It’s All An Illusion

By Joe Moore

Many years ago, I took my son to see David Copperfield, one of the world’s greatest illusionists. During the over two hours of magic, Copperfield performed a number of mind-copperfield_cleanedbending feats that astounded the audience including walking through a solid wall. Remember, this is the guy who made the Statue of Liberty disappear, so he kept us on the edge of our seats with every trick.

One trick in particular was not as spectacular as making a jet plane vanish, but it made a lasting impression on me that I refer to often as I talk about writing thrillers. It involved Copperfield standing solo at center stage performing some entertaining but basic card and slide-of-hand tricks. It was sort of a breather from the “big” illusions. A few minutes into his routine, someone started heckling him from the back of the theater. A man shouted that the tricks were easy and took no talent. At first, Copperfield tried to dismiss him with a remark that he was glad the stranger was interested in magic. He then went on with the card trick. The heckler called out again, this time louder, saying that Copperfield was a third-rate magician with no real talent, and that anyone could do the famous illusionist’s act.

At this point, the audience started to turn to see who this disrespectful, loudmouth was. What we all saw was a man in a heavy trench coat, pulled down fedora, and a thick beard moving slowly down the aisle toward the stage. I surmised that this was obviously part of the show, but to what end I had no idea.

The comments coming from the heckler grew louder and more boisterous as he claimed that he could do anything Copperfield could. The exchange grew edgy between the magician and the heckler until Copperfield seemed to become so frustrated that he challenged the man to come up on stage and perform a trick that would astound the audience. He then turned and left the stage, giving it over to the bearded man in the trench coat.

As my son and I watched in breathless anticipation of what would happen next, the heckler took center stage and declared that he was about to perform an illusion worthy of David Copperfield. In an instant, he ripped off the fake beard, tossed the hat away, and slipped out of the trench coat. The audience gasped as we all realized the mystery man was in fact, David Copperfield.

I consider that trick the basis for writing thrillers. Because, isn’t every writer of this genre a magician? All great magicians know how to deal with pacing, timing and danger. They know how to pivot from one direction to another and the art of misdirection. They keep you guessing where they will go next, and when you think you know the answer, you wind up being wrong. They make you want one thing, then give you another. They prey upon your fears, your dreams, and your nightmares. They are illusionists. They create magic.

As you write, think of yourself as a magician performing illusions. Know where your reader thinks you’re taking them, then take them somewhere unexpected. For writing, like magic, is all an illusion.


thor-bunker-cover-RSApril, 1945. The Germans have the bomb. Download THOR BUNKER, A Short Story prequel to THE TOMB for only 99¢.

Can You Pass the 69 Test?


By PJ Parrish

Now that I have your attention…

No, I am not going to talk about sex again. Not even bad sex with a limp penis, which as we writers know is a helluva lot more fun than good sex. I want to talk about finding the heart of your story. And to do that, you have to try this little exercise:

Get out your book or call up your Word doc manuscript. (For our purposes here, “book” means published or un, completed or not. “Book” is that thing that has been keeping you up lately.)

Open it to page 69. Read what is there. I don’t care if it’s a full page or the last two lines of a chapter. (If you hit a blank page, you have permission to use either 68 or 70 but that’s as much cheating as I allow.)

This page — this single page — capsulizes your entire book.

You don’t believe me, do you. I didn’t believe it either until I tried this experiment. I did it a couple years ago at the request of Marshal Zeringue, executive director for the Campaign for the American Reader. Marshal has this terrific blog wherein he promotes reading. Sez Marshal: “The goal of this blog is to inspire more people to spend more time reading books. I’ll try to do that by shining a little light on books that I like and think others might find worthy of their time and attention.” CLICK HERE to see his blog.

He also came up with the Page 69 Test. He was inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s suggestion that you should choose your reading by turning to page 69 of a book and, if you like it, read it. Zeringue tried it with Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, and was so taken with the results he devised the Page 69 writers challenge.

On his blog, Zeringue has asked dozens of writers to answer the question: Is your page 69 a good place to get a sense of your book?

