First Page Critique – Topher and Lucy

Another offering from a brave Anonymous Author. See you on the other side.

Topher And Lucy


You lunge, and strike. Three rapid-fire hits. Splintering wood. Three dents in the bathroom door. Your mother’s voice, coming from the living room, shrills in your ears. You move into the hallway. Muscles taut, nostrils flaring and collapsing with your sucked-in-pushed-out breaths, your hands are curled, the knuckles of the right starting to swell. Your eyes lock on the hall wall just as she steps between it, and you.

Quivering, you balance on the balls of your feet. Like a prize-fighter, itching to dance that half step forward and smash your balled fist into the flesh and bone of the face in front of you. You could put that head through the gyproc. One quick, hard punch. She’s daring you to do it. Just like she dares you all the time. Step out of line so I can throw you out. That’s not what she says, but it’s what she means. Breathe! You won’t hit her. Hurt her, you’ll have the cops to answer to, and you’re already way out of line. How did that happen? You in bed, her face over yours, screaming, Where were you last night? I don’t care if your head hurts. Get up! Then she dumped water on you.

Her mouth moves; sound rings in your ears. Get out! she says.

Fuck! You knew she’d do that. You shout, If I go I’m never comin’ back.

I won’t live with this kind of temper, this kind of threat, she says.

You’re gone, cursing her, shaking your bruised hand. Fuck you, mom. You don’t know a thing! Do you hear me? Fuck You!


Lucy leans against the wall beside the door, hearing Topher rant. Then, the crack of more wood breaking—the garage, or the barn, she thinks. It is not an unexpected sound. In a few minutes there may be tears on her part, self-recriminations, regret. Right now she’s numb. Then, relieved. He’s out the door. He’s cost her so much lately, more than she can pay.

Minutes later, her mind wakes up. The earthquake fund. He’s taken it before.

She runs out to the feed shed, checks the freezer where they store the earthquake kit. The shed’s never locked, the freezer’s not locked when they’re home. If an earthquake hit, keys could get lost. The cash-box key’s inside the zippered pillow-pouch of Harvey’s sleeping bag. The money’s gone. Of course.


Today’s Anonymous Author leads with a hard right jab. You certainly grabbed my attention with an explosive, violent character who’s a half-breath away from knocking his mother through a wall. The action is fast and vivid. The conflict is immediately laid out—an out-of-control raging young man (I’m presuming he’s young) and an at-her-wit’s-end mother throwing him out of the house.

In 400 words, you’ve tackled an ambitious task of introducing two clashing characters, each in their own POV.

You’ve further challenged yourself by writing Topher in the unusual second person POV, always a risky proposition. However, I think you pull it off well in the first page. This angry young man is dangerous, barely maintaining control. By using “you” instead of “he” or “I,” you’ve showcased his alienated, fractured personality. He thinks of himself as “you,” an entity separate from himself. I’m curious if Topher remains in second person POV throughout the story.

You carry his psychological quirks even further. He disconnects from the horrific act of wanting to punch his mother by instead referring to the flesh and bone of the face in front of you. You could put that head through the gyproc. He’s objectified her into detached body parts: the face, that head. Chilling.

Another scary aspect is his ability to justify his violent rage by claiming She’s daring you to do it. Just like she dares you all the time. Her peril is real and terrifying.

Yet, he’s oddly fearful of being thrown out of the house, which suggests Lucy has a higher level of power over him. That sets up an interesting dichotomy—his physical strength vs. her superior position. I’m guessing he’s a juvenile who’s still under parental control. While he chafes at that, he’s also scared of being out on his own.

Then you flip into Lucy’s head. You say she’s numb but she has enough presence of mind to know she will have a delayed reaction in the near future. This seems realistic for someone who’s lived under ongoing violence for quite a while—just get through it, get the crazy kid out, and break down later. But she is worried about him stealing her stash of money, which he does. That suggests the family has serious financial problems if she’s so dependent on that.

The earthquake fund introduces another layer of instability (sorry, couldn’t help myself). Where do they live that they find it necessary to set aside money and leave the shed unlocked in case the key gets lost in an earthquake? Although my husband and I used to live near a major fault line in California, we never had an earthquake fund. I want to learn where this scary place is but I’m willing to wait a little longer.

Gyproc was not a familiar term so I Googled it. It’s a gypsum board/drywall material that’s used in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, but apparently not common in the U.S.

Another clue this story might be set outside the U.S. was the lack of quotation marks around dialogue. Depending on where you market this, you might consider using American-English conventions of grammar and punctuation.

For example:

“Get out!” she says.

You shout, “If I go [add comma], I’m never comin’ back.”

“I won’t live with this kind of temper, this kind of threat,” she says.

Here are some small nits:

Is the title Topher And Lucy? If so, you can do better. At first glance, from the whimsical-sounding name of Topher, I thought it might be a children’s story, which obviously it didn’t turn out to be.

Skip the comma in the first sentence: You lunge and strike.

Splintering wood doesn’t match dents in the door. When wood splinters, it generally leaves sharp, ragged edges because of the grain. Dent seems more appropriate to metal or a surface that, when struck, remains largely intact but with an indentation.

The image of nostrils flaring and collapsing and sucked-in-pushed-out breaths is a fresh way to describe hard breathing. Nicely done.

Your eyes lock on the hall wall just as she steps between it, and you. Even though eyeballs can’t literally lock, that usage is common, although incorrect. However, if you still choose to go with it, consider that eyes usually lock with other eyes, not with an inanimate object, like a wall. Maybe instead: Your stare drills into the wall.

Hall wall is an accidental rhyme that doesn’t read well. Also it seems odd that he would be looking at the wall rather than Lucy. If it’s because he can’t bear to face her, maybe rewrite to show that. Your stare drills into the wall so intently that you almost expect to see two round holes in the plasterboard. Instead, your mother’s face appears, right in the line of your aim.

Step out of line so I can throw you out. That’s not what she says, but it’s what she means. These sentences capture the skewed communication between mother and son. Consider putting Step out of line so I can throw you out in italics to emphasize that’s what he imagines she is thinking.

In the following, I added a clearer attribution and changed dumped to dumps to keep tense consistent. Also suggest you rework the paragraphing:

Breathe! You won’t hit her. Hurt her, you’ll have the cops to answer to, and you’re already way out of line.

