Cops at Your Door & a Mystery Unfolds – First Page Critique: Healing Wounds

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

For your reading enjoyment, we have the first 400-word submission from a work-in-progress introduction from an anonymous author. When I got this submission, the first few lines were broken apart, so I had to reunite them. I don’t know if this weighty first paragraph was the author’s intention, so forgive me if it doesn’t look right. I’ll have my feedback on the flip side. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

***

She had the dream again last night. It lingered as awareness of morning pulled her up and her thoughts coalesced into memory. Audrey Grey saw Jacob’s imprint on the pillow beside her. The light through the curtains told her it was time to get up, too. She stood under the water, transitioning to the day ahead. Thoughts of her dream receded as the day took hold. She dressed and finished a buttered bagel. He should be back anytime. The knocking surprised her. Not tentative and apologetic like you might expect so early in the morning. It sounded . . . commanding. She tiptoed to the window and eased apart a slit between the blinds. A man in a gray and black uniform waited. She let the slats fall shut and took inventory of her appearance. Wet hair, worn skinny jeans, baggy knit top. He knocked again.

You don’t just ignore the police at your door. It’s dishonest and she couldn’t lie to a cop about not being home. Her clumsy fingers fumbled with the lock and slid the chain off. The door always stuck a little, but with an extra tug it gave way. She leaned into the door frame, face to face with the visitor. She could see the gold shield, the belt fully rigged with gear and the black gun at his side.

“Good morning, Ma’am. My name is Officer Mike Welden, Wake County Sheriff’s Department.” He consulted a black notebook flipped open in his hand. His questioning eyes moved from the page to her wary ones.

“There’s been an accident and the identification on the injured party gave this address. Do you know Jacob R.

Grey?” She caught her breath. “Yes, he’s my husband.”

“May I come in?”

She stepped back allowing him to enter. His trained eyes scanned beyond the entry and he spoke her line.

“Would you like to sit down?” Obediently, she took a seat on the edge of the sofa, swiping at shower damp tendrils of hair falling onto her face. “You saw my husband? Is he okay?”

“I found him, yes, ma’am. It appears he was hit while on his bicycle this morning. He’s been taken to Duke Hospital.”

No. He would be here soon. They had to buy a grill for the cookout. “I’m sorry, what do you mean, ‘appears’?”

“We have no witnesses, so it’s not clear exactly what happened.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – This intro is a classic opener with police knocking on the door of a wife to share bad news about the husband or a family member. Here at TKZ, we preach to start with a disturbance and cops at your door would qualify, but I would’ve liked to see the dialogue with more tension and intrigue. With this being a bicycle accident, the lines are bland. If you isolate only the dialogue and take everything else away, nothing much happens.

Would it have been better to open with the bicycle accident?

We also have an opener with someone in their own head and thinking about a dream, but with the dream not explained any more than a vague 2-line notion, it’s not interesting either. I’ve opened with internal thoughts of a character, but the writing has to intrigue and create elements of mystery to keep the reader (or an editor and agent) turning pages.

It’s my opinion that the author might try to find a better place or a better way to start. Let’s drill down into the details.

OPENING LINE: ‘had the dream again last night.’
The dream is only brought up twice in this weighty opening paragraph. With the first line and this one in the middle of the first paragraph – ‘Thoughts of her dream receded as the day took hold.’ There is so little known about the dream, it’s almost not worth bringing up. It’s a cheap tease that doesn’t work for me.

To intrigue a reader, there needs to be elements of mystery that would force them to want to know more about the dream. In these two lines, even the author dismisses the importance by saying ‘her dream receded as the day took hold.’ If this dream is significant, more of it needs to be layered in and it must reflect or foreshadow what is about to happen–or create the start of a mystery to be solved–otherwise it’s not worth the focus.

If this is a dream where Audrey symbolically loses her husband Grey or can’t find him, that might provide an answer as if she is telepathic or deeply connected to him. If the dream is of something else that will carry through the story, like a distinct thread that evolves, then more needs to be hinted from the start.

Maybe the dream is something buried in Audrey’s subconscious that has put Grey in danger. The author must show patience at dangling this kind of story element into the story, but there needs to be more in order for it to gain traction.

To play with this opener, the author could have the cops get Audrey out of bed from a dead sleep. I liked the imagery of her waking to see Jacob’s imprint on his pillow. She could be more traumatized and her mind muddled if they wake her from an exhausting night of bad dreams, only to wake into her own nightmare.

But I’m more of a fan of action in the opening. Hard to say what I might’ve done in these 400 words, but the bicycle accident would appeal to me more. The reader could be drawn into Grey’s world of normalcy as he rides his bicycle, only to be suddenly struck down by a mystery assailant who races from the scene. BOOM! Opener. Then build on the foreboding dream of Audrey’s that comes to fruition with a knock on her door with police standing there. Solid start.

DISTRACTING LINE – ‘You don’t just ignore the police at your door. It’s dishonest and she couldn’t lie to a cop about not being home.’

This line should be deleted. It’s a strange thought for her to even think about not opening the door to police. A lie about not being home is odd. Most people would be intrigued as hell about why cops were at the door. Why isn’t she? It makes her sound flaky and doesn’t read as solid motivation. In the following line, there’s a focus on action where ‘her clumsy fingers fumbled with the lock.’ That shows her mental state, as if she’s nervous (and rightly so) which is contrary to her strange thought about not opening her door as a dishonest gesture.