When I first picked up Marshal’s gauntlet, it was for our book AN UNQUIET GRAVE. (CLICK HERE to go read those results) But the other day, I decided to apply the test to our newest book, so I cracked open SHE’S NOT THERE, which was just released this month. Here is our page 69:

“When you call her phone, does it ring before it goes to voice mail?”
Tobias shook his head. “The police told me the phone was turned off. They said that’s why they couldn’t use the GPS to find it.”
“They can trace the phone’s last location. Have they told you anything?”
“Yes. They said her last known location of the phone was about two miles from where her car was found. But they never found the phone or her purse.”
“What about the car’s GPS?”
“It doesn’t have one.”
“And you don’t know where your wife was going?”
Tobias shook his head slowly. He picked up his glass, staring down into it for a long time, then finally took a drink.
“What do you know about the accident?”
“Not much. They said the car spun off the road in the Everglades.”
“Everglades?” What was your wife doing driving alone in the Everglades?”
Tobias stared at him for a long time, as if he were trying to figure something out. Then he shook his head. “I don’t know.”
What the hell did this guy know?


Here’s what has happened before this. A woman wakes up in a hospital, bruised and with a concussion. She has no ID and can’t remember how she got there. All she had on when she came in was a Chanel dress and a 10-carat diamond. But when she hears her husband’s voice (Tobias), she freaks and bolts from the hospital, sensing he tried to kill her. The husband has hired a skip tracer to bring her home and the tracer is interviewing the husband for the first time. Does it give a good sense of the book? Oddly enough it, does. As truncated as it seems, the passage crystalizes a main plot point. The skip tracer suspects Alex Tobias, a rich lawyer, has something to hide, and he knows that every marriage has dark currents running beneath. So the skip tracer’s final thought on that page — what did the guy know? — is the existential question behind the whole plot. This is a husband who actually knows nothing about his wife. Which is why he might have tried to kill her. Or not.

I have to say that I went into this experiment a skeptic and emerged a believer. When I first did this years ago, I thought it was a bunch of hooey. But I think it reveals a kernel of truth about both our books. Each passage, in its way, gets to the heart of our story.

Okay…back to your own page 69. How does it work for you? What is there on this one single page that somehow serves to represent the very heart of your book? Think hard. It’s there. If it’s not? Well, maybe, just maybe, you haven’t really found the heart of your book yet.

Let me know what you found out. Be brave and share your 69s here and let us be the judge!

Postscript: I am on vacation this week, roughing it in the wilds of the Loire Valley. I wrote this before I left and I think I will be able to answer. If I can’t…talk amongst yourselves! Also, our book is finally out..The South Florida Sun-Sentinel critic Oline Cogdill calls it “captivating.” Author Hank Phillippi Ryan, calls it “Taut, tense, and twisty—this turn-the-pages-as-fast-as-you-can thriller is relentlessly suspenseful.” Here’s the LINK.

Insights into the Dreaded First Page

I attended my first local Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference here in Colorado last weekend and there was a strong emphasis on the dreaded first page – one session was devoted to reading random first pages aloud to two editors (I was too chicken to enter!) and in another, more intensive session, the first 3-5 pages of a new novel were evaluated (I did bravely submit for this one!). We’ve dealt with a number of first pages here at the Kill Zone and, although this conference was focused on children’s books (ranging from picture books to middle grade and young adult), the same issues (unsurprising) reared their ugly heads, so I thought it would be helpful to distill and share some of the advice the editors and agents gave on those all important first pages.

By way of background, the two editors who conducted the first page session were Andrew Karre, executive editor at Dutton, and Stacy Whitman, founder and publisher of Tu books (Andrew also provided the novel intensive session). I also attended a session with Kristen Nelson, an agent, where the group evaluated query submissions (which in most cases focused, once again, on those dreaded first pages).

Here’s the advice, distilled and summarized as best I can:

Start with intrigue, leave explanations and extensive backstory for later

Many of the first pages evaluated fell into the trap of over-explaining (usually by way of character backstory) and succumbing to large chunks of narrative exposition before the action even got going. All the editors and agents agreed that the first pages of a novel must intrigue and raise questions in the reader – if those questions are answered too soon then there is no real payoff for the reader and, hence, no reason for them to continue to read. The difficulty comes when trying to achieve the next key point: anchoring your reader in time and place.

Anchor your reader, nonetheless in place and time

Some first pages provided a great deal of mystery and intrigue but too little in the way of ‘grounding’ so the reader felt lost before the story had really begun. Some pieces sounded contemporary only to turn out to be historical (and the reader had no way of knowing the setting or time period from the start which was disorientating). Some pages began with dialogue and no real foundation for the reader to visualize where that dialogue was taking place. Again, the editors all emphasized that a first page has to serve two purposes – to draw a reader in and hook them with the story and also to provide them with enough basic information to know where and when the story was taking place so they were willing to go along for the ride (rather than thinking ‘huh?!”) from the get go.

