Way Too Much Information

John Gilstrap
Last week, you may have noticed (I certainly hope you did) that I was MIA from my blogging duties thanks to an emergency cholecystectomy. That’s what normal people would call the separation of one’s gallbladder from one’s viscera. Mine had decided to die on me, and it turned out it had intentions to take the rest of me with it. Murderous bastard. In the end, good triumphed over evil, with Mr. GB incinerated in a medical waste bag, and its betrayed sponsor going home to his family.

I had suspected for a few weeks that my gallbladder was plotting against me. Even as two sonograms confirmed that no calculi (gallstones) were present, and that there was no telltale thickening of the organ’s walls—the two diagnostic indicators of cholecystitis—my symptoms persisted, including vomiting and the feeling that a woodland animal was trying to eat its way out of my abdomen. I’m no doctor, but I know when stuff’s not right, and that stuff was not right.

But it also was not perpetual (thank God). My worst attack lasted about 12 hours; most would run their course in four or five hours. When they were done, and I’d had a chance to rehydrate, I would feel more or less normal. Not so the past six weeks, however, in which I had multiple attacks. We’re talking Technicolor attacks here, shot in biological 3-D VistaVision, complete with Dolby sound. As tests came back negative, I was actually disappointed. I knew what I had, dammit. Why wouldn’t the doctors stake their reputations and their futures on my intuition?

The Alamo of gallbladder tests is the HIDA scan (hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid). They inject a nuclear tracer into a vein, and then you lie under a camera for an hour. I actually fell asleep. That is, until the results uncovered my gallbladder’s murder plot. From there, it was directly to the ER, and from there to the OR.

During those few weeks when no one could prove what everyone suspected, I did research on my own. The Internet teems with information on cholecystitis and cholecystectomies. You can actually watch videos of full operations. I learned a lot about laparoscopic procedures and about the function of the gallbladder. Since this was my first medical procedure of any import, and because my personality borders on obsessive-compulsive, my thirst for knowledge was insatiable.

And for all that, I never did find the common-sense answers to the practical questions that concerned me the most. So, with the guarantee of providing way too much information, here, for the benefit of others, are the answers I wish I had found (not that the answers would have changed anything):

1. Yes, they shave you for laparoscopic surgery. Crown of my head notwithstanding, I am a fairly furry fellow, and at the risk of sounding vain, this is the summer season, and, well, you know. I was concerned. For good cause. They mowed everything from the right of mid-left abdomen, from nipple line to pubic line. They do it after you’re sedated. Now that it’s done, the cosmetics worry me less than the prospect of a lot of itching over the next few weeks. (Months? I have no idea how long it takes to grow back.)

2. Urinary catheterization is not a routine part of laparoscopic surgery. Unless your name is John Gilstrap. Turns out that the opiates they use to anaesthetize you and control your pain have the side effect of paralyzing the urinary sphincter at the same time while your kidneys are processing the flood of liquids they’re receiving from your IV. In all fairness, they gave me ample opportunity to urinate through normal means, but there comes a point of no return. As soon as they tapped me, I filled the bag with slightly more than a liter of liquid. (Hey, I warned you about TMI!) At the time, I confess that the relief of pressure trumped the discomfort of the catheter. I later learned that I’d been tapped by an I/O catheter (in & out, I think), the little baby of the catheter family.

3. The Foley catheter is a whole different animal than the I/O catheter. My case differed from most cholecystectomies because during the removal procedure, the surgeon discovered impacted calculi in my common bile duct, prompting a second emergency procedure (an ERCP—endoscopic retrograde cholangeopancreatography) the following day. When I returned to my room from the ERCP, my urinary bladder had officially taken the day off, and the guy who mans the sphincter was pissed (rimshot!). My kidneys, meanwhile, were churning like a Kentucky still. The nurses broke the news: I needed “long-term” catheterization.

