocktails beneath a beach umbrella:)

 

 

3+

Editing is Dying, Grunting Soon to Follow

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

In some places in our fair land, if all is still in the night, you might hear the plaintive cry of the whippoorwill. In other locales, if the moon is full, the howl of a lonely coyote may break the silence. In the city you are sure to pick up the distant toot of an automobile horn, or the exasperated utterance of the infuriated cab driver, or perhaps the variegated cursings of the long-distance trucker in search of a greasy spoon.

At my house, I have come to anticipate the sardonic tones of a wifely expostulation that sounds like this: “Oh, come on!”

You see, Mrs. B knows the language. She knows grammar. She has to. She’s a realtor here in Los Angeles, and one of her tasks is crafting engaging copy about the properties she’s representing. Often, when she’s in her home office, I’ll hear the “Oh, come on!” and it usually means she’s just read, with a mixture of amusement and horror, another agent’s prose on the Multiple Listing Service.

Once, she saw this description of a view property up on a hill: You’ll be high in the heaves!

I don’t know about you, but living in a house where I’m constantly calling Ralph on the big white telephone is not my idea of heaven.

Another time she saw: This is a lovely home, completely remolded.

I’d rather just keep the old mold, wouldn’t you?

Cindy began collecting these items. A few more from her list:

Master suit with walking closet.

Hardwood floors, and a wet bat.

Many widows make this home light and airy.

Okay, typos. We all make them. But what about obvious errors of grammar from outfits that ought to know better? Like, say, newspapers and television channels? At one time all newspapers employed steely-eyed copy editors who were fully grounded in the rules of grammar and the elements of style. Not so much anymore in this epoch of shrinking revenues and staff cutbacks.

That’s why you see more errors popping up in newspapers, print and digital, than ever before. Things like:

The glamorous 17-year-old wants to be a policewoman some day, like her dad.

Golfing Immortal Dies at Age 69.

His face was familiar to movie fans, with or without his ever-present cigar.  

Include Your Children When Baking Cookies.

Prostitutes Appeal to Pope.

The other evening I heard “Oh, come on!” and went to investigate. Cindy was scrolling through the blurbs on a certain movie channel. These are no doubt written by unpaid millennial interns or staffers who’d rather be playing Realm Grinder in their cubicles. Cindy showed me the blurb for a movie called Johnny Belinda starring Jane Wyman (who won the Oscar as Best Actress for her performance). Here’s the blurb:

Sensitive portrayal of a deaf woman who is raped, then tried for his subsequent murder in a Nova Scotia fishing Village.

Oh, come on!

Okay, I know I’m sounding more and more get-off-my-lawnish these days, but really. Let the basic rules of grammar fray and in a few generations we’ll all be milling around, grunting and gesticulating, trying to get someone to tell us where the bathroom is. Frustration will mount, with anger soon to follow, and soon enough we’ll be tearing into each other with our teeth. Which is sort of what Twitter is like right now.

Wuts 2b dun?

Remember when education used to begin at what we called grammar school? Please, teachers and parents, don’t let the children down. Make them memorize the following poem:

Every name is called a NOUN, as field and fountain, street and town.
In place of a noun the PRONOUN stands, as he and she clap their hands.
The adjective describes a thing, as magic wand or bridal ring.
The VERB means action, something done, to read and write and jump and run.
How things are done the ADVERBS tell, as quickly, slowly, badly or well.
A PREPOSITION shows relation, as in the room or at the station.
CONJUNCTIONS join—in many ways—sentences, words or phrase and phrase.
The INTERJECTION cries out “Hark! I need an exclamation mark!”

Maybe we can nudge the language pendulum back the other way. We’d better try.

Dont u agree?

16+

Hang On! First Page Critique: MANNAHATTA

Photo Courtesy Pixabay

Welcome, Anon du jour!  Thank you for joining us this morning by submitting Mannahatta, your work in progress, to First Page Critique. I think you’re off to a great start with what I believe is an adventure novel. Let’s take a look, noting that the original line separation and paragraph breaks were lost in transmission:

Prologue

Winter 1602

The two hunters could see it would not go well.

