Is Our Writing Culture In Mortal Danger? Part III

benjamin-franklin-62846_640I’m going to try to wrap up my thoughts on the mischievous missive delivered by Mr. Porter Anderson at Writer Unboxed. The first part of my response is here. The second part is here.

There are three issues outstanding:

Issue 3 – Is the Party Over?

Issue 4 – What Counts as Writing Success?

Issue 5 – Can Fiction Writing Be Taught?

Last week I upheld the view that this is the best time on Earth to be a writer. Lest you think I only mean because writers can now self-publish and make real dough, here’s some news that rippled outward from the traditional side of things: Sci-Fi writer John Scalzi inked a $3.4 million deal with Tor Books. That’s for thirteen books over a ten-year period. I’d say that counts as good times. Mr. Scalzi explains his thought process here.

Ah, but is the party over? Or about to be? Has there been a “tonal shift” in what Porter calls the “palaver” from the indie writer sector of the publishing world?

I do sense a shift, but not a negative one. It is, rather, the natural maturation of a revolution. During the Early Konrathian period of indie publishing, the talk was all about waking people up and stirring them to action (“Give me liberty, or give me death!”). There was an exuberance. There were fight songs around the campfire. Free beer.

It was Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry time. Yes, there was plenty of vitriol, too, which is always part of an uprising. What the American colonists said about the tea tax was not intended for polite society. Nor were the words of indies when reacting to representatives of the Authors Guild.

Now, it seems, the tone has changed from revolution to constitution. From muskets to quills. Giddiness has been replaced by plans and purpose and increasing success.

But just what is success? This is Issue #4.

One type is, certainly, traditional, bestselling, A-list status. Another type is having the freedom to publish what you want, when you want, and making steadily growing income. When you read surveys of traditional authors and how frustrated they can be with their publishers, this type of success might even be all the more attractive.

For some writers the “validation” of traditional success is the most important thing. Others find more satisfaction going directly to readers…and to the bank.

We are all free to define success for ourselves, and should. What does it mean specifically to you? Talk about it in the comments.

Finally, Issue #5. The title of Porter’s post was The Dreaded Training Debate: What If It Can’t Be Taught?

The question implies that a negative answer might be possible. Or, worse, that there is a possibility the whole enterprise of teaching fiction is little more than a racket. That’s what brought me and a couple of my teaching colleagues—Donald Maass and David Corbett—into the comments with some admonishments.

Porter, I’m happy to say, qualified this impression, kindly mentioning my name and my two fellows (and others) as exceptions. But he added this in a comment:

It’s been interesting to see some of these folks I’ve mentioned struggle with this piece. On the surface, of course, that looks natural in that no one wants to be painted with too broad a brush. But you note that I mentioned none of them, nor would I — they’re not the kind of problematic how-to players I’m talking about. And yet, to some degree, they seem unsettled by even the discussion of the problem.

This makes me think (I’m speculating here, they have not told me this) that the problem of “the toadstools” — who are NOT these writer/teachers — is much on their minds.

I can’t answer for my colleagues, but I’m happy to clear up any confusion on my part. No, “the toadstools” were not on my mind at all. What set me off was even entertaining the notion that writing can’t be taught. In point of fact, virtually all writers have been taught how to write in some form or fashion. It’s just that not many talk about it. As good old Ernest Hemingway once said, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

Writing is taught in many ways.

It is taught by editors who know what they’re doing.

It is taught by teachers who know what they’re doing.

It is taught by books by people who know what they’re doing and how to teach others to do the same.

It is taught by critique partners and beta readers.

It can be self-taught by reading novels and analyzing what other authors do. That’s fine. What I do when I teach, however, is save writers years of trial and error by showing them right away what successful authors do, and how they can do it themselves.

The proof of all this, I add as a former trial lawyer, is in the testimony of credible witnesses. The successful writers who themselves give credit to writing instruction.  

Let me offer just one example. This from critically acclaimed author Sarah Pekkanen, who gave an interview to NPR about getting published:

I needed advice before I tried to write a novel. The usual axiom — write what you know — wasn’t helpful. I spend my days driving my older children to school and changing my younger one’s diaper — not exactly best-seller material.

So I turned to experts. Three books gave me invaluable writing advice. One, by a best-selling writer [Stephen King]; one, by a top New York agent [Donald Maass]; and one, by a guy who struggled for years to learn how to write a book and wanted to make it easier for the rest of us [some joker named Bell]. 