3a. Note to nurses everywhere: When you’re talking about shoving a 15-inch tube into a man’s winkie, you have to choose your words carefully. I heard “long term” and panicked. Turns out they were thinking along the lines of 18 hours. Sorry, ma’am, but unless you’re a fruit fly, 18 hours is “short term.”
3b. Second note to nurses everywhere: I was wrong. Eighteen hours is freaking eternity when you’re tied to your bed by your winkie. They tell you you can get up and walk with that snake installed, but it’s a trick that requires staff. With one hand on the IV pole and the other trying to preserve some dignity despite the open-backed gown, I never figured out what I was supposed to do with the eight-pound bag of effluent. One of my nurse-technicians was kind enough to show me how I could actually hook the collection bag to the IV stand, but during his demonstration, the bag rose higher than winkie-level for a moment, and let me assure you that it’s a very special sensation to have urine run back into your body. (How’s that meal sitting, dear Killzoners?)

4. Panic aside, none of the catheter/winkie nightmares you have during the night come true. Once it’s removed, everything functions just fine.

5. A two-day hospital stay for laparoscopic surgery makes you fat—but only for a while. Between the gas they pumped into my belly for the surgery and the fluids they flowed into me to keep me alive, I came home with three inches more girth than when I first checked in. Good news: physical activity (i.e. walking) triggers the mechanisms to relieve the discomfort. Bad news: you don’t want to be in genteel company when those mechanisms kick in. I literally peed away six pounds in my first 24 hours at home. As for the residual gas, well, you get rid of that exactly how you would imagine.

5a. Suggestion for all scheduled surgery patients: If you have the luxury to plan your trip to the OR, first go to your local Salvation Army Thrift Store and buy a pair of pants that are way wider than your current waist size, and plan to wear them on your trip home. You’ll thank me for this one.

I apologize that none of this is topical to the subject of this blog, but since you’ve read this far, allow me one last indulgence. I write books about people who save the lives of perfect strangers, but this is the first time that I’ve ever played the role of the stranger. People I’d never met literally worked overtime to return me to my family with a shining prognosis. I make light here, but understand that the humor is a cover. How do I return that kind of favor? The phrase, “thank you,” seems sort of hollow under the circumstances, but it’s all I’ve got.

So, listen up, Dr. Trad, Dr. Shah, Dr. Aziz, and the entire nursing staff at Reston Hospital Center: On behalf of my entire family, thank you.

Konrath & AmazonEncore strike a deal

by Michelle Gagnon

I’m a huge fan of Joe Konrath‘s ‘Jack’ Daniels series (written under “J. A Konrath”). So it was with tremendous excitement that I read this news:

Amazon.com, Inc. today announced that AmazonEncore, Amazon’s publishing imprint, will release the newest book in bestselling author J.A. Konrath’s Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels series, “Shaken.”

This is a huge step forward, both for Joe and for Amazon’s imprint, which traditionally has only published reprints of self-published books by new authors, not original titles from known authors.
Clearly Amazon is now throwing the gauntlet to the traditional publishing houses, starting with a writer who has already carved out a name for himself by publishing over a dozen books using Amazon’s Digital Text Platform (in addition to his success in the traditional publishing milieu).

Joe played coy regarding the actual details of his advance with AmazonEncore, saying only that he received a very favorable contract. The digital version of the book will be available on Kindle four months before the print version.

So what does it all mean? It brought to mind an interview a few weeks ago with a Newsweek editor. Responding to the news that Newsweek had been offered for sale, he said that he felt they’d been doing things backward in recent years, compiling a weekly magazine while simultaneously offering daily articles on Newsweek.com. In the future, he thinks the most viable model will be to start with the daily articles, compiling the most popular into a print edition at the end of every week for readers (such as myself) who prefer reading in print form.
In other words, the online content will drive the print content, not vice versa.

Coming on the heels of my post last week about the recent uptick in digital vs. print sales, this was big news. I’ve felt for a long time that if Amazon got their act together by offering Kindles at a lower price point (which hasn’t happened yet, but must be on the horizon), they could easily position themselves to dominate the industry, effectively cutting out traditional publishing houses. They already have massive marketing and distribution resources at their disposal. All they’d have to do was hire a team of editors, and offer the mainstays of the industry (Patterson, King, Child, Steel, etc) a larger percentage of the royalties. As Konrath says in his press release, “[This] company can email every single person who has every bought one of my books through their website, plus millions of potential new customers. I’ve never had that kind of marketing power behind one of my novels. I’d be an idiot not to do this.”