They sat on the high bank, bundled in skins and eating parched corn, while they watched the canoe approach from the west—from the island.

The rain had stopped, but the gale at their backs was still gusting. Whitecaps roiled the gray, cold waters below them, and there was a continuous roar from both wind and raging sea, not unlike a waterfall.

“Worst time to attempt this passage,” the taller of the two shouted in their Munsee dialect.

The other man grunted agreement while he chewed and pulled his beaver cloak tighter against the north wind.

The tide was turning at this spot they called Monatun, just east of Mannahatta. Here three salt rivers and waterways converged into one channel. Currents from different directions raced and collided. Waves rammed into each other and shot spray high in the air. Deep whirlpools spun and sucked, and a standing wave spanned the treacherous water route.

The hunters could do nothing to change what they knew was coming. They would be silent witnesses.

The man was in front, a woman in back, and in the middle a boy who had seen maybe eight or nine winters. The man paddled furiously and yelled instructions to his woman, eyes wide with fright. The boy remained motionless, as if in his dreaming world, his small hands grasping each side of the canoe.

As soon as they entered the violent stream, the paddler’s efforts had little effect—the canoe was pulled helplessly into the standing wave that blocked its path. The man tried to angle up and over the wave, but it was no good. The heavy canoe flipped like a small twig, its occupants launched into the icy water and swept along with the main current.

The wind then caught the lip of the canoe and sent it sailing against a large boulder that jutted out from the water. It broke into splinters with a loud crash.

The man and woman flailed and tried to swim to shore while being carried on by the chaotic flow. Soon, they disappeared under the water’s choppy surface.

The hunters’ attention went to the boy. He was not helpless like his parents. He was not fearful. He struggled in the water, but with a fixed determination.

He held a rope, and while he bobbed toward the jutting rock, they could see him purposefully . . .

 

First, last and in between: Anon, you know how to tell a story. Good going. You set a scene and create suspense very well. Even though I was almost certain from their first introduction that the adults were goners and that Sonny Boy was going to make it (and that’s not a sure thing yet) I was wondering how it was going to go down. I wasn’t disappointed at all with what you presented.

It looks like I have made a lot of corrections here. That is no reflection of your storytelling skills. Your work here reminds me in a way of Edgar Rice Burroughs, one of my all-time favorite authors of adventure fiction. He probably wouldn’t even get published now, as he was not a stickler for grammatical rules, but he could tell a story by just picking the reader up and carrying them along, the same as you do. I was swept up by your story which in my opinion matters more than writing a story that follows all the rules in the telling but bores the waste out the reader. Accordingly, please consider the following to be fine detailing rather than a general remodeling.

They sat on the high bank, bundled in skins and eating parched corn, while they watched the canoe approach from the west—from the island.  I’m thinking, Anon, that this would be a good place and time to hint that there are three people in the canoe. You can say:

They sat on the high bank, bundled in skins and eating parched corn, while watching the canoe with three people aboard approach from the west—from the island.

The hunters could do nothing to change what they knew was coming. They would be silent witnesses. Since they are already silent witnesses, let’s change the tense and also bring the canoe back into the action to introduce what happens next:

The hunters could do nothing to change what they knew was coming. They were silent witnesses as the surging waves tossed the canoe and its helpless passengers.  

The man was in front, a woman in back, and in the middle a boy who had seen maybe eight or nine winters. Let’s introduce them in a parallel fashion:

A man was in the front of the canoe,  a woman in the back, and a boy who had seen maybe eight or nine winters was in the middle.

The other man grunted agreement while he chewed and pulled his beaver cloak tighter against the north wind.  I knew what you were saying here, Anon, but the image lept into my mind, almost unbidden, of the gent chewing on his beaver cloak. Let’s maybe add two little words:

The other man grunted agreement while he chewed his corn and pulled his beaver cloak tighter against the north wind.