The full interview is here. That was six years ago. It’s nice to see how Sarah’s career has prospered since. I’d say she’s offered credible testimony that writing fiction can indeed be taught.

Whew! That’s three full posts all sparked by the incendiary flying fingers of one Porter Anderson, provocateur and good sport. If you bump into him at a conference, don’t dislodge his keyboard…buy him a Campari instead.

Now I’m done. Next week we return to our regularly scheduled program!

First Page Critique: Timber Ridge

Today we are critiquing the first page of a story called TIMBER RIDGE. After reading the page and my notes, please add your thoughts in the Comments.

Halloween, dead hand coming out from the soil

Timber Ridge

Digging a grave is thirsty work under the high summer sun, even when it’s your own.

“How about a break, we can both grab a drink? Five minutes, eh? I’m dying out here. Haha.”

Silence. It was my funeral, but he was being the glum one.

We picked this spot because the shade from the evergreens covered most of the rutted road shoulder, but over the course of the morning every worry from the past two days — every dead end, every lie, every person I couldn’t save — had hardened into a single, pure lust for water. The fact that I wasn’t likely to be thirsty for very long, or ever again, wasn’t any consolation. I couldn’t keep myself from wanting it.

Rice dropped his cigarette onto the dry pine needles that covered the road and smothered it with his boot heel, a good citizen. “There’s Coke back at the truck. In the cooler, on ice. A couple of beer bottles too.” Too much kindness hung off his high voice like an ill-fitting mask. “You know what you gotta do to get to it.”

Rice was not a bad guy, in fact I still thought of him as a friend. But he was a conscientious worker in a bad line of work. If this was the business for the day, he wouldn’t know how to neglect it. He’d feel bad about it later.

A Stellar’s jay sidled nervously across a low tree branch and screamed at us. We both looked vaguely past it, to the east.

The road was poorly maintained ahead, pitted and overgrown with thorny brush. Nature held court on both sides. Brambles were the only buffer before trees started jabbing into each other in a decades-long fight for position. The losers lay on the forest floor, damp and soft and rotten, where mushrooms and small bugs could use them. I looked down into the dirt and saw myself, blue-white and cold in the black topsoil, growing quickly soft next to them.

“Alright then.” I stepped out of hole and looked at him for a while. “Let’s go see about those beers. I’ll tell you what you need to know.”

I wouldn’t though, not for anything. I had one beer, maybe ten minutes, to make sure that Rice would be the one feeding the bugs and melting into the roots of the pine trees on Timber Ridge.

My comments:

There’s some good tension in the setup of this opening scene. I like the self-deprecating humor of the narrator’s thoughts as he’s forced to dig his own grave. I also like some of the imagery: the Stellar’s jay sidling nervously and screaming at the men, as if he knows what’s happening below; the fallen trees portrayed as losers in a battle, which foreshadows the coming battle between Rice and the narrator. I admire the way the writer uses these images to add layers of depth to the action in this scene.

On the other hand, the imagery didn’t work for me in the following sentence, “Too much kindness hung off his high voice like an ill-fitting mask.” I had to pause to make sense of everything that was going on in this sentence: the high voice with “too much” kindness, an ill-fitting, hanging mask.

Avoid confusing the reader 

On my first read-through, when Rice said (in reference to the drinks in the truck), “You know what you gotta do to get to it,” I thought he meant getting physically to the vehicle. This confused me until I reread the page and realized that Rice was demanding  information from his would-be victim.

My initial confusion made me question whether the narrator was actually in danger. This section should be revised for clarity.

Break up long sentences to enhance pacing and tension

While there’s nice tension in the scene, I think it could be strengthened by tweaking some of the longer sentences.

For example, instead of

“Rice dropped his cigarette onto the dry pine needles that covered the road and smothered it with his boot heel, a good citizen.”

Break it up as follows

“Rice dropped his cigarette onto the dry pine needles that covered the road and smothered it with his boot heel. A good citizen.”


This is a minor point, but the first sentence, “Digging a grave is thirsty work under the high summer sun, even when it’s your own” might be stronger written as “especially when it’s your own.”


Good tension, fresh imagery, an appealing narrator–overall, I found this first page to be a promising start. Thank you to the brave writer who submitted this page to us for review today!

TKZ’ers, do you have additional comments or notes for our writer today?