How did that happen? You in bed, her face over yours, [added] and she’s screaming, “Where were you last night? I don’t care if your head hurts. Get up!” Then she dumps water on you.

Semicolons belong in nonfiction, not fiction. Replace with a period.

Again, if you’re writing for an American audience, adopt quotation marks around dialogue. And fix the capitalization in the following:

“Fuck you, Mom. You don’t know a thing! Do you hear me? Fuck you!” Mom is used as a proper name, therefore capitalized. You might be attempting to show emphasis by capitalizing You, but the epithet followed by an exclamation mark makes the point.

Lucy leans against the wall beside the door, hearing Topher rant. Use this opportunity to ground the reader a little more in the setting. Lucy leans against the kitchen wall beside the back door, listening to Topher rant.

Minutes later, her mind wakes up. I think she’d remain aware of where Topher is until he leaves and the danger is past. Then she can zone out.

Maybe instead:

It is not an unexpected sound. Neither is the too-high revving of the motorcycle’s engine and the crunch and ping of gravel as he pops a wheelie out the driveway, down the road.

After the engine noise fades away, she allows herself a normal breath, a few moments of silence. Peace.

Then her muscles tense again.

The earthquake fund.
He’s taken it before.

For dramatic impact, suggest you make the last two sentences their own paragraphs.

The money’s gone.

Of course.


Anonymous Author, you’ve done an admirable job on your first page. You dug deep into the heads of two troubled characters, hinted at a threatening setting, and kicked off a chilling conflict that promises future violence. This story appears to fall into the Domestic Suspense or YA genre, with two narrators who may be both unreliable and unsympathetic. I don’t have an emotional connection yet with either one, except to feel sorry for Lucy. But I am curious to learn if Topher’s hatred toward his mother is justified.



TKZers, what do you think about Topher and Lucy? Would you turn the page? Are you engaged with these characters? Where do you think this story is going?


The first page of Instrument of the Devil went through TKZ‘s grinder and came out much improved from readers’ insightful comments. It became page 2 instead!

I highly recommend writers embrace this opportunity for honest, constructive feedback.









Cutting The Commercial Cord

Photo purchased from Shutterstock

Recently the dynamics on commercial social media have become…a tad weird. So yesterday, after one too many hacking episodes, privacy scares, and encounters with online trolls, I took the plunge and deactivated my Facebook account. I’ll miss the ease of staying in touch with certain folks (and of course I’ll miss “Yoga with Baby Goats” and other video gems), but it was long past time to cut my ties with advertising-supported social media.

I started feeling conflicted about commercial social media as far back as 2013, when I wrote “Is Social Media Developing a Personality Disorder?” Five years later, the answer (for me, anyway) is an emphatic “Yes.”

Here at TKZ we made a firm decision at the outset not to go down the commercial advertising route. It’s wonderful that out little corner of the cyber sphere continues to serve as a little oasis of calm amidst the winds of the social media Furies.

I’ll miss seeing everyone on Facebook, of course. And I’ll really miss getting my daily dose of baby goats.

How about you? Is anyone else rethinking their relationship to social media these days?


Nature Provides Amazing Opportunities

By Sue Coletta

It’s no secret that I’m a huge animal lover. Folks who follow me on Twitter may’ve noticed my interest in wildlife, conservation, and protecting our ecosystems.

When our last two dogs crossed the rainbow bridge, part of me died right alongside them. In 20 years we’d lost eight dogs, seven of which died to cancer and one to a brown recluse spider bite. I longed for another to help fill the void, but my husband couldn’t go through the pain again. I understood. Nonetheless, I still grappled with the lack of pitter-pattering of paws across the hardwood. The house didn’t feel the same.  

To help heal, I turned to nature. The woods surrounding our house had to be teeming with life. Surely some little fella needed love.  

At the time, I was writing Blessed Mayhem and had studied crows extensively. How hard could it be to befriend a crow?  

One day, I piled peanuts on the grass. Circus peanuts, unsalted. In my research I’d discovered that circus peanuts are high in carbs. It takes a high-carbohydrate diet to flap wings. Within thirty minutes, a crow landed in the yard. A bubble of joy burst inside me, a tidal wave of love shattering the protective layer of my heart.  

“Poe?” I said, blurring the lines between fact and fiction.   

Unlike in my book, my Poe turned out to be female. The only reason I knew this was because a few days later, she brought her mate, Edgar, who was noticeably larger. Poe struts with an unmistakable wiggle to the hips and Edgar acts as the great protector. A real man’s man, if you know what I mean. The proud parents flew peanuts back and forth to their nest … in the woods across the street.  

OMG, they had chicks! The helplessness that had consumed me each time cancer stole another dog from us, withered away like lilies in a frozen pond.  

Days turned into weeks as I marveled at their intelligence, grace, and loving nature. My husband got swept up, too. 

Then we had a new visitor. The Marilyn Monroe of squirrels, this gorgeous dirty-blonde with a swanky strawberry-blonde tail sauntered into the yard. Hesitant at first but making a b-line for the peanut pile. Uh-oh, she could be trouble. Would Poe and Edgar accept her, or would they retaliate for the intrusion?  

Since I’d already matched the crow names to fictional pets, why not stay consistent? From that day forward, the sexy squirrel became Shawnee. Then I noticed she was pregnant. If Poe didn’t accept her, how could I ever kick her out? Better lay out two piles of peanuts from now on. 

Fights broke out between the two mothers as I bit all my fingernails to the quick. And then something amazing happened. Little by little, day by day, the taunts, lunges, and overall discourse lessened. It’s like they’d struck a deal — you stay on your side of the yard and we’ll stay on ours. With tiny mouths to feed, the kids remained their top priority.  

Just like that, harmony was restored.  

Neither Poe nor Shawnee cared when Hippy joined the party. Hip is a tiny chipmunk who at the time hadn’t even formed stripes yet. Instead, two dotted lines trailed down his back. My heart puddled into goo. Hippy must be the most enthusiastic of his kind. Each time he scores a peanut he leaps a good four-to-six inches into the air, as if screaming, “Hip, hip, hooray!”