The man paddled furiously and yelled instructions to his woman, eyes wide with fright.

This story is told from the point of view of the hunters who have no way of knowing the relationship, 1602 style, between the man and the woman. It could be the guy’s sister. Let’s make the change from “his woman” to “the woman” until we know for sure if we ever do. Also, tell us whose eyes are wide with fright, Anon. If they’re the woman’s, use:

“…to the woman whose eyes were wide with fright.”

If the man’s, use:

“The man, eyes wide with fright, paddled furiously…”

The man and woman flailed and tried to swim to shore while being carried on by the chaotic flow. Soon, they disappeared under the water’s choppy surface.  I don’t like the “soon” here. “Soon” for me implies a fifteen minute rest period. Let’s try “quickly” to further convey the urgency of the situation:

The man and woman flailed while trying to swim to shore but were carried on by the chaotic flow. They quickly disappeared under the water’s choppy surface.

He held a rope, and while he bobbed toward the jutting rock, they could see him purposefully…  I take the sense that the boy is probably not so much holding the rope as hanging on for dear life. I like the sense of urgency you have going overall and want to keep that going, so let’s use a word that does that. For example:

He clung to a rope, and the pair on shore watched him purposefully (tell us what he is purposefully doing) while he bobbed toward the jutting rock.

Just to close…I like that the perspective of the story is from the point of view of the two crusty customers on the bank, who so far are sitting there watching what unfolds. The implication here is that there isn’t anything they can do to avert the catastrophe that is unfolding. They’re not taking any joy in it. They are just stoically watching nature take its course. Fortunately, the boy is not. My guess is that after the Prologue we’ll meet up with the boy as an adult and he’ll be the protagonist of your book. I look forward to finding out.

I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically and unnaturally quiet as I turn the reins over to our wonderful visitors and commenters. Thank you for joining us, Anon, and good luck with Mannahatta!

 

7+

Don’t Make the Reader Guess the Important Stuff – First Page Critique – URGE

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

 

For your reading pleasure, we have an anonymous submission of 400 words. Please help with your constructive criticism by commenting. My feedback will follow. Enjoy.

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Remnants of Sunday night trade at the Royal Derby Hotel were strewn in the gutter. Some poor bastard who didn’t get to enjoy the benefits of it would have to clean up the beer cans and broken glass. Jude stepped over vomit stains and around a bent up bicycle obstructing the footpath as it strained against the chain that kept it attached to a street pole. Cams message had been brief, “Murder in Brunswick Street, think your PI outfit could help. Meet me near corner of Cecil, 7am.” She hadn’t been able to reach him when she tried to return his call. That was an hour ago. She had left three messages for James already without any response. She willed him to come. Check your phone James. Please be on time. I need you here.

Two hundred metres further on the opposite side of the street Jude saw a gaping black hole in a shop front and stopped. Its window display had spilled across the footpath after a fire had blown out the glass. She felt a mild strangling feeling and shuddered. Fuck. Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me. Cam was standing outside the shop scratching his head and surveying the contents of the footpath. Beggars can’t be choosers she reminded herself, took a deep breath, checked for cars and stepped into the road. She was hungry to get back into some serious investigative work and wasn’t going to let a bit of queasiness get in the way.

Cam looked up and smiled warmly when he saw Jude and stepped forward to give her a peck on the cheek. “Great to see you. Thanks for coming on such short notice.”

Jude took a quick step back. What’s with the kissing, that’s a bit familiar, this is a crime scene meeting she thought as she nodded towards the shop, “Appreciate the call, what’s the story?”

Cam’s smile faded as he looked at the shop, “Fire brigade got a call around 11pm. Extinguished it by four this morning and secured the scene. Found a body at the back.” He gestured into the open black hole of the building. “Forensics are in there now, doesn’t look like an accident to me,” he nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked, “it’s, a, uh, fetish shop.”