How to build a solid writer’s platform?

By Joe Moore

With the rapid growth of indie publishing, the responsibility of marketing and promotion falls even more on the shoulders of the author. One of the most important questions the indie author can ask is “Do I have a solid platform?” Writing a quality, professional manuscript properly edited and designed is a good start. But you also need to prepare a ready-made audience consisting of a fan base or at least a group of potential fans. And for new writers, this must be done BEFORE you publish your book. Even veteran, multi-book authors must have a solid, established platform. It should be part of your overall publishing business plan.

platform1What is a platform?

In a single word, your platform is your “brand”. Having a solid platform in the indie world is the foundation of selling more books.

How do you establish or build your platform? The quickest way is to start with the Internet. Here are a couple of methods to begin nailing your platform together.

Website. There was a time when a website was only for the rich and famous. Those days are long gone. A writer without a website is about as logical as a carpenter without a tool kit. The indie author’s website is the “first impression” a potential reader gets of your brand. It’s truly a no-brainer. Your website is your billboard, your advertisement, your calling card. And the potential for delivering a creative message is only limited to your imagination. Essential elements on your website must include: a method for contacting you; a method for purchasing your book(s); a method for the press to gain information (digital press kit); an incentive to linger or return such as a contest or free sample chapters; a method for you to track your website. Other considerations include continuity in your website colors and design that are in sync with your book covers or other branding elements, and a reasonable amount of interactivity such as a method of leaving comments or subscribing to newsletters and publication news, or RSS and other informational digital feeds.

Blogging. A blog is an online method of expressing your thoughts with a means for visitors to leave a comment or opinion. As a writer, your blog will probably be about your writing, your books, or some other connection to your craft and career. Some authors like to venture away from their books and discuss other topics such as politics, religion, economics, etc. A word of warning: You’ve worked hard to establish and build your “brand”. Don’t blow it by pissing off your readers. At some point they just might reject your next thriller or mystery because they don’t agree with your position on unrelated issues. A blog can easily turn into a slippery slope.

Newsletter. As previously mentioned, your website needs a method for your visitors and fans to subscribe to a newsletter or news bulletin. If they’re a fan, they want to know about you and your books. When is your next book coming out? When are you going to do a signing in their area? Will you be at a particular writer’s conference? They want the latest news. And the best and most economical way to get them what they want is an electronic newsletter. There are numerous email-generating newsletter sources that you can use to put together a value-filled publication. A few suggestions are Constant Contact, MailChimp, and Vertical Response.

Write some stuff. Any writing credit is a good writing credit, and it helps build your platform. No matter what you write, whether it’s for the local paper or a national magazine, you’re byline should contain a mention that you are a novelist. So if the reader likes your article or how-to piece, and they see you also write thrillers or mysteries, that’s a potential plank in your platform.

Book forums. There are a ton of forums out there dealing with readers and writers. A good resource to begin finding them is Others include WritersNet, Backspace, and Absolute Write. Make yourself known on these and similar forums and you’ll be adding to your brand and platform.

Social Networks. Sites like,,, Goodreads, and countless others are perfect for building your brand. The only potential risk is the time you might spend on these sites instead of writing your book. But they are a terrific source of finding your dedicated or new fans. A word of caution: see the note on blogging above.

Additional platform-building tools include professional publicity photos of yourself and a strong press-ready biography. Also, memberships in writer organizations such as the International Thriller Writers or Mystery Writers of America help build your brand and platform among your colleagues and fans. The networking and connections made within these organizations and their subsequent writer conferences are invaluable.

Now it’s your turn, Zoners. What additional planks have you nailed into your writer’s platform?
Like your thrillers in French? No problem. THE BLADE and THE SHIELD have just been released in French.

Internet Fame Doesn’t Always Drive Book Sales

shutterstock_175846916Have you ever wondered whether “going viral” with a video or Tweet would boost your book sales? Think again. The impact of sudden fame on a writing career can be fleeting as well as fickle.

Author Jami Attenberg recently wrote about her experience with instant  Internet fame. Attenberg, who has written around a half-dozen novels including a NYT-bestseller, became an overnight sensation when she set up a successful sting to recover a stolen bicycle. So how did all that media attention affect her book sales? Nada much, according to the writer. Attenberg’s “fame” faded quickly, and she eventually returned to the daily, unglamorous grind of writing.