Overall, the editors emphasized, a balance has to be achieved between action and intrigue, questions and answers, exposition and dialogue. This is no easy task but one that enables a reader to get hooked on the story, suspend disbelief, and  want to keep turning the pages to discover the resolution to the issues raised.

Make sure you have a clearly established ‘voice’ and choice of POV from the outset

In the novel intensive program, this issue was raised a number of times as we discussed the choice of POV used in our crucial first pages. Sometimes the choice of first versus third person felt strange or forced, sometimes it was clearly the way the story needed to be told. The key element was one of deliberate choice by the author rather than lack of certainty over voice or POV (which comes through as inconsistency or uncertainty in the writing).

Avoid dialogue that sounds like it’s only for the reader’s benefit

All too often the dialogue in some first pages was too obviously providing information for the reader and so it felt forced and inauthentic. All the editors agreed that authors should avoid using dialogue as a backhanded way of introducing exposition or in a way that sounds like people are only telling each other facts or backstory for the reader to ‘overhear’. The critical element, once again, was to create a sense of authenticity and voice when using dialogue in the all important first few pages of the book.

Avoid mixed metaphors or overly ‘intellectual’ or ‘precious’ turns of phrase

As part of the editing process, the editors emphasized trying to pare down the first pages as much as possible so extraneous information is left out and readers aren’t slowed down by turns of phrase or metaphors designed to impress rather than move the story along. When we discussed this in the first pages session, the editors also emphasized that authors need to be aware of inadvertant ‘micro-agressions’ that come from using racially stereotyped or inappropriate phrasing. One of the main topics for the SCBWI conference was the issue of diversity in children’s literature (or rather the lack thereof) so this came up occasionally when dealing with the initial pages of some authors’ work.

So there you have it – further insights into the pitfalls to avoid in the first pages of your book! While there were no real surprises in terms of the feedback provided, I think it never hurts to have these issues repeated. Feel free to add your own comments or further insights…



How to Launch a Thriller Series

rocket-launch-67720_1280It’s launch week for me as I begin a brand new thriller series. I’m excited about this one, as it’s been bubbling around in my brain for some time. Now the first Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Rules, is out, and two more are cooking.

So I was thinking about the steps one ought to go through when unleashing a new series. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Create a character who grips you and won’t let go

I wanted to write about a guy who can fight, and who was admitted to Yale at age fourteen. I kept developing his backstory until he demanded to be written. That’s what you need for a series character, because you’re going to be with him a long time. In my workshops I suggest an exercise: what would your character have tattooed on his or her arm? You don’t have to put it there, of course. It’s just to dig further into character. When I figured out what tattoo Romeo would have –– and I did put it on his arm –– the character was complete. You’ll have to read the book to find out what it is. #Shameless.

  1. Come up with a twisting, turning plot for that character

The plot begins as Romeo is out for a jog … and a church blows up. He stops to help a bleeding woman, then finds a dead body in the church, and it’s not because of the blast.. The cops arrive. And that’s in the first three pages.

  1. Develop 2-3 other plots for the next books in the series

It helps your confidence to know the series will have some legs!

  1. Write the book

I believe this is an essential step.

  1. Have the book professionally edited

This is the biggest expense you’ll have in the indie-publishing process. But a good, experienced editor who knows the genre is worth every dime.

  1. Get a cover concept for the series (so the covers have a similar feel)


  1. Write the book description copy

I tried something a little different with Romeo’s Rules. Actually, it’s a blast from the past. On many paperback originals of the 50s and 60s, the copy would contain a tag line, then some dialogue from the book (or a bit of a scene), then short, to the point sales copy after that. It’s my homage to that great era of genre fiction.

If you want to stay alive, you better know the rules …

Natalia Mayne said, “What’s the first rule?”
“Fear nothing,” I said.
“You have any more?”
“Do unto them before they do unto you.”
”And you don’t owe the truth to people who lie.”
“I’ve never met anybody like you.”
“I’ve heard that before.” 

Mike Romeo is an ex-cage fighter living off the grid in L.A. Running from a dark guilt that dogs him, he’s finally found a place where he can rest and even heal.

Then a church blows up. And with it all of Romeo’s hopes to be left alone. When he stops to help an injured woman whose kids are missing, someone decides to put a target on his back.

But whoever wants him dead picked the wrong guy. Because Romeo has rules. And he’s about to teach some lessons.

  1. Try to create a little pre-release buzz (e.g., post the first chapter for viewing)

I did that a few weeks ago.

  1. Publish the book to retailers

As an indie, you can create direct accounts with the main retailers, or you can use a service like Smashwords or BookBaby to do all that for you. I prefer to do it myself.

