Throw Away Your Shoehorn

My adopted mother adored pretty shoes. She used to say if she won the lottery, she’d spend the money on shoes. A great pleasure in her life was dressing up for church on Sunday morning in a beautiful outfit with a fancy hat and matching shoes.

However, her feet were size 10 ½, limiting her choice of stylish footwear, always geared for women who wear size 6AA.

For her birthday, I often took her shopping for new shoes. The salesperson would use a shoehorn to jam, pummel, and squash her poor feet into lovely pumps that were at least two sizes too small.

Her pain made me cringe. I wondered how she could even walk. The ordeal brought to mind Lisa See’s brilliant book, Snowflower and the Secret Fan, about Chinese foot-binding.

By now, you’re wondering what shoes have to do with writing. Glad you asked…

A critique partner is rewriting her first novel. Her subject—a teenager struggling with a compulsive disorder that badly affects her appearance—is fresh and compelling. Her voice is wry and funny. For a relatively new writer, she has a strong grasp of how to write good scenes, from heart-rending to laugh-out-loud hysterical.

But, as good as they are, many of them don’t move the story forward.

No matter how hard we critiquers try to shoehorn these wonderful (but unnecessary) scenes into her plot, they don’t fit.

How do you determine if a scene is needed?

Novelist and writing instructor Dennis Foley identifies four major functions of a scene:

  1. Reveal character;
  2. Move the story forward;
  3. Create or increase tension;
  4. Foreshadow.

To test if a scene is needed, figure out what functions it performs. Today’s fast-paced fiction generally requires scenes that multitask, accomplishing two, three, or all four functions.

Revelations about a character can occur on the fly, while the character is taking action that moves the plot forward.

A scene may foreshadow lurking disaster, which increases tension for the reader at the same time it drives the story closer to that disaster.

Dennis offers another tip to determine if a scene is needed: remove the scene. Does the story still make sense? Can the scene easily be plunked down somewhere else in the story?

If so, it’s not part of the causal linkage that moves the story forward.

Causal linkage means something happens in A that leads to B where something else happens that leads to C, and so on. Each scene builds on the ones that precede it.

This tip is easy when stories are told in chronological order with limited characters.

However, what if you’re writing a Ken Follett-style saga or an epic fantasy with multiple plotlines and a large cast of characters? Such stories may jump around to different locations and time periods. That makes it tougher to determine whether or not a scene is necessary.

Even in “big” books, causal linkage can still be determined. Separate each plotline and string its scenes together. You can do this with color-coded index cards, plotting on a spreadsheet, or using Scrivener. After you’ve put all scenes from one plotline together, read them.

Does each scene link causally with the scene before and after it?  If a scene could fit anywhere, it may not be needed.

“But,” the writer protests, “if I cut those scenes, my book will be too short.” 

That leads to the question: how long should a book be? Lee Masterson at Writing-World.com offers guidelines for various genres but his main point is: a book needs to be as long as it takes to tell the story.

Better to write a concise, effective story than one that’s bloated and boring because of unnecessary verbiage added to reach an arbitrary number of pages.

If the story is “too short” as a novel, consider recasting it as a novella, a short story, or a screenplay. In a screenplay, one page equals approximately one minute of screen time. One-hundred-twenty pages is a two-hour movie.

The problem of excess scenes is not limited to newer writers. I just went through it with my current work in progress. About two-thirds of the way into the first draft, I hit a wall. A critique buddy suggested an abrupt, unexpected turn in the plot that punched a hole right through that pesky wall. Her idea was brilliant!

However, that change meant going back to the beginning and rewriting 200+ pages.

I’d worked diligently to hone certain scenes to the height of emotional resonance. As proud as I was of my darlings, they were now dead ends, irrelevant to the new plot direction.

So I used a trick TKZ authors taught me: cut those parts and stick them in an “outtakes” file.

You’re not killing your beloved children but instead sending them to a time-out.

A funny thing happened. Those scenes waited patiently, out of sight and out of mind. When critiquers and beta readers went through the revised draft, they didn’t notice their absence.

Those deleted scenes almost never get put back into the story. As wonderful as I thought they were at the time, those size 10 ½ scenes just plain didn’t fit the size 6AA plot. To shove them back in would require serious shoehorning.

And that just makes my feet hurt!

TKZers, how do you decide if a scene is needed? Do you have hints to chop the excess?

 

 

Debbie Burke’s thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale in October for $1.99 or FREE on Amazon Prime. Here’s the link.

9+

First Page Critique: A Plan of Change

Happy Monday! Today’s First Page Critique is entitled ‘A Plan of Change’. I think this page provides a good illustration of some common challenges when it comes to foreshadowing. My comments follow.

A Plan of Change

Jenny Holland never intended to go through with her plan. Plotting revenge against them was just something to ease her anger and pain. Then she opened the newspaper, and a mini-headline on page two ignited a whole new round of hate:

“Dean Decker Honored at Banquet.”

She laid the paper on her work table.

Dean and a group of VIPs smiled in a photograph below the bold type.  All the men wore tuxedos, except Dean.  He had on a gray suit and striped tie.  He was the center of attention and yet he found a way to make himself stand out even more.  In another photo, Carolyn stood beside him, her head tilted demurely toward his. Her coyness made Jenny want to stab her in the throat.

Jenny read the article.  Each line of praise tightened the muscles in her neck a little more.  The last accolade was too much:

“Without him, our charity wouldn’t be able to help as many clients as we do.  Dean is so giving.”

Giving?

Her heart pounded double-time.

“He doesn’t give!  He steals!”

Remember, Jenny.  Dean’s only power is the one you grant him.

She sat back in her chair. “I know.”

She looked out the window of her home office as she tried to calm herself.

Under the maple tree a thrasher foraged for food.  It tossed dead leaves aside, again and again. Usually bird-watching made her smile.  Not today.  Dean killed any chance of that.

Soon the thrasher began hammering the ground with its bill.  She envied the way it jabbed and punched.  The only punching she ever did was in her imagination. It flew away when Mrs. Moon jogged up the sidewalk.  Sarah waved, like most mornings.  Mrs. Moon did the same.

Once their neighborly routine was over, Sarah dropped her hand on top of Dean and Carolyn’s photo.  Dean’s face peeked between her fingers.