It’s a different story with Zoella Sugg, a YouTube “vlogger” who built a large following with her online tutorials telling young women how to apply makeup, do their hair, and deal with personal issues. According to an article in The Guardian, sales of Sugg’s first book, Girl Online, made her the fastest-selling debut author on record. Her forward progress hit some bumpy air when it became known that Girl Online had been created in collaboration with a ghost writer. Happily for Sugg, her online fans didn’t seem to care about the news of a ghost writer, any more than they cared about her Tweet asking her fans to “Bare with me” as she took a hiatus from the Internet to uncloud her head.

There’s a scary side of Internet fame as well. You’re probably familiar with the story of how one ill-considered Tweet upended the life and career of a corporate communications executive. That story shows that when we take a false step on the Internet, we can quickly find ourselves swimming in uncharted waters. Such areas of risk on the Internet map should be marked with the cartographer’s ancient warning: “Here Be Dragons.”

Here’s my take on the benefits of Internet celebrity. If you become known for posting make-up tutorials, grumpy cat videos, or quitting a job in a dramatic fashion, you might be able to cash in on that celebrity with fans of make-up, grumpy cats, or dramatic exits. But if you’re an author who writes fiction for a living, don’t expect a passing burst of Internet attention to push your books. For that you need to focus on your writing, instead.


Finish or Languish?

Following on from two great posts by my fellow Killzone blog mates: Joe Hartlaub (Saturday’s post – here) and James Bell (Sunday’s post – here) , it struck me that both raise an issue about a fundamental obstacle to many (if not most) writers – finishing the actual book. Joe regrets not doing anything with a great idea he had, while Jim discusses whether it’s the best or worst of times to be a writer – both raising the obvious point that the only way you can be in the game is to sit down and actually finish your project. I can’t count the number of people who have expressed how much they want to be a writer but cannot seem to actually finish writing a book – they have parts and bits in a drawer but nothing complete – either for further editing, submission or publication. I sympathize because this was me for many, many years.

I always wanted to be a writer, or at least I expressed that desire, but, apart from half written pieces, drafts and jottings, I somehow never managed to actually finish a project. This all changed when, though some weird serendipity/alignment of the stars, I quit my job in anticipation of starting a Ph.D and then discovered my brain was finally free to do what I had always wanted to do – write a novel. I was extremely lucky to have found an agent interested in my work at my first writer’s conference and this undoubtedly spurred me on to finish the project she and I discussed. (Who knows, if I hadn’t had this impetus, maybe Ursula’s first mystery would still be half-finished and languishing in a drawer…)

So what are the many impediments to actually sitting down and completing a manuscript? There’s the time factor obviously – but this is an excuse which wears thin as even established novelists have to carve out time from their lives (a task which is never easy) and most have balanced other careers, families and other commitments in order to complete the task ahead. For me, I think the impediment was always internal, rather than external. I lacked the confidence to complete a novel, and I spent more time self-censoring myself in some elusive quest to be ‘literary’ enough (a standard I set that could never be attained). Even today I still question my ability to complete the task, but I am fortunate enough to have the motivation and the support of family, fellow writers, editors and my agent to continue to write. Now I suspect it’s a mixture of stubbornness, accountability and ambition that keeps me writing – but that doesn’t mean it gets any easier to complete the task!

So what about you, fellow TKZers, what are your obstacles (both internal and external) to completing your writing projects? How do you face the challenge of finishing the work rather than letting it languish either in your mind or at the back of a drawer?


Is Our Writing Culture In Mortal Danger? Part II

firefighter-593728_1280Last week I began a discussion sparked by a provocative post by Mr. Porter Anderson at Writer Unboxed. The first part of my response is here. We had a robust debate in the comments, but I’ll try to summarize the first issue I’ve addressed, which is the plethora of teaching and “author services” appearing, in Porter’s words, like “toadstools” all over the internet. My view, in agreement with Porter, is that many of these are not worth the money and some are downright scams.

Porter would like me, and other “legitimate” teachers (I thank him for carving out an exception for me and colleagues like Donald Maass and David Corbett) to cry foul and go after charlatans publicly. But that is not my job or responsibility. Others have taken that on. My solution is the old but still valid rule: Let the buyer beware.

And yes, that is enough. I’m not a nanny.

Now, on to Issue #2: Is it the best or worst time to be a writer?