Poe and Edgar brought the chicks once they were old enough to fly. Tears teemed my eyes as they taught their babies how to crack peanut shells against the rock. Their beaks weren’t strong enough yet to pry the shell apart. Shawnee brought her babies, too. Two older chipmunks joined Hippy. That was it. No other birds, no other animals of any kind. Until the sun set in the night sky, when Foxy Lady and her kit, Cornelius, ensured the yard was properly licked clean. Jeff, the opossum, and two of the fattest raccoons on record, the Fatty Patty Twins, also helped with the clean-up. Albeit in shifts. The night crew story I’ll save for another time before this post morphs into a book. 

Back to Poe, Shawnee, and Hip … 

In the yard, I designated a pile of peanuts for each family and they stayed at their respective piles, never encroaching on their neighbor. The two mothers formed the foundation for a mutually beneficial arrangement and everyone played fair.  

The nice thing about crows is, they know how to keep a secret. This becomes especially true with places they feed. Sure, they may bring a guest here and there, but it’s a one-shot deal. If the visiting crow(s) try to hang around, Poe and Edgar escort them past the property lines. Crows also aren’t opposed to playing dead next to a consistent source of food, so other crows flying by will think the feast is toxic. They really are smarter than fifth-graders! 

In New Hampshire, winters are long and brutal. This fact alone worried me. How would my new fur-and-feathered-babies weather harsh conditions? Little did I know, they worked out a solution ahead of time: me. If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m an easy mark, and they knew it from day one. A tilt of the head, a swish of the tail, and I’m out the door, trudging through two feet of snow. My husband also isn’t immune. Thank God, too, because someone needs to shovel a path for them. He’ll even clear the snow around the bottom of Shawnee’s tree so her feet don’t get cold when she climbs down.

During the same blizzard, Odin, our chatty raven who loves to hang out on my deck railing, sang for his breakfast around 6:00 a.m.  

Crows and ravens have an amazing range of calls, which include mimicking other animals. They can even imitate us!  

Once the snow arrived, I moved peanut piles up a level to shorten my trek. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but that slight alteration caused a major shift. The waft of peanuts caught the attention of blue jays, who wasted no time in muscling in on the action. Shawnee’s kids had kids of their own, or she’d spilled the beans to one of her squirrel suitors. Between you and me, she’s a bit of a floozie.  

The harmony in the yard became a massive feeding frenzy, new squirrels zigzagging around crows, blue jays divebombing from all directions, warring with one another in mid-air while Poe and Edgar played referee. Add in an adorable red squirrel, aptly named Wile E. Squirrel, and I created the perfect storm. Absolute madness unfolds daily around here … but everyone’s fat and happy.   

The truly beautiful thing is, Poe and Shawnee still eat wing to tail without even so much as a harsh glance. Even after all this time they’ve never broken that initial vow to put family first. Can’t say the same for their offspring, though. If a baby squirrel tries to take off with one of the suet squares (yes, I cut them into bite-sized pieces), the Poe clan gangs up on the poor little fella. Massive black wings flapping behind you will make anyone drop their stash.  

I’ve also witnessed new behavior. Poe and Edgar’s kids – who are huge by the way; they take after their Dad – line up on the lower level, their backs concealed by the skeletal-branches of the bushes. When one of the baby squirrels takes off down the hill with a mouthful of nuts, the wings spread. If he makes it past the defensive line, they soar after him. It’s not like there isn’t enough food to go around, either. I go through 15-20 lbs. of peanuts per week. Maybe stolen food just tastes better.  

Spending time with wildlife is one of my favorite ways to relax. Enjoying nature is an excellent excuse for taking a well-needed break from the computer. Thanks to Jim, TKZers know why it’s important for writers to step away from their WIP from time-to-time.  

My neighbors probably think I’ve lost my mind … again. Passerby’s certainly do. Twice a day, if I haven’t been beckoned, I stand in the yard, hands cupped around my mouth, and call into the sky for Poe. A caw always echoes in return. Within minutes of closing the sunroom door, the yard erupts – a Coletta family signal that a new day has begun.  

It’s impossible to have a bad day when you’re surrounded by tiny paws and talons. Let’s start the week off on a fun note. Do you feed the wildlife around your house? Tell me about the animals in your life.  


Can Slick Marketing Sell Bad Books?

by James Scott Bell

Kris titled her post last week “Naked Came the Stranger,” and slyly didn’t give us the story behind the title. I’d like to do that now, because I well remember one of the most famous literary hoaxes in publishing history.

This was back in the 1960s, the halcyon days of big, trashy novels like Valley of the Dolls and The Love Machine. A Newsday reporter by the name of Mike McGrady, over drinks with some pals, posited that a novel with no social value and even less literary quality could sell, if it was about sex and had a titillating cover.

To prove it, he got a couple dozen of his newsroom colleagues (19 men and 5 women, including two Pulitzer Prize winners) to conspire to write a lurid tome. The simple concept was a housewife having a series of adulterous flings, one per chapter. As the New York Times put it in McGrady’s obituary, “She has sex with a mobster and sex with a rabbi. She has sex with a hippie and sex with at least one accountant. There is a scene involving a tollbooth, another involving ice cubes…” You get the picture. The conspirators wrote one chapter each, trying their darndest not to make the writing too good.

McGrady edited each chapter, blue-penciling anything even approaching a modicum of literary quality.

The project’s original title was Strangers In The Valley, a cross between Valley Of The Dolls by Jacqueline Susann and Strangers When We Meet by Evan Hunter. But a female colleague, Beulah Gleich, told McGrady that the title was no good. He asked why. She said it needed the word Naked. McGrady suggested The Naked Stranger. Gleich said that was too blatant, that the title should have “more class.” Well, you be the judge.

McGrady decided on the pseudonym “Penelope Ashe” and had his sister-in-law pose for the author photo. (On the back of the dust jacket, “Penelope Ashe” is described as a “demure Long Island housewife.”)

He then submitted it to publisher Lyle Stuart, known for “edgy” books. They accepted it (not knowing it was a hoax) and proceeded to design a salacious cover. If you want to see the entire cover (a rather oxymoronic term considering the context) you can go here. (The photo was purloined from a Hungarian magazine, and when the book became a phenomenon, the photographer and model demanded compensation, and got it.)

When Naked Came the Stranger hit the stores, the reviewers hit back. The Village Voice said the book was “of such perfectly realized awfulness that it will suck your soul right out of your brainpan and through your mouth, and you will happily let it go.”

It became an instant bestseller.