It wasn’t right that Dean and Carolyn enjoyed life while Bobby couldn’t.  If she went ahead with her plan, neither would smile ever again.

Dean’s eyes said “I dare you, Jenny.”

It was like the words were whispered in her ear.

Comments:

Overall

Although I enjoyed reading this first page, I think one of the major issues is one of foreshadowing – namely too much is disclosed up front about Jenny’s plan when it comes to Dean and Carolyn. It’s a good example of how a little can go a long way, especially in the first paragraph where we are already told that she is plotting revenge. There is also a great deal of extraneous information in this first page which really doesn’t pull the reader in – like the observations about the thrasher (a little too heavy-handed) and the exchange of waves with Mrs. Moon (unless it provides a sharp contrast to Jenny’s current thoughts, do we really need to know the neighborly routine right here?).

There is also the question of who exactly is in the room on this first page. We start and end with Jenny Holland, yet about three quarters of the way into this first page we are suddenly introduced to Sarah ( “Sarah waved”, “Sarah dropped her hand”). I’m proceeding on the assumption that there aren’t actually two female characters in the scene, but rather the author changed the name of the protagonist from ‘Sarah’ to ‘Jenny’ at some point and that ‘Sarah’ is now a typographical error. Here at TKZ we’ve emphasized the importance of proof reading your first page to the nth degree – an error like this would turn off an editor immediately.

When it comes to the issue of foreshadowing, my recommendation would be to cut most of the explanatory sentences and leave the reader intrigued as to what Jenny is planning. This first page should set up the key questions the novel will address (why is Jenny so angry? What did Dean do? Who is Bobby and what happened to him?) and provide intrigue and tension (what exactly is Jenny planning – can she go through with it?). Telling the reader in the first paragraph that: “Plotting revenge against them was just something to ease her anger and pain” robs this first page of dramatic tension. Similarly, sentences like “If she went ahead with her plan, neither would smile ever again” seem unnecessary as well as cliched. Far better, I think to keep the reader in suspense about Jenny’s plan (as well as her mental state).

To this end I would also urge the author to reconsider the inner monologue/dialogue as it sounds confusing and a little childish at the moment (especially “He doesn’t give! He steals!”). While I don’t mind the idea of Jenny having an exchange that sounds like she’s speaking to a therapist that isn’t there – this would have to be executed with more finesse (and possibly raising the question of an unreliable narrator, which is tricky to pull off).

I suggest a rewrite that reduces the exposition/foreshadowing and removes the extraneous information that drains the page of dramatic tension. Here’s my initial suggestion (apologies for the presumption, but I think it illustrates the points I’m trying to make):

Jenny Holland never intended to go through with her plan, then she opened the newspaper, and the headline on page two ignited a whole new round of hate.

“Dean Decker Honored at Banquet.”

Dean and a group of VIPs smiled in a photograph below the bold type. Carolyn stood beside him, her head tilted demurely toward his. Her coyness made Jenny want to stab her in the throat.

 Each line of praise tightened the muscles in Jenny’s neck a little more.  The last accolade was too much: “Without him, our charity wouldn’t be able to help as many clients as we do.  Dean is so giving.”

Giving?

Her heart pounded double-time.

It wasn’t right that Dean and Carolyn enjoyed life while Bobby couldn’t.  But could she really go ahead with her plan?

Dean’s eyes said “I dare you, Jenny.”

It was like the words were whispered in her ear.

This is by no means a great rewrite but I’m hoping it illustrates my point. Overall, I think this page could work well with some heavy revision. TKZers, what advice would you offer our brave submitter?

5+

How to Mess Up Your Lead Character’s Ordinary Day

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

On the first page (preferably in the first paragraph or even first line) of a novel, I want to see a disturbance to a character’s ordinary world. It can be subtle, like a midnight knock on the door (The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve). Or extreme, like a ticking bomb (Final Seconds by John Lutz and David August).

What I don’t want is “Happy People in Happy Land” (HPHL). I’ve seen a few of these openings in my time, mainly in domestic settings. The happy family getting ready for the day, etc. The author thinks: If I show these really nice people being really nice, the reader will care about them when the trouble starts.

But we don’t. We start to care about characters when trouble—or the hint of it—comes along, which is why, whenever I sign a copy of Conflict & Suspense, I always write, Make trouble!

Now, there are two ways to disturb HPHL in the opening. One is something happening that is not normal, as I mentioned above. It’s an “outside” disturbance, if you will.

But there’s another way, from the “inside.” You can give us a character’s ordinary day as it unfolds—while finding a way to mess it up.

That’s the strategy Michael Crichton uses in his 1994 novel, Disclosure (made into a movie with Michael Douglas and Demi Moore).

The plot centers around Tom Sanders, an mid-level executive at a thriving digital company in Seattle. He’s married to a successful lawyer named Susan. They live in a nice house on Bainbridge Island, with their four-year-old daughter and nine-month-old son.

As the book opens, we learn that Sanders expects this to be a good day. He’s sure he’s going to be promoted to head of his division, which will set him up for a windfall of millions after an expected merger and IPO. So it’s essential he get to the office on time.

Crichton is not going to let that happen. Here’s the first paragraph:

Tom Sanders never intended to be late for work on Monday, June 15. At 7:30 in the morning, he stepped into the shower at his home on Bainbridge Island. He knew he had to shave, dress, and leave the house in ten minutes if he was to make the 7:50 ferry and arrive at work by 8:30, in time to go over the remaining points with Stephanie Kaplan before they went into the meeting with the lawyers from Conley-White.

So Tom is in the shower when—

“Tom? Where are you? Tom?”

His wife, Susan, was calling from the bedroom. He ducked his head out of the spray.

“I’m in the shower!”

She said something in reply, but he didn’t hear it. He stepped out, reaching for a towel. “What?”

“I said, Can you feed the kids?”

His wife was an attorney who worked four days a week at a downtown firm.

So now he’s got to feed the kids? He hasn’t got time! But that’s life with two working parents, so he quickly begins to shave. Outside the bathroom, he hears his kids starting to cry because Mom can’t attend their every need. Crichton stretches out this sequence. Even something as innocuous as shaving can be tense when the kids are wailing.

Tom finally emerges from the bathroom, with only a towel around him, as he scoops up the kids to feed them.

Susan called after him: “Don’t forget Matt needs vitamins in his cereal. One dropperful. And don’t give him any more of the rice cereal, he spits it out. He likes wheat now.”