Here we come to a piece quoted by Porter, written by an anonymous literary agent in the UK. Calling him/her self “Agent Orange,” he/she wrote a post for The Bookseller which opens:

On the face of it, it is paradoxical that while it’s never been easier for authors to get their books into print, there has never been a worse time to be an author. Author earnings are down and the number of writers able to make a living out of their work is at an all-time low.

While this was mainly a jumping off point for Orange to complain about writing courses and teachers, I can’t let this sentiment go unchallenged.

I’ve been expressing exactly the opposite view since 2009. I give my reasons here. To save time, I’ll just refer you to that post, which I stand by. Further, both Porter and I have cited the amazing work being done by Hugh Howey and Data Guy and their quarterly Author Earnings reports.

Bottom line: in terms of making actual money, and even an actual living from writing fiction, it is beyond all question, doubt, cavil, or dispute that this is the best time on Earth to be a writer.

As the old political rejoinder goes, you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.

Now, to be fair to Agent Orange, I do think there’s a bit of context we have to understand. I haven’t spent a lot of time studying this out, but there seems to be a more entrenched traditional book publishing culture in the UK, and it is those authors who are seeing their incomes go down significantly. It’s happening here in the U.S., too, of course. But across the pond there’s a greater concern over the survival of the “writer as artist” ideal.

To which I respond: This is nothing new. It’s always been difficult for any artist to cobble a living from their art. And by art I mean singular vision as opposed to commercial production.

How many artists in history have ever been able to support themselves by doing, for want of a better phrase, “their own thing”? How many Jackson Pollock wannabes have tried to out Jackson Jackson, only to be completely and utterly ignored? (And there are those who think the original Jackson should have been ignored, but that’s another discussion entirely.)

How many structure-hating novelists have poured their souls onto the page, only to be rejected fully and finally? Or, if managing to get a small press to take a flyer, seen ten book sales and no publicity, not even from their local paper?

If you want to pursue the life of a solitary genius, that’s never been a road to riches. If you expect to be treated with a velvet backscratcher, and have the literary elite fete and fawn over you, then yes, times are not great. But they have never been great for this kind of artist.

I believe this is the “writerly culture” that Agent Orange sees as doomed.

But consider: writers who love to tell stories, who entertain, who work at their craft, who are productive, who keep striving to get better, who don’t see plot as a four-letter word (irony intended)—these writers now have a better chance to realize a return on their work than at any time in the history of storytelling. From Og the cave dweller, who told the first story (you know, the one about killing the mastodon) to Geoffrey Chaucer and Jonathan Swift and James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jack London and Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and Dorothy Sayers and Erle Stanley Gardner and Herman Wouk and Nora Roberts and Stephen King and John Grisham and Michael Connelly and J. K. Rowling and James Patterson…

…to all of the new (or formerly midlist) writers who are now earning five, six and sometimes seven figures a year because of the disruption called digital self-publishing, I say without any qualm – and eschewing dew eyes, Kleenex, and exclamation points – that it is indeed the best time on Earth to be a writer.

Is there still room for the solitary, literary genius? Yes, and even more room than before. If the artist is not insistent on a traditional print run and New Yorker reviews, he or she has a good chance at finding readers via self-publishing. Or by partnering with a digital company that knows what it’s doing. (Unless your goal is to win the National Book Award. Then all I can say is, good luck to you, because that’s always been a matter of “writerly culture” roulette. Lightning may strike. But be prepared to have some stamina, and a day job. I refer you to Mark Z. Danielewski, whose 27 volume, 22,680 page experimental epic is only now leaving the starting gate.)landing-stage-sea-holiday-vacation

So to all writers I say, jump into the indie pool. Even if you’re trad published, establish some sort of indie footprint with short-form work. Talk to your agent and editor about a plan going forward.

And tell them the water’s fine. We’re even serving margaritas at poolside.

So which is it – the best of times or the worst of times to be a writer?

A Cautionary Wake-Up Tale


constant fear

Hello, my friends. Today’s post is directed primarily at those of you who are prospective authors, and who have several different ideas for stories set forth in any number of different manuscripts in varied stage of completion. Those of you not so situated may still find what I have to say worthwhile, or, at the least, entertaining, so please, join us as well. I say to all: if you have a project of any sort uncompleted, for whatever reason: pick it up, resume work, and get it done. Nine words: so easy to hear, so quick to write, so hard to do. But please take the advice, so that you are not repeatedly kicking your own posterior down the road as I have been for the last few days.