VISUAL IMAGERY – In the second paragraph, Audrey comes face to face with the policeman. This struck me as odd, given the next imagery of her staring at his duty belt and gun. I would imagine a cop would be taller than Audrey, unless she’s tall. If she’s shorter, her eyesight might see his duty belt better. I can see her distraction with it. Many people aren’t familiar with guns and she might be intimidated by it, but the police are there for a reason and she doesn’t seem curious enough about why they are there. If this image is important, then clean it up and make the cop more intimidating, if that’s the intention, but in the whole intro, Audrey doesn’t act like a normal wife getting bad news about her husband. I’ll explain below in the section on CHARACTER MOTIVATION.

HOUSEKEEPING – There’s plenty to clean up, line by line. I’m sure other TKZers will help with that, but something that stood out was the cop’s mention of Jacob R, about halfway down. Who is Jacob R? Didn’t the police have his last name? Why would the cop only call him by his first name and an initial? When Audrey says, “Grey?” I had to reread to get the leap she made. (Maybe she jumps in to add it and interrupts him, but there’s punctuation of em dash that would help make that clearer. The author should explain why the police only referred to Jacob R or use his full name. Presumably they would have it since Jacob is at the hospital and survived the accident. He would have ID on him.

In the sentence that starts with ‘His trained eyes scanned beyond the entry and he spoke her line.’ If this is in Audrey’s POV, the author leaps into the head of the cop when referring to ‘his trained eye.’ The author should delete the word ‘trained.’ I also had to reread the last part of that line – ‘he spoke her line.’ This is out of order from real action. How would Audrey know he was about to speak her line -‘Would you like to sit down?’ In that one short paragraph, two characters are speaking and it’s confusing. Separate the lines with space to make things more clear and I would write the cop’s line more distinctly to show he’s speaking.

“It’s best we sit down. After you.” The big man took charge and Audrey lead him into the parlor.

“You saw my husband. Is he okay?”

CHARACTER MOTIVATION – Officer Welden tells her that he found her husband, saying ‘it appears he was hit…’ Instead of Audrey focusing on what a real wife might want to know – “If he’s okay, why isn’t he home?” “Was he injured? Where is he?”

Instead, Audrey focuses on the word ‘appears’ and acts like a sleuth, at the expense of the well being of her poor husband. If she comes across as jarred by the news, physically and mentally, she would be more sympathetic and the tension and emotion would be escalated. But with this cold reaction, it only adds to the bland nature of this opener. The reader will care more if they can relate to the character and Audrey’s understandable emotion.

After Audrey asks if her husband is okay, Officer Welden only says, ‘I found him, yes, ma’am’ before he jumps to more of what happened. This is a police notification to a family. They would be more concerned with sharing news about the husband’s condition and where he’s been taken. Audrey can push for details on the case and who caused the accident once she knows her husband is okay and sees for herself, but there is no sense of urgency on Audrey’s part and the cop should explain more about Jacob’s condition.

“Your husband sustained a broken arm and a few cracked ribs. Doctors at Duke Hospital are examining him now.”

Audrey mentions an internal thought of ‘No, He would be here soon. They had to buy a grill for the cookout,’ (a line that I would italicize to show an internal thought for the reader). The emotion or her confusion isn’t in sync with her cold reaction and focus on the word ‘appears.’ Put more emotion into this section and have her react like a more normal wife and the reader will care more too.

DISCUSSION:
1.) What is your feedback, TKZers?

It takes guts to submit your work for critique. Any comments are solely for the purposes of providing help to a fellow author. We’ve all been here. Thanks for your submission, brave author. The beginning of every story is my greatest challenge, always. Tweak this and perhaps re-imagine a different beginning for Audrey and Jacob and you’ll have a solid start.

3+

My Cure for Writer’s Block

By John Gilstrap

Perhaps the title of this post is a bit misleading.  Truth be told, I don’t believe in writer’s block.  There are days when the creativity feels like it won’t flow at all, and there are certainly days when I would prefer to do something other than tying my backside to the chair and hammering out words, but that’s what everybody feels about any job on some days.

“Writer’s block” is, I believe, too often an excuse to be wielded on those days when a writer would prefer to play hookie.  There’s nothing wrong with playing hookie, but whilst playing, it’s disingenuous to complain about not getting stuff done on your manuscript.  There truly is no substitute to a writer writing, even when the words don’t flow easily.

I think of creativity as a flow, and the writer as the pump.  When the pipes are filled and the pressure is even, creativity pours out of us, sometimes in such volume that we can’t handle it all.  Then stuff happens in our lives or in our surroundings that causes intellectual cavitation, and our pump loses prime.  All that flow reduces to a pool, and it’s hard work to get it going again.

Everybody has a proprietary secret sauce to re-prime their own pipes, but one that always works for me is to return to the basics: pen and paper.  I posted a video on the topic on my YouTube channel.  I don’t know why it works, but somehow, the tactile connection between my brain and the page, flowing through an old-fashioned fountain pen, never fails to set me straight.  For every book I write, I’d guess 20% of the prose starts as being written longhand.  Once the story is flowing again, I type up the handwritten pages and I’m off and running.

