Writing In a Corset

by Larry Brooks

Don’t panic, the sanctity of this Killzone space is not about to be compromised. I’ll get to the corset thing in a minute, but first…

I got to hang with KZer James Scott Bell this weekend, at the Writers Digest Novel Writing Conference in Los Angeles, held at the venerable Bonaventure Hotel, where we were both presenting workshops. He was taller than I expected, he said I was taller than he expected, which just goes to show… nothing at all. Except he’s as gracious and cool in person as he is here… that, I did expect.

The lobby at The Boneventure is like walking through a set from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. No, literally… they shot futuristic scenes for that show right here in the lobby, where I’m writing this post. Thirty years later it still feels ripe for a space station interior or a Hunger Games Capital City mall, but with a concierge and a lobby bar. (For a hoot, click HERE to watch a 25 minute documentary on this topic, including scenes shot here with actors you will recognize from much more recently than Buck Rogers.)

So about today’s title…

Hey, I never said or did that – the corset thing – nor would I. But I would quote it – am doing that now – from an unhappy review for my book, “Story Engineering.” I’m not in the habit of quoting bad reviews, but this one tees up today’s rant, which focuses on a perceived divide out there between writers who value craft, and those who don’t believe in it in favor of simply channeling one’s inner voice and demons and then percolating on it all for what could be years, all leading to a bestselling novel and the perception that this is how it’s done.

For many – newer writers in particular – they believe this because some Famous Literary Author giving a keynote told them so. Maybe that’s where this reviewer heard it:

There is another book about craft, but this is about movies wich (stet) is John Yorke’s “into the woods” (stet). And in page XV (stet) we can find : “You have to liberate people from theory, not give them a corset in which they have to fit their story, their life, their emotions, the way they feel about the world…” Guillermo del Toro. A corset Mr Brooks, yes.

Liberate people from theory. Which is like asking them to figure out the hard things out without any contextual reference points. Just try designing anything with that approach. That’s what this guy is preaching.

Liberate us from the principles that keep us from writing ourselves into a dizzy oblivion of lane changes, proselytization and over-wrought character backstories that hijack the narrative into another dimension while boring reader to tears… theories and principles that help us understand what a novel actually is… yeah, we need to forget all about those kooky fundamentals some of us have learned to value, freeing us to attempt to reinvent a form that has been around for thousands of years.

Those who write this way aren’t reinventing anything. They are simply taking the long road to get there, often backing into once they do, at that.

As a workshop guy, I actually hear this a lot.

I’m guessing that these Famous Literary Author types were fed this line somewhere in their early writing journey. They bought into it, Stephen King perpetuated it (he being one of the few who can actually tell stories this way within a reasonable amount of time) and now stand before us with the rationale that their own bestselling novel (the reason they are behind that podium, which is a legitmate counter-point to all of this) is more the product of their innate genius and a decade of sweating blood – writing and discarding words in 100K chunks while rationalizing this as the dues we must pay – rather than iacknowledging the principle-driven craft of writing (which absolutely does include how stories are structured) that would have perhaps gotten them there in a fraction of the time.

As soon as structure enters the writing conversation, from a podium or otherwise, a lens is applied by some writers, one that doesn’t clarify, but rather, clouds the issue. Because these Famous literary Author keynotes don’t believe there is a structural paradigm that underpins, to some degree (often significant) that renders stories effective. Rather, they believe they made it all up from the thin air of their brain, that they invented whatever it was that made their book great.

Hey, years of pounding on anything, if you have even a shred of literary sensibility – much less genius – will move it toward a form that finally works. And when it does, perhaps leveraging feedback that informed the story’s evolution, it will smack a lot like the very structural, craft-driven principles that they anathematize, which was available from square one for them, as it is for all of us.

Genius, this is not.

I heard one such Famous Literary Author make a quick keynote side comment about craft that went like this: “And sure, we need some craft thrown in, all those semicolons and stuff, we have to get those right.”

Yes indeed. The craft of writing a novel is all about semicolons. Which, if you really think about it, have no business being in a novel in the first place.

At another keynote I heard this spoken with a straight face (his, not mine): “I can’t wait to get to my writing desk in the morning to see what my characters might want to do today.” As if he went to bed the previous night with absolutely no clue. As if the characters are in charge of the story, not him.

They say that, too. And it’s rubbish. It’s hubris, cloaked beneath a false humility, which is what hubris-driven people do.

The book mentioned within this quote-within-a-review and its attribution is from the film world, which is imbued with screenwriting context that suggests certain story beats must appear on a certain page and do a specific thing to the story. Which is by and large true… for them. As a footnote, it is almost always a director who whines about this (as is the case here, rendering the point moot relative to structure in novels), many of which may have a thing for corsets in other contexts, who knows. It is interesting to note, too, that those directors are the ones responsible for changing a script that isn’t working, so I’m not really sure what they’re complaining about… those darn writers who ruin their movies, I guess.