  1. Tell people it’s published.

Hey! It’s published!

Here’s where you can get it




A print version will be coming soon.

Bonus step: Commission a book trailer. My rule of thumb is that a trailer should be 30 – 45 seconds. Here’s mine:

Oh yes, one more step: get to work on the next book! I’m already into Romeo’s Way. 

So what do you look for in a series? What makes you read on … or stop reading?

Beating Free


February 1973 was a month of uncertainty for me. I was ready to graduate from college in a few months and had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do when I “grew up” (a state of mind which continues, verily, to this very day!). I somehow found myself being interviewed by the head of an insurance firm, a very nice guy who sensed almost immediately, as I had, that putting me in his office would be inserting a round stick of dynamite into a square…well, office. We had a cordial conversation anyway, and at the conclusion of it he showed me a blocky machine that was hooked up to a television. “This,” he said, “is the future.” He picked up a rectangular object that looked like an audio cassette on steroids, inserted it into the machine, and turned on the television so we could watch a gentleman nervously give a lecture about actuarial tables and premiums and whole life insurance and the like. What I was being shown was something called a VCR in U-Matic format, the forerunner to Betamax and VHS and the grandparent to DVDs and yes, streaming. I was assured that within a few years there would be one of these machines, or something like it, in every home in the country. My new friend probably had no idea how that machine, and its descendents, would change things. I didn’t either, but I felt that ground move. This thing was a game changer.

I had the same feeling, and not in a good way, when I was wading through my emails yesterday and found a news release about a company named CzurTek (pronounced “SEE-zer Tek”) which has developed a relatively high-speed book scanner called “Czur” (just like Julius) which it appears to intend to sell for around $169.00 and which it is attempting to bring to market by crowd-sourcing.

czur scanner

The video of it is impressive, for sure; Czur does involve some human interaction, but nothing that a semi-sober fraternity brother couldn’t handle. There is a lot of talk about algorithms and the like that I didn’t understand but the legal part of me got went on high alert: the bad kind. I remember what happened, and is still happening, to the music industry, when CD players and copiers started appearing as basic equipment on home computers. “RIP AND BURN!” became the catchphrase of the day. It used to be that if you wanted to have a bestselling album you had to sell a million copies or more in a week. A lot of people did that, too. Now, not so much. You can hit the top of the charts on some weeks by bringing home unit sales of five figures. People don’t buy a lot of music anymore; they go to peer-to-peer sites or they stream it but they don’t buy a lot of it. It’s tough to beat free. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened fast enough that no one knew what was happening. I think that we are about to see the same thing happen, and with books this time. And it comes at a time when the industry, including the publishers and authors, can’t take the hit.

The folks at CzurTek know exactly what they are doing. The video I have linked you to above seems benevolent enough — there’s talk of copying rare and delicate manuscripts to preserve them, for but one example — but when you go to their Facebook page the 800-pound bear in the room is too much to ignore. Witness this, taken from the August 30, 2015 post off of CzurTek’s site, which infers that the idea for Czur sprung from the high cost of textbooks:

Normally one textbook is more than 100 dollars, and sometimes a professor will ask us to buy 6 or 7 of them.

In order to solve this problem, some of my schoolmates would buy second-hand books, or photocopy them. I once borrowed my roommate’s camera to take pictures of an entire book. It was really tiring, and hard to get high-quality pictures when the pages are curved.

Two years later….

in Shenzhen, we decided to have a go at solving this problem. After several attempts, we found that digitizing the books seemed to be the best approach. However, a book scanner costs tens of thousands of dollars, which is beyond the reach of ordinary people. So we decided to create one ourselves! Over the past 3 years, in the course of visiting numerous factories and testing our algorithm hundreds of times, we have turned ourselves into specialists in this area.


In other words, if a book is too expensive, just copy it. If it’s due back at the library and you’re not done with it, copy it. If the books are too darn heavy, copy them. Edit the text and put it in your essay! The CzurTek website even talks about building your own library for free, of course.

I’m not without sympathy, up to a point. College textbooks are extremely expensive. There are reasons for this, particularly with respect for those dealing with higher mathematics, biology, and physics, but that’s a topic for another time. But does the cost — or that they’re too heavy, or due back at the library — make it okay to steal them? Just copy them.