What about you?  Any tricks you want to share for getting past the story parts that don’t seem to want to work?

7+

Reading For Survival

The man who won’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them. — Mark Twain

By PJ Parrish

Saw a depressing video on Facebook the other day. People on the street were being polled about what was the last book they read.

The guy then asks folks to name an author. Any author. Crickets. Sigh.

I know we here at TKZ are preaching to the choir. But I also think maybe we need to be more worried about this.  I’m not going to talk politics here, rest assured, but I am going to say that our ability to absorb information seems to be questionable, at best, these days. And we need to be smart right now. About a lot of things.

We need to read.

The latest Pew poll I could find on this subject says that  28% of adults ages 50 and older have not read a book in the past year, compared with 20% of adults under 50. . And as a country, we’re at the bottom of the reading pack.

This subject slid to the front of my brain only because I was cleaning out my file drawer in my office. I found a slender little booklet that I had thought I had lost years ago. It’s a copy of an essay that John D. MacDonald wrote for the American Library Association and the National Endowment for the Arts.

It’s called Reading For Survival.

Now, if you think it’s some dust-dry diatribe, some shrill screed about how we’re raising a generation of morons, well, then you must not have read John D before. It reads like, well, one of his novels. (By the way, I didn’t know James and I would be writing about JDM in the same week. Click here to go back and read his post on what JDM taught him.)

A little background:  Years ago, a friend of mine, Jean Trebbi, had a local TV show in South Florida called Library Edition. Jean was a force in the literary community. She was the head of the Broward County Center for the Book, a tireless supporter of all authors and most any book. In 1985, she interviewed MacDonald on her program, and when the camera stopped rolling, he kept going, but wanting to talk about non-readers instead of his own books.

Jean suggested he should write something on the subject for NEA and the Library Association. MacDonald didn’t want to do it, fearing he would be just preaching to the converted, but he finally agreed — with the caveat that he could use “colorful enough language to it will be quoted, sooner or later, to a great many non-readers.”

Things didn’t go well. “I could not make the essay work and I could not imagine why,” he recalls in the booklet’s forward. “I must have done two hundred pages of junk.”

Does hearing that make you feel any better about your own writing problems?

Jean Trebbi, finally wrote him asking what he hold-up was and MacDonald told her he had written a hot mess. Jean suggested using the device of a conversation between Travis McGee and and his friend Meyer. And that is what he did.

MacDonald called it “a small, mangy, bad-tempered mouse of 7200 words.”  But as I re-read it the other day, I realized its message is as vital today than it must have been thirty-one years ago. MacDonald said the theme of his essay was “the terrible isolation of the non-reader, his life without meaning because he cannot comprehend the world in which he lives.”

If that doesn’t set off in a bell in your head, you haven’t been paying attention to what’s going on in our country these days.

The essay opens like a vintage MacDonald novel.  Thunderclouds are gathering over the slips at Bahia Mar and McGee and Meyer are sitting on the deck of the Busted Flush. And next time someone tells you never open with weather, read them this:

The big thunder-engine of early summer was moving into sync along Florida’s east coast, sloshing millions of tons of water onto the baked land and running off too quickly as it always does.

An impressive line of anvil clouds marched ashore on that Friday afternoon in June, electrocuting golfers, setting off burglar alarms, knocking out phone and power lines, scaring the whey out of the newcomers.

The power goes out and Meyer puts down his book, and McGee says that it’s too dark to read anyway. (weather as metaphor!)

“I wasn’t reading, Travis,” Meyer said. “I was thinking about something. A passage in the book started me thinking about something.”

Over the next twenty-two pages, Meyer — whose mind is like a maze — spools out his argument — that man’s brain evolved the way it did, creating a genetic storehouse of memories, out of the pure need to understand his environment and thus survive.

Meyer concocts a prehistoric man named Mog and his modern counterpart Smith. Mog happens upon some fruit but he’s wary of eating it. Using all his memory skills, he decides to not chance it, that it’s a trap. His modern counterpart, Smith, gets a job offer at twice his salary. But using his memory skills, he deduces the employer is in a high risk banking arena with bad management turnover rates. So he says no.

“Back in prehistory,” McGee offers, “man learned and remembered everything he had to know about survival in his world. Then he invented so many tricks and tools, he had to invent writing. More stuff got written down than any man could possibly remember. Or use. Books are artificial memory. And it’s there when you want it. But for just surviving, you don’t need the books. Not any more.”

Books are artificial memory. Don’t you love that? But then Meyer lays it on him:

“So why are we doing such a poor job of surviving as a species, Travis?”

MacDonald goes on to say that the world of prehistoric man was small, limited to what the man could see, hear, taste, eat, kill, carry and use. But to modern man, who can read and remember, the world is huge and monstrously complicated.

“The man who can read and ponder big realities is a man keyed to survival of the species. He doesn’t have to read everything. That’s an asinine concept. He should have access to everything, but have enough education to differentiate between slanted tracts and balanced studies, between hysterical preachings and carefully researched data.”

