Our Man in Santo Domingo

By Mark Alpert

I’m going to the Dominican Republic this weekend, so today’s post will have to be brief. The coach of my son’s baseball team is Dominican, and he invited all the boys (and a few dad-chaperones) to come to his hometown and play a few games with the local kids. The DR is renowned for its baseball talent, so we’re expecting to get creamed.

It occurs to me that this trip could be the setup for a comic spy thriller by Graham Greene: a bunch of clueless, middle-aged New Yorkers bring their teenage sons to Santo Domingo, bearing gifts of donated baseball gloves and bats. Crazy hijinks ensue, involving Caribbean drug lords, CIA company men and unscrupulous scouts from Major League Baseball.

If I were writing this thriller, I’d try to work A-Rod into the plot, too. Talk about screwball comedy!

Working title: Damn Yankees

White Meat

By Elaine Viets


    White meat. When I was growing up, that was the best part of the turkey – and the most unattainable.
    In German-American families, children were seen but not heard, and the choicest pieces of Thanksgiving turkey were reserved for the adults. Grandpa carved the turkey because he was the head of the family, but he had a subversive streak. Grandpa would “accidentally” drop little slices of white meat on the kitchen table for us grand kids while he carved.
    But not too many. That delicacy was reserved for my mom and my aunt. My dad and my uncle got the turkey legs, Grandpa ate the wings and thighs and Grandma ate the pope’s nose – the tail. She’d grown up poor and “got used to eating it,” she said.
    But Grandma was determined that her grandchildren would know the finer things, including white meat on Thanksgiving. One year in the 1960s, when I was ten and still eating at the children’s table, she bought a Butterball turkey.
    The big-breasted bird was the talk of the family.
    When we visited her the Sunday before Thanksgiving, we went downstairs to the basement freezer to admire the prize. The burly top-heavy bird nested amid bags of the frozen peas.
    “Look at the size of that breast,” Grandma said. She never used that b-word  except to describe fowl anatomy.
    Butterballs boasted more white meat than any other turkey, according to the ads, and we didn’t know about animal rights back then.
    At three o’clock that glorious Thanksgiving, Grandma triumphantly pulled her roasted Butterball turkey out of the oven: a busty golden brown bird.
While the turkey cooled, she put the finishing touches on the rest of the holiday feast: giblet gravy, stuffing, cranberry relish, lima beans in cheese sauce, and Parker House rolls. A stick of real butter was enshrined in a cut-glass dish. Mom brought the screw-top bottle of Mogen David wine out of the fridge and poured everyone a thimbleful.
    The table sparkled with the best crystal and dishes, seen only on holidays. Even the kids’ card table got a real tablecloth.
    Grandpa started carving. First the legs were set aside on the platter. Next he sliced into the golden breast meat. “Oops, I dropped a piece,” he said, and placed a thick slice on the Formica-topped kitchen table. As the oldest, I grabbed it. (Hey, rank has its privileges, even among kids.) Yum. This was the tenderest white meat I’d ever eaten, a sweet promise of the adult privileges waiting for me.
    “Me, Grandpa!”“Me!” my brothers and cousins cried as Grandpa gleefully dropped slice after succulent slice of white meat and we kids scrambled for them like hungry pigeons.
    He was still giggling and giving us white meat when Grandma said, “Papa, how’s the turkey coming?”
    Suddenly we noticed the turkey breast was as bony as a fashion model’s carcass. All the white meat was gone, except for a few scraps.
          Guilty, greasy-fingered grand kids slipped away.
    Now I can eat all the white meat I want, but it never tastes quite as good.
    So what lesson does this teach about writing?
    (A) Be on the look out when something special lands front of you – and use it.
    (B) Nothing. Have a happy Thanksgiving with delicious memories.

First-page critique: HAIR TRIGGER

By Joe Moore

Today’s first-page critique is from a story called HAIR TRIGGER. My comments follow.


They were going to cut my hand off.