After the book reached the 20,000 sales mark, the hoaxers, perhaps feeling a collective pang of guilt, decided to come clean on The David Frost Show. So the joke was over, right?

Um, no. The book sold even faster, spending 13 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It has lifetime sales of over 400,000. Open Road Media has the pub rights now.

I remember my mom and dad laughing about all this while looking at a Life magazine story on the hoax, with a group photo of the co-authors. You can see that photo, along with some others (including one of the cigar-chomping McGrady) by going here.


1. In the staid publishing world of the 60s and 70s, if a book was about sex, even if poorly written, slick marketing and a suggestive cover sometimes led to heaving, tumultuous, luminescent waves of febrile, smoldering, incandescent sales.

2. That may happen occasionally today, though it’s much more difficult, primarily because of the roiling sea of content now available.

3. If a book is not about sex and is poorly written, slick marketing and a great cover might drive some initial sales, but with a major drop off afterward. This will be of no help to an author’s career.

4. On the other hand, a really good book will always be held back by a bad cover. That will also be of no help to an author’s career.

5. So if you’re self-publishing, don’t skimp on covers. Where do you find designers? Check out 99Designs and this article by Joanna Penn.

6. A great book with a great cover, all other things being equal, is the best driver of what is far and away the most effective marketing: word-of-mouth.

7. Book after book following #4 is the only sure-fire way of building a writing career.

So, writer, don’t play fast and loose with a one-book stand. Commit to a quality relationship with your work, and take a vow to make that a life-long bond.

Okay, Zoners, let’s have your naked opinion. Don’t be a stranger.


Four Lessons From Colson Whitehead

By Mark Alpert

Have you read Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad? If not, you should. Anyone who’s serious about writing fiction can learn something from this amazing book.

The novel has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The Washington Post called it “a triumph” and NPR said it was “an American masterpiece.” The Underground Railroad even got a blurb from Barack Obama. (“Terrific.”) You can’t get much better than that. (The only thing that could top it, maybe, would be a blurb from God: “I’ve been waiting since the First Day of Creation for a novel as good as this one!”)

I finished reading the book yesterday, and today I thought of four useful lessons that I gleaned from the novel:

Don’t be afraid to write about a subject that’s been written about before. The Underground Railroad is about American slavery and all the agonizing attempts to escape it, which continued long after its abolition. For two centuries, the story of slavery has been chronicled in great detail, thanks mostly to the slaves who escaped their bondage and lived to write about it. Perhaps the best known of these stories is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, written in 1845 by the famous abolitionist and former slave, but there were many, many others. Fiction about slavery soon followed: Josiah Henson, another former slave, dictated his life story to a fellow abolitionist — Henson hadn’t yet learned to read or write — and his memoir, published in 1849, became one of the major sources for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This was the top best-selling American novel of the 19th century, and it played an important role in influencing public opinion during the years just before the Civil War. According to one (probably apocryphal) account, when Stowe came to Washington in 1862 and met Abraham Lincoln, the president greeted her by saying, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” The quote is considered apocryphal because neither Stowe nor Lincoln ever mentioned it, and it didn’t appear in print until more than thirty years later, but it reflects an underlying truth: the novel was a major impetus for social and political change.

Many writers have continued to tell the story of slavery, in both fiction and nonfiction; notable examples include Toni Morrison’s 1987 masterpiece Beloved and the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, which was based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. Yet Colson Whitehead has added something fresh and new to the literature of slavery. Some parts of The Underground Railroad are conventionally realistic fiction, but other parts deviate from reality in disturbing and disorienting ways. The book’s main point-of-view character is Cora, a young slave born on a cotton plantation in Georgia, and the suffering she endures in the early chapters — the loss of her mother, a violent rape, and a horrible beating inflicted by one of the plantation’s owners — definitely seems realistic. But when Cora decides to flee to the North, the novel veers into a kind of alternative history, a world with fantastical elements that seem to heighten the horror of slavery and illustrate the exhaustingly extreme difficulty of escaping it.

Don’t be afraid to get wildly imaginative. Whitehead’s primary fictional innovation in this novel is to imagine that the Underground Railroad — the informal network set up by abolitionists to help fleeing slaves escape to the North — includes an actual underground railroad. Cora and another fugitive slave named Caesar are taken to a barn in the middle of the Georgia countryside; hidden beneath the hay on the barn’s floor are a trapdoor and a stone stairway leading down to a railroad platform. Steam locomotives speed through tunnels that stretch for hundreds of miles beneath the Southern states, stopping at stations that have to be carefully hidden from the local authorities. Whitehead allows his characters to marvel at the crazy improbability of the railroad in a conversation with Lumbly, the station agent:

Caesar could scarcely speak. “How far does the tunnel extend?”

Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”

“It must have taken years.”

“More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation, that took a bit of time.”

“Who built it?”

“Who builds anything in this country?”

The novel gets even more inventive after Cora and Caesar complete the first leg of the journey and arrive in South Carolina. In the book’s alternative history, South Carolina is a state where seemingly kindhearted white people take in fugitive slaves and help them change their identities and give them paying jobs. But the kindheartedness is a sham; the true purpose of the operation is to sterilize the slaves and perform medical experiments on them. It seems as if the novel has jumped ahead in time and conflated the horror of slavery with the horrors that followed emancipation. Cora manages to escape South Carolina and take the Underground Railroad to North Carolina, but the situation there is even worse: the state has outlawed black people entirely. All African-Americans found within the state’s borders are hung from the trees alongside a country road, which is dubbed the Freedom Trail. The image made me think of the lynchings and genocides of the 20th century, as well as the alt-right’s despicable vision of a white-only America.

It’s okay to straddle the line between literary fiction and commercial suspense. Colson Whitehead is no stranger to thriller writing; his best-selling 2011 novel Zone One is a fast and fun zombie-apocalypse story. And many parts of The Underground Railroad are suspenseful and gripping. In fact, the suspenseful parts of the book complement the poetic and thoughtful sections. The novel’s chases and kidnappings and shootouts prevent the story from getting too cerebral and didactic. Conversely, the characters’ brilliantly written musings about slavery and freedom and the history of America elevate the book above most historical thrillers. Whitehead gives the story a universal feel. Its themes are relevant to contemporary society, which is still plagued with racial prejudice and hatred.

It all comes down to caring about the characters. The key to the novel’s success is Cora. She’s a wonderful character. I can’t really do her justice here. You’ll have to read the book to see what I mean.