Makes you wonder what MacDonald would have thought of today’s fake news debate, Facebook’s propaganda problems and the isolated little echo chambers we’ve crawled into. MacDonald and McGee go on:

“To be aware of the world you live in you must be aware of the constant change wrought by science, and the price we pay for every advance. These are our realities, and, like our ancestors of fifty thousand years ago, if we — as a species rather than an individual — are uniformed, or careless, or indifferent to the facts, then survival as a species is in serious doubt.”

So what’s the answer? Meyer thinks he knows:

How do we relate to reality? How do we begin to comprehend it? By using that same marvelous brain our ancestor used. By the exercise of memory. How do we take stock of these memories? By reading, Travis. Reading! Complex ideas and complex relationships are not transmitted by body language, by brainstorming sessions, by the boob tube or the boom box. You cannot turn back the pages of a television show and review part you did not quite understand. You cannot carry conversations around in your coat pocket.

Ha! What would MacDonald have to say about Tivo and iPhones?

Meyer is worried, he tells Travis, that non-readers are disenfranchised, cut off from any knowledge of history, literature and science. And worse, they become negative role models for their children, who will in turn, “become a new generation of illiterates, of victims.”

“The non-reader, Travis, wants to believe. He is the one born every minute. The world is so vastly confusing and baffling to him that he feels there has to be some simple answer to everything that troubles him. And so, out of pure emptiness, he will embrace spiritualism, a banana diet, or some callous frippery like Dianetics.”

Or worse. Name your modern opiate.

MacDonald died Dec. 28, 1986, a few months after finishing the essay. I really wonder what he might think of where we are today, of what he might think watching those blank-eye folks on the beach, trying to think of one author’s name.  What would he make of the fact we are barraged with information twenty-four hours a day, yet we seem to be growing not smarter but more lost and disconnected?

The essay ends with Meyer saying that he has no cure to offer, but that just identifying the disease is a good first step. But then he adds:

“Bleak, my boy. Bleak indeed. And so let us trudge back toward home, and stop at the bar at the Seaview for something tall and cold, with rum in it.”

“Beautifully said,” I told him.

On the way back, I told him that he had made me feel guilty about my frivolous reading fare of late, and what might I read that would patch up my comprehension and my conscience at the same time.

Meyer thought about it until we had our drinks. He took a sip, sighed, and said, “I’ll lend you my copy of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.”

I am halfway through it. And the world has a different look, a slightly altered reality. That fourteenth century was the pits!

I ordered the Tuchman book from Amazon. (My local bookstore can’t get it, I tried). Now I am going to go mix a stiff gin and tonic, crack it open and try to get some badly needed sense of perspective.

Happy reading, folks.  By the way, I am on the road today, probably somewhere near the Michigan-Indiana border as you read this. So if I can’t reply quickly, please chat among yourselves.  Will check in when I get home to Traverse City, MI.

 

7+

Recognizing Writing Tics – First Page Critique

By Sue Coletta

We have another brave writer who submitted their first page for critique. I took the liberty of breaking up the paragraphs for easier reading. Anon, white space is our friend. My comments will follow. Enjoy!

Untitled

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman. Deafening and chilling screams, echoed through the steel door.  Andromeda found herself in a small room, with cold metal walls, a plain steel table, metal bed with a thin mattress and blanket, and an uncomfortable looking metal chair. She was a tall, beautiful young woman, whose long black hair fell down to her shoulders, and slightly covered her almond shaped face.

An eerie chill pierced the air in the room, and Andromeda wasn’t sure if the goosebumps that followed were because of the woman screaming, or the total lack of insulation in the room – likely a combination of both.

Andromeda looked around the room, her heart pounding through her chest. Her attempts to remember how she got here was futile; the only thing she remembered was cleaning up after her best friend and roommate Sofia, who was recuperating from the flu.

After disposing of soiled tissue paper and disinfecting their dorm room, Andromeda turned on some classical music and tucked herself in bed. After that, there was a black spot in her memory. She sat up in the bed that she woke up in, and began to stretch and look around the room.

Dressed in a white t-shirt, gray fleece shorts, and white socks, she began to walk around the stark and unoccupied room, looking for anything that may give her a clue as to where she was. She wrapped her arms around her body, bracing herself for the shudder and chills that followed.

The room had the look and feel of a military interrogation chamber: there were no windows, no traces that anyone even knew she was there. But someone knew she was here, the same someone who put her in this place. Suddenly, Andromeda was reminded of the screams as they began again, growing increasingly louder, followed by a loud “BOOM!” Andromeda ran to the door, preparing her mind to bang on the door with all of her might, to hell with alerting whomever put her in this room; the only thing on her mind was escaping. However, before she could even touch the door, it receded into the floor.  Andromeda fell face first onto the cold, hard, metal floor of the hallway. The palms of her hands were burning, and so were her legs.

***

After reading this piece several times, I still can’t figure out if it’s a dream sequence or if it’s the opener for a fantasy novel. The last line indicates the events happened in the real world—how else would her hands and legs be burning?— so my guess is we’re in a fantasy world. If this is a dream, however, we need to be careful not to trick the reader. Opening with a dream is risky. Does that mean we can never do it? No. But we do need to learn the rules of storytelling before we break them.

Let’s set aside the last two sentences for a moment.