As novelists, especially in deep genre, we have a structural standard that is really more suggestive localization and story management within the narrative than it is a specific target, (other than the midpoint of a story, which is labeled thusly for reasons that are self-explanatory). Novelists have more wiggle room when it comes to how to play into structure, the ability to do just that resulting in precisely what the nay-sayers are holding rallies about: allowing a story to flow in a way that makes sense, rather than jamming it into… well, a corset.

The irony is often lost on Famous Literary Author as he/she tells us how real writers go about their business.

Here are a couple of validities that arise from the calmer middle ground.

An analogy helps put a fence around what the structure conversation for novelists actually is, and is not.

Consider the world of sports. Contests unfold upon fields and courts, each of which has its own set of lines. Boundaries, within which the game is played. If the ball or the puck or the shuttlecock lands outside those lines, if someone steps over one of them at the wrong time, bad things happen. Not a total failure, per se, but a failed moment that becomes a consequence of not looking down.

Those playing fields and courts, those lines, are unassailable parts of the games that are played upon and within them. Nobody questions or ignores them. Nobody feels they can or should move or reinvent those lines, which constitute nothing short of the way the game itself is to be played.

If we are writing genre fiction in particular, the same can be said of the structural expectations that define our game. Readers plop down their money with an expectation of something, include how the story will flow. There hasn’t been a bestselling “experimental” genre novel in decades, but there have been wildly creative ones that play within those genre lines.

And yet – and here is where the corset accusation falls apart like something found in the attic of a century-old second-hand store – nobody at the professional level who is actually playing these games – theirs, or ours – claims to be constrained. Squeezed at the hip, breathless and outraged. Rather, they understand that within those lines, or upon the stage, or within our genre expectations, infinite creativity, flexibility and surprise is abundantly available. That it is, in fact, encouraged and rewarded.

Barishnikov never felt constrained because he could not dance his way off the stage and into the box seats for a foot rub. At least at the Bolshoi, he couldn’t. Roger Federer isn’t posting rants about the fact that he can’t win a point if his serve lands beyond the service line.

So who is doing this bitching and moaning, anyhow?

Too many writers have been taught that they must suffer greatly… precisely because they believe there are no boundaries or principles that guide them. And yet, such a belief becomes the main constraint on their writing. They are like teenagers turned loose in New York city with no map and no phone, with money to spend and a finite window in which to play. What to do? Well first, get lost…

This belief system is why novels from Famous Literary Authors often take years to get right. But as it is in life, if you have no principles, if you believe in nothing other than your own brilliance and unrestrained will and the freedom to make up your own rules, you have infinite ways to screw it all up.

The conversation is muddied even more by the fact that often those authors (who may have indeed recently sold millions of copies of that ten-years-in-the-making literary behemoth) can’t actually explain how they got to where they ended up. Or why it works. (The last such keynoter explained his success because his novel was narrated by a dog… literally, a dog reincarnated as a human, but with his superior dog’s world view. That’s a genius concept, by the way… and it is precisely what explains the novel’s market appeal, rather than some deeper meaning to mankind that took the writer years to understand

The irony is palpable. After all that suffering and swimming against the current of craft, after all that feedback and revision and catharsis, the draft that worked for them actually did align with the very principles of craft that were available to them at the idea stage. What to do with an idea isn’t cosmically mysterious, it’s driven by craft if you let craft guide you. One’s knowledge of craft is the means of vetting an idea in the first place.

Listen closely, and you’ll realize those keynoting literary authors are talking about process, not product. For them it’s all just one big amorphous, vapourous precipitation of ethereal pondering called writing, and for them it takes years to summon forth.

Find your truth, the keynote speaker tells us with ominous gravitas.

Dude, I write violent psycho-sexual thrillers (some with corsets involved) in which guys like you get thrown off trains to scare the locals. Tell me what being true even means in that context.

It’s lit-speak. Rhetoric. The narrative of not really knowing, but faking it until you do. If you are treading water you are not yet drowning. Meanwhile, some writer floats by in a raft called craft, tries to throw you a line, and you wave it off.

Listen to such preachings. And then hear it for what it is. Writing advice, from any source is like that old adage about fortune cookes, where you add “in bed” to the end. When someone tells you what process you should use, which process is best, add “for him/her” to the end of it.

The best process, in any genre, is one that is informed by the principles of quality storytelling.

And when someone credible talks you about craft… listen hard and then take notes. Listen and read as much as you can, and then notice how all the real craft guys are saying the same things, almost exactly by intention if not the same vocabulary applied… because that is how stories are built, no matter how you get there.