As with the music industry, what I suspect will end up happening is a consolidation of the various houses into a few major players (with, most likely, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple among them). A few months ago the industry seemed to wake up to this threat, leading to the “agency model” battles between MacMillan and Amazon. (The “agency” model is based on the idea that the publisher, not the vendor, is selling to the consumer and, therefore, setting the price.)

I think that in the end what the publishers need to fear is not that Amazon will set the prices for their new releases, but that they’ll take them over entirely.

I’m not saying this is good news for writers-it remains to be seen if this will lead to a larger publishing base, or a more narrow one. But it does appear to be the first volley over the decks in the coming battle.


What is sellthrough?

By Joe Moore

Someone emailed me the other day and asked what sellthrough means in regard to publishing. Sellthrough is one of those buzzwords that helps a publisher evaluate their current and future relationship with a writer. It’s determined by the amount of books that were shipped and paid for, and it’s expressed as a percentage. For instance, let’s say a writer had a print run of 5000 books and the publisher shipped 4000 (orders). Of those, they received payment for 3500. The sellthrough would be 87.5% since 3500 is 87.5% of 4000. And a sellthrough that high would be a very good thing.

Now, the next question sent to me was: How important is sellthrough in the eyes of the publisher?

For that answer, I went to my friend Neil Nyren. Neil is senior vice president, publisher and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Here’s his response:

“Sellthrough is important for a couple of reasons. Every book has returns, no matter how successful it is – that’s just the nature of the business. But returned books cost money. We’ve printed and shipped them, but they haven’t sold, and so now all we can hope to do is sell them as remainders. So the fewer books that come back, the better the potential profit picture, for both the publisher and the author.

“Sellthrough is also an important indication of the traction a writer is acquiring in the marketplace. If your sellthrough is 80%, that means the books are sticking and the accounts have a positive history with you (after all, for every five books they ordered, they sold four). And that means a publisher can use that as a springboard to get them to order more copies next time (“Look how well you did!”). It’s an indication that – even if the figures are still small – there may well be growth potential there. It’s a very positive sign – and we can use all the positive signs we can get!”

So for all the published authors out there, it’s easy to calculate your sellthrough. Check your statement and divide the number of books sold by the number shipped—some publishers even calculate the sellthrough for you and display it on the statement. In the above example, the answer is .875 or 87.5%. For those who aren’t published yet, when you finally do get your first statement, you’ll already know one number to watch for that can tell you and the publisher a great deal about how you’re doing.

Download FRESH KILLS, Tales from the Kill Zone to your Kindle or PC today.


Where is Kathryn?

lilleyOur lovely and talented blogmate, Kathryn Lilley, will be taking a medical hiatus for a while. As she makes a speedy recovery, we are going to open up Tuesday’s as a general discussion day for any topics relating to publishing and writing (or anything else you think we can answer). Is there a term or buzzword you’ve heard but don’t quite understand? Are foreign rights a mystery? Do all contracts pay an advance against royalties? What’s the difference between a novel and a novella? How can you get a discount when ordering those free-range eggs from Miller?

Post your question in the comments and we’ll try to answer any and all for the next few weeks while Kathryn is away. So let us know what’s on your mind but were always afraid to ask.

BTW, I’ll be discussing the term Sellthrough in my post tomorrow so be sure and come back for that.


What’s wrong with readin’ that?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

The Guardian book blog recently had a piece entitled nothin‘ wrong with teen fiction’ which discusses the ‘raised eyebrow and indrawn breath’ that we all remember so well when we were caught reading something that was (disapprovingly) considered ‘teen fiction’. You remember the books – the ones by Judy Blume or VC Andrews – the ones that your teacher regarded as something akin to eating Lucky Charms for breakfast rather than whole-grain granola, in the belief that teenagers should be eating a diet of classics by the likes of the Brontes, Jane Austen or Charles Dickens.

Now that I am in the midst of final edits to my own young adult WIP, I am reminded of the snobbishness with which high school teachers seemed to regard these popular teen books and I’m starting to wonder, with the advent of bestselling series such as Harry Potter and Twilight, whether the same prejudices still apply when it comes to genre or mass-market teen fiction. Are teachers still curling their upper lips and flaring their nostrils or are they just relieved to see teens reading anything at all?