Our hero is actively searching for a means of escape while at the same time, wrestling with how she landed in an unfamiliar room. Anon didn’t give away too much too soon, either. Which is great. An opening page should raise story questions and pique the reader’s interest. Our goal is to make it impossible not to flip the page. Anon, I really hope this isn’t a dream, or it’ll undo all the conflict and tension you’ve worked so hard to create.

Writing Tics

Believe me, we all have our fair share of words we favor, extra words (overwriting), and unnecessary words that get in the way. The trick is learning how our writing tics weaken our writing.

This first page is littered with began. It may seem nitpicky to mention it, but it popped right out at me. Our goal is for individual word choices to deliver the right balance of cadence, emotion, transparency, and rhythm, so the reader enjoys the story with no hiccups. Words like began and started detract from the action.  Allow me to show you what I mean.

First line of the excerpt …

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman.

If we only remove “began to be” …

The smell of burning wood and flesh drowned out the sound of screams … the screams of a woman.

See how more immediate that reads? Next, let’s shuffle a few words around so the reader can share in the experience.

Screams drowned out the smell of burning wood and flesh … the screams of a woman. 

Better, but it still needs a few tweaks. By being specific and intentional we paint a more vivid picture …

High-pitched screams collided with the stench of burning flesh … screams of a woman.

Next line: remember to introduce the hero right away so the reader knows who’s telling the story. While we’re at it, let’s deepen the point of view by removing all telling words i.e. smell, sound, remember, knew, thought, felt, etc.

Inside the cramped room with metal-lined walls, Andromeda [last name] jolted upright in an unfamiliar bed, the bare mattress yellowed, torn.

Adding Inner dialogue allows the reader to empathize with our hero. Let’s add that here …

Where was she?

We still need sensory details and conflict …

Rotted meat blended with the warmth of a campfire. Plumes of smoke billowed through the barred-window in the steel door—her only source of air. And light. No windows, no other doors, no means for escape. A steel hydraulic table sat in the corner, a trickle of blood snaked down one leg, the remaining surface polished to a glossy shine.

Hero’s reaction …

Andromeda’s heart thrashed, rattling her ribcage. Was her captor incinerating live victims?

Put it all together …

High-pitched screams collided with the stench of burning flesh … the screams of a woman. Inside the cramped room with metal-lined walls, Andromeda [last name] jolted upright in an unfamiliar bed, the bare mattress yellowed, torn.

Where was she? 

Rotted meat blended with the warmth of a campfire. Smoke billowed through the barred-window in the steel door—her only source of air. And light. No windows, no other doors, no means for escape. A steel hydraulic table sat in the corner, a trickle of blood snaked down one leg, the remaining surface polished to a glossy shine. 

Andromeda’s heart thrashed, rattling her ribcage. Was her captor incinerating live victims?

See how these tweaks pull the reader deeper into the story?

Because it feels like this brave writer is early on in their journey, I added a few quick tips rather than bleed red ink all over the excerpt. I’d hate to be responsible for shattering the magic that keeps us thirsting for knowledge, keeps us creating. The beginning of our journey is an important time in every writer’s career. The muse is running wild and possibilities are endless.

Quick tips

  • Watch your adverbs; words like suddenly don’t add tension;
  • Be specific; rather than “some classical music,” name the composer;
  • All caps are reserved for acronyms, not for words like “Boom”;
  • Use active voice, not passive; this post may help;
  • Followed by, for the most part, is similar to began and started in that we need to reword to make the action more immediate;
  • Anytime you write “herself” you lessen the point of view i.e. tucked herself in bed. Instead, try something like: she slipped under the covers. Or, she swung her legs under the blanket.

I hope these tips help with your next draft, Anon. If this first page isn’t a dream, you have the makings of an intriguing story. Wishing you the best of luck!

Over to you, TKZ family. What tips would you give this brave writer?

 

 

3+

Of Fathers and Dragons

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Only twice in my life did I see my dad cry.

The first time was fifty years ago as we watched the funeral train of Robert Kennedy on TV. I was just becoming politically aware then, and Bobby Kennedy was the first politician I ever responded to. I was too young to vote, but was caught up in the aura and optimism of this man running for president.

When he was cut down at the Ambassador Hotel it was such a seismic shock, especially in view of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination just weeks before.

My dad, who grew up in the Depression and fought in WWII, was a Roosevelt Democrat. We were thus a Kennedy family when JFK was elected. I was just a kid, but (like most people alive then) I remember where I was when I heard that JFK had been shot. I was on the playground at Serrania Avenue Elementary school, sitting on bench awaiting my turn at kickball,. A boy ran up and started spouting the news. I didn’t believe him.

So I ran back to our classroom and looked in the window and saw my teacher, Mrs. Raymond, at her desk, her head in her hands, shoulders shaking. And I thought, “Wow. It’s true.”

Cut to June, 1968. I was sitting on the floor in our living room, my dad was in his favorite chair, and Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train was on TV. All of a sudden Dad burst into tears. Not little ones. Heaving sobs. My mom heard him from the kitchen and ran in and threw her arms around him and held him. I sat there in stunned silence, looking at my big, strong rock of a father as I’d never seen him before.