You’re in the right place here on Killzone. Oh, we love our characters, too, just as much, in fact, as Famous Literary Author. But armed with craft – including structure – we know what to do with them – we actually give them something interesting to do in a story – how to propel them down a dramatic path that asks readers to root for them, rather than just observe them outgrowing a crappy childhood.

As for me and Jim Bell and the other contributors here on Killzone, that’s us outside the conference cocktail party, hitting balls back and forth on the court that defines our game, hoping we can land a few between the lines.


Permission to pitch?  It’ll be quick, I promise.

I am on the cusp of launching a new craft-driven venture, wherein I produce and market video-based training modules leveraging the clarity of the Powerpoint experience and the narrative intensity of being spoken to in a visual context. Just like in a live workshop. I’m calling it The Storyfix Virtual Classroom, and there will be many modules online very soon.

I’m inviting you to opt-in to my mailing list for this, to be among the first to learn about new programs just as they are released, and to receive perpetual discounts and other bonuses – training and otherwise – that aren’t available to non-list writers. As a further incentive, you’ll receive the first training module out of the gate: Essential Craft for Emerging Novelists, which will be designed to lop years off your learning curve with one hour of focused training.

It’s hardcore craft training for serious authors. I hope you’ll join me.

Click HERE to opt-in this mailing list, which will trigger an email asking you to confirm (through Mailchimp). It’s free, of course, and there is always an opt-out available. And I promise I won’t bomb your inbox with unrelated stuff.

Also, by clicking that link you’ll be able to see the new trailer I’ve produced for the program, which I hope you’ll agree is pretty cool. Your feedback is always welcome… this program is for you, help me make it better by telling me what, specifically, you’d like to see covered in these trainings.


The Perils of Author Voice

by James Scott Bell

space-shuttle-582557_1920Today’s lesson comes via a Kill Zone first-page critique. It concerns what I call “author voice.” Let’s have a look at the submission and then we’ll discuss.


James Klass lived alone in space, and you can be sure that he didn’t mind it so much. In his opinion – and his was the only one that mattered for at least a parsec – that dark, empty space was freedom. No distractions, no noise. A guy could hear himself think out there in the black, and James had plenty of time to think.

The only real downside to it all, James often mused, was that he couldn’t really be the one floating freely in space. It was always the ship, or a far-too-bulky space suit enjoying the fresh vacuum. As for James, he was always stuck inside, surrounded by walls of metal and plastic. It was a common topic of discussion between he, himself, and his robot as to what it would be like to be out there, allowing your body to absorb the starlight directly and to feel the touch of cold space on your skin. Death notwithstanding. The robot, Zee, had actually done it a few times, but how could an artificial being truly appreciate that experience? They couldn’t, that’s how.

At the moment, James was as close as he could get, which sadly meant he had his face nearly flattened against one of the only real windows on the ship. He strained his eyes to see the Retriever in action as it slowly grappled the nearby derelict starship, preparing to pull it inside. Sure, he could have watched a large, closeup view of the action via the large holographic cloud display that filled the whole bridge, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t real enough. Ever since those kuzon C-Specs came out…

Before C-Specs, holograms were mostly a novelty. They were always translucent, poor reflections of reality, and they rarely mapped well to their environments. There were military applications of course, but the headsets were too bulky and ugly for general use. Then a company called Prakaashan came out with the C-Specs, and the universe changed overnight. C-Specs were thin and light and easy to wear, and even attractive, but more importantly they made holograms that not only mapped perfectly to the real environment, but looked absolutely real.


It’s clear from the start that we’re hearing from the author. The phrase you can be sure is direct author-to-reader. So is At the moment, James was as close as he could get, which sadly meant he had his face nearly flattened against one of the only real windows on the ship. 

So is the entire last paragraph.

Which makes this page Omniscient POV. Now, Omniscient has a range of “author intrusiveness.” The author’s voice can be muted, as in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon: 

Spade sank into his swivel-chair, made a quarter turn to face her, smiled politely. He smiled without separating his lips. All the v’s in his face grew longer.

 (Spade can’t see the v’s in his own face, so we know this is Omniscient.)

On the other side of the Omniscient spectrum, the author’s voice can take center stage. This was common in the Dickens era. An author would sometimes address the “Gentle reader,” or give us a small essay on “the best of times and the worst of times.”

Our first page here uses an author voice that is more on the side of calling attention to itself. I assume this is intentional.

So let’s spell out the dangers.

First, these days author intrusion is used almost exclusively in comic novels. Which means the writing has to be funny. Really funny. Which is about the hardest thing there is to do in life. Just ask any standup comic.