When I came to, I was tied to a chair. It was dark in the print shop and, like a character in a 1940s film noir, I could see the distorted silhouettes of a tall man and short man standing in the shadows. I was dizzy and felt sick from the blow to my head. The two figures swam in and out of focus.

Leaning over as far as I could, I barfed on the floor at their feet.

“Feeling better?” the short one asked in a strained high-pitched voice that reminded me of Peter Lorre.

“Please don’t say ‘fuck you’,” the tall one added.

I didn’t. I just vomited again.

After I finished whooshing whatever cookies were left inside me, I noticed my right hand was trapped under the clamping rail of a paper trimmer. This type of machine is commonly called a guillotine and has a razor sharp blade with thousands of pounds of pressure behind it. It can make very neat cuts through thick reams of paper.

The short guy stood next to it but I still couldn’t see him clearly.

“It says here this thing can trim up to a thousand sheets of paper at a time,” he read off the metal tag on the side of the machine. “Apparently, the operator must have a hand on each of the side switches for safety.” He looked straight at me. “Gee, I’d like to see how it works. Wouldn’t you?”

The big guy walked to the wall and pulled down the breaker handle on the electrical panel.

Machines around the shop started to power up. I could feel the vibration of the cutter humming through the metal surface under my hand.

The trimming blade gleamed wickedly.

“Now this is the part of the James Bond movie where I ask you to tell me what I need to know. If I don’t get an answer I like, you’re going to have to learn to jack off southpaw.”

I have very few phobias. One, however, is my fear of dismemberment. I get queasy just thinking about it, let alone imagining what my life would be like without a vital appendage such as my gun hand. In feudal Japan it was considered a sign of dishonor if a samurai lost a limb in battle. It showed everyone that he had failed in his duty as a warrior.

I liked this submission, and would keep reading. It starts, just as we so often suggest here at TKZ, with a life-changing event. The protagonist is in trouble and the author presents the reader with a big question: how is he going to get out of losing his hand? The bigger question, at least so far: what did he do to get into this situation?

The voice is not quite solid but it does take on enough character to intrigue. The scene is cliché – two bad guys, one tall, one short, but it does have forward motion and kept my interest.

A bit of line editing and cleanup would help, but it reads like a decent first draft. Nothing wrong with that.

I’m not sure who said the line starting with, “Now is the part of the James Bond . . .” That need clarification.

I would suggest not using the word “very”. It is meaningless. What’s the difference between few phobias and very few phobias?

There were a couple of places where the story slowed down while the writer explained how an industrial paper cutter works and what it means to lose a hand in feudal Japan hand. I would suggest avoiding those type of speed bumps at this stage of the story.

Lastly, even if it’s appropriate to the story, I recommend not dropping the f-bomb on the first page, or anywhere in the story for that matter.

Overall, not bad. I want to know what happens next. Thanks to the brave writer for submitting.

Now, Zoners, what do you think. Would you keep reading or does this guy losing his hand not grab you by the throat? Hold up your hands.


THE BLADE is an absolute thrill ride." — Lisa Gardner

Readers Aren’t Elephants

Elephants, it is said, never forget anything.

Readers, not so much.

I’m reminded of this memory gap frequently in my critique group. I’ll be reading a scene from chapter eight of someone’s draft, and suddenly a minor-sounding character pops up from out of nowhere to contribute a bit of dialogue. There’s no description that reminds me who this character is, or where he came from. There’s just a bit of dialogue, and a name. I have no clue who this character is.

Oh, I introduced that character four chapters ago, the writer says, a tad defensively, in response to my sheepish request for a reminder. How could I have forgotten?

I’ve forgotten your character, I want to scream at the writer during these moments, because A) You failed to introduce the character originally in a memorable way, and B) You didn’t re-establish him later in an effective manner

A Universal Truth of Writing: It’s Never the Reader’s Fault!

It doesn’t work to ignore a character for several chapters, or even one scene, and then sling him back upon the unsuspecting reader without proper re-introduction. To a reader, this type of assault feels a bit like a zombie attack from outer space. Readers need to be reminded about what your character’s been doing the entire time you’ve been focusing attention elsewhere.