Setting Can Add Tension – Use it – First Page Critique: Dancing with the Well-Bred Devil

Jordan Dane


By Usien – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I will be traveling today for a bit of sun and fun. I’ll try to pop back when I can…IF I CAN. For my post, I offer the work of a gutsy anonymous submitter for a first page critique. I’ll have my feedback below. Please add to the conversation with your constructive comments so we can help this author with suggestions for him or her to consider.

The submitter added this insight into their work:

This is a murder mystery set in the early 1990s that digs into the dark, unseemly corners of academia where moral corruption and the abuse of power hide.


Club Orleans,
Sayreville, NJ
As Megan completed her sinuous corkscrew down the pole she saw him—Professor D.B., the last person she ever hoped to encounter here.

Holy. Fricking. Hell. She released the pole and strutted across the stage away from him, forced on her most seductive stage face, and hoped it hid the rush of fear that filled her stomach to overflowing. She managed to resist covering her all-but-naked breasts.

Her mind flooded with the image of the Psych Department chair dressing her down before sliding the letter across his pompous desk, the letter that would explain that she’d been kicked out of the grad program, and that she might as well pack up her apartment and move back to Gump-ville, Indiana, to the welcoming jeers of everyone who’d ever warned that she was too big for her britches. But it was the thought that followed that made her shudder—the thought of what good old D.B. might propose to keep his silence.

He couldn’t have recognized me. When she started dancing again, she’d gone to great lengths to morph her appearance—heavy make-up, huge eighties hair, costuming—and to transform her persona from Miss Quiet-Studious. Considering she only worked at clubs at least a half-hour from campus (and avoided the elite establishments altogether), she was certain she’d never see anyone from the program. Her transformation was good insurance nonetheless.

As she latched onto the life-preserver thought that D.B. couldn’t have recognized her, the fear dissipated. But what was he doing here? Look, make a last round and call it a night. Stay in persona and treat him like any other customer.

She worked her way around the rectangular bar that surrounded the stage, her nerves increasing proportionally as the number of bills in the elastic of her G-string grew. The whole time, she felt D.B.’s eyes crawling over her body. She suppressed another shudder.

And then she was facing him. “I hope you enjoyed my show.” She tried to keep the right level of sultry in her voice.

“Oh, it was . . . eye-opening, despite how much I missed.” D.B.’s eyes bored into her as he dangled a ten.” Miss . . . ?”

And in those eyes was the damning truth—he recognized her.


There is definitely a disturbance happening for Megan. Nothing like an unexpected visitor to your place of employment to rattle you, especially when you are half-naked and plying your best moves on a stripper pole. It’s hard to imagine why a graduate student would be stripping. The money must be good or she must be desperate for funds.

To have a professor be the one to find her is a solid set up. I don’t know why Megan calls him Professor D.B. by his initials for the reader. Why not just say his name since she’s in her head? I had to reread to see if DB is the chair of the Psych department and assumed DB wasn’t the big kahuna. I liked that the author didn’t drift into back story and stay there until the face off when Megan sees in his eyes that he recognizes her, but there is enough back story and “slow the pace” explanations that divert the reader’s attention from Megan’s mortifying moment of being recognized by someone from her graduate program.

This is definitely a page turner, but I would like to offer a few tidbits for the author to consider, to add layers to this intro. The writing is a little sparse and more can be woven into this intro to give a feel for how much Megan has at stake.

GENRE – If I only had this intro as a peek at the genre, I would’ve thought it to be a Harlequin Romance. There’s a hint of humor to Megan as a feisty heroine working her way through her graduate program. Is DB a soon-to-be love interest or a dastardly villain will to blackmail her into his sexual demands? What conflict would they have to sustain a whole novel? From this set up, I don’t know.

From the set up the anonymous author sent with the submission, we see that this is a murder mystery set in the 1990s and it’s about moral corruption and abuse of power in the academic world, but that’s not the feel of this intro. If Megan will be blackmailed by DB to keep her secret in exchange for sexual favors that will grow into a murder, then I would suggest the author layer in more mystery and the threat of coercion to this piece. The reader needs to see Megan’s fear and vulnerability at getting caught and her willingness to do anything to keep her secret. Beyond this short intro, the reader would need to feel her shame if her mother found out, or how her career plans would be dashed.

Words like “Gump-ville Indiana” and “too big for her britches” and “eighties hair” are meant for cliched humor. If this is not the intention with the rest of the story line, then why begin the book with implied humor?

SETTING – I like the world building of a good setting. It doesn’t have to be drawn out or slow the pace, but an effective setting can add to the emotional aspects of the scene. In this intro, I wonder if the setting can be an element of mystery to draw the reader into the scene, where it’s not completely clear where Megan is. The phrase “sinuous corkscrew down the pole” is a dead giveaway where she is and what she’s doing, but what if the description is vague and develops into something more as a tease. (The sample rewrite below was written hastily by me to illustrate the point of focusing on Megan, avoiding back story and adding more of a threat from DB. I’m sure the anonymous author could do better.)


Through the blinding lights of the small stage, Megan caught a familiar silhouette—a tall man standing in the shadows apart from the rest. Something triggered a memory and made her think of him, but he vanished as soon as his face came into her mind. Spirals of smoke clouded the air as she moved and the music built to a crescendo. Her big finish would be next. Her fake eyelashes made it harder to search the crowd for the last person she expected to see.

Please…it can’t be him.

She strayed from her usual routine to stay in the murky corners near the velvet curtain and worked the edge of the stage until she felt the heat off the horde of faceless patrons and heard the low grumbles from her regulars. Megan couldn’t avoid her big finale. She had a reputation to uphold, but as she strutted across the stage and into the spotlight toward the shiny brass stripper pole, she sensed the laser heat off his eyes—Professor D.B. from her Psych department graduate program.

He’d stepped closer to the stage—and her.

After she turned her back on him and reached for the brass pole, she hoisted her body into her signature spiral that had the men hollering for more. With every turn and every impossible stretch of her limber body, she searched the shadows and hoped the professor hadn’t recognized her. She had troweled on enough makeup where her own sweet mother wouldn’t recognize her.

Her future, everything she had worked for, would be riding on whether she had only imagined Professor D. B. in the front row. Adrenaline raged through her body as heat flushed to her cheeks. Oh, God, please no.

OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS THAT MIGHT ENHANCE INTRO – Here are a few questions that came to my mind that may keep the focus on Megan and the tension, rather than dipping a toe into back story. The back story is sparingly used, but it’s there. It starts in the 3rd paragraph and is threaded through as Megan thinks of the ramifications of getting caught because D.B. might recognize her.

With open-ended, the author can put his or her take on the answers that might make it into a rewrite, to put their own spin on the story. I’ve found that by offering open-ended questions, the author usually comes back with something far better than my rewrite. It’s their story and their characters.

1.) When Megan spots D.B., is she upside down or spinning on a pole with stage lights? This would make it harder for her to see him clearly. She’d have to change her routine to peer through the silhouettes of men and hands touching her costume. It could add to the tension if she catches a glimpse of him, but he disappears–or build up her stress as she sees a familiar face without letting the reader know who she spots until the last minute.

2.) Does she change her routine because she’s afraid of taking off everything if it’s him? Or maybe she does awkward poses to get a better look at the crowd, like looking between her legs upside down. How do patrons of the club react as she changes her routine?

3.) What does the club look like, smell like? Setting might add to her stress if it’s the same “grind” – pardon the pun.


In the sentences below, there are words to clean up. I’m not trying to offer different writing. I’d like to use the author’s words to start and clean up from there. I don’t begin sentences with “And,” don’t embed dialogue lines within a paragraph, and try to build stronger sentences and delete uses of “was.”


And then she was facing him. “I hope you enjoyed my show.” She tried to keep the right level of sultry in her voice.

“Oh, it was . . . eye-opening, despite how much I missed.” D.B.’s eyes bored into her as he dangled a ten.” Miss . . . ?”

And in those eyes was the damning truth—he recognized her.


“I hope you enjoyed the show.” She fought to sound sultry as she came face-to-face with him.

“Oh, it was…eye opening, despite how much I missed.” DB’s eyes drilled into her as he dangled a ten. “Miss…?”

In his eyes were the damning truth. He recognized her.

Thanks to the author for their submission. I wish you luck on your project. For discussion, please comment with your feedback. Thank you.

1.) Is this a page turning submission for you?

2.) What suggestions would you make for this author?

3.) Bonus points for PUNS in your comments.


Take Cover!

By John Gilstrap

My research for the Jonathan Grave series exposes me to some pretty cool stuff.  Having never done the kind of work that Jonathan and his team do, the initial learning curve was pretty steep, and it will get steep again if I don’t stay current on tactics and technologies.  A few weeks ago, I took a terrific class called Active Threat Response through Elite Shooting Sports in Manassas, Virginia.  The focus of the class was on clearing rooms where bad guys are expected to be holed up.  It was a Simunitions class, meaning that everybody had real guns that fired wicked little paint pellets that sting like crap when they hit.  Instructors call that a “pain penalty” and I confess it adds real stress to simulated encounters.  I learned a great deal during that class, and I thought I would combine those lessons with some others I’ve picked up over the years into a blog post.

They’re staples of every police drama:

As cruisers skid to a halt to confront a bad guy, cops throw their doors open and take a knee behind the sheet metal, using the panel for cover as they aim their weapons through the window opening.  Maybe the officers in the car next to them will be aiming their weapons across the hood of their car.


The SWAT team makes its way down an apartment building’s cinder-block hallway to confront the barricaded bad guy. (All too often, the SWAT team is stacked up behind the plain-clothed detective who happens to be the star of the show–but that BS is for a different post).  To prevent exposing themselves to return fire, they’re pressed up against the same wall that houses the door to the target apartment.


The good-hearted hero goes muzzle-to-muzzle with the bad guy, shouting, “Put it down or I’ll shoot!”

Well . . . no.  We’ll take them in order.

A car door provides exactly zero reliable cover.  Barring the off chance that incoming fire will hit one of the steel mechanical components inside the door, a full metal jacketed bullet will pass through a car door with relatively little loss in energy.  And let’s not forget the exposed knees below the door and the exposed face and shoulders above the door.  Not a good source of cover.

The guy aiming over the hood is in better shape tactically because he’s got the more-or-less impenetrable engine block as cover, but the exposed shoulders and face continue to be a problem.  That problem is exacerbated by the risk of a poorly-aimed incoming round ricocheting off the surface of the hood and into his face.  The smart move when using the engine block as cover is to peek around the wheel well and headlights while exposing as little of yourself as possible.

Before getting to the scenario of the guys in the hallway, I need to clarify that when it comes to SWAT tactics, there are as many procedure books as there are teams.  Different teams clear buildings different ways, so the point here is to give you some things to think about.

All else being equal, an armed bad guy holed up in a room has a huge initial advantage over the team that’s coming in to get him. If the bad guy is willing to die as part of the transaction, his initial advantage is even greater.  If there’s only one accessible door, the bad guy knows exactly where his attackers are coming from, and that gives him a free first shot.

Let’s say the hero cop in your story needs to clear a room on the right-hand side of the hallway. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll say the door is already open.  If he approaches along the right-hand wall, he has zero visibility into the room until he’s right on top of it.  Then, in order to do the job that needs to be done, he’s got to swing out and expose at least half of his body to whatever the villain has planned.  That’s bad.

Each dot in the picture is the same person, advancing with baby steps.

The smart move is to approach along the left-hand side of the hallway.  As your hero approaches the open door, he moves with tiny steps, his weapon up and ready to shoot.  As that plane of the doorway opens a little at a time, your good guy exposes only a tiny sliver of his body, a little at a time, and that exposed sliver is the one that holds a gun, ready to shoot first or shoot back.  Incoming fire would require extraordinary marksmanship on the part of the bad guy.  This tactic is call “slicing the pie,” and it’s more or less the same maneuver that would be used to turn a blind corner.

In general, it is always a bad idea to advance too closely to a solid wall surface like cinder block or concrete because of the risk of ricochet.  By definition, ricochets have expended much of their energy on initial impact, but the closer you are to the point of impact, the worse the damage will be.

As for the muzzle-to-muzzle trope, I throw that in as a way to introduce the concept that a “fair fight” is anathema to every police and military agency I’m aware of. From the law enforcement officer’s point of view, the threat of overwhelming violence saves lives, but sometimes the threat becomes reality.  No sane person who has the means to defend himself would try to out-talk a bullet.