FEEDBACK

GROUNDING THE READER – From the start we have what feels like a cop investigating a crime scene, but the reader has names without knowing what the players do or even what city they are in. (I had to look up that the Royal Derby Hotel is in Australia.) It takes work to decipher who Cam and Jude and James are. Things aren’t clearer until the very end.

Are they police? Arson investigators? News reporters? From Cam’s message, we learn that there’s a PI involved and it took a reread to see this is Jude. I’ve made a quick stab at a rewrite, trying to stay true to the scene as written, but I hope you can see how the names and job titles clarifies the intro. I might’ve started this story a different way, but I am showing this rewrite to demonstrate how important it is to orient the reader into the scene with details.

REWRITE SUGGESTION

Private investigator Jude Hawthorne stared down at the unexpected text message she had received from Homicide Detective Cameron Hunter as she stood under a pale street lamp.

Murder in Brunswick Street, think your PI outfit could help.

Meet me near corner of Cecil, 7am.

I’m here, Detective Hunter. Where are you?

Remnants of Sunday night trade at the Royal Derby Hotel were strewn in the gutter, making it hard to distinguish the trash from the explosion caused by the fire. Jude stepped over vomit stains and around a bent up bicycle obstructing the footpath as it strained against the chain that kept it attached to a street pole. As she came upon the charred remains of the storefront and shattered glass, she cringed.

Why does it have to be a fire crime? I hate fire crimes. Cam must remember that. He should’ve told me.

Readers don’t get a description of what happened until the mention of the fire blowing out a window half way down, otherwise the intro sounds like the dregs of a drunken party or Mardi Gras. In the last paragraph, there’s a mention of a ‘crime scene’ and a fire brigade with a body inside, but readers need to be oriented into the scene much sooner. In my rewrite above, I added the two red letter lines to mention the crime scene.

START WITH A DISTURBANCE – In the rewrite above, I focused on the disturbance of Jude getting an unexpected text message. She’s a PI and it would not be normal for her to get called to a homicide.

KEEP FOCUS ON EMOTION – Jude obviously has an issue with fires, yet her fear is embedded in a longer paragraph and glossed over. Make that front at center. By sticking with her emotional state, the reader gets invested in her as a character. They want to root for her. (I slapped this rewrite together as an example and cherry-picked what resonated with me. I’m sure the author could do better.)

BEFORE – Two hundred metres further on the opposite side of the street Jude saw a gaping black hole in a shop front and stopped. Its window display had spilled across the footpath after a fire had blown out the glass. She felt a mild strangling feeling and shuddered. Fuck. Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me. Cam was standing outside the shop scratching his head and surveying the contents of the footpath. Beggars can’t be choosers she reminded herself, took a deep breath, checked for cars and stepped into the road. She was hungry to get back into some serious investigative work and wasn’t going to let a bit of queasiness get in the way.

AFTER – Jude shuddered and found it hard to breathe as she stared into the gaping hole of the shop front, pitted by fire. Its window display had spilled across the footpath after a fire had blown out the glass. Her own demons were never far from the surface. Detective Hunter should have known to warn her.

Jude took a deep breath and clenched her jaw as she checked for cars and stepped into the road. She needed serious investigative work, even if the case cost her sleep and brought back nightmares she thought she’d left behind.

CHARACTER NAMES – Why does the author only mention first names in this intro? I recommend giving authority to your investigators from the beginning. Give them a job title and what relation they are to each other, as I did in the rewrite above. It took me awhile to realize that Jude is the PI, but who are the other players? Who is James?

To avoid the gender issue using the name Cam, I would mention his full name of Cameron at the start and maybe only start using ‘Cam’ when other people call him by his nickname to establish that Cam is Cameron.

I would also question why a cop would call in a private investigator to an official crime scene, but I will leave that up to the author to establish. I’m sure there is a good reason and it sounds intriguing.

POINT OF VIEW – It took me a few readings to get oriented into the POV intended here. The first two lines were through the eyes of a character, I presumed. So when I saw the name Jude, I thought this is deep POV 3rd person, but then Cam steps into the spotlight and because that name is gender neutral, I thought Cam was a woman until I get to a couple of spots and realize he’s not.