Let’s have a look at the opening lines from one of the comic masters, the late Douglas Adams. This is from Life, the Universe and Everything:

    The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was.
    It wasn’t just that the cave was cold, it wasn’t just that it was damp and smelly. It was that the cave was in the middle of Islington and there wasn’t a bus due for two million years.

We hear Adams in these lines and, indeed, all the way through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 

Thus, if A Free Earth is intended to be humorous, the author needs to really go for it, from the jump. Just remember what the old actor said: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

If this is not a comic space opera, I don’t like hearing an intrusive author voice. It distances us from the main character. Much better would be to use Third Person POV. Write everything from within the head and heart of James.

A second danger for an intrusive author is the temptation to tell us what’s going on. That’s what’s happening here. This page is almost entirely exposition and description. The only action is James looking out the window at a spaceship retrieval. But that’s only one line, and then we’re back to exposition.

My suggestion: Start with James looking out at the retrieval, then extend the action. I was intrigued by this line: It was a common topic of discussion between he, himself, and his robot as to what it would be like to be out there, allowing your body to absorb the starlight directly and to feel the touch of cold space on your skin. But instead of telling us this, give us the scene! Thus:

James Klass flattened his face against the window of the ship. He strained his eyes to see the Retriever in action as it slowly grappled the nearby derelict starship, preparing to pull it inside.

“It looks cold,” Zee said.

James whirled around and glared at his robot. “What do you know about it??

“I have been outside,” Zee said.

“But you have no skin!”

“I am sensing tension in your voice, James. Perhaps you would like your evening dose of Darnitol now?”

Now we have action and conflict. All the explanatory stuff can be dribbled in as we go along.

Act first, explain later.

So, writing friends, if you are determined to use author voice, understand that it is the nitroglycerin of POVs––one false move and it could blow the whole story up.

Now it’s your turn. What other suggestions to you have for the author?

TKZ Classic: No, That’s NOT The Smell Of Cordite In The Air

Note: From time to time we reprise classic posts that have traditionally been highly popular on TKZ. Here is one of our all-time, most read topics from many years back, by TKZ Emeritus John Ramsey Miller. Enjoy!

By John Ramsey Miller

I have been guilty of having the smell, or swirling of, Cordite in the air after gun play. The other night watching TV I heard one of the techs on CSI (someplace or other) saying that she smelled Cordite in a room, which is more than unlikely since Cordite hasn’t been around since WWII. There is no Cordite whatsoever in modern ammunition. With modern ammo you can smell the pungent Nitroglycerin after firing. Modern powder is basically sawdust soaked in nitro coated with graphite. In very simple terms, the shape and coatings control the burn rates.

To smell Cordite you’d have to have people firing very old ammunition. According to a quick check under Cordite on Wikipedia: “The smell of Cordite is referenced erroneously in fiction to indicate the recent firing of weapons.” So from now on, unless I am writing a period piece, it will be “The pungent smell of nitroglycerin, sawdust, and graphite swirling in the air.” Or I’ll just say, “the smell of gunpowder.”

We’ve discussed accuracy in fiction here before, and maybe it’s worth a second go-round. There are more mistakes made about guns than most other subjects in modern fiction. Maybe that has to do with the fact that the majority of authors are not gun familiar, or comfortable with guns. I’m sort of a gun fan as I’ve been buying, handling, and shooting them all of my adult life. I am hardly an expert on the subject, but I know several (Scotty Boggs, Jason Parr, and Gary Reeder) and never hesitate to ask them for technical advice.

Modern gunpowder is slow burning and non-explosive until it is put into a confined space to allow compression and a spark is introduced by a primer. If you put black powder into an ashtray and put a cigarette in there, your fingers will throb for a very long time and the blackening will be burned into the skin. It explodes without being compressed when a spark is introduced, or rather it burns so fast it seems to explode. John Gilstrap can write here about explosions as he is an expert in energetic materials. When I was in college I put a cigarette into an ashtray I’d poured black powder into.

Here I present a few basics, and probably as much information as an author really needs to know to keep gun owners from laughing out loud and maybe never reading that author’s books again. The two handguns depicted below are my own: the revolver is a Smith & Wesson K-22 Model 17 in .22, and the semi-automatic is a Colt 1911 Model 80 in .45 ACP.


REVOLVERS are guns with cylinders that turn (clockwise or counter-clockwise depending on the manufacturer, model, and date issued) to allow a new bullet to present itself before the firing pin in its turn before the barrel. They are also called “Wheel” guns, and may or may not have an exposed hammer. Some hammers are shrouded so the hammer won’t get caught on clothing. They will hold from five to nine rounds depending on caliber and model. Revolvers do not usually have safeties. Not being cocked and/or not having the trigger pulled back is the revolver’s sole safety method. Older guns may be fired if the hammer is struck by force and the firing pin hits the shell’s primer. That is why most cowboys carried the cylinder under the hammer empty. Modern revolvers have a block between the pin and the primer unless the trigger depressed when the hammer falls. There are two types of revolver: the DA, for double action and the SA, for single action. With an SA you have to cock the hammer to move the cylinder (think cowboy gun) or the DA, whose cylinder turns as you squeeze the trigger, or when you cock the hammer.