She went into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.

His daughter looked at him with serious eyes. “Is this going to be one of those days, Daddy?”

“Yeah, it looks like it.”

Exactly!

He mixed the wheat cereal for Matt, and put it in front of his son. Then he set Eliza’s bowl on the table, poured in the Chex, glanced at her.

“Enough?”

“Yes.”

He poured the milk for her.

“No, Dad!” his daughter howled, bursting into tears. “I wanted to pour the milk!”

“Sorry, Lize—”

“Take it out— take the milk out—” She was shrieking, completely hysterical.
“I’m sorry, Lize, but this is—”

I wanted to pour the milk!” She slid off her seat to the ground, where she lay kicking her heels on the floor. “Take it out, take the milk out!”

Every parent knows how true to life this is. A four-year old has definite ideas on their routine, and what they want to control!

“I’m sorry,” Sanders said. “You’ll just have to eat it, Lize.”

He sat down at the table beside Matt to feed him. Matt stuck his hand in his cereal and smeared it across his eyes. He, too, began to cry.

Can’t you just picture this?

Sanders got a dish towel to wipe Matt’s face. He noticed that the kitchen clock now said five to eight. He thought that he’d better call the office, to warn them he would be late. But he’d have to quiet Eliza first: she was still on the floor, kicking and screaming about the milk.

“All right, Eliza, take it easy. Take it easy.” He got a fresh bowl, poured more cereal, and gave her the carton of milk to pour herself. “Here.”

She crossed her arms and pouted. “I don’t want it.”

“Eliza, you pour that milk this minute.”

Throughout the scene he’s looking at the clock, trying to gauge how late he will be. At the end of the chapter, Susan has finally come to Tom’s rescue, and says—

“I’ll take over now. You don’t want to be late. Isn’t today the big day? When they announce your promotion?”

“I hope so.”

“Call me as soon as you hear.”

“I will.” Sanders got up, cinched the towel around his waist, and headed upstairs to get dressed. There was always traffic before the 8:20 ferry. He would have to hurry to make it.

End of chapter. We want to read on. After what this guy’s been through just to get ready for work, we hope he’s day’s going to get better.

It’s not, of course. This is Michael Crichton. Things are about to get a whole lot worse for Mr. Tom Sanders.

This strategy will work whether you open in a home or office; in a car or on a boat; in a coffee house or Waffle House.

Just decide to be mean. Mess up your character’s day.

Do you have happy people at the beginning of your manuscript? What can you do on page one to make sure they don’t stay happy?

10+

Science Fiction and Reality

By Mark Alpert

Ever since I wrote the Kill Zone post about science fiction two weeks ago, I can’t seem to let go of the topic. I started rereading some of my favorite sci-fi stories by Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison. I wrote an article for Scientific American about the genre’s “golden age” (the late 1930s to the late 1940s). And I remembered meeting Arthur C. Clarke at the Chelsea Hotel in 2001.

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure when the meeting occurred. Was it actually in 1999? Or 2002? I have a vivid memory of the great science-fiction writer, but I’m a little fuzzy on the date. But for the purposes of this story, let’s say it happened in 2001. That would give some symmetry to the tale. It was in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel that Clarke and Stanley Kubrick wrote the screenplay for “2001: A Space Odyssey” (which was based on two of Clarke’s short stories, “The Sentinel” and “Encounter in the Dawn”).

I was in my office at Scientific American that afternoon when the editor-in-chief rushed over. He said Clarke had called the magazine, completely out of the blue, and invited all the editors to his hotel suite for a chat. He was in town to give a speech at the United Nations, I think, or maybe for some kind of medical treatment. (Clarke was in his eighties then; he made Sri Lanka his home for the latter half of his life.) He didn’t tell the editor-in-chief why he wanted to meet, but it didn’t really matter. Within minutes, four Scientific American editors were in a taxi, heading for 23rd Street.

The Chelsea Hotel was rundown and bohemian, famously so. It had a reputation for catering to writers, artists, and musicians, some of whom came to very bad ends in the hotel’s shabby rooms. (Dylan Thomas spent his last drunken nights there before slipping into a coma. Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend to death in Room 100.) These days the hotel has a new owner who’s renovating the place, but back then it looked nothing like a Hilton. The rooms were dark and decorated in the tenement style. But when we stepped inside, there was Arthur C. Clarke in the room’s sitting area, dressed in a bathrobe and holding court on a recliner, with a pink, swollen foot propped on an ottoman.

He was suffering from gout, maybe? Or he’d just had surgery? I don’t remember the nature of his malady, but it certainly didn’t depress his spirits. He cheerfully welcomed us in and told his Sri Lankan assistant/valet to bring us some refreshments. Then, before we could find out why he’d summoned us, he started asking friendly questions. He seemed genuinely interested in each of us, genuinely curious about why we’d become editors at Scientific American and what kinds of stories we were working on. I tried to answer as best as I could, but it was hard to say anything intelligible. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was making small talk with the author of Childhood’s End and “The Nine Billion Names of God.”

Eventually, though, Clarke got around to his agenda: he wanted to know if Scientific American planned to run any further stories about cold fusion.

Okay, I need to take a step back and play science teacher for a moment. Fusion is the merger of atomic nuclei, a reaction that produces heavier elements and enormous amounts of energy. It’s the process at the heart of every star, the source of life-giving sunshine. But because all nuclei are positively charged and thus repel one another, fusion can’t happen unless the nuclei bang into each other at really high speeds, and that doesn’t happen unless the temperature of the material gets really hot — at least 13 million degrees Celsius. Outside the core of our sun, where the tremendous pressure of all that hydrogen produces ultra-high temperatures, the only place in our solar system where significant amounts of fusion have ever occurred is inside hydrogen bombs. (Those warheads detonate a nuclear-fission bomb first, which raises the temperature high enough to initiate nuclear fusion in the warhead’s hydrogen fuel a fraction of a second later.)

In 1989, though, a couple of electrochemists announced that they’d triggered nuclear fusion in their laboratory at room temperature. This claim of “cold fusion” got everyone’s attention, but when other scientists repeated the experiment in their own labs they didn’t see the same effect. Within a few months researchers pretty much discredited the claim, but for years afterward a group of cold-fusion zealots continued to insist that the phenomenon was real and should be investigated further. Arthur C. Clarke, we discovered, was one of those true believers. In his cheerful but persistent way, he urged us to review the research and run a story about the cold-fusion debate.