I had an idea for a novel several years ago that was based in part on a troubled guy I know. I did not tell him the idea; I did not tell anyone else the idea, either, including my wife, children, or friends. I’ll be repeating that occasionally over the next couple of paragraphs, just so that it is entirely clear that I am blaming no one and nothing for my own lack of focus. I can tell you the idea now, however. The basic story involved a group of terrorists taking over a public elementary school and a school employee saving everyone. Die Hard in a classroom? No, but you could be forgiven for thinking so. There’s more to the story, of course, such as how the employee winds up working at the school to begin with, why he is doubly emotionally invested in saving the kids, and things like that. It’s got a great ending, too. But I had problems with certain elements of it, such as why the terrorists picked the particular school they did, and a number — well, quite a number — of other things. The project eventually went on the back burner where it simmered until all of the water went out of it and the bottom of the pot blackened. I would think about it for time to time, but never did anything more with it. And I never shared the idea. With anyone.

Fast forward to this past week. Many of you know that I review mystery and thriller novels for I received in that capacity a novel entitled CONSTANT FEAR by Daniel Palmer. If you don’t have Daniel on your must-read list, you should; he’s one of those guys who for years tried to get a publishing deal and when he did he was strong right out of the gate and has gotten better with every book. CONSTANT FEAR grabbed me right from the first page. I was reading right along and got about a tenth of the way into it when I realized that it was somewhat similar to my own neglected project, the one that I had not shared with anyone, including but not limited to Daniel. CONSTANT FEAR is set primarily in a school; a bunch of bad guys are holding a group of students hostage; and it’s up to a school employee to save them. There are more similarities, and some differences as well, but I’m not going to go into them as I don’t want to spoil the surprises you will encounter when you read CONSTANT FEAR. And  let me state unequivocally that Daniel did not get the idea for CONSTANT FEAR from me. He couldn’t have, because — let me state it again — I never told it to him or to anyone until now. I’ve met Daniel once or twice, briefly at this or that Thrillerfest, and we have several friends in common, but we’ve never discussed writing or anything serious. Nope. He thought CONSTANT FEAR up all by his lonesome, the same way I did with my unfinished manuscript. The difference is that he plugged away and finished his, and brought his concept to life. I didn’t. You can buy it next week, and if you like thrillers involving flawed underdogs who attempt to triumph against seemingly impossible odds for noble causes, or even if you don’t, it’s a worthwhile, propelling read and would, I think, make a great film as well.

The reason I’m kicking myself is that my idea was certainly marketable, as Daniel has demonstrated with the expression of his own idea. I just didn’t get over the high (but certainly not insurmountable hills) and get it out there. Daniel did. His good, my bad. Please don’t let it be yours. Open that file, the one with thirty-six or fifty-two pages and the great ending or the incredible beginning and the concept that no one has quite done yet, and get it finished. Don’t be satisfied with what might have been, as told in the voice of another.

First Page Critique: Prologue (Helston, England 1864)

Jordan Dane



Photo image from iStock, purchased by Jordan Dane

Enjoy the first page anonymous submission (as yet untitled) for your consideration and feedback. My comments are on the flipside.


Helston, England

December, 1864
The moonlight shined through the window, casting an eerie sheen down her caramel-colored hair.  Her fingertips, well-manicured with a light pink coating, gently held the stem of her wine glass.

The large house was empty save for the two of them, and as his eyes surveyed the dim living room, photographs of family members cluttered the mantelpiece above the fireplace.  The colorfully decorated Christmas tree reflected in the glass of a framed picture, the holiday lights so magnificent that he could hardly see the middle-aged couple depicted in the shot.

She smiled, and as she did so, he mimicked her gesture.

“Supper was great, thank you.”  Past her left shoulder through the window, the silhouettes of bare tree branches scratched at the moon.

“I am glad you enjoyed it,” she responded.  What was her name?  He blinked.  Catherine.

He could faintly tell she was beautiful, and regretted he couldn’t enjoy the sight.  Long, wavy light brown hair, just a hue darker than blonde, cascaded down her back.  Light blue eyes—sky blue to be exact—glanced at the maroon table cloth.  And her heart, beating through her black dress…

He sighed impatiently.

She leaned forward, tucking her hands underneath her chin.  “I must allow myself to admit I am relieved that Mrs. Norfolk has not returned.”

“For ought I know, she is on her way.”