Life started to get a little more complex for me then. And life, as we all know, does not let up. The next year, 1969, was the year of the Manson murders. The evil of that was hard to comprehend, especially living in L.A. where it all went down. Manson and his “family” holed up in a canyon just ten miles from where I lived and where I rode my bike and stayed outside all day during the summers.

Now Manson’s face was in the papers and on the local news. This crazy-eyed monster had manipulated several people into committing such heinous acts. When the trial began we saw the defendants, stuporous and smiling about the whole thing. Female “family members” who kept vigil outside the courtroom carved Xs into their foreheads and warned whoever walked by, “You better watch your children because Judgment Day is coming.”

How the hell (literally) could this happen? If you want to know, read Helter Skelter, Vince Bugliosi’s riveting account of the Manson murders and trial (Bugliosi was the prosecutor). But beware—you may have a nightmare or two, as I did.

The second time I saw my dad with a tear in his eye was when he was giving a speech to a ballroom full of criminal lawyers. Dad was by this time the leading expert on California search and seizure law, and he was describing an infamous event where the LAPD used a battering ram to crush a house in a black neighborhood. He saw the pictures, which included a scared little boy on the street watching all this as he held his ice cream cone. The words caught in Dad’s throat. He was silent for a moment, took a breath, and moved on.

I was a law student at the time and had inherited my dad’s view of the majesty of the law. But that moment, short as it was, showed me how deeply he felt about his calling.

And about the incalculable value he placed on our 4th Amendment. I can still hear Dad’s voice when someone would question him about this basic right. Dad would go into oratorical mode and recite, word for word, William Pitt’s famous utterance to the House of Commons in 1763: “The poorest man may, in his cottage, bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown! It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter; the rain may enter. But the King of England cannot enter. All his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!”

Dad also helped set up a federal indigent defense panel in Los Angeles, giving the poor legal representation before Gideon v. Wainwright made it mandatory. I was proud to be his son. Still am.

That’s why justice is the theme I’m always writing about, consciously or not. Because in our books we have the chance to bring about what is often absent in “real life.” That’s one reason people read thrillers, isn’t it? We long for justice, hope for it, and within the pages of a good book we can find it.

I’m not into nihilism. I’m not into the ending of Chinatown. I’m into good prevailing over evil. I’m into fighting the good fight even—no, especially—in a world that can produce a Manson and assassins of good people.

The other day my son told me the story most requested by his own son, not yet four years old, is “St. George and the Dragon.” It put me in mind of that great quote from G. K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

Put me down as a fan of the dragon slayers.

I dedicate this post to the memory of them—my father, Arthur Scott Bell, Jr.

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…for the repose of the soul…

Photo courtesy Eberhard Grossgasteiger through unsplash.com

Fair warning: this is going to be a very dark and sad post. You might want to go elsewhere, to a place where quiet is disturbed only by laughter and where there is no fear or bad endings instead of reading what follows.

I am blessed with living on a very nice street in a very nice neighborhood. What little crime occurs here tends to be transitory. Maybe the police will stop an intoxicated driver or there will be a bit of vandalism or a fight at one of the schools. It’s generally boring, and that’s how we like it.

I received a telephone call from D, my good friend and former brother-in-law, on Monday, June 4 at about 7:35PM. D lives one street over from me. He has worked in law enforcement and has a friend on our local police force. D seemed hesitant at first when I answered. “Um, Joe,” he said, “You didn’t, uh, just kill (your wife) did you?” I assured him that I had not. He told me that his policeman friend had called him a few moments before and told him that there had been a murder on my street involving a married couple. I went outside to find the house across and five up from mine surrounded by police cars. The short version of what was gradually revealed is that the husband (J) and wife (D) who lived there had been having marital problems and had separated in anticipation of a divorce, with the husband living elsewhere but occasionally visiting his wife. According to witnesses, J on the day in question had been at the house but was seen exiting with blood on his hands and confessed to his brother via telephone and to a neighbor in person to killing D. J then got in his car and left. The neighbor went over to the house and looked in the front window, saw D’s body, and called 911. J was quickly apprehended and arrested. He is currently in custody as the justice system moves forward.

J and D were what I would call “waving” neighbors. I had two conversations with J in twenty years, both occasioned by our shared backgrounds — we both misspent our formative years in the Cleveland area — but were not what anyone would call close. I saw and talked with D more, but not much more, and our conversations were short and hardly substantive. I do remember feeling bad for her a few years ago when J set up what was supposed to be a celebratory birthday display for D on their front yard.  I am not lacking a sense of humor, and such has often been characterized, not inaccurately, by people who know me as extremely inappropriate. I felt so bad for D about what was in their yard, however, that I had to restrain myself from tearing it down. I can’t imagine that D’s birthday was happy that year. I am further unable, as more official information trickles out concerning what allegedly occurred last week, to remotely imagine what D’s last minutes were like.

The damage that was inflicted upon D during her last minutes on earth — as indicated by the charges against J, which I won’t get into here — and which resulted in her death radiates far beyond the house where she and J lived and raised a family. They have three adult children, two of whom are engaged to be married, with all living out of state. Losing both parents at once in very different ways will undoubtedly leave a mark. Worse, to my mind, is that D’s mother is still with us. Parents usually go ahead of their children and the passing while tragic is the normal order of things. The death of a child at any age before a parent is not something, I would think, from which one could ever recover. I can’t imagine what she is going through or will face.