Within a scene, the re-introduction of a character who’s been missing in action can be done with a single sentence. For example, let’s say you have a scene with three characters, and two of them have been having a heated argument. Now let’s say you need to re-introduce Character #3, who hasn’t said anything so far in the scene. This is one way you might do it:

Bertram, who’d been listening to us from his unsteady perch on the broken stool, cut in to deliver a verdict. “You’re both wrong,” he said.

If your character’s been missing in action for entire chapters, you’ll need to do a bit more work to re-introduce him. One thing you could do would be to show other characters reacting to your MIA’s re-arrival in the scene.

Best Practice Suggestions
Don’t lose your reader by ambushing him with improperly introduced details or characters from previous sections.  
Do re-establish characters from earlier sections with gentle reminders that help readers stay oriented in the story flow.

How do you re-introduce MIA characters in your work? Have you ever had to go back a few pages to remind yourself who a character is?

Crafting an effective opening

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

We do an ongoing series of first-page critiques here at TKZ and all too often the same set of issues come up when analysing these draft first pages. I thought today’s post could provide a summary of some of the key elements needed to provide a really effective opening to your novel. Most of these elements apply not just to the first page per se but to those all important first few chapters which (lets face it) are the critical ones in terms of enticing and keeping reader’s interest.

On my list, the following are crucial to providing an effective opening:

  • An initial ‘disruptive’ event that changes everything for the main protagonist: This event doesn’t need to be on the scale of a nuclear accident but it does need to profoundly affect the path the main character must take. It helps set up the plot, motivation and tension for the first chapters of the book.
  • Act/show first explain later: Often there’s way too much explanation and back story in the first few pages, which often serves to diminish tension and momentum. It’s better to show/have the protagonist act first and then wait to provide the reader with explanation. The only caution I would add is to beware of introducing actions that make no sense or which are completely unexplained to the reader which leads to…
  • Ground the book: It’s important to make sure the reader has a solid grounding in terms of the ‘world’ you have created. This means a solid foundation of time, place, character and voice. The reader shouldn’t have to work too hard to figure out what’s happening in the first few pages. An intrigued but well-grounded reader wants to read on, a disorientated reader may just put the book down.
  • Establish a strong, appropriate POV and ‘voice’ for the genre of book you are writing: Occasionally in our first page critiques we’ve found it hard to reconcile the ‘voice’ with the subject matter or tone of the book. Sometimes a POV ‘voice’ might sound like  ‘YA’ but the book doesn’t appears to be a young adult book. This is especially tricky when using a first person POV – as the ‘voice’ is the only point of reference for the reader.
  • Edit, spell check and edit again: We’ve seen some first pages that still contain many grammatical and spelling mistakes. Those first few pages have to be as perfect as possible so  make sure all errors are corrected. 

I usually spend a considerable chunk of time getting the first line, page and chapters more or less right before I move on with drafting the rest of the book. To me the first few chapters provide the all important ‘voice’ and guidepost to the world I’ve created. But it’s important also not get too bogged down in perfecting the first line/page/chapter. I’ve seen too many people write, re-write and re-write the first three chapters only to never move on and actually finish that all important first draft of the novel. 

So how do you strike the balance? 
What makes an effective opening for you and what items would you add to my list?