Did anyone else have an issue with gender and whose POV is central? Giving titles and orienting the reader faster would help with this confusion.

PUNCTUATION – A well placed comma can make all the difference. Remember the old grammar joke – “Let’s eat Grandma.” versus “Let’s eat, Grandma.” That comma would mean a huge difference if you’re Grandma. I would recommend reading aloud as part of an edit process. When you get to a spot where your voice naturally pauses, that’s usually where a comma goes. Just ask Grandma. There is also missing question marks and run on sentences that should be broken apart to be clearer.

Here’s a couple of examples:

BEFORE – ‘Fuck. Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me.’

Break this apart for clarity and add punctuation. I also recommend internal DEEP POV be italicized (if mixed into 3rd person POV) and I suggest that DEEP POV not be embedded into a paragraph. If it stand out more, it will draw the reader’s eye to it as if it were dialogue. Readers naturally look for dialogue when they are reading. With weighty long paragraphs, as in this submission, the reader might skim or lose important dialogue if it’s buried.

AFTER – Why does it have to be a fire crime? I hate fire crimes. Cam must remember that. He should’ve told me.

Cams message had been brief,… (Cam’s message had been brief,…)

BEFORE – Jude took a quick step back. What’s with the kissing, that’s a bit familiar, this is a crime scene meeting she thought as she nodded towards the shop, “Appreciate the call, what’s the story?”

AFTER – Jude took a quick step back, stunned.

What’s with the kissing. That’s a bit familiar. This is a crime scene, she thought.

All business, Jude nodded towards the shop and said, “Appreciate the call, what’s the story?”

LAST PARAGRAPH – I would break out the dialogue lines to allow the reader to find them more easily. But I’m still not sure why a PI would need to be called in on an arson/murder investigation, especially if it’s a fetish shop. Riddle me that, Batman.

And why is he sure it wasn’t an accident simply because it’s a fetish shop? That’s the implication. His smirk is a little sophomoric, but maybe that is intentional. Is he a professional guy or a wise cracker? We don’t know yet.

BEFORE – Cam’s smile faded as he looked at the shop, “Fire brigade got a call around 11pm. Extinguished it by four this morning and secured the scene. Found a body at the back.” He gestured into the open black hole of the building. “Forensics are in there now, doesn’t look like an accident to me,” he nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked, “it’s, a, uh, fetish shop.”

AFTER – Cam’s smile faded as he looked at the shop.

“Fire brigade got a call around eleven pm. After they extinguished the blaze by four this morning and secured the scene, they found a body at the back.”

He gestured into the charred chasm of the destroyed building.

“Forensics are in there now, but it doesn’t look like an accident to me.” He nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked, “it’s, a, uh, fetish shop.”

FOR DISCUSSION

What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?

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Letting Go of Books: Is it Even Possible?

 

Me, looking vaguely terrifying in front of our messy, three-deep bookshelves

I’ve been scarce around here lately, and I always regret that. Beginning last week I started the toughest edit of any novel (for me, at least): the read-aloud edit. It’s slow, slow, slow. But it’s the only way to catch errors that might not ever get caught. There’s something about hearing the words out loud that is completely unlike reading them silently. I always retain information better if I hear it, rather than just read it on the page. Reading my work aloud helps me take ownership of the work, and it’s almost like I’m reading it for the first time. Does that happen for anyone else?

A few months ago, I wrote about my affection for audiobooks. Lately I’ve found that I don’t want to be without one–ever. It might have a little something to do with the Apple AirPods I got for Christmas. (Which, in my middle aged way, I usually refer to as Ear Pods, because, really, that’s what they are, right?) They’re so handy, and stay charged forever, and only fall out of my ears if I fall asleep with them in. But I also have a bluetooth speaker I use in the house if I’m the only one home. The little kid in me still feels very special when someone reads to me. It doesn’t matter if the person isn’t in the room, or if they did the actual reading a dozen years ago. So why shouldn’t I have someone reading to me all the time?