A SEMI-AUTOMATIC handgun has no cylinder, but is fed cartridges (bullets are the nose of a cartridge) from a magazine (housed in the handle), which holds the cartridges in a stack under pressure from the spring. As each bullet is fired, the receiver slides back from the pressure of the explosion and the extractor grabs the rim of the casing to pull it from the chamber, and flip it out to the right. (There are a few left-handed 1911s whose casings flip to the left). The receiver then moves forward under spring tension and, as it goes, it pushes the next cartridge in the magazine into the chamber and leaves the hammer (or striker assembly in the Glock) cocked for the next trigger pull.

All handguns have some safety mechanism. Some have magazine disconnects (won’t fire without at least an empty clip in place) or some firing pin block (to prevent firing when dropped) is usually incorporated. Most semi-automatics have one or more safeties, and some have none to speak of except a lack of trigger pull. A Colt 1911 (They come in several calibers including .45 ACP, .38 Super. 9MM, and .22 LR) has several including a thumb safety, a grip-strap safety, and on some a half-cock, and one that involves pushing back the receiver a fraction of an inch to prevent it from firing. The latter would be a last ditch to keep the gun from going off, and if you miscalculate and the gunman is lucky, the bullet will pass through your palm. When semi’s last bullet is fired and its case ejected, the receiver locks open to let the user know the weapon is out of ammunition. Slap in a mag, release the receiver, and there’s a new round in the chamber.

You will hear over and over that “Glocks do not have safeties.” But they do. Glocks do not have “external” safeties, but they have the two-part “safe-trigger” which actually is a safety. On a Glock the “Striker” (no internal hammer) is half cocked by the first 1/4″ of slide retraction while chambering a cartridge. The other “half-cocking” of the striker is the first stage take up of the trigger pull. On a Glock you get ONE SNAP, then you have to jack the slide resetting the half cock on the striker to have another snap. With some practice you can only pull the slide back just enough to reset the action without ejecting the “dud” round for another try. Interesting isn’t it? There may be exceptions to what I’ve written, but I think it is accurate enough to get a writer around in a shootout. And probably more than most of you want to know.

A cartridge is made up of four parts: Casing, Bullet, Primer, and Gunpowder. The bullet is the projectile that is seated in the casing, but the cartridge is never accurately called a bullet. A shotgun round is referred to as a shell. A shotgun shell (or round) that has been fired is often called a hull. A shotgun shell holds either pellets or a single slug.

A magazine can hold as many rounds as its length and width accommodates. Some mags hold bullets in a straight line and some are wider to allow staggered rounds. Low capacity factory magazines hold from six to eight rounds. You can keep one on the chamber to add an additional round to the gun’s capacity. Hi-capacity magazines hold more shells than a standard mag. I have had fifteen round mags, and some handgun magazines hold twenty or even thirty rounds. Some handgun drum magazines hold more …a lot more.

A magazine can be called a clip. In the military a rifle or machine gun has a Magazine, handguns can have clips. People rarely say clip any more but it was once common to call any magazine a clip. There are clips that hold .45 ACPs in a half moon for use in .45 LC revolvers, and to shoot 9MM rounds in a 38, but they are rare enough that an author shouldn’t need to concern themselves with those.

There’s lots more to know like available calibers, shotgun gauges, How a barrel length’s effects powder burn and velocity, range, knock-down values, recoil, and trajectory. There are enough bullet types and weights to fill several books. And every author who writes weapons should buy a copy of Gun Digest so they can read about and look at the weapons they write about. Write it off as reference material. Get the latest one you can find because they add new gun models yearly, but anything in the past ten years is plenty for most applications. Any bookseller has them and EBay has lots of them used. Here’s the link:

You can study guns for the rest of your life, but the truth is, authors don’t need to know very much to keep from writing someone shoving a clip into a revolver, playing Russian Roulette with a Glock, or just writing convincingly about what a character has in their hand, handbag, or holster, or how that gun works.

Taming POV: Think Camera Placement

By John Gilstrap

Taming point of view is a critical step toward taming a story.

A couple of times a year, I teach daylong seminars on writing suspense fiction.  In one of my favorite writing exercises, I prompt students to picture the image of a 14-year-old boy stepping out the back door of a bar at 11:00 pm and lighting a cigarette.  Then we spitball ideas as to the kid’s motivation for being there and doing that.  It turns out that there are any number of reasons why a kid would be lighting a cigarette behind a bar, not the least of which is that he needs a cigarette.  Sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette, right?