Our editor-in-chief was a very diplomatic guy, and he assured Clarke that we’d look into the matter. But in truth, there was no significant new research to report, and we never ran the story. After we left the Chelsea Hotel, we talked for a while about Clarke’s fixation on cold fusion, which seemed uncharacteristic for someone who was so scientifically knowledgeable. For a scientist, evidence is everything, and if the evidence says cold fusion didn’t happen in the lab, then no amount of wishful thinking can change that verdict.

But as I look back on that meeting now, I realize that Clarke was speaking as a science-fiction writer, not a scientist, and science fiction is all about wishful thinking. Imagine the consequences if cold fusion were really possible: we’d be able to generate unlimited amounts of clean energy from seawater. We could put a stop to global warming right this minute and save the billions of lives that will surely be lost over the next century as climbing temperatures disrupt agriculture and rising seas ravage our coastlines (see my new novel, The Coming Storm). And cold fusion could be used to power spaceflight as well, bringing us closer to Clarke’s visions of the future.

So his “fixation” seems rather poignant to me now. Yes, it would be wonderful if we lived in a universe where cold fusion was possible. But we don’t.

Clarke died in 2008 at the age of 90.

3+

First Page Critique: Dearest Executioner

By Elaine Viets

Today’s entry by an anonymous Brave Author has the intriguing title “Dearest Executioner.” Read this first chapter, and then I’ll give my critique. I look forward to your comments, readers.

Dearest Executioner

Mara sat atop the splintered bench between the oarsman and executioner, hysterical laughter bubbling in her throat. Her hands were bound behind her back, heavy rusted shackles rubbing her wrists raw. The moon hung low. Lights of the distant manor dwindling into darkness. Would the souls wandering those warm halls shudder at the echoes of screams? Or close the shutters, certain they heard nothing more than howling winds? As it was, no breeze rustled her hair.

Mist sat stagnant over the fetid bog. Insects hidden in the reeds chattered their solemn eulogy. The oarsman guided the decaying ferry through the thick muck with practiced rhythm. His rows slow, steady. As though allowing his passengers time for morbid reflection of their sins. Ought she contemplate her own? Perhaps no. No journey would be long enough. The urge to laugh intensified.

Her gaze flicked to the other man aboard. Shrouded in a fine black tunic and gloves, hood hiding his face. A grin split her chapped lips.

“Did someone tell you executioners wear black, or had you read it in a silly book?”

His shadowed visage angled away from her.

“Yes, surely the marsh is more fascinating than your soon-to-be victim.” She leaned closer to him, the wood creaking beneath her. “Don’t you wish to hear my crimes, dearest executioner?”

“Your crimes are against Lord and Lady Loch. That is all I need know.”

She nodded her head several times. “A sensitive family. Easy to offend. And quick to punish. Murder seems rather disproportional a sentence for honest speaking, but who am I to decide what’s fair?” She tipped her head. “How have you offended them?”

His attention snapped to her. Voice cruel. “I’ve done nothing.”

“Oh, but you have, you have. Perhaps murdering me is how you atone? A dark gesture of loyalty and all is forgiven? I think, no. Evil things haunt this marsh. Hungry things. Oh, dearest executioner, you’re as dead as I.”

He stared at her a long moment. “You’re mad.”

“Perhaps a giddy spirit has taken claim of my wits. They’re about in this unholy marsh, don’t you know? Others, too. Others dead, but not.”

“There are no unnatural beings here,” he said. “Only we three.”

The little bubbles rose, coming out as tremulous giggles. “You’re a sure man. A sure, sure man. A man who will not survive this night.”

______________________________________________________________________
Elaine’s Critique

You’ve done a fine job of setting the mood here, Brave Author. This is an impressive piece of writing. While you’ve painted an eerie scene, it doesn’t go anywhere. A first chapter is supposed to deliver three things: Time, Place and Point of View.
Your POV is quickly established: This is third-person omniscient, a good choice for storytellers. First-person would be too limiting.
But this first chapter is floating in time and space. What century are we in?
What season is it? I’m guessing, from the sounds of the insects, that it’s either summer or fall, but let us know.
Where are we? What country? I’m guessing it’s either Scotland or Ireland, but tell us.
Mara is a little too mysterious. What has she done that’s condemned her to this lonely death? Did she commit treason? Is she a witch? What she part of a plot?
Please tell us.
Who and what are Lord and Lady Loch? Are they powerful land owners? Rulers of the county? We need to know this.
These issues can be quickly fixed. Most of this information could be added in the third sentence. Something like:
“The witch (or traitor or rebel) watched the moon hang low over the Scottish highlands . . . .”.
There’s fine writing here, Brave Author.
The title immediately captures my interest.
I’m impressed that you didn’t need to tell us that Mara was in a boat. Instead you said:
“Mara sat atop the splintered bench between the oarsman and executioner, hysterical laughter bubbling in her throat.”
That not only says where she is and that she’s on her way to her death, it establishes her own mood.
I admire the death images in the second paragraph:
“Mist sat stagnant over the fetid bog. Insects hidden in the reeds chattered their solemn eulogy. The oarsman guided the decaying ferry through the thick muck with practiced rhythm. His rows slow, steady. As though allowing his passengers time for morbid reflection of their sins. Ought she contemplate her own? Perhaps no. No journey would be long enough. The urge to laugh intensified.”
One small quibble. It should be reflection “on” their sins, not “of.”
There’s foreshadowing, too, as Mara warns the executioner: “You’re a sure man. A sure, sure man. A man who will not survive this night.”
Good job, Brave Author. A few small changes and you’ll have a first-rate story. I can’t wait to read it. What about you, TKZers?

_________________________________________________________________

Win the new e-book version of Catnapped!, my 13th Dead-End Job mystery, set in the strange world of show cats. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com 

5+

First Page Critique:
Details, Details, Details…

 

By PJ Parrish

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to 1940’s Switzerland for today’s submission. I won’t do my usual line edit here because I think the issues I have with this opening can be articulated better by analyzing each paragraph. I’m borrowing this technique from agent Jane Friedman, who sometimes analyzes openings. Check out her blog here. I don’t normally like to rewrite submissions, but maybe it’s helpful here. Thanks to our anonymous writer for letting us read, discuss, and learn.