The book I started on my break this afternoon is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read it years ago and found it rather tough going, but I’m loving the audio. It’s made me laugh several times in just the first hour. I didn’t really seek out Marquez. I simply scrolled through the “What’s Available” category on Overdrive, and it jumped out at me.

What does this have to do with (physical) books? Sorry, you know how I tend to meander into my blog topic…

The book I finished this morning was a non-fiction book called Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalismby Fumio Sasaki. If you read and liked Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Upyou’ll find Sasaski’s book a rather logical next step. That is, if you’re very curious about the causes and results of the pursuit of minimalism. And possibly desirous of living in a 300 square foot space with…one book. While I love trying new things, and Sasaki is very knowledgable and has some brilliant ideas about what to  cull from your life and why, I draw a hard line at books.

But…

Our house has deep and numerous bookshelves, and I’m feeling overwhelmed simply by the presence of so many books. Our main built-ins can handle three rows of books, back to front. Not all of them contain three rows of books. Only about two thirds, or 90 square feet of shelves have that many. (That’s nearly a third of the square footage of Sasaki’s entire home.) I can’t even get to the second two rows unless I try. Clearly, some books need to go.

How to choose? Marie Kondo’s method is to put ALL the books in the house into a pile and touch each one to see if it still sparks joy. If it sparks, you get to keep the book/object. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not so simple. Sasaki gives many cogent arguments for simply getting rid of things, few questions asked. His main argument is, “The things we say goodbye to are the things we’ll remember forever.” He takes many, many photographs of the objects he releases out into the world.

What about categories? A gloss of my categories: Read or unread, books by friends, reference books, books that formed me at various stages of my career. coffee table books, art books, DUMMIE’S GUIDE books. Books received as gifts. SO many textbooks and homeschooling novels/story collections. Books my kids loved. Books on faith. Beloved paperbacks. Books I’ve published. Books I started reading and never finished. Antique books that belonged to people who have been dead for decades. Craft books, arts and crafts books. Cookbooks. Music books. Single-author collections. FIRST EDITIONS. Just today, as I was linking to the Marie Kondo book, I found a copy of the first American edition for seven dollars. Seven dollars! That’s practically free. I have it on my Kindle, and I listened to it on Overdrive last week. But I don’t have a first American edition!

There are only about fifteen books that I read again and again. That’s not even a shelf and a half’s worth. What would I do with all that bookshelf space? Something has to go on those shelves besides sleeping cats.

Both Sasaki and Kando write about minimalism being life-changing. And Sasaki is persuasive. No one wants to die and leave piles and piles of things for relatives to dispose of. Uncluttered space makes for inspirational space. Creativity can flow through cleared rooms. I’m a believer.

Then again, books are comforting. Books are undemanding, and sit quietly waiting to be noticed. Writing books is my dream, and how can I abandon the dreams of so many other writers? I don’t want to hurt their feelings, even if they don’t know it.

I need some inspiration. To cull or not to cull? Shall I take pictures of their covers and get rid of the majority of the books?

How do you feel about your books? Is it hard to let go? What’s your secret?

 

 

 

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How To (Legally) Get Away With Murder

By Sue Coletta

A few nights ago, my husband and I watched Population Zero, a documentary-style movie based on the alleged true account of a murderer who walked free after confessing to a triple homicide.

In the documentary, the killer even videotaped the murders and summoned this documentarian (our hero) to find the motive behind his killing spree. To entice him, he sent a photo of a bear chasing a horrifically burned buffalo — a symbolic message for the murders he committed in Yellowstone National Park.

The entire ninety-minutes shocked me, not only because a loophole in our constitution allowed a murderer to walk free but because of the explosive ending (no spoilers). It also made me suspicious. I thought, you mean to tell me an entire sheriff’s department couldn’t unravel the mystery but a film-maker cracked the case in a matter of days?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie. True story? Ah, not so much. The legal loophole, however, is real. Within the United States there’s a stretch of land where you could, in theory, get away with murder. Fact.