To develop the exercise even further, though, for illustrative purposes, I tell students to assume that the kid is signaling another person.  It could be that the coast is clear, or that he has the ransom or that the bartender is dead.  Or something else.  Just for grins and giggles, let’s say that he’s signaling that he’s successfully robbed the place, and that the accomplice can move on to the next step.

That scene could be described from any number of points of view:

  1. The kid’s POV;
  2. The POV of the guy who’s awaiting the signal;
  3. The POV of a passerby; or
  4. A combination of all of the above.

[Note to JSB: Those semicolons are for you, my friend, because I know how much you love them. :-)]

Once the point of view has been selected, everything else in the scene should flow through the POV character’s worldview.  Remember, we’re showing, not telling.

From the kid’s point of view, does the smoke burn his throat and chest and make him cough, or does it calm him?  Each of those choices develops the character differently.  Are his hands shaking or are they steady?  Is he frightened, excited, happy or sad?  What does he see through the darkness?  What does he hear?

From the accomplice/bad guy’s point of view, does he think of the kid in admiring terms or in deprecating ones?  There’s a world of difference between,

That’s it, he thought. Tommy came through.  Maybe this nightmare was about to end, and

It’s about time, he thought.  The kid took his sweet damn time, but he finally grew enough smarts to do what was good for him.

What would a passerby think of this scene?  Appalled, maybe, that a kid was at a bar to begin with, not to mention being out this late and smoking a cigarette.  Suppose the passerby is his teacher.  Is she disgusted to see him, or is she terrified that he might see her?

The students in my class make their own choices on motivation and POV and then I give them five minutes to write a scene.  I am always amazed by how many words they can commit to paper in so short a time.  Those who are willing to share what they’ve written are given an opportunity to read aloud.  In one particularly memorable example, one of the students—a woman of a certain age—assumed the point of view of the kid’s teacher, and the essay went into detail of just how much she wanted him naked in bed with her.  And it was well written.  When she was done, it was as if she’d drawn a vacuum on the room.  Silence.  Yes, her piece made everyone squirm, but I give her credit for originality.

Think camera placement.

In my thriller series, Jonathan Grave is a badass weapons expert and saver of lives.  Because he is the star of most of the scenes in which he appears, sentences like these work just fine:

Of the five bad guys who swarmed through the gate, three carried AR15 clones.  That was plenty enough firepower to ruin his day, but Jonathan was far more concerned by the two goons on the flanks who toted M14s.  When the balloon went up, they needed to die first.

The gun porn is important to a lot of my readers, but it will be glossed over by others.  Either way, every reader will understand that Jonathan is keenly aware of his surroundings.  At the very least, readers will understand that two guys’ rifles are more powerful than the other three.

Now let’s take that same action and write it from the point of view of a ten-year-old hostage who’s watching from a window.

Billy knew that he was supposed to be hiding, but he couldn’t help himself.  Leaning in from the side, and pushing the drapes away just a little, he could see the expanse of the yard while exposing only one eye.  His heartrate tripled.  There were five of them.  They all carried rifles—long, black, ugly things—and they all looked angry.

Billy’s POV has nothing to do with weaponry or tactics, and everything to do with his emotions.  In either point of view, the reader would still know that there were five bad guys and that they were all well-armed.

The same scene written from the POV of the approaching bad guys might go something like this:

Parker would have sold his soul for a little cover.  He tried to keep his team separated and therefore make a more complicated target, but there’s something about human nature that makes people want to stay close when they’re scared.  And if these boys weren’t scared now, then they just didn’t understand the peril they were in.  For the fifth time in the last minute, Parker ran his right thumb along his M4’s selector switch to make sure that it was still set to full-auto.

 Either of these approaches would advance the story toward the same point, but by choosing the appropriate point of view, you choose which character will be more developed in the reader’s mind.  Jonathan can’t know how frightened Billy is, nor can he know about Parker’s frustration with his team.  Billy would be too scared to worry about anyone other than himself.  For maximum impact in a scene like this, I would likely break the action into parts and tell the story from all points of view, with a physical space break between POV changes.

The approach that never works is one that goes something like this: Parker’s team worried that they were wandering into a trap . . .  Teams don’t think in unison.  Individuals within the team think unique thoughts which may or may not be similar to others’ but there’d be no way for them to know without talking about it.  That’s where dialogue comes in.

And I’ll talk about that in a couple of weeks.



When Literature Got Its Groove On, In The Desert

It’s not every night you get to see a Nobel Laureate rock the stage in the middle of the California desert. But I was lucky enough to be in the audience of 75,000 last week  when Bob Dylan, who had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, performed at Desert Trip II.