My own guilty pleasures as a young teenager included Len Deighton and Alistair MacLean thrillers, a drippy historical girls’ school series in which I got to channel my fantasies of going to a Swiss finishing school and marrying a doctor, and various TV/movie tie-in books which had all the literary merit as a bowl of cocoa puffs. I have to also confess to devouring Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, but at least this was something my English teacher could relate to…she reserved her horror for the girls who tried to do book reports on novels by Jackie Collins or Danielle Steel.

There is only one book, however, that I remember was (virtually) banned at my school. It was a coming of age book called Puberty Blues and for a young teenager (I must have been about 12 at the time) the fact that my own mother disapproved of it was enough to ensure that I had to clandestinely procure a copy. Now I think back I can’t understand what all the fuss was about – except for the sex and drugs there was nothing controversial:) Today’s teenagers would no doubt think it very lame.
So here’s my question – what books do you remember drawing the ire of your parents and teachers? What ‘teen fiction’ books were you guilty of enjoying? Do you think any of this snobbery has changed or are popular teen books still looked down and frowned upon?

Boyd Morrison Interview

James Scott Bell

Boyd Morrison does not know what he wants to be when he grows up. So along the way in his life’s trek he got himself a PhD in industrial engineering, worked on the Space Station Freedom project at Johnson Space Center, got some really tough duty managing an Xbox games group at Microsoft, was and still is a professional actor . . . and, oh yeah, made a little stop on TV to became a Jeopardy champion.

One other little item: he’s got a hot new novel that just came out from Simon & Schuster. It’s called The Ark.

Boyd’s journey to publication covers about 13 years, and I wanted to interview him for TKZ because I saw someone who approached this whole business wisely and systematically. In this interview, along with everything else, you’ll find Boyd’s tips about getting the most from a conference. Pure gold. Be sure to learn more about Boyd at his website, BoydMorrison.com.

JSB: Publication of your novel, The Ark, is a success story with a unique background. How did you get the idea?

BM: Engineers usually get a raw deal in thriller fiction, which is something I pay attention to because I’m an engineer myself. When the strapping hero needs some critical piece of technology to save the world, he turns to an engineer for said object or solution and then proceeds to kick butt (think James Bond getting his gadgets from Q or Captain Kirk demanding more power from Scotty). And I got sick of that, so I decided to cut out the middleman and create an action hero named Tyler Locke who IS an engineer. Nerds rule!

While I was looking for an adventure for Tyler to swashbuckle through, I saw a documentary on the search for Noah’s Ark. I’m a skeptic by nature, so my first thought was, “Yeah right. They’re going to find a 6,000-year-old ship intact on a snowy mountaintop.” But then I got the inkling of an idea: maybe the reason we’ve never found Noah’s Ark was because we had been deceived all these years as to its true location. And maybe the Ark held such a terrible secret that it could very well mean the end of mankind if it were ever found again. Noah was the first engineer (who else but an engineer could build the Ark?), so it was the perfect object for Tyler to search for.

JSB: How did you get an agent to represent The Ark?

BM: The Ark was the third book I wrote, so I had already gone through two rounds of rejections from agents (both of those books have since been acquired by Simon & Schuster). But I had gotten pretty good at pitching my novels, and I’m a big believer in meeting agents in person. It’s so much easier to get your first three chapters read by an agent when you can put “Requested Materials” on the envelope. So I attended the very first Agentfest at the Thrillerfest conference in 2007.

Today Agentfest is done speed-dating style, but the first Agentfest was more leisurely paced, with an agent sitting at each of the tables during the luncheon session. I was late to the luncheon, so I snagged a seat at the very last table. Irene Goodman, who is a highly regarded agent, was attending because she was looking at extending her client list to include thriller authors. She asked every aspiring author at the table to give her their pitch. I had practiced mine so that I could rattle it off. It went like this:

“A relic from Noah’s Ark gives a religious fanatic and his followers a weapon that will let them recreate the effects of the biblical flood, and former combat engineer Tyler Locke has seven days to find the Ark and the secret hidden inside before it’s used to wipe out civilization again.”

I could have stopped at the words “Noah’s Ark” because once she heard them she asked to read the first three chapters. I was still working on my own revisions, so it took a couple of months before it was ready to send to her. She told me later that she started to wonder if I’d forgotten about her, but she was one of the first agents I sent it to (I sent it to my five highest agent choices as a simultaneous submission).