Death to the Midlist, Long Live the Ownlist

In all the talk about types of authors (indie, traditional, blended, A-list, midlist) there is, in my view, emerging a more definitive typology. I’m calling it the “ownlist writer.”
The old designation of “midlist writer” referred to that land of lean where writers who were not of bestselling status used to hang out. These were the writers who did not get much more than catalogue placement, who were not given significant marketing dollars or push from the publisher. This often made economic sense for the company. After all, they are in business, and the goal of business is to maximize profit. The way to do that is to invest in “sure things.” In the case of a publishing company, the sure thing is the A-list author–the author whose books have already proved popular with readers and have a sales record that can be largely depended upon.
Case in point: I remember reading a Publishers Weekly article some years ago about how a publisher had decided to make one of their authors the next “big name.” This was after five or six thrillers, which were gathering great word of mouth and increasing sales. The significant marketing push behind his next book did exactly what the publisher anticipated, elevating that author to the A list, where said author is a dominant force to this day. A fellow named Child.
But only a handful of authors ever get this treatment. The overwhelming majority wind up as midlisters, where the seas are turbulent.
Now, In the very old days (pre-1980 or so) a midlist writer might actually forge something of a career. If he showed steady but not spectacular sales, accepted advances commensurate with those sales, then he could actually hang on. Almost always he’d have to supplement the writing income with a “day job.” But at least he could say he was published.
Then came the era of the blockbuster. Sidney Sheldon. Stephen King. Judith Krantz. Robert Ludlum, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, John Grisham and lately a guy named Patterson. They became the “tent poles” that held up the edifice for everyone else. And of course, this is who the publishers put their money behind.
And the midlist, as a place of repose, began to dry up.
Which meant that more and more writers began to lose the writing part of their lives. The only place they could go was to tiny publishing companies outside Manhattan, hoping for  placement in enough independent bookstores to make the effort worthwhile.
Then digital self-publishing became a viable alternative. Each month we hear about more writers making significant income self-publishing (we also hear about writers who have not realized that level…yet. See my post on “harsh realities.”) And we also now know that the best way to market your self-published work is by owning your own list.
That means readers who have opted to be on the writer’s list and notified directly when a new book is available. As the author adds quality product to his line, the list grows, along with the author’s income.
How do you start growing such a list?
1. Have a website which has a place for people to sign up for your list.
2. Offer an incentive to sign up. I give away a free book. It’s a win-win. 
3. Speak everywhere you can. Yes you, unknown author, go to your local library and volunteer to do a talk on the subject of your novel. Go wherever they’ll have you. At these talks pass around a legal pad and ask people to put their email on it if they’d like to be notified when something of yours comes out. What, you don’t do public speaking? Afraid? Nervous? Join Toastmasters. Or get The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking by Dale Carnegie and practice!
4. Put your email list on a service like MailChimp, Constant Contact or Vertical Response.
5. Put this information in the back matter of your book. It should be a short descriptive paragraph and a link. Something like:
For a complete list of my fiction and writing books, please visit my website and sign up for my occasional updates. I will not share your info with anyone for any reason, and won’t stuff your mailbox, either.
6. Make your emails short, entertaining and with a soft sell. This, to me, is something a lot of authors are missing. I don’t send out a “newslettery” email. I don’t want to give the feel of a sales brochure, or even something that’s going to take too much time to get through. I send short emails, and try to include a bit of humor, something about what I’m working on, and a link to one or two items for sale. If it’s a book launch, I make the entire email about that.
7. Be careful with subject lines. Avoid words like FREE and DEAL and other sales-type language, because sometimes those get dumped into spam folders. Do, however, make it specific. For example, an email I sent about my online novel writing course had the subject: Especially For Writers. It did quite well. I once sent out an email with the subject line: News from James Scott Bell. That didn’t get nearly as many clicks, because it’s too generic.
8. Mail regularly, but not too frequently. My rules of thumb:
a. More than once a month is too much. If there’s some sort of really crucial news you must share in the same month, go ahead. Just don’t make a habit out of it.
b. Less than once every three months is too little. Even if you don’t have a book coming out, update your readers on your progress, a little window into your writing life. 
Nurturing your own list is the best single platform-building tool you have. Start now. Don’t stress about numbers. Some is better none, and having an ongoing process is the key. Another bonus: If you are angling to become traditionally published someday, having a list is one very good sign to a publisher that you’re out there doing something to support your books.

Music As Inspiration


Those of you who are kind enough to grace The Kill Zone with your presence on a regular basis know that we often discuss inspiration, and what one can do to jump start the writing process. I use music as a backdrop when I’m writing, not only for enjoyment but also to tune up the cerebrum. Jazz works well with this — Miles Davis isn’t for everybody, but give “Spanish Key” a listen just one — but for some schooling as to how to use words to tell a story I listen to a gentleman named Robbie Fulks.