 

The Stranger on Bahnhofstrasse

Jonas Shaw first feared someone tailed him in wartime Zurich on an overcast Sunday morning in late June, 1940. A church bell had sounded the hour of eleven, and he was admiring shoes in a store’s window on the fashionable Bahnhofstrasse when he noticed in the reflection a distinguished man the other side of the street gaze at him. With pedestrians strolling by and trams rumbling past, he couldn’t see the stranger clearly, but he was visible enough in a knee-length coat, gloves, and homburg hat, and gripping a cane to leave him feeling uneasy.

The stranger was a profiteer, wanting to lure into something illegal. A Nazi spy, hoping to enlist against the Swiss. Or an anti-Nazi, looking to coax into some conspiracy.

Or worst of all, an Englishman, and he had had enough of them. Jonas sensed with an ex-detective’s appreciation for trouble the man probably was up to no good. Ignore him.

He walked on, pausing shortly before the foreign exchange rates shown outside a bank and wished he hadn’t. The British pound had sunk further against the Swiss franc, and he worried how long he could hold out in that pricey city with his small inheritance. Again he caught in the window’s reflection the gentleman eye him the other side of Bahnhofstrasse. This wasn’t any accident, he determined. The stranger definitely observed him.

A tram, rattling down the thoroughfare towards the train station, blocked his view. When it had passed, he looked in the bank’s window. His pursuer had vanished. Alarm gripped Jonas. Where had that man gone? Yet his professional training prevailed. He’d draw out his nemesis, better judge the threat.

At the end of Bahnhofstrasse he wondered left onto Quai Brucke and onto a promontory overlooking the lake. He paused, as if to admire the view, but attuned to danger, considering his next move.

Footsteps on the gravel. Someone approached from his right. His pursuer, he saw when he turned, a man who doffed his hat in greeting, revealing a full head of white hair, and Jonas thought he had vaguely seen him somewhere before.

“Ah Switzerland, Mr. Shaw,” the gentleman noted. “Three things you can always say about it. You’ll always know the time. Always find a bank. Always enjoy its marvelous views.”

Jonas recognized him now and tensed…

______________________

Back to me in the present day. This is a fairly common opening we see in period spy/thriller novels or movies — a main character (we can’t tell yet if Jonas Shaw is our protagonist) being tailed by a mysterious stranger.  My first impression was that it reads okay, meaning I can tell what’s happening and there is a hint of intrigue. But the writing itself creates some unnecessary confusion here and there. Let me break it down graph by graph to show you what I mean.

Jonas Shaw first feared someone tailed him in wartime Zurich on an overcast Sunday morning in late June, 1940. A church bell had sounded the hour of eleven, and he was admiring shoes in a store’s window on the fashionable Bahnhofstrasse when he noticed in the reflection a distinguished man the other side of the street gaze at him. With pedestrians strolling by and trams rumbling past, he couldn’t see the stranger clearly, but he was visible enough in a knee-length coat, gloves, and homburg hat, and gripping a cane to leave him feeling uneasy.

Does the opening line grab you? Me neither. Why? I suspect it’s because of the line’s construction:  “Jonas Shaw first feared” implies there was a previous encounter, and that Shaw is remembering this. (flashback!) Adding the place and time makes it feel even further in the past. Also saying the church bell “had” tolled puts us in the past. We need to be firmly in the present with Jonas. I THINK the writer means to say Jonas first began to realize someone was following him at the moment when he caught sight of the man in the window.  I could be wrong. But if this scene is, indeed, set in present-time action, then it needs to be clear. Something like:

Jonas Shaw was sure now that someone was following him.

The feeling first hit him when he left his hotel on Fustliststrasse. It stayed with him when he dipped into the Tabak to get his morning copy of Der Volks-Zeitung. And it was with him now as he turned onto Banhofstrasse, using the bustling crowd as a shield to glance over his shoulder.

No one….

Still, the feeling was there, that same feeling he used to get when he worked as a detective back in London.

He stopped, newspaper under his arm, and pretended to look at the shoes in the window of Bally’s. 

But his eyes were fixed on the reflection in the window of the man across the street. Even through the bustle of trams and pedestrians, Jonas could see the man’s details — elegant black overcoat, gloves and a black cane. What he couldn’t see was the man’s face, hidden by the brim of the homburg hat.

The bells of nearby Fraumünster Church began to toll. Jonas counted each one, to eleven, trying to quell his unease.

What I tried to do here is put it firmly in the present. I used details of place (Bally, the famous old Swiss shoemaker, the Fraumunster Church) to hint at where we are rather than hit readers over the head with the clunky expository “wartime Zurich.”  You can easily find a way to insert the exact year soon after.

but he was visible enough in a knee-length coat, gloves, and homburg hat, and gripping a cane to leave him feeling uneasy.

More confusion here because of displaced modifier. “gripping a cane to leave him feeling uneasy” could refer to the stranger when it apparently refers to Shaw. Moving on…

The stranger was a profiteer, wanting to lure into something illegal. A Nazi spy, hoping to enlist against the Swiss. Or an anti-Nazi, looking to coax into some conspiracy.

Or worst of all, an Englishman, and he had had enough of them. 

I think we are in Shaw’s thoughts here ie intimate point of view. But again, the sentence construction creates confusion. Is Shaw speculating what the stranger COULD BE — is he a profiteer, or a Nazi-spy, or an “anti-Nazi”? (not sure what that is). “Or worst of all, an Englishman.” Also, not sure what this means, other than Shaw (whose name implies English or American) dislikes Brits. Also the verbs “lure” “hoping to enlist” and “coax” all need an object.  You lure someone, you enlist someone, you coax someone to do something. Not sure how this can be reworked, other than something like:

Was the man a profiteer, looking to move melted gold coins through Zurich’s black market? Was he a Nazi spy, running reconnaissance for Operation Tannenbaum? Was he a member of the Spiritual Defense?   

Or worse, was he a fellow Brit? Jonas had had enough them.