She got the chapters on a Monday, read them right away, and then called me when she was done. That day. I practically keeled over in my chair when I got the phone call because no agent had ever called me before. She said she loved the beginning and asked me if I would mind overnighting the rest of the manuscript (note to aspiring authors: it’s a good sign when the agent is that eager to get the manuscript). I told her I’d have to think about…oh, who am I kidding? I was already in the car on the way to the post office before she had finished her question.

Irene received the manuscript on a Tuesday, and I figured it would be at least a week before she got back to me. She called on Thursday. With an offer of representation. This time, I did keel over. But I pulled it together and told her I would have to contact the other agents who had it before I could give her an answer. After a few frantic phone calls to the other agents who had the submission, I called Irene back on Friday and said I would love for her to be my agent.

Again, all of this was in 2007. So for those of you who think getting an agent means a smooth path to publication, I’d like to remind you that it’s now 2010. The book that Irene snapped up in five days took three years to get published.

JSB: You have been very good not only about attending the top conferences, but getting the most out of them by meeting people, networking and so on. What tips can you give unpublished writers in this regard?

BM: Virtually every person I know in the writing and publishing industry I met at conferences, so I highly recommend that unpublished writers attend them. I could write twenty pages on writers conferences, but I’ll boil it down to a few key points.

Know why you’re going

Attending a conference is well worth the time and money when you know what you want to get out of it. If you want to meet agents, going to a conference like Bouchercon or Left Coast Crime will be a waste of time because few agents attend them, and then it’s usually to serve on a panel, not to search for prospective clients. But if you want to meet writers and readers, Bcon and LCC are perfect. There are plenty of conferences featuring agents looking for new clients. Check out the back of Writer’s Digest magazine for conferences near you.

Don’t be afraid

Everyone I’ve met at conferences was incredibly welcoming to me when I was unpublished. No one looks down on unpublished authors. In fact, they’re very encouraging. So go up to people and introduce yourself. You’ll probably make many friends, as I have. It doesn’t matter if they’re writers, agents, editors, or readers. Everybody there wants to meet other people. And one important tip: agents and writers hang out at the hotel bar at night; having a drink with them (or even buying a round) is a great way to hear the best industry stories.

Have your pitch ready

If you’re pitching a novel, it needs to be a completed manuscript. Nothing disappoints an agent more to hear the idea for a great novel and then find out it won’t be done for another year. Have your novel boiled down to a sentence or two that outlines the premise for the plot and the main character that the reader will be rooting for. Then you can elaborate if and when the agent asks follow-up questions. Memorize the pitch so that you can say it without thinking. If you ramble about your story for five minutes, you’re going to confuse agents and make them think your manuscript will be just as rambling.

Be nice

This last point should go without saying, but it needs to be emphasized. Be friendly and polite. Smile. You can introduce yourself to agents even if they’re not in a pitch session, but don’t follow them into a bathroom or slide your manuscript under a stall (believe or not, this happens). Don’t put writers on the spot by asking for blurbs in person. If you get to know them, follow-up later with an email asking if they have time to read your manuscript (don’t be offended or take it personally if they don’t; published writers are super busy as I’ve recently discovered first hand).

Have fun

Writing is a solitary business, so enjoy yourself in the supportive community of a conference. Every writer gets their batteries recharged by hearing from other writers who’ve been through exactly what they’re going through and made it as a published author. Those conference memories help keep you going when you’re sitting by yourself in front of that white screen.

JSB: Tell us a little about your acting self (that makes about three or four “selves” I count for you).

BM: My acting hobby is the exact opposite of my day job as a writer. Writing is rewarding and fun, but it is not interactive or, for that matter, active. Acting–well, it’s right there in the word–gets me up on my feet in a collaborative environment with a lot of other talented people. And it’s a blast–I mean, they are called “plays” after all. For some reason, I have a need to perform, usually at great peril of making an idiot of myself. I’ve done stand-up comedy, musicals, improv, stage productions, commercials, and films. I’ve even done some print ads, and I appeared on the packaging for an herbal tea while wearing a space helmet (you think I’m joking, but I’m not).