Fulks labors in the musical mine, digging a sub-vein which has come to be called “insurgent country.”  You will not hear ANY of his music on your local Country station — well maybe, if you listen to 650 AM WSM in Nashville — but he’s worth checking out on Spotify and proceeding accordingly. He can be blistering in lampooning contemporary country, and at one point released an album of Michael Jackson cover songs. But. When he gets serious, there is no one whose lyrics stay with you, in three to five minute movements, like Robbie Fulks.

I’ve had Fulks’ latest album, Gone Away Backward, on repeat in the office, in the car, even while raking my freaking yard leaves, and can’t get the songs out of my mind. “Where I Fell” captures in just a little over three minutes a story of contemporary hard luck: “Some guy in Bombay is runnin’ that press I used to hate/now I sling hash for what-all spills off the interstate/we sold the family store left the building standing/ you can see the outline/where I fell.” Love lost, and with regret? How about this: “When I left that Brooklyn girl, I never thought it through/she had silk brocade in her bedroom, and a job that paid for two” from “Long I Ride.” Love lost, in the seconds before it ends? Listen to “Guess I Got It Wrong.” “Why’s the feeling never strong as when/you can’t have her anymore?/Sad goodbyes, shattered dreams/ Darker skies, I don’t think I’ve seen/I thought love was one sweet song/I guess I got it wrong.” We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Oh, and in case you thought that  I mentioned Fulks in the context of  southern gothic…there’s a bit of that on Gone Away Backward, but if you would like your synapses crunched, listen to a song titled “Night Accident.” It’s on Fulks’ Let’s Kill Saturday Night release. I won’t give you any lyrics from that song, but it involves two friends involved in a single car accident who are trapped in their seats, hanging upside down, while a train approaches. One of them makes a deathbed confession, and…well you have to hear it. It’s a bit of a long song — six minutes and change — that feels like two. You can also go back a way in Fulks’ career to the South Mouth album and listen a song titled “South Richmond Girl.” You get love, birth, murder, justice, and heartbreak covering over twenty years in a little over four minutes, done sadly and well.
I don’t know if Elmore Leonard ever heard Robbie Fulks’ music, but if there was ever a songwriter who cut out everything that sounded like writing, it would be Fulks. Even if you can’t stand what you think of as country music, you should listen to a song or two. See if it sparks you.
One more thing, while we’re talking music and inspiration: if you haven’t seen the interactive video for “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan you can check it out here. If you share the house or your television with someone who channels flips to distraction send it to them; they’ll never get away from it. And with respect to inspiration…it’s just amazing. Set a timer before you try it out, however; it’s a real time bandit.

Thanks for stopping by. Happy listening, and Happy Thanksgiving!

First Page Critique – Brueghel the Elder (Pros/Cons of Using First Person)

We have another first page anonymous submission from an intrepid author. My comments on the flip side.



Brueghel The Elder

My name is Lucas.  Lucas M Steiner.  My friends of course never pass up the opportunity to use it.  “LUKE, I’M YOOR FAHTHER.”  I cannot describe in words how much I have come to loathe that line.  Don’t misunderstand.  I thought the movie was great—just like everybody else.  But after you’ve heard the same joke a thousand times the charm wears thin.  And invariably they say it as if they were the first person to have thought of it.  The last impresario of impish wit went so far as to put his head inside of a metal trashcan to get that much-coveted “voice of god” effect.  He then walked smack into the edge of a swinging kitchen door and landed square on his ass.  He leaned back against the wall and remained there the rest of the evening.  I don’t go to parties so much anymore.  Suffice it to say, the Force has not been with me.


​At one time in my life I thought things would be different.  At one time I thought I would be tenured, published, renowned, and happily on my way to a well endowed retirement by now. Instead I am here telling you this story.  Things didn’t work out as I had planned.  Who knew?