How Is This Possible?

Most of Yellowstone National Park is in Wyoming, but a portion of the federal land extends into Montana and Idaho. That’s where the problem begins. The 50 square miles of Idaho’s section of the national park is called The Zone of Death, and it’s because of a loophole in the U.S. Constitution. If, like in the documentary-style movie, someone committed a spontaneous murder on that 50 square mile strip, the U.S. Constitution may be their ticket to freedom.

Here’s why. Yellowstone National Park is federal land that was established in 1872, years before the three states. Montana joined the union in 1889, Idaho and Wyoming in 1890. Across the United States federal land is split-up and divided into its corresponding state and district courts. Yellowstone National Park is the only exception. 

In 2005, Brian C. Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University of Law, published a paper entitled The Perfect Crime, where he pointed out that all of Yellowstone National Park was assigned to the District of Wyoming. But now, the District of Wyoming includes land in other states. So, Kalt asked the question, “What happens if you’re caught for a crime within that 50 square miles of the Idaho region of the park?” 

The first thing LEO’s would do is bring you to the District Court of Wyoming, because the crime happened within Wyoming’s jurisdiction. But Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states: The trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury; and such trial shall be held in the state where the said crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any state, the trial shall be a such place or places as the Congress may be law have directed.

A smart killer, like the one depicted in Population Zero, could assert his right to have his case heard in Idaho. No big deal, right? Well, not exactly. 

Amendment VI states: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

This is called the Vicinage Clause.

Picture two overlapping circles, with Wyoming (the District) on one side and Idaho (the State) on the other. Where these two circles intersect is that 50 square miles of Idaho land. The legal loophole exists because it has a population of zero. No humans live there, therefore, no jury can be called. Kalt argues, the court must let you walk free to avoid violating your Sixth Amendment rights.  

“The more I dug into it, the more interested I got,” Kalt told Vice. “People have this fascination with uncovering a loophole for the perfect crime. There are a lot of different approaches to it. But in terms of geography, there’s just this one spot.”

Kalt proposed numerous solutions to Congress, but they have yet to act. In Kalt’s words, “All they have to do is redraw the district lines so that the District of Wyoming is Wyoming, the District of Idaho is Idaho, and the District of Montana is Montana. And if they do that, this all goes away.”

In Population Zero, the hero set out to prove the killer had preplanned the murder. If so, he could be tried in the district court where the murder was planned. But in the confession, the killer stated that one of the victims started a fight, and he just snapped. In which case, there’s nothing within the law that let’s the court hold him accountable. All events happened within The Zone of Death. Therefore, he walks.

Crazy, right?

I know what you’re all thinking. What a fantastic plot for a novel! Sorry, folks. C.J. Box beat us to it with his 2007 thriller, Free Fire. I should also mention the author tried to fight Congress to close the loophole but no one wants to acknowledge its existence. The only way it’ll happen is if someone dies within The Zone of Death.

The loophole also inspired a 2016 horror film with the same title as the documentary-style movie, Population Zero. Although, I don’t recall the legalities being mentioned.

Has the Loophole Ever Been Tested?

In 2005, a hunter illegally shot an elk. When he fired he was standing in the Montana section of the park. Authorities indicted him in Wyoming. He successfully argued he had a right to be tried by jurors from Montana, and while people do live in that section, there are too few residents to call a legitimate jury. The court dismissed the argument out of hand, simply because it would imply that Yellowstone National Park contained a Zone of Death. 

I’ll leave you with this: the Buffalo Campground, a popular tourist destination with a gorgeous lake and some of the best fishing for miles, is located within The Zone of Death. If you feel lucky, why not add it to your summer vacation plans. Any takers? 🙂 

Have you seen Population Zero or read Free Fire? What do you think of this legal loophole? Let’s discuss.

 

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