Plays are my favorite. There’s nothing better than getting that audience reaction when you make them laugh or cry or gasp in surprise. For me, comedies are the most fun. I’ve done some of the classics, including Noises Off, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Barefoot in the Park. Last year, I appeared in Leading Ladies, a Tootsie-style play featuring yours truly trying to pass himself off as a woman to get an inheritance. And I just finished a five-week run in Rumors by Neil Simon, a farce in which I played a politician who keeps putting his foot in his mouth.

JSB: Boyd, many thanks for giving us the time and benefit of your experience getting to publication.


The Future is Now

by Michelle Gagnon

I heard an interesting term the other day. A friend was discussing the book she’s reading for her book club, and she referred to it as a “pBook.”
I was initially mystified.
Turns out a “pBook,” as she explained, is a book in print form. Or, as I like to refer to it, a book.

But is this the wave of the future? As eBooks become more prevalent, will the term “pBook” enter our lexicon?

Recently Andrew Gross announced that for his latest release, RECKLESS, a full 35% of his sales were digital downloads. I noticed that he made the long list for New York Times bestsellers, and it made me wonder. Do digital sales count toward the list now? I’d love an answer if anyone knows.

Regardless, 35% is simply remarkable, considering what a leap that likely is from previous years. I know that in the past, my books averaged between 5-10%. I’m currently awaiting my most recent royalty statement, and I wonder what kind of increase I’ll see for my titles.


The Edge

Let’s do another first-page critique. This one is the prologue from a manuscript submitted anonymously called THE EDGE:

Emma is five years old in the nightmare.

She’s huddled in the V-berth of the sailboat she’s called home her whole life. She wonders what’s gone wrong. When her mommy tucked her into bed the ocean had been calm, the moon was a beacon of light. Now her little home is lurching and rolling on an angry sea. The sails crack like whips as the wind shrieks. The night is a black monster that wants to swallow her.

She hears her mommy rush up on deck and scream. She’s screaming for Emma’s daddy. “Ivan. Where are you? Ivan?” Why doesn’t he answer? The boat’s so small, there’s no place to hide. When Emma plays hide and seek, she always knows her mommy will find her. Where is daddy hiding?

Then everything in Emma’s dream goes silent, like a movie with the sound turned off. She sees huge waves crash over the cabin windows. She watches her mommy’s feet appear, first on one side of the boat, then the other. Fast. Her mommy is so fast.

Hold on tight, Mommy. Emma wants to call out but no words come. She feels sick. The boat plunges and bucks. She vomits in her bed. The smell makes her sick and she vomits again.

Emma wants her mommy to come back inside and comfort her. Her body bumps and thumps against the walls of the berth as if she’s a ragdoll. She clutches her bear and closes her eyes as the boat does a slow tumble over on its side.

This is a tough call. As we’ve discussed here before, prologues can work for you and against you. In this case, we’re starting with someone named Emma having a dream. Unfortunately, this first page tells me absolutely nothing about Emma and the book. All I know is she has bad dreams. The first question that comes to mind is: who cares?

I know it sounds crass, but it’s a legitimate question. Having read just this much, I have to ask, would the reader care? Would the agent or editor? Would anyone care enough to read on? There’s no grab or hook. Nothing happens. The dream is probably something that could be utilized later in the story since I’m sure there’s a reason for it and for the mommy-daddy-boat-on-troubled-waters thing. But as it stands, this might be a turn-off for an agent unless it was preceded by the greatest query letter and synopsis in the history of literature. My advice: ditch the prologue and get on with the story.

Download FRESH KILLS, Tales from the Kill Zone to your Kindle or PC today.


Putting things in context

In last week’s post, “Don’t confuse your reader,” we discussed some writing “do’s and don’ts” that can help us avoid losing readers. I’ll revisit a couple of those points in today’s critique. My comments follow in the bullets.

     Dani struggled to haul another load of class materials across the campus to where she’d had to park her pickup truck. Just a few minutes late, and she’d not been able to find a spot closer to the building where her temporary classroom was located. The renovations should have been finished weeks ago, but all the rain had shut down construction, and the ground was so saturated that every step felt like the entryway to a bottomless pit.
     A new session, actually a completely new program, would be starting soon and she was eager to get her room organized and ready to go. She stopped to set the box down for a minute and wiped her dripping face. She loved living in the southeastern part of the country, but the muggy summers were sometimes hard to take. Dani felt something hit her lightly on the back and turned to see her friend and colleague, Suzanne Feltenburg, trying to get her attention. The balled-up piece of paper that Suzi had thrown started soaking up water, and Dani bent down to pick it up, then glanced at her friend’s face. 