First Page Critique:
Naked Came the Stranger

John William Waterhouse’s “Naiad.” (1893)

By PJ Parrish

I am way behind on my First Page duties, so I hope you all don’t mind taking a look at another, coming right behind yesterday’s submission by Clare. This is an odd one, in that I am not quite sure what to make of it.  I know it’s a mere 400 words or so, but it’s hard to tell what kind of book we are dealing with here.  Your comments, TKZers, are always welcome.

The Artist and the Model

Blake Everette loved painting seascapes. He enjoyed the rock outcroppings around Smugglers Cove. While descending the steep path down the cliff, he noticed two Sea-Otters playing on the rocks. He found a spot he liked near the south end of the beach, away from the path. Before he set up his easel, he grabbed his sketchpad to sketch the Otters. But, soon they left, swimming off. Blake set the sketch aside thinking: Perhaps, I’ll add the Otters to today’s painting.

Blake worked all morning, painting. At noon he stopped for lunch. He grabbed a sandwich and a beer from his backpack, sat on the dune, sandwich in one hand and a beer in the other. Soon, a movement on the rocky outcrop drew his attention. His first thought: The Otters are back. He reached for the sketchpad. Yet, on closer inspection, he realized: It’s not the Otters … it’s a person. From his distance, he couldn’t tell gender.

The figure walked along the rock stretching its arms and legs. Before long, it dove into the sea and swam outward, with powerful confident strokes. After a hundred yards, it turned back. The swimmer reached the shore, ten-yards from Blake. At that point, gender was not in doubts—it was a woman. Her swimsuit was a piece of red material, held in place by a red cord around her hips—other than that, she’s naked.

“Hi there,” she waved.

“High yourself,” Blake replied, “It’s a bit cold for swimming?”

“A little—but invigorating.”

“I paint here often, and you’re new.”

“I usually swim further up the coast. But I’ve had trouble there. I heard of this spot—deserted—thought I’d give it a try.”

“What sort of trouble?”

She cupped her breast in both hands, “Some people don’t appreciate nude swimmers on their beach.” She dropped her hands, looked straight at him, “Does it bother you—nudity?”

He slipped his sunglasses down and looked over the frames. “Not a bit.” He sat down, “I see nothing unpleasing to these eyes.”

“Ha, ha,” she laughed, dropping to her knees. “I like you,” she smiled. “You’re not like the other older people around here.”

“I don’t consider myself old. But, I’m fair and reasonable,” he said.

“It was a compliment. And as for age, I didn’t mean to imply…” she covered her mouth, blushing.

“No harm done—the truth is: I’m not as young as I once was.”

“In that context—neither am I,” she giggled.

“My name is Blake, by the way.”

She extended her hand, “Nice to meet you Blake—I’m Nancy … Nancy March.”


Okay, we’re back and all goose-pimply from our nude dip in the sea. As I said, I haven’t the foggiest idea what genre we’re in here, so I will assume the story will reveal, eventually, a crime element given our bent here at TKZ.  Or maybe it’s romance. So let’s consider our usual basic question about good openings: Has something been “disturbed?” Well, I guess seeing a naked woman emerge from the surf is disturbing, so yes, we might read on.

But there’s a strange lack of emotion on Blake’s part about all this. I write a series about a male protagonist, so I have to, well, try to think like a man. I’ve been living in Louis’s head for 15 years, so usually it’s not an issue. If you want to write fiction, you must be able to write credibly outside your own experience and gender. But once, I got stumped. I was writing a scene where Louis comes upon a woman sunbathing topless. I knew he had to react, but I couldn’t figure out exactly how. So I asked my husband, “what would you do?”  He said, “I would look but pretend not to.”

I guess what I am looking for in this submission is some kind of reaction from Blake — and not just about a naked woman. We are TOLD that he loves to paint. We are TOLD that he enjoys this particular cove. He seems charmed by otters. Yet when a naked naiad appears before him, he has no thoughts, no emotions, no nothing. Even when the woman makes the oddly sexual motion of cupping her breasts.

Also, there’s a little bit of throat-clearing. Why begin at the morning with all the busy-business of him setting up, stopping for lunch, etc? Pick up the scene later, maybe when he pauses to take a drink of beer and then sees the woman? There are also some logic issues. What exactly is this woman wearing? I’m thinking it’s some kind of red bathing suit, bottoms only? But from a distance, he mistakes the “figure” as a brown otter?

We also have myriad typos and mistakes in here. Yes, we all make them, but we have to strive for a certain level of professionalism, even in a rough draft submission. Let’s take a closer look:

Blake Everette loved painting seascapes. You’re telling me; show me this through his thoughts and actions. He enjoyed the rock outcroppings around Smugglers Cove. While descending the steep path down the cliff, he noticed two Sea-Otters why capped?playing on the rocks. He found a spot he liked near the south end of the beach, away from the path. Before he set up his easel, he grabbed his sketchpad to sketch the Otters. But, soon they left, swimming swam off. Blake set the sketch aside thinking: Perhaps, I’ll add the Otters to today’s painting.  Maybe I can add the otters in later to today’s painting, Blake thought. Don’t use “academic” punctuation like colons to convey thought.

Blake worked all morning, painting. At noon he stopped for lunch. I’d suggest starting here. He grabbed a sandwich and a beer from his backpack, sat on the dune, sandwich in one hand and a beer in the other. Don’t need to tell us that. Soon, a movement on the rocky outcrop drew his attention. His first thought: His first thought was that the otters were back and he reached for his sketchpad. But then he realized it was a person. The Otters are back. He reached for the sketchpad. Yet, on closer inspection, he realized: It’s not the Otters … it’s a person. From his distance, how far? he couldn’t tell gender.

The figure walked along the rock stretching its arms and legs then Before long, it dove into the sea and swam outward, with powerful confident strokes. After a hundred yards, it turned back. The swimmer reached the shore, ten-yards from Blake. A little confusing here. When he first noticed the figure, it was so far away he couldn’t tell it was a naked woman. She swam 100 yds out and came back, but somehow ended up 10 yds from Blake? I thought she began way down the beach? 

 At that point, Go right into a reaction here. gender was not in doubts—it was a woman. Her swimsuit was a piece of red material, held in place by a red cord around her hips—other than that, she’s naked. A tense lapse.