What I am asking the writer to do here is to be specific. And by doing so, he can make his setting and story feel more authentic. When you use generalized phrases like “anti-Nazi” or “profiteer” you miss opportunities to plant telling details, and you can’t write historical thrillers without such detail. Such as “Operation Tannenbaum” (a planned German invasion of Switzerland) or the name of the Swiss anti-war movement, Spiritual  Defense. Shoot, you can’t write contemporary thrillers without it. Ditto on the description, which is why I used the Fraumunster Church and Bally (a Swiss company since the 1800s.) Moving on…

Jonas sensed with an ex-detective’s appreciation for trouble the man probably was up to no good. Ignore him.

Earlier, Jonas felt a sense of unease. His detective instincts (nice way to drop in what he used to do but we need to know soon what he does now) are telling him the guy’s up to no good, so why the next thought?  Ignore him.  It makes no sense.

He walked on, pausing shortly before the foreign exchange rates shown outside a bank and wished he hadn’t. The British pound had sunk further against the Swiss franc, and he worried how long he could hold out in that pricey city with his small inheritance. Again he caught in the window’s reflection the gentleman eye him the other side of Bahnhofstrasse. This wasn’t any accident, he determined. The stranger definitely observed him.

A tram, rattling down the thoroughfare towards the train station, blocked his view. When it had passed, he looked in the bank’s window. His pursuer had vanished. Alarm gripped Jonas. Where had that man gone? Yet his professional training prevailed. He’d draw out his nemesis, better judge the threat.

I like the aside about the money exchange because it provides a detail about Jonas (so he’s British?) but it could be cleaner:  He paused again at a bank, but didn’t see the man’s reflection in the window. What he did see was an exchange rate chart that told him the pound had sunk further against the Swiss Franc, and he wondered how long he could hold on here. The rest of this graph should be condensed, since it’s already been said. Just say a tram momentarily blocked his view of the man’s reflection. When the tram passed, the man was gone. Then we have a problem: Jonas, who a moment ago told himself to ignore the guy, gets alarmed again. So he decides to “draw out his nemesis.”  First, he told us he doesn’t know who or what this man is, so he can’t be a nemesis yet.  And second, if the guy disappeared, how does Jonas think he’s going to draw him out?  And this vague reference to “professional training” is where you should tell us what the heck this “former detective” does for a living now.  Why be coy? Give us a reason to want to follow him.

At the end of Bahnhofstrasse he wondered left onto Quai Brucke and onto a promontory overlooking the lake. He paused, as if to admire the view, but attuned to danger, considering his next move.

If you’re writing about foreign places, you have to be accurate. “Quai” usually means a riverside walk or street. Quai Brucke is a bridge, and it’s spelled Quaibrücke. If you leave out the umlaut, you’re misspelling it. And this is a low-slung bridge over Lake Zurich.  So there is no “promontory.”  (a high point jutting over something) Unless you have him cross the bridge and climb a hill. Please, please, don’t play loose with foreign locales. Moving on to the end…

Footsteps on the gravel. Someone approached from his right. His pursuer, he saw when he turned, a man who doffed his hat in greeting, revealing a full head of white hair, and Jonas thought he had vaguely seen him somewhere before.

“Ah Switzerland, Mr. Shaw,” the gentleman noted. “Three things you can always say about it. You’ll always know the time. Always find a bank. Always enjoy its marvelous views.”

Jonas recognized him now and tensed…

Again, confusion here. From the minor — they are in bustling downtown Zurich, so where is this gravel? Did he maybe walk into a park. BE SPECIFIC.  “His pursuer” implies someone was following him. Is this the man in the homburg? Someone else? Be clear. If the former, I’d suggest handling this like so:

Footsteps on the gravel to his right. Jonas spun around.

The man in the black overcoat stopped and doffed his homburg. The sight of his thick white hair caused a ping of memory in Jonas. 

“Ah, Mr. Shaw,” the man said. His accent was German, maybe alsatian.

Jonas tensed. The man knew him. And he knew this man. But from where?

“Switzerland,” the man said. “There are three things you can always count on here — the clocks, the banks, and the beauty.”

I like this comment from the stranger but I almost wish you had added one more thing to up the ante and intrigue.  “There are four things you can always count on here — the clock, the banks, the beauty. And the fact that you can never turn your back.”

That’s corny — I was thinking about Three Days of the Condor when I wrote it — but you get the point.  If the stranger is a foe, give him a cool threatening line. If he’s a friend, give him a telling line that will make your reader want to turn the page. Details!  Even in the dialogue. Especially in the dialogue.

Okay, writer, it’s up to you. You’ve got a nice set-up and setting (Switzerland is much fresher than most wartime cities, rather like post-war Vienna in The Third Man.) Go take a deeper stab at it. Make Zurich come alive with telling details. And be aware that you are working in oft-tilled soil here (wartime Europe), so you must avoid cliches and find your own original descriptions. Make Jonas Shaw come alive by revealing a little more about who he is  and why he is here. Give us a reason, even if it’s just a good strong hint, to want to follow him.

Thanks for submitting and we’re open for comments now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s Your Inspiration to Write Book After Book?

By SUE COLETTA

After my book signing on Saturday, October 6th, I was mulling over what to write for my TKZ post today, and this little treasure popped into my inbox. The video is so inspirational, I had to share it with you. It’s about four minutes long. If you’re short on time, not to worry. I’ve explained the video below.

Ray Edward’s thought experiment goes like this. Imagine you’ve been given a treasure. This treasure, like all magical treasures, comes with conditions. Here’s the catch. While this treasure is unlimited, each day you can only take one coin. Just one. And every day you suffer from amnesia. You forget you have this treasure and you lose a day of unlimited value.

What would you do to remind yourself? Would you leave notes for yourself? Would you phone a friend and ask them to remind that you have this treasure? How would you remember not to waste a single day?

Here’s a new flash. You already have this treasure. Consider this your reminder. The treasure you’ve been given is your life. Everyday offers endless possibilities, in life as well as writing. Yet we squander so many days with “Someday, I’ll travel. Someday, I’ll finish the manuscript.” Unfortunately, “someday” is often code for “never.”

Life is a mystery. We didn’t know when we’d enter the world and we don’t know exactly when we’ll depart, but we do know someday our life will end. Each day between now and then is a treasure-trove of limitless value.

What will you do with your treasure? Will you spend your time wisely? Will you use the day to hone your craft to achieve your goals? Will you strive to make your dreams a reality? Or will you use excuses for putting off writing till tomorrow?