This isn’t the future. It’s already here. There are a bunch of book scanners on the market right now that don’t quite do the job well, but have the basics down. If Czur isn’t the gamechanger it appears to be, someone else will make one that is, and make it soon. The issue then becomes whether you want to spend a year of your life creating something that gets copied and probably illegitimately disseminated as soon as it is published, with no compensation to you. To go back to the music business: musical artists have found other revenue streams, such as licensing their music to film projects, tee-shirts, bumper stickers, tours, and the like. Their music? The newbies give it away, in the hope that someone will come to their concerts and buy merchandise. What are authors going to do? Tours? Please. Do you really think that someone is going to buy a ticket to listen to (fill in the blank) read or give a talk. Tee-shirts? C’mon.

I’ve prattled on a bit too long on this, and I apologize for that. I see this, however, as a significant problem. Am I Chicken Little? Or am I Dr. Miles Bennell? If I’m right, what are we — you, me, and the publishing industry — going to do about it? You tell me. And as for you folks at CzurTek…how would you feel about someone reverse engineering Czur, and giving it away for free? Sound good?


First Page Critique – “Bird Without a Song”


“Bird Without a Song”


       Somewhere near the end of my tour of duty in Vietnam, soon after I held the baby in my arms and felt him die, I began to imagine them. At first they were only quick movements in the corners of my tent but soon I began to see them in front of me. Some faces were clear, Corporal Terwilliger, Major Ayres, Corpsman Cooper, but there were strangers, too, ones I didn’t remember but who were familiar all the same. Some were faces from stretchers on fatigue-shattered nights when flares and panic were stabbing at us. I knew they were dead, too, even without names. There were hundreds of them. Thousands. They stood and waived to me from shadows when no one was around. They were small, and full of life.

      “I wonder if this is what heaven is like. You see all your friends again but they’re tiny. I’ll have to ask the little people,” I said to my crew chief one day while sweeping blood out of our chopper. I recognized the stare of concern he gave me. Shrugging, I laughed and pretended to be joking. I never mentioned them again. But they were real to me and, in time they began to talk. Major Ayres was the first to speak. “Tell my girlfriend I loved her,” he said.

      “Did they send my Air Medal to my mom?” Corporal Terwilliger asked.

      “You didn’t know me, but thanks for bringing my body back from the jungle,” one I didn’t remember said. I told them I would do everything I could to tell everyone they were safe and still alive. 

        When it was my time to leave, I tried to say good bye. 

      “We’re coming with you,” they told me in chorus.

      “I can’t take you back to the States. Someone would notice.”

      “They don’t see us,” Major Ayres argued. He was good at arguing. At his request, I was writing to his girlfriend’s fourth-grade classroom in Virginia to tell her students what Vietnam was like. “We will all fit quite nicely in your sea bag,” the major added.

        “Of course. That’s right, Sir. Others don’t see you. But why do you want to come with me?”

      “We want to be there when you tell our families we died with honor. When you tell them we’re still here and still love them. You must help keep us alive.”

      “But you’re dead, Sir, you all are.”

      “Not if you write about us,” a nameless ones said.

My comments and critique

It’s easy to assume that, because of the title of this Kill Zone feature – “First Page Critique,” that criticism is inevitable. That the submitted page is by definition flawed and in need of counsel.

But I’m happy to say that, in my humble opinion, this first page is on fire. It’s a fantastic launch for a novel, and while we can’t quite tell where it’s headed (not a requirement of a first page), we already know that we, like those dead guys that are attaching themselves to our hero, would like to come along for the ride.

What’s worthy of mentioning here, though, with a view of making this stellar page even better, falls more into the category of editing than it does story critique.

The second paragraph benefits from a tweak to the initial dialogue, moving the attribution to an earlier position, and then pushing the closing line (from Major Ayres) to a new paragraph. It’s a mistake to stuff lines of dialogue from different speakers into a single paragraph (not a hard and fast rule, but this one qualifies). And then, there’s another natural paragraph break in the middle, all of these edits contributing to a cleaner read.  I’ve rewritten it here:

      “I wonder if this is what heaven is like,” I said to my crew chief one day while sweeping blood out of our chopper. “You see all your friends again but they’re tiny. I’ll have to ask the little people.”

      I recognized the stare of concern he gave me. Shrugging, I laughed and pretended to be joking. I never mentioned them again. But they were real to me and, in time they began to talk. Major Ayres was the first to speak.

       “Tell my girlfriend I loved her,” he said.

The paragraphing was perfect from that point forward, as was the writing and the chill it shoots up the reader’s spine, with echoes of buried themes of war and personal loss emerging from between the lines.

I say.. bravo to this author. Keep going, this is a great start to what we can already tell will be a powerfully dark and personal story, perhaps the stuff of a bestseller someday.