A number of automobiles have driven down the street at regular intervals since D’s murder, negotiating the cul-de-sac where my house rests before making their way back up toward what they no doubt regard as the murder house. Neighbors have been taking care of the yard, but I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to live there again. How dreadful is that place. I struggle daily — hourly — with my faith, but when I drive by that house the words of a prayer that I haven’t said in decades rise up unbidden inside me. I hope that they do some good, somewhere, somehow:

 

…may her soul and all the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.

 

 

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Cozy Book Promotion: A Soft Sell in a Hard Business


By Elaine Viets

TKZ regular Eric asked us to define “a true cozy,” as opposed to what he called a “cutesie,” and how to market true cozies. Eric’s definition of a “cutesie” was “novels that start with a silly pun in the title, usually having to do with food or animals or Amish, that have a cartoonish cover, and that go downhill from there into worse silliness.”
Eric’s novel is “somewhat like James Scott Bell’s Glimpses of Paradise, with more crime and mystery and more realistic language.”
Since I’m a former cozy writer who now writes forensic mysteries, Jim asked me to address your question.
Last time, I defined a cozy as “a mystery with no graphic sex, cuss words or violence. Generally, the murder takes place offstage. Dame Agatha is the queen of cozies, but Miss Marple is no pushover. ‘I am Nemesis,’ the fluffy old lady announces, and relentlessly pursues killers.
“Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries are not cozies, though they have many of the same elements. Sherlock has a hard edge to him, and some of his stories, like ‘The Man With the Twisted Lip,’ border on noir. Doyle, like Grafton and Sayers, writes traditional mysteries, but they aren’t considered cozies. You’ve lumped a lot of traditional novels together under the cozy umbrella. Traditional mysteries play fair – they give readers all the clues, though they may be cleverly disguised. You may be writing a traditional mystery.
“The ‘cutesies’ that you object to are simply one branch of the cozy sub-genre.”
Now, on to the promo part. These tips are for traditionally published authors. Self-published promo is a different world.

(1) Know the men writing cozies. Read their work. Here are a few: Jeff Cohen, aka EJ Copperman, who writes several series, including the Asperger’s Mysteries and the Haunted Guesthouse series. http://www.ejcopperman.com/
There’s also Dean James, aka Miranda James and his Cat in the Stacks series, http://catinthestacks.com/
And James Ziskin, https://jameswziskin.com/ whose Ellie Stone series has been nominated for the Edgar, and Lefty Awards and won the Anthony and the Macvacity Awards.
(2) Know the women writing cozies. Put aside your prejudices and read some really good cozies. I’ve mentioned Charlaine (Sookie Stackhouse) Harris’s Aurora Teagarden series. Marcia Talley’s Hannah Ives series, and Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series. Keep on reading and you’ll find lots of cozies that have real social commentary.
(3) Meet your readers. Bouchercon, Thrillerfest, Left Coast Crime are some of the good mystery conferences, but if you really want to meet cozy readers, I recommend the Malice Domestic Mystery Conference in Bethesda, Md. (malicedomestic.org). Malice is devoted to the traditional mystery, but it has the highest concentration of cozy readers. Only a few men attend – lucky you. Also, think about a giveaway of your books for the Malice book bags. If your publisher won’t do it, buy a case of your books for the bags.
(4) Facebook. There are dozens of cozy sites. Get to know them. A few include Save Our Cozies, Cozy Mystery Giveaways, the Cozy Mystery Once a Month Book Club, Cozy-Mysteries.com. “Friend” the cozy writers you admire.


(5) Bloggers you should know. Dru Ann Love and Dru’s Book Musings. Dru calls herself a “book advocate” and she is definitely a friend to writers. Dru Ann won the Raven Award for her work. Another book lover you should know is BOLO Books reviewer Kristopher Zgorski, who’s also won a Raven.


(6) Join writers groups. Stay in touch with your peers. Join the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and don’t forget Sisters in Crime. They accept Misters. Each one of these groups can help you.


(7) Bookstores. Mysteries, especially cozies, are sold by word of mouth. Get to know your local bookstore. Stop by and say hello. Buy something, even if it’s only a card or a bookmark. And ask the owner or manager if they’d like to read a copy of your book. They may ask you to do a signing. Booksellers have done amazing acts of kindness for me through the years. When I was first starting out – and returns could have hurt my career – one bookseller kept a case of my books in her office for a year until she sold them all.
(8) Avoid cutesy giveaways. Pens, tea bags, emery boards, even lipstick, are often given as gifts by cozy writers to promote their books. Unless your publisher is paying for this paraphernalia, don’t bother. I used to work at a bookstore, and we had a box in the break room with all the cozy goodies. If we needed a nail file or a pen, we’d root around in the box. To my knowledge these gifts never sold a single book.
(9) Do get bookmarks. Those are worth your money. They sell books. Most bookstores like to keep them by the cash register, and so do many libraries – and libraries are big book buyers. They buy more hardcovers than the big box stores.
Can’t afford bookmarks? Get business cards with your book cover on the front and your information on the back – including the ISBN and a Website where your book can be bought.

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Like forensic mysteries? Win my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator novella. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com.