Laughter jumped along the air.  “Oh, pray not!”

He narrowed his eyes as he studied her, trying his best to recall the letter that arrived at his flat just last week.  The girl was twenty-two.  Her birthday was to be on New Year’s Eve, just three weeks away.  Her parents, as he had suspected when he had coerced her into inviting him to dinner, were out at a social event.  They are clearly well-respected within the community, Cam commented, noting the high ceilings that resembled a cathedral more than an actual home.  If being wealthy counted as a community.

“I cannot believe we talked for so long,” he heard himself say.

“I know.”  She glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner.  “Three hours.”

“And I really should be going.  Any longer and I shall be missed.”


She leaned back in her seat.  “Oh.”

His lips curved into an easy smile as he stood.  His right hand shoved inside his pocket, clacking coins together.


Feedback Comments:

1.) Historical World-building – After my first pass through, I went back to read the tag line and remembered this was a historical piece. By the dialogue and the prose, I did not get a sense of the period. I would have appreciated more setting that triggered my senses to place this story intro into the period. Is it cold in December? What does that look like or feel off the stone walls? Is there a fire in the hearth? What does the place smell like? These details do not have to go on forever, but a smattering of notions can put the reader into that room without much effort.

2.) Dialogue – The dialogue is more modern as well. The writing is sparse in general, mostly dialogue, but if this is to be a period piece, readers of the genre expect proper research. Simple phrases like “the large house” and “living room” do not reflect the time. I would have expected wording like: the manor and parlor, for example. Dialogue like “I cannot believe we talked for so long” might be changed to ” rarely do I engage in such congenial conversation, madam, and at such length.” (Come on, historical authors. Help me out here.)

3.) Point of View & Awkward Phrases – Most of this intro is seen through his perspective, but there are moments where the lines are clearly envisioned through her. This reads as head-hopping. I would recommend selecting one POV and sticking with that, per scene. If there is reason to keep his motives secret, for the sake of mystery and the plot, then I would select her POV as the main one. Or this intro can be cleaned up by making every line as seen through his eyes only.

POV problems and Awkward Phrase Examples:

Her fingertips…gently held the stem of the wine glass – Unless he knows how much pressure she is putting on that stem, he wouldn’t know how gently she is grasping it. He can only guess at it. Without the subject being him, this reads as if it’s her POV.

He could faintly tell she was beautiful, and regretted he couldn’t enjoy the sight – I had to read this again. It drew me from the reading. She is either beautiful, in his estimation, or she is not. And it seems he is enjoying her beauty quite a bit since he’s described her hair more than once and is noticing every aspect of her body. It also wasn’t clear to me why he couldn’t enjoy the sight, but perhaps that comes later.

Light blue eyes—sky blue to be exact—glanced at the maroon table cloth.  And her heart, beating through her black dress…– These descriptions make it seem as if her eyes (as the main subject) are not connected to her body or her heart is the only thing in that dress. By using pronouns in a better way, rather than purely writing for imagery, the meaning would be clearer – ie He admired how her sky blue eyes refused to meet his gaze as she glanced along the maroon tablecloth. When her bosom heaved, he imagined her heart raced under the dark ribbons and lace of her frock. There is also a POV problem where the last line is clearly in her point of view since he can’t know how fast her heart is beating under her dress.

Laughter jumped along the air – This line is very awkward. It tossed me from the reading. Anyone else? This generic reference to laughter also does not indicate who is laughing. I assumed it was her laughter, but then why not say it?

Past her left shoulder through the window, the silhouettes of bare tree branches scratched at the moon – This should be in his POV, yet he is not mentioned at all. Several descriptions are disembodied. I had to reread this particular line, thinking at first that it might be a dangling participle.. It’s not, but it through me out. It would be cleaner if the sentence flowed more simply with him as the subject – He gazed over her left shoulder to see the dark silhouettes of bare tree branches scratching at the moon.

He heard himself say – This could be simplified to: He said.

Overall: – There is obvious tension in this scene. The author does a good job of focusing on body language to set that mood. Adding more on setting can only enhance this friction and expand on the mystery of what’s happening. If the point of view were clearly in one head, there could be more mystery layered into this piece to make it more intriguing. Imagine if the POV is in his head and he does not trust her beguiling manner. Who is playing whom? And a better defined setting would not only add to the mood of the scene, but also set the stage in history.

What do you think, TKZers? Please share your constructive criticism.