What say you, KZ readers?

First Page Critique -The Lunar Lifestyle


We booked the cheapest seats on the rocket, which meant that neither of us faced a window. If I craned my neck, I could see the other couples sitting in the expensive seats, ogling at space and Earth through their window views. I didn’t let it bother me. Once we got to the moon, everything would be free.

I turned to Matt and pointed out a leftover drop of puke drying on his chin. He wiped it away with his sleeve. He didn’t do so well with g-forces.

“Any regrets?” I asked him.

Matt shook his head. “We can always video chat my parents. Or your aunt. And we’ll make new friends up here.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“Besides, Clara, it’s a fresh start. Think of it that way. A start for our family, you know?”
Matt yawned and thumbed through the Rocket Passenger Safety Handbook as we waited to disembark. It occurred to me that there was no point in reading the Rocket Passenger Safety Handbook at the conclusion of a one-way trip. But he’d had a rough flight, so I didn’t say anything.

Matt and I had lived in Lake Placid, New York. Matt taught sixth grade math, and I’d taught seventh grade geography. Eventually, they had to close the school because parents were getting concerned with the levels of radiation in the lake, so we signed up to go to the moon.

Matt and I hadn’t met at school, actually. He tells everyone that he fell in love with me at first sight. I’d stood out to him, apparently, in my bright green sundress on a warm winter’s morning at the dentist’s office. I’ve never had the heart or the courage to tell him that I’d only worn it because I’d been too lazy to do my laundry, and it was the only thing I had left. I certainly hadn’t fallen for him as I waited to be de-plaqued. Matt had grown his bushy red hair out into a bushy red mustache back then. I considered it something of a public service when I made him shave.

Our rocket docked directly inside the lunar base. There were six or seven other bases scattered around the moon-China had one, as did Russia and a few other European countries-but Matt and I would be part of the first group to settle the new American base.

My Critique by Nancy J. Cohen

Being a science fiction fan, I loved the opening. I surmise Matt and Clara are married and are about to embark on a new life on the moon. The point of view is clear, and I’m interested in these characters and their new adventure.

But then the story segues into a flashback that stops the forward motion cold. Starting with this paragraph— “Matt and I had lived in Lake Placid…” and ending at the next paragraph, “…when I made him shave”—it’s all background info that could have been woven into the story later or brought in via dialogue.

Then suddenly the rocket is docking. I would have liked to stay in the moment during their voyage to experience it with them. Their reactions would help the reader learn more about these characters via conversation and their gut responses to the trip. The voyage went too fast.

Also, you’re telling rather than showing. Instead of “Our rocket docked directly inside the lunar base,” let us share this trip through their sensory impressions as the rocket turns, descends, decelerates and docks. Does their pulse race? Their stomachs churn with anxiety as the ship tilts? Their hearts lurch as the vehicle thumps to a landing? I want to smell the rocket fuel. In other words, show—don’t tell. This could be an exciting trip told through the viewpoint of these newlyweds. But you lost me at “Matt and I…”

Putting Backstory in its Place: First Page Critique

Shutterstock image via TKZ

Shutterstock image via TKZ

Today we are critiquing the first page of a reader-submitted story, titled THE BANK BAR. I’ll add my comments at the end, and then please add yours in the Comments.


The young man had been stalking Sadie for over a month. He sat in his car and watched as Sadie walked home from the store. She didn’t know him. He wanted to make contact with her, but it was too soon. He just wasn’t ready. The only connection he had to Sadie was that he had gone to high school with her older brother. But, they weren’t friends, they didn’t really know each other. He had seen Sadie in a store one day, and knew she was special. Well, special to him. He had no problem attracting girls. He was good looking, smart, in good shape, and was charming. He didn’t have a role model growing up, although if his friends had known his father they would probably disagree.
Sadie was 20 years old, and he was surprised that Sadie was still single. It was 1938, and it wasn’t uncommon for girls younger than Sadie to quit school, marry, and get pregnant; or the other way around. The depression had forced a lot of students to leave school to look for work to help their family. Nor was it unusual for girls to marry someone older. His father was six years older than his mother when they married, and she was 16. But his father was gone now. Good riddance. The bastard had mistreated his mother, and often beat him in a drunken rage. For a long time, there wasn’t much he could do. Things change. A boy grows up. A boy gets bigger, stronger. Eventually, a boy becomes a man. That day came when he finally was able to face his father, and it was no contest. His father would never abuse his mother or beat him again. The neighbors heard that his father left to look for work, and would return for his family. A lot of men had gone off to try to find work. Lord knows there wasn’t much work in Greenville, Alabama. Only he and his mother knew the truth. It was something they could live with, and in fact, preferred to the violence they lived with before his father disappeared. He would not be returning. Ever.