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First Page Critique: No Such Thing as Enough

Go Daddy Stock photo

Greetings and Salutations, happy readers!

It’s my pleasure to bring you a new First Page Critique. The chapter is the first from a novel called, No Such Thing as Enough.

Jamie Frampton took seventy-five feet to die. The first bullet entered his chest and blew out his back, leaving blood spatter on the brick wall of the alley. A crooked blood trail marked the cement where he staggered between the Chinese take-out place and the hardware store. Finally, he left a pool of blood where he collapsed on the North Main Street sidewalk after turning right and taking his last steps, trying to get home, the shooter putting another bullet in his head. The skinny seventeen-year-old had put up a good fight, but he lost.

Jamie’s mother, Alice, rousted me out of bed with a phone call at about 3:00 AM. “Pastor Rathbone, my boy is dead.” Her voice came through flat, expressionless. “Please come down to North Main Street. Maybe you could tell me where God was when my boy was dying? Or maybe you could tell me why God didn’t care that my boy was murdered in the street?” She cried as she hung up, leaving me sitting in my underwear, staring at the receiver.

I tried to place her face, but nothing registered. She had to be a member of the congregation, but I couldn’t remember ever seeing her. In a church the size of the Dayton Crossing Christian Tabernacle, that was easy. How had my predecessor, Pastor Richmond, been able to keep track of so many people?

I wondered what Alice expected me to do or say. Where was God when we needed him? I had no idea. I had struggled with that question most of my life, and still I had no answers. Nevertheless, it was my job to bring comfort—not that anything I could say would really comfort her—so I threw on some clothes and headed out to downtown Dayton Crossing.

***************

While I do enjoy working with writers who have that new baby writer smell (Mmmmmm, those potent combinations: Fearlessness/fearfulness. Inventiveness. Enthusiasm/despair. Overconfidence/zero confidence.), it’s always a pleasure to work with a writer who has read a lot of fiction and can construct not just a pleasing sentence, but a well-thought-out paragraph. Hear, hear, brave author! You’re off the ground, but let’s work on your aim.

I was going to start off with a most obvious comment about presenting a logical sequence of events, which is something a lot of us struggle with. What comes first, second, third, etc.?

But I’m going to short circuit that comment with an observation that came to me on my fourth or fifth reading of this opening: It reads exactly like a novelized screenplay. While I’ve only written one produced screenplay, and a handful of live theater pieces, I have—if there were such a thing—an unofficial  doctorate in crime television viewing.

[Opening]

Setting: dark, urban alley

Seventeen-year-old boy walking downtown at night is ambushed, shot in the chest with a high-caliber bullet by a shadowy assailant who could be either a man or woman. He staggers, badly wounded, through an alley leaving a trail of blood. He’s thinking of home (perhaps he’s just been on his phone, calling Mum to say when he’ll be home), and is desperate to get back there, but we can tell by the music he won’t be saved. He collapses on North Main Street, and the assailant shoots him in the head.

[Main titles]

Scene

Slightly tatty, darkened bedroom

Rathbone, a middle-aged man, ruggedly handsome buy not cocky, fumbles for the ringing phone. A woman speaking in a rather monotone, expressionless voice is on the line. She launches into the tale of her son being murdered, while Rathbone frantically feels around for the Dayton Crossing Christian Tabernacle membership directory. Who is this woman, and what is she saying? He sits up, wearing only his underwear. She hangs up, now weeping, and he’s left still puzzled as to who exactly she is. He stares at the receiver, still wondering if he’s supposed to remember who she is.

Rathbone puts on clothes, obviously pensive. He’s not sure what she expects from him, but he knows it has something to do with comforting her. He leaves the house in a God-existential crisis to meet her.

(I’m guessing that he shows up on the scene and finds himself more drawn to solving the crime than comforting the expressionless Alice? It’s a solid start to a story.)

***************

Most of the opening chapter is in Rathbone’s first person POV. But the very first paragraph—the establishing shot, if you will, is rather omniscient, with a bit of authorial editorializing thrown in for good measure. “The skinny seventeen-year old had put up a good fight, but he lost.” Something/someone with a personality is making this comment.

Who is saying this? I’m intrigued. The description of Jamie’s path is extremely specific. Are the mentioned places important?

First line: “Jamie Frampton took seventy-five feet to die.” I like this sentence. It sets up the paragraph well, and I suppose it connects to the specificity of his path. But in the end I find it awkward. Maybe more detail to improve the rhythm.

“Jamie Frampton took a 147-grain, .9mm bullet to the chest, but it took him two minutes and seventy-five frantic, painful steps to die.” If you’re going for drama, go big!

Consider doing one of two things with this paragraph. You can make it a prologue or the first chapter by itself. Back off on the editorializing unless that voice is going to reappear many more times throughout the book. The other thing you could do is give us—or give Rathbone—this information when he’s hanging around the crime scene. Perhaps the guy is a garrulous detective or M.E. who sees Rathbone as non-threatening because of his profession.

It just doesn’t work where it now is.

Rathbone seems a pretty sensible guy. Very philosophical and a bit troubled. Let him have his way with his story, and don’t be afraid to take chances with him.

It’s a terrific start! Just remember that what works in a screenplay won’t translate directly into a novel.

 

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