“Hi there,” she waved. “waved” is not an attribution verb. She waved and then said. 

“High ???yourself,” Blake replied, “It’s a bit cold for swimming?” Seems a strange thing for a man to say to a naked lady. Unless you made it a visual point that maybe her skin is all goose-pimply? You don’t give us much visual to go on here at all. You missed a chance to SHOW us what the woman looks like via his thoughts. This whole scene is oddly bloodless. It might work to tell us before this how cold the day is. 

“A little—but invigorating.”

“I paint here often, and you’re new.” Again, this seems an odd thing to say. I am dying to know what this man is THINKING! Go into his thoughts a little. What is he feeling? Shy? Embarrassed? Turned on? He’s not even curious! At the very least, you are missing a chance to slip in a little backstory ie: He had been painting at Smuggler’s Cove every morning since he had moved here two years ago. He knew everyone in the village, from the old woman at the post office who remembered he liked bird stamps to the skinny kid who never seemed to remember he liked his newspaper tossed on the porch.  But this woman…he had never seen her before. WHERE ARE WE? Blue Hill, Maine? North Vancouver? There are always ways to gracefully slip this info in early on.

“I usually swim further up the coast. But I’ve had trouble there. This is the first indication of intrigue. I heard of this spot—deserted—thought I’d give it a try.”

“What sort of trouble?” Again, this begs for a quick thought. Maybe this is where you can tell us where we are? He can think that up the coast in Mendocino (or whatever), there had been trouble with kids on the beach…or something. Don’t miss small opportunities to insert details about setting.

She cupped her breast in both hands, I think you mean she cupped her breasts? Or do you mean she is trying to cover herself? Cupping is provocative. Folding her arms across her chest implies modesty. “Some people don’t appreciate nude swimmers on their beach.” She dropped her hands, looked straight at him, “Does it bother you—nudity?” A bunch of punctuation mistakes here and/or missing attribution.

He slipped his sunglasses down and looked over the frames. “Not a bit.” He sat down, “I see nothing unpleasing to these eyes.”

“Ha, ha,” she laughed, dropping to her knees. “I like you,” she smiled. “You’re not like the other older people around here.”

I’m only thirty-four, he thought. (slips in backstory!)  But he guessed that the woman was maybe twenty, so perhaps she considered him old.  We also get NO description of the woman other than she’s wearing a red bathing suit bottom. Perfect place to SHOW us what she looks like via Blake’s point of view. “I don’t consider myself old. But, I’m fair and reasonable,” he said. What does that mean, I’m fair and reasonable? 

“It was a compliment. And as for age, I didn’t mean to imply…” she covered her mouth, blushing. This woman, given her provocative actions thus far, does not strike me as someone who blushes easily.

“No harm done—the truth is: Lose the colons! I’m not as young as I once was.”

“In that context—neither am I,” she giggled. What context?

“My name is Blake, by the way.”

She extended her hand, period. “Nice to meet you Blake—I’m Nancy … Nancy March.”


As I said, we’re handicapped by our 400-word limit, so it’s hard to tell where we’re going or what kind of world we’re entering here. But my main suggestion, dear writer, is that you slow down and little and add some emotional meat to these bones. The situation is intriguing, but because you haven’t given much of a context in setting or in your main character’s thoughts and emotions, I feel…well, at sea.


First Page Critique: The Heights of Valor

Happy Monday TKZers! Today, I have a first page critique that I think is really terrific – which means I don’t have a lot of comments as a result (though I have some you can read at the end). I think this submission demonstrates what a tight, well-written, historically authentic first page should look like!


Platteville, Wisconsin

April 26, 1898

The white-haired man behind the desk threw the newspaper down on the blotter. “It is completely out of the question,” Jeremiah Dawson sat back in the leather chair and stroked his beard. “The semester is not yet over. If you fail to complete the term, you shall not graduate with your class next year.”

The well-built young man sitting in front of his elder responded with a sober nod. “I am aware of that, Father. After my service in Cuba, I can return to the campus and take my final examinations. I have spoken to my professors. My standing in the class has earned me some measure of…leeway, let’s call it.”

“Charles, I–”

The young man leaned forward. “If you’re concerned about me delaying my joining the firm, rest assured, Father, I have every intention of coming back here once I complete law school. When the new century dawns, I will be here, at your right hand. Just as you and Mother planned all these years.” He sat back, crossed his legs and joined his hands. “I know that was her wish, God rest her soul.”

“It was most certainly not her wish for her only son to become cannon fodder.” The older man frowned, then stood, boosting himself up with a hand on the heavy oak desk. He reached for a cane. “You have no idea,” he whispered, shaking his head. He walked to the display case on the far wall of the office, unable to hide his limp. Pausing before the case, he placed a hand on it. “Son, war is not a lark. It is not…it is not some grand adventure.”

The young man stood, tugged at his waistcoat, and strode confidently to his father’s side. He moved with the easy grace of an athlete, and indeed he was one of the best boxers at the University of Wisconsin. He’d also taken up polo, further developing the horsemanship skills he’d honed riding through the ridges and valleys of Grant County. Fully three inches taller than his father, he stood next to the old man and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I understand that, Father,” he said. “Truly, I do.”

“That is not possible. You have not seen the elephant.” He flipped the latch and raised the glass lid. Reverently, he reached down and touched the old sword that rested on the red velvet. “If it is glory and adventure you desire, Cuba is the last place you shall find it.”


I think this is a great first page. The conversation between Charles and his father has a nice balance of tension, affection, and drama when it comes to why Charles wants to go serve in Cuba. I found this first page compelling and I would certainly continue reading. Even after just one page I have a good sense of the relationship between father and son, their expectations, and the conflict between them. I can already visualize both characters and have an understanding of who they are and what motivates them. Without having a whole lot of historical information, there’s just enough provided to set the scene and the dialogue and descriptions provided feel authentic for the time period.

If I was to be nitpicky I might say there were just a tad too many adjectives and description for Charles but that really didn’t bother me (although I was wondering if the writer meant ‘somber’ nod as opposed to ‘sober’ nod). I wasn’t totally sure about the reference to the elephant (seemed a strange nickname for a sword) but again, that didn’t bother me. Overall, I think this first page is tightly written and compelling. Bravo, to our brave submitter!

So TKZers, what comments or advice would you provide?