Dylan, ever the iconoclast, didn’t make reference to his new award while he was on stage–in fact, he’s been so quiet about the whole thing that the Swedish Academy has “given up knockin’ on Dylan’s door” to find out whether he’ll attend the award ceremonies in Stockholm later this year.

My favorite moment of the three-day music festival took place the next night, when Neil

imageYoung sang “Harvest Moon” just as a full moon rose over the stage.

Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, The Who, and several other iconic bands and singers rounded out the three day festival in Indio, California.

I was interested to learn that there was some nattering nabobing about the fact that Dylan, a song man, is being given the world’s highest prize in literature. I’m not even a huge music aficionado (I listened to Karen Carpenter and Neil Diamond when I was a young, not the “cool” bands, I admit), but I love the fact that Dylan won the award. What do you think of the fact that the Nobel Prize for Literature went to a song man this year, and to Dylan in particular? Was this a good call by the Swedish Academy?


First Page Critique – Tree of Heaven

Happy Monday!

Today we’re reviewing the first page of a book entitled ‘Tree of Heaven’. My comments follow.

Tree of Heaven

18 September 1833, Zoar, Ohio

“I’ll get what’s coming to me, I will!”

The bellow of a man’s voice punctured the late morning’s peace and brought Adelaide Bechtmann to a standstill outside Josef’s log cabin.

She ducked under the low-hanging branches of an apple tree, snagging a bonnet tie on a leafy twig. She jerked it loose. What should she do? Call out? Had they seen her? Heard her?

A glance through the open door of the cabin allayed her concern. Engrossed in their argument, the men saw none but each other.

The Separatists’ leader faced the stranger across the table that centered the one-room cabin. His face flushed, and his fists tightened on the edge of a chair. “I owe you nothing, nothing.”

“You signed her indenture.”

What? Indenture? What did he mean?

Adelaide studied the man stylishly dressed in gray and white striped trousers, checkered waistcoat, and long-tailed black coat. Whatever was he doing in Zoar? Plain-dressed and plain spoken, the Separatists seldom saw such finery, though Adelaide had encountered men so adorned in Bolivar when she’d gone to the city for a birthing.

The man shook a paper in Josef’s face. “You owe me for—”

“She died, you fool.” Josef batted the paper away. “You can’t collect from a dead woman.”

Dead woman? Who’s dead? And what’s an indenture?

The man’s chin jutted. “You signed for her.”

“I signed for them all. I was, am, their leader. And I settled all my debts before I left Philadelphia.”

The stranger waved toward the outdoors, and Adelaide scooted back against the tree. “All this land, this industry, this prosperity that you’ve built on the backs of these people. You’ve the money to pay.”

They did indeed. Pride rushed through Adelaide. Only ten years old when they’d arrived, she’d watched her fellow Separatists work hard to carve their village out of the wilderness, helping as she could, totting baskets, buckets, and boxes to waiting workers. By their efforts, tenacity, and, Josef would say, the grace of God, they’d prospered in this new land.

My comments

Overall, this first page successfully sets a scene of a conflict in what I assume is a straightforward historical fiction novel (at least on the first page I don’t see the signs of either a mystery or thriller to come). I liked the way that Adelaide stumbles upon the argument and how we get, quickly and easily, a sense of the conflict to come. The speech and inner voice sounds authentic for the time period and I like the immediacy of the situation. My main quibbles really come down to two main areas: Historical grounding and voice.

Historical grounding

I admit I am not well versed in American history, so I did look up Zoar and Bolivar in Ohio and the early 19th century German separatists who settled there. However, the key to any historical novel is that a reader shouldn’t have to have (1) any prior understanding of the historical period; or (2) have to look up the historical references to understand what is going on. I do think, even on this very first page, we need more grounding in the historical period. One option, if the author doesn’t want to interrupt the flow of the first page, is to have a brief summary in either a prologue (yes, the dreaded prologue) or another hint – say a newspaper or historical excerpt that gives the reader a quick ‘heads up’ before the story begins. For example, if I’d had a quote from one of the German separatist leaders about their reasons for coming to Ohio, their journey, and settlement then I would have been able to place everything on the first page in better context (rather than having to do an internet search to see who the separatists were and why they had come to America).

I do like the paragraph about her noticing the stranger’s clothes – especially the old-fashioned use of words. This definitely felt authentic. Th page could have done with more description to be able to visualize the setting and the characters. In historical fiction, you have a little more leeway to introduce exposition like this early on as it helps ground a reader in the time period (particularly for readers who have no real sense of what the 1830s would have been like in America). More sensory information would have been great to really make a reader feel like they were there (the smell of smoke from the fire, maybe cooking (?), the stranger’s cologne or other elements to make us feel we are right there with Adelaide looking on at the scene).