​I wanted to teach.  Specifically, I wanted to teach art.  During my post-graduate years at the school—you’ve heard of it but it doesn’t matter as they are all somewhat similar—I had the opportunity to teach an art history class.  Several, in fact.   I loved art.  I loved the making of it.  


I loved the history of it.  And I loved teaching it and if I was good enough and  lucky enough I may have imparted a little of that love to some of those previously unimpressed minds full of mush.


​My schedule was pretty agreeable.  It consisted of an hour and a half lecture twice a week and office hours on class days.  I taught a survey course—sort of a “greatest hits” list of the marquee masters.  The remainder of my time was spent on research.



My thoughts:

I love the intimacy of first person point of view. I became more aware of the effectiveness of this kind of narrative after getting hooked on Young Adult books, but recently I’ve seen more suspense authors (for adult crime fiction) doing this with success, so much so that I’m trying it myself with my latest project. It is very tempting to follow the stream of consciousness of a strong character to hear their story in your head, but an author should still be aware of what will entice a reader to stay tuned and keep turning pages.


Advantages of First POV:

1.) First person is easier to write (if you get the whole stream of consciousness thing going where you don’t filter yourself much) and it can help you flesh out the character – a good exercise even if you write in third POV.


2.) There is an immediate connection and intimacy to a first person POV voice. It is a blast to write. Even if you are writing in third and come across a bad writing day where nothing works, try writing your character’s diary and see what I mean. It can jumpstart your creativity.


3.) Writing in first person creates a clear perspective and a more linear plot involving the same character in every scene, but you better love that character—and make the reader love him/her too.



Challenges of First POV:

1.) If you choose to stay in first POV only, you must stick in the head of the character and plot the book from only things they can see. By doing this, you may give up some ability to manipulate your plot for mystery elements through secondary characters or foreshadow the workings of a villainous mind. Your character can only know what they have seen through your plot. This can be a limitation. I mix first with third POV to keep all my flexibility and tag the start of every scene where the main character is in first person so the reader can easily follow, but this method may not suit every author.


2.) The gender of the character can be a challenge if you do not identify your character, as the author did here with a name. He/she pronouns aren’t used, so you should find a way to indicate early on which gender is speaking before the reader gets too far along with an idea.


3.) The biggest challenge is not slipping into the “tell” mode, rather than the “show” mode in a first person narrative. This submission falls in that category where the lure of the narrator appeals for a while, but when nothing really happens in the critical first paragraphs, the reader’s mind may stray. Give the character something to do that will showcase his nature and attitude so the reader sees why he is a star in your story.


4.) Setting the scene can be a challenge in the first person. You have to “see” the surroundings and convey them through your character’s eyes, using the same attitude and flavor of their voice, without being obvious that you are “setting the stage” with an inventory or checklist.


Comments on the Submission:

1.) I tend to like a more distinctive first line to start a story, something more memorable, or something that might foreshadow what’s to come, or say something more about Luke than his first name.


2.) I was lured into the story for the first paragraph, but the weight of that paragraph (with nothing going on except one incident at a party and a Star Wars schtick on the perils of being called Luke) had my mind starting to drift toward the end. The last few lines of that paragraph were the first indicator that he was at a particular party and justify why he doesn’t go to parties anymore. It might be more interesting to me if Luke shared the reason he wasn’t a party animal, and how that might relate to the rest of the story as to why his life didn’t work out, but that could just be me.


3.) This intro quickly turned into back story dump. The author should focus on creating a “Defining Scene” for Luke by showing us who he is, similar to Johnny Depp in his Pirates movies. In that first scene, Depp does something that will be memorable while also revealing something of his nature. In one nutshell, a moviegoer will know who Capt Jack Sparrow is.


4.) In writing first POV, an author can get so invested in their character, that they can’t edit  out what need to go to keep the pace moving. Therefore the actions of the character must dictate what’s important, with a peppering of the character’s thoughts added for seasoning/spice.


5.) The title needs work, but perhaps this is only a working title. Without knowing what the story is about, the significance of the title doesn’t stick with me.


What do you think, TKZers? Our daring author could use good feedback to help improve the intro.