Hey, we’re all guilty of procrastination from time to time. The trick is, making our writing a priority. Even though writers spend hours alone with a blinking cursor, the stories we write have the ability to entertain, to bring a smile to the lonely widow or widower’s face, to let the exhausted parent escape for a while, to inspire the aspiring writer to dream without limits, to brighten someone’s day, or even, just keep someone company for a while.

Writers hold great power. So, the next time you don’t feel like writing, remember this. Every day you don’t sit in front of that computer with your hands on the keyboard is a day you’ve let down your readers.

Bold statement, I know, but this truth hit home at my book signing.

A woman stood in front of my table, rambling on and on about the characters in my Grafton County Series. She told me she was never what you’d call an avid reader. A friend recommended my books, and she bought MARRED for the heck of it. Three books later, she’s embarrassed to admit that she considers Sage and Niko Quintano her closest friends. So much so, she desperately misses them in between books. The tears in her eyes as she spoke about how much my characters meant to her touched me on such a deep emotional level, it caught me off-guard.

How could I ever let this woman down?

By the time I got my game face on again, I glanced up to see another woman rushing toward my table. Unbeknownst to me, she’s a long-time fan who brought her three-year-old grandson to meet “her favorite author.” I have no idea what his grandmother told him, but this young boy gawked at me as if I were a superhero. The look in his eyes about shattered my cool façade. All I could think was, I’ll never live up to his view of me. << There’s the ol’ familiar self-doubt again. If only there were a way to silence that voice forever. Sadly, as Laura so eloquently wrote recently, self-doubt and writers go hand-in-hand. Sigh.

When this sweet woman asked for a group photo, I couldn’t form the words to tell her how much it meant to me. It’s a day I’ll never forget. It’s also the driving force (writer crack 🙂 ) that’ll keep me tied to my desk, hour after hour, paragraph after paragraph, scene after scene, till I type The End one more time.

 

So, my beloved TKZ family, let’s share inspiration today. Tell me about an encounter with a reader that renewed your love of writing.

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Mastering the Four Modes of Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first-page critique gives us an opportunity to cover the most important large-scale issue every new writer needs to understand before setting out to write a novel. I’ll explain after we read our submission.

Appointment in Moscow

Chapter 1 – Covert Landing                   

Her code name was Mayflower and her mission was to crack the vault at the White House. It would have been a dangerous assignment for anyone, much less a neophyte with no formal training in espionage, but Mayflower’s handlers in Moscow had seen to it that she was briefed, photographed, fingerprinted, outfitted, inoculated, weighed, coiffed and for good measure given a palm reading by a politically reliable seer. All that aside, her late husband, Frederick, had been a career intelligence officer and she had picked up a good bit of tradecraft from him. Her confidence was high.  

Mayflower had arrived in New York yesterday from Russia on a passenger liner out of neutral Norway, a voyage fraught with storms, U-boat scares and truly awful food at the captain’s table. She felt better now as she stepped down off the train into Union Station in Washington, a place that brought back fond memories of when she and Freddie had lived in the capital. This was the fourth year of what the press was calling the World War, and the platform was packed with military police and railroad officials frantically trying to maintain order. People were running, shoving, shouting, arguing, pleading. Names were called out over the loudspeakers as babies squalled, kids tap-danced for pennies, a Four-Minute Man gave a victory speech, and a man wearing a dusty black suit and a dirty white clerical collar staggered through the crowd warning that the end was near.

“Bible, lady?” he said, breathing whisky fumes on her. “It’s 1918 already and Armageddon is coming. Read all about it. Only six bits.”

Mayflower took a Bible from the box under his arm and handed him a dollar bill. “Come with me, I need your help,” she told him. “And please hold the sermon. I’m a deist.”  

“Disciples of Christ, myself,” he said. “At your service, ma’am.”

She took his arm and moved him in front of her as a shield and they started walking. When she was a young woman locked up in a Catholic boarding school she had learned a number of ways to sneak out late at night. She intended to use that experience and make a discreet exit here out a service door. But her plan was interrupted by two uniformed cops who directed the incoming passengers into a gauntlet of detectives and government agents holding wanted fliers. They looked everybody over, comparing faces with photos.

***

JSB: I’m not going to micro-critique this page, because there is one huge lesson the writer must take away from this, and that is how to distinguish between, and artfully use, the four modes of fiction. Once that is understood, the writer must then practice, practice. Indeed, this is going to be your task the rest of your writing life (as it is for all of us!)

What do I mean by the four modes of fiction? Just this: there are four ways to convey “story stuff” to the reader: scene, summary, exposition, and backstory. You need to know what each of these does, and when to use them.

Let’s define them first.

Scene is the action on the page. In movie terms, it would be what you see onscreen, and what you hear in dialogue. It’s the show part of show, don’t tell.

Summary is a narrative recounting of action in order to transition to another scene, or to cover a long period that would be too cumbersome to show. Thus, it’s the tell part of show, don’t tell. (There are other “tells” in fiction, but that’s another topic).

Exposition is story information delivered to the reader. Such information is usually about a setting (description, history, social life) or a character (description, skills, education).

Backstory is history relating to the characters or plot, something that happened before the novel begins. A flashback is all backstory, but sometimes backstory bits are dropped in as part of the narrative.

So here’s today’s question: Which mode should the novelist specialize in, especially in the opening pages?

**Jeopardy music**

If you said scene, you move on to the championship round. Readers want scenes. They will tolerate the other modes so long as they are in service to the scenes.

With that in mind, let’s unpack this page.

Her code name was Mayflower and her mission was to crack the vault at the White House. It would have been a dangerous assignment for anyone, much less a neophyte with no formal training in espionage, but Mayflower’s handlers in Moscow had seen to it that she was briefed, photographed, fingerprinted, outfitted, inoculated, weighed, coiffed and for good measure given a palm reading by a politically reliable seer. All that aside, her late husband, Frederick, had been a career intelligence officer and she had picked up a good bit of tradecraft from him. Her confidence was high.  

[This paragraph is not a scene. It is all exposition and backstory. You, the author, are simply telling us these things. There is nothing happening “onscreen.” It is essential that you understand this. Here’s a tip: If you use the word had you are indicating backstory.]

Mayflower had arrived in New York yesterday from Russia on a passenger liner out of neutral Norway, a voyage fraught with storms, U-boat scares and truly awful food at the captain’s table.