My comments

I like the way this first page sets up a level of tension and expectation in the reader. At first, I wondered why the narrator describes “stalking” Sadie. Once it was revealed that the boy had previously killed his father, I immediately thought, “Uh oh, poor Sadie is next. We have an attractive, charming, serial killer on our hands.” If that’s where this story is headed, I’m interested!

Avoid getting bogged down in backstory and tell-itis 

Unfortunately, this scene suffers from a malady I call “the backstory blues.” The very first line of the story, “The young man had been stalking Sadie for over a month” sets the reader’s focus in the past. And there we stay–mired  in backstory details–for the rest of the page. This problem can be fixed by refocusing the scene to show what’s happening now. Let us see through the young man’s eyes as he’s watching Sadie. Is she a farm girl? Pretty? Vulnerable looking?

Use specific language and details

The language, “Walked home from the store”, is too brief and nonspecific to convey dramatic tension. Is Sadie walking a dusty back road or village sidewalk? Perspiring as she struggles with a heavy bag? Is she walking with a friend, and is her stalker waiting until she’s alone to make his approach? The more specific and “in the moment” this stalking scene can be written, the stronger and creepier it will be. Weave in the backstory elements without losing focus on the here and now.

Avoid weak words

Certain words are inherently weak, in conversation as well as writing. “He ‘just’ wasn’t ready.” “They didn’t ‘really’ know each other.” Edit those out.

Title note

I was a bit confused by the title. Having read the first page, I still have no idea what THE BANK BAR refers to. (A spot for dumping bodies, perhaps?) In this title, both words–bank and bar–can have multiple meanings. This title can be interpreted in different ways, and therefore, it lacks clarity. The title is a writer’s first opportunity to grab the reader’s interest. Make it as strong and compelling as possible. At the very least, the title should give a hint about the type of story that is to come.

Your thoughts?

How did you like THE BANK BAR, TKZ’ers? Please add your notes and suggestions in the Comments. And thank you to our brave reader for submitting this first page!




On Fishing For A Story

Hemingway Fishing

Ernest Hemingway working on his hook.

Analogies about writing, especially about how to write, abound. In my first writing book I beat them to death (because I love analogies), and have since been beaten senseless by some reviewers who don’t care (or know) that analogies are a proven and strategically effective way to teach.

So I was delighted to see Jim Bell’s analogy about playing basketball a couple of weeks ago (and another in the first paragraph yesterday), if nothing else than it allows me to point to him if someone reading TKZ isn’t appreciative of the analogy I am about to offer in today’s post.

Thanks, Jim, for opening that can of worms (itself an analogy, for the record).

All of the analogies I have employed – flying an airplane, playing golf, cooking, building a bridge, a few others – become a thematic chorus when considered en masse. The message is clear, and twofold: professionals can wing it and play loose with the core principles (just like when Michael Jordan shot and made a free throw in an NBA game… with his eyes closed), in a way that less experienced cannot and should not.

At the core of each of these avocations there are unimpeachable truths…

… essential physics that are not to be messed with. When a proven professional does so – and we all do it from time to time… because we can – even a little, they do so in context to an evolved storytelling sensibility and learning curve that a newbie does not yet possess.

In effect, they can do it with their eyes closed, in a way that would make the rest of us look silly.

You don’t tee off with a putter in the name of your art, you don’t under-cook the chicken in the name of table appeal, you don’t build a bridge on sand for obvious reasons, and so on.

The second thing is this: the same is true, every bit as true, for authors who are navigating, cooking up, teeing up, or building a novel. Mess with the core physics of the craft and your story will crash and burn. And when you are rejected, it will most likely be because of an ignorance (as in, to ignore) or a lack of regard (as in, to over-estimate your skills) of the core physics of storytelling.

And so we come to today’s analogy: fishing.

When I was a kid my father took me fishing several times each summer. He selected the tackle, baited the hook, threaded the line, made my casts and, when something nibbled, put his hands on mine as we played the line before setting the hook and reeling in. Then he gave me credit for landing “a big one.” The result was a few fabulous rainbow trout breakfasts and more than a few thrown-back bottom fish, not to mention some of my most precious childhood memories.

There came a point when I was a teenager too cool to fish with my father, so off I went with friends to fish on our own and talk about girls we could not catch from the bank of a river containing fish we could not catch. That period of my fishing life lasted about ten years, when that teen independence gave way to young adult cluelessness.