     “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”, she signed with one hand as she shoved the paper in her pocket. Suzi hesitated, then blurted out with rapid signs, “They’ve found another body.”
    “What?!” Dani muttered under her breath as she signed back in reply to her friend’s obviously uncomfortable gaze. “This is getting ridiculous. The science department said they’ve accounted for all the animal cadavers that were used in the biology classes this year, and the students involved in illegally burying them have already been identified, so what’s the deal?”
     Suzi signed, “That’s the problem. This one is human.”

  • I enjoyed the tone and voice of this first page very much. I do think it could use some tweaking to heighten its impact. For example, I think the use of the past perfect tense (“she’d had to park”) in the first sentence serves as a drag on the opening. I would keep the action in simple past tense for the first sentence, then provide the explanation of why the truck was parked in a problematic spot.
  • The introduction of the verb “sign” was a bit confusing to me at first. It was only after I kept reading that I figured out that she was using sign language. Whenever you introduce a verb or phrase that you think might be unfamiliar to your readers, you need to introduce it with enough context so that its meaning is clear from the start. Then you can use it freely. That said, some readers might find the constant use of “sign” as a substitute for “said” a bit distracting. If I were the writer, I’d consider establishing the signing at the beginning of every scene, and then switch to the less intrusive “said.”
  • Try to use fresh similes. “Bottomless pit” is a bit of a cliche. 
  • This is just a nit, but the names Suzi and Dani seem overly similar–two syllables, ending in “i”. I’d leave Suzanne’s name as is, or have her nickname be something else. The more you can do to differentiate your characters for the reader, the better.
  • Dani’s dialogue-explanation of the animal cadaver background is a bit long and stilted. It might be more effective to use a couple of short exchanges between your two characters to provide the same background.
  • I really liked the ending. I’d keep reading.

Other thoughts, TKZ gang?


A Cast of Thousands

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

After Jim’s post on subplots yesterday, I started thinking about some other issues that face new authors. One issue I still grapple with is what I call the ‘cast of thousands’ problem – the decisions that have to be made regarding the number of major and minor characters that populate a novel’s landscape. When considering this I often ask myself, at what point does a book get bogged down with too many characters?

One mistake new authors often make is to introduce too many characters, leaving a reader confused and (in many instances) bogged down in subplots created to sustain the ‘cast’ the author has created. In the final edits to my first manuscript, Consequences of Sin, I discarded at least two extraneous characters and (I think) the story was the stronger for it. Still it can be difficult to decide when the ‘cast’ has become bloated… So here are a few of the considerations I try to take into account when it comes to characters.

  1. Identify the principal protagonists whose storyline provides the core of the overall story arc. I find that a weak story often has at the heart a weak main protagonist whose objectives are unclear. In my view it is critical to establish up front who the key characters really are and to constantly evaluate their role in the story. Sometimes a character I thought would be significant turns out to play only a peripheral role and I have to be strong-willed enough to let them go…which leads to the next point…
  2. Be willing to cull characters (no matter how attached to them you have become). Just because you have grown fond of a character is no reason to keep him/her. Perhaps they need to be ‘x’ed from this story and set aside for use in a later book. An author cannot just hold on to their characters for the sake of it. For me a good way to double check this issue is to outline all the characters and their goals/conflicting objectives/purpose and re-evaluate each of them to ensure I have the most effective and streamlined cast possible.
  3. Nix the cute characters that provide little more than background to the story. Minor characters can add richness and depth to a book but too many (especially with detailed back stories) can become little more than background ‘noise’.
  4. Be your character’s harshest critic. Constantly ask yourself – is this character necessary, believable and (importantly) fresh? If a character is little more than a stereotype or a cliche then, as an author, you have to question what they add to the story.

So what issues do you think are vital when it comes to the issue of deciding the number of major and minor characters you include? Is there a point that (for you) a ‘cast’ of characters becomes too bloated to be sustainable?