[See that had? Backstory!]

She felt better now as she stepped down off the train into Union Station in Washington,

[This is the first bit of action, and the start of a scene]

a place that brought back fond memories of when she and Freddie had lived in the capital.

[Had! Backstory!]

This was the fourth year of what the press was calling the World War,

[Exposition. This is the author telling us the information.]

and the platform was packed with military police and railroad officials frantically trying to maintain order. People were running, shoving, shouting, arguing, pleading. Names were called out over the loudspeakers as babies squalled, kids tap-danced for pennies, a Four-Minute Man gave a victory speech, and a man wearing a dusty black suit and a dirty white clerical collar staggered through the crowd warning that the end was near.

[This is exposition in the form of description. Now, description is necessary to set a scene, but it’s more effective if you filter it through the point-of-view character. For example, have a running person bump into her. Have her ears hurt from the loudspeaker, etc.]

“Bible, lady?” he said, breathing whisky fumes on her. “It’s 1918 already and Armageddon is coming. Read all about it. Only six bits.”

[Scene! Dialogue between characters is always a scene. That’s why it’s perfectly acceptable to start a novel with dialogue. Indeed, this would be a good place to start this page. However, notice that exposition slipped into the dialogue. Would this guy really tell her it’s 1918? Everybody knows it’s 1918. Many new writers do this, especially in opening pages. They want the readers to know certain information, and try to “hide” it in the dialogue:

“Oh hello, Stan, my family doctor. Nice to see you.”

Here’s a simple solution. If, and only if, the exposition is essential, put it into more confrontational language:

“Bible, lady?”

“No, thank you.”

“Armageddon’s coming!”

“Excuse me.”

Mayflower tried to move past the man but he stepped in front of her.

“Save yourself,” he said. “The world ends before the year is out!”

“Tush.” She brushed past him, through the fog of his whiskey breath, and headed down the street.

“You’ll never see 1919!” he shouted. “And where will you spend eternity?”]

Mayflower took a Bible from the box under his arm and handed him a dollar bill. “Come with me, I need your help,” she told him. “And please hold the sermon. I’m a deist.”   

“Disciples of Christ, myself,” he said. “At your service, ma’am.”

She took his arm and moved him in front of her as a shield and they started walking.

[Scene. The expositional dialogue “I’m a deist” is at least in a bit of confrontation.]

When she was a young woman locked up in a Catholic boarding school she had learned a number of ways to sneak out late at night. 

[Had! Backstory.]

She intended to use that experience and make a discreet exit here out a service door. But her plan was interrupted by two uniformed cops who directed the incoming passengers into a gauntlet of detectives and government agents holding wanted fliers. They looked everybody over, comparing faces with photos.

[This is summary. You’re summarizing the action, not showing it to us on the page. Here’s the difference:

A cop put up his hand. “That’s far enough, lady.”

“Excuse me,” Mayflower said. “I’m not one of the—”

“We got orders,” the cop said.

He looked at some papers in his hand, one by one. Mayflower strained to see what they were. She caught a glimpse of face under big block lettering. A wanted poster?

The cop looked Mayflower in the eye. “Let’s see somethin’ with your name on it,” he said.]

From all this, draw the following lessons:

  1. Learn to identify in what mode of fiction you are writing at any given time. You can learn by analyzing other novels, page by page. Use four different colored highlighters. Teach yourself.
  2. Start your book with a scene.
  3. Filter exposition and description through the POV character. Here’s how Robert Crais opens Demolition Angel:

Charlie Riggio stared at the cardboard box sitting beside the Dumpster. It was a Jolly Green Giant box, with what appeared to be a crumpled brown paper bag sticking up through the top. The box was stamped Green Beans. Neither Riggio or the two uniformed officers with him approached closer than the corner of the strip mall there on Sunset Boulevard; they could see the box fine from where they were.

If you read on, you’ll see Crais majoring in scene (primarily through dialogue) with occasional exposition/description through Riggio’s eyes.

  1. Use backstory sparingly in the early pages. I have a little exercise I give new writers: three sentences of backstory in the first 2500 words, all together or spread out. Three paragraphs of backstory in the next 2500 words, all at once or spread out. This is not a “rule” but simply a way to practice and get disciplined about writing in scenes.

We are now open for comments.

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Don’t Be Afraid of the “No”

Photo by Alan Hardman from unsplash.com

A few weeks ago my granddaughter was at my house and started doing what I call “the ask dance.” This consists of 1) silently wandering into and out of whatever room I’m in, 2) twirling around, and 3) coming up to the table and drumming on it until I say, “What’s your ask?” She told me — Donatos Pizza — to which I readily acquiesced. I decided, given that she is a pre-teen, that it was time for “the talk.” The topic was “don’t be afraid of the ‘no.’” I explained that in most cases she would hear (and has heard) “yes” when she’s asked for something of me. After all, grandparents and grandchildren have a special relationship given that they have a common enemy. I went on to tell her that if she encountered a “no” from me it would most likely be a result of the impossibility of performance and that we would find a way to get to “yes” or a reasonable facsimile thereof. The only time a problem would occur is if she was so afraid of “no” that she didn’t ask at all. At that point, what she fears — “no” — becomes the de facto answer.

We all hate “no.” We hear it constantly when we are little and helpless as we reach toward candles that are lit and the tails of sleeping dogs, when we are old and confused and reach for car keys and checkbooks, and occasionally at all points in between. It stands between us and what we want (other than when it’s used in the context of emptying the dishwasher or mowing the lawn). “Yes” is the key that opens doors, moves mountains, and makes dreams come true. “No” disappoints, derails, and detours. “Yes” is always possible. “No” is occasionally unavoidable.

It’s important to understand as writers or as anything else, that “no,” as destructive as it is, is much less powerful than “yes.” You can get turned down a hundred times by agents and publishers and have your dreams crushed and strewn across the landscape. Get out that broom, dustpan, and epoxy, put everything back together, and try again. And again. One “yes” will outweigh each “no” and will blow them away. Keep chasing that “yes,” but remember that you’ll go through a lot of negativity to get there. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it for a moment as you move it out of your path. It’s in the way of your “yes,” which is waiting for you and your dream just down the road. That is true whether it’s a Donatos pizza, your manuscript, or anything else. Just don’t be afraid of the “no.”

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