Over that decade, I caught exactly zero fish.  Not one.

Because I was imitating what I had seen my father do for me, and had been too proud or busy or stupid to learn those basics on my own. He smiled when he realized the life lesson to be learned from this failure, a lesson that took years to sink in for me.

I haven’t been fishing since, perhaps disqualifying me from using this analogy at all.

Except… it works.

I can’t help but think about how those fundamentals and processes of fishing are parallel in every way to the experience of learning how to write a novel. How the selection of the story, the way we set it up, the way we play the line and set the hook, are not only essential, but complex and nuanced, not remotely something that can be done without instruction or via imitation.

New writers must be excused from what they don’t yet know, because there is something noble about attempting to learn by doing. At least for a while. But when that takes place in a vacuum, without a parallel experience of learning and apprenticeship, the nobility of it fades away like a fish fleeing from a poorly tied fly.

Most writers come to the intention of writing a novel based upon their reading experience…

… usually joyous, but often riddled with a wildly uninformed belief that they can do what those authors they read can do, or worse, do anything they want – as a reader of novels. Some writers believe this is all you need, that writing is purely intuitive, a misperception reinforced because so many of the authors they’ve read made it look easy.

Logical and functional is not synonymous with easy. Just ask Michael Jordan as he lined up to shoot that free throw with his eyes shut.

Writing stories from this limited base of knowledge is no different that believing you can fly the plane after years of sitting in coach… that you can whip up a killer chicken piccata because you’ve been ordering it for years at the Cheesecake Factory (their best dish, by the way)… that you can hit a nine iron off the tee of a 205 yard par three because that’s what Tiger does… or that you can design and build a functional bridge because you’ve been driving across one for years on your way to work.

Or – I forgot perhaps my favorite analogy, so here goes: You believe that you can take out your own appendix because it took your doctor only fifteen minutes to get that job done. (I smiled when I just saw that Jim used nearly this exact analogy yesterday in the first paragraph of his terrific post; analogies are universal and eternal, and they often speak things more clearly than the direct route can achieve.)

My wife, who is an excellent cook, has for years been trying to nail a chicken piccata that holds a candle to the Cheesecake Factory’s (the recipe for which is not for public consumption), and she’s finally resigned to simply going there to enjoy this dish. Just like we can try to write like Stephen King, using his process (as described in his book, On Writing*), but until you know what he knows, that may not – probably won’t – serve you.

By implication, King is saying that all you need to do is just write. Imagine a surgeon being told, in her first year of med school, that all she needs to do is just cut.

Of course those are silly and obvious comparisons. 

And yet, so many writers attempt to write a novel from an equally consumer-focused and over-simplified learning curve (and dare I say, naive), and as a result they inevitably crash, burn, throw up and, like me, fail to catch a single fish for decades or more.

But that’s not you, you’re saying. You attend writing conferences and read all the writing books, maybe even mine and Jim Bell’s.

Which is great, keep going. But ask yourself this: are you truly and deeply internalizing the principles you read there, and are you practicing and applying them in a way that trumps the in-the-moment bliss of storytelling, which is what some writing gurus tell you is the only thing you need to pay attention to?

Do you know the difference between a concept and a premise?

Do you understand the nature of classic story structure, or even believe in it in the first place? Do you know the role of theme in a story? Do you understand what creates drama and suspense, and how to pace it over the arc of the narrative?

Do you believe you can simply make up the forms and standards and processes by which these things are made manifest in your story?

Professional writers know these things, and they just don’t do it any other way than the prescribed and proven way, no matter how they choose to describe their process.

Something to think about the next time it’s just you and a pole on a peaceful afternoon at the river, waiting for the next story to descend upon you from heaven.


*In his book On Writing, King advises writers to take their initial story idea and just sit down and start writing from it, allowing an inner sense of story to help navigate the road leading to the best possible story. He omits, however, to add that this works for him, which by definition could mean that unless and until you know what he knows, the results you achieve may not compare to his, and thus, rendering this among the worst writing advice ever rendered… this being my opinion, of course. I’m no Stephen King, either, but at least I know what a writer must understand before that or any other method of writing a story will bear fruit, or not take you a decade to write, which is why I’m here.


Larry’s new writing book, Story Fix: Transforming Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant” is available now in digital formats on and, and will be out in trade paperback within the next few weeks. Analogies kept to a minimum, he swears.  Visit Larry’s website at

Flickr photo from Don…The UpNorth Memories Guy… Harrison.