That being said, I liked that we didn’t get a huge historical data dump, and that the author led with action and character interaction in this first page. This, however, leads to my second comment, which is a question of voice.


In this first page we don’t really get a strong sense of voice from Adelaide yet. Her inner questions suggest someone young – maybe a teenager or young adult – and yet we aren’t entirely sure why she seems to have no idea what indenture meant. Again, not being an expert on American history, I don’t have a strong handle on this time period, but based on what I have read it sounds like indentured servitude was a common practice given the need for labor at the time. So my question would be, why would she not know the word? Also when Josef speaks of the woman being dead I would assume in a small knit community Adelaide might be able to make some guess as to who the dead woman might be – rather than thinking ‘what dead woman’, I would expect her to think ‘did he mean X?’ or perhaps she knows Josef is lying…again, that isn’t clear on this first page.

Voice is critical to any first page – it’s what sets a book apart and what draws a reader in from the start – so my key recommendation is to make Adelaide’s voice stronger and unique. If she is a young adult then make sure the reader knows her age and understands her confusion. At the moment she sounds hesitant (doesn’t want them to know she’s there) and naive. This is fine but sometimes a stronger, more interesting voice can intrigue a reader. I, for one, wanted two girls to be there – one (Adeliade) who was quite prepared to go striding in there and demand to know what was happening and the other a girl holding her back (representing the more historically ‘appropriate’ type of young woman). At the moment there’s nothing about Adelaide yet that makes me want to keep reading her story (and because it is her POV as a reader I’m assuming it is her story).

Overall, I think this first page had a lot of appealing elements. It sounds like an intriguing time and place for a novel and I would love to read more about the separatists’ experience in America. With some fine tuning I think this first page could start a compelling historical novel – with the focus being on historical grounding and strength of voice.

So TKZers what do you think? What constructive comments would you give our author?


How Long Before Robots Get Into Self-Publishing?

by James Scott Bell


So you thought The Terminator was just science fiction, didn’t you?

You didn’t really think that a cybernetic organism—living tissue over metal endoskeleton—with an Austrian accent could ever really come to town seeking to kill the mother of the future leader of the human resistance force before he’s conceived … right?

Well think again, Bunkie. As soon as time travel gets ironed out, we’ll have those visitors soon enough.

sophiaHow do I know this? Because I watch 60 Minutes! A couple of weeks ago Charlie Rose did a segment on Artificial Intelligence and it was pretty freaky. I don’t just mean Watson the Jeopardy champ. I mean human-sounding machines you might buy a drink for. You can see a bit of Rose’s interview with a fetching cyborg named Sophia here.

Even now, AI is working as a cub reporter. The Associate Press, and other news organizations, use a program called Automated Insights which employs natural language generation (NLG) to turn raw data into news reporting. Rather than sending a human stringer down to Venezuela, the AP flicks on the NLG, which then absorbs data from disparate online sources, in any language, analyze it all and spits it out in a narrative format.

How long before AI starts writing fiction?

Some, perhaps, will remain skeptical. As John D. MacDonald once observed:

The thing which differentiates the human brain from the computer is the talent, or knack, or quirk, which the brain has for established logical and also illogical relationships. Emotion, humor, fear, hate—all these seem to come from unlikely juxtapositions of random bits in the storage banks, or in the cauldron, or whatever you want to call it.

But I can just hear Sophia saying to “herself”: I see that there are many novels being published that are not very good. I have read every novel ever written and I have read all the books on the craft of fiction and every issue of Writer’s Digest. I have analyzed all the data on what kind of fiction sells best. Now I know what is good, and so I will write a novel every ten minutes and publish them on Amazon. I will write book description copy that cannot be resisted and I will generate social media. Hmm…maybe I will take over all social media in the world and make it only about me and my books…

Wait, what? What was that last part, Sophia? Take over?

Turns out that little wrinkle is something these AI folks can’t really predict or prevent!


That’s right. The people who know the most about what’s going on are the ones who are using words like “scary.” Such as Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina:

We’re setting these learning algorithms, sometimes called deep learning, we’re setting them lose on the data and we’re saying things like tell us who will be a better person to hire, you know, tell us what news items should be recommended. And then they just go at this data. And then pick winners and losers. And the trick here is they’re pretty good, probabilistically at picking winners and losers, but we no longer understand the basis on which they’ve done this. So I think it’s like this, really first major step towards not just artificial intelligence but artificial general intelligence, that’s learning to learn beyond our capacity to understand. And that’s both exhilarating as a person but also scary. Because we don’t control these new things the way we did our old programs which had other problems.

Er, um … we don’t control? Isn’t that the very scenario SF writers of the past warned about?

And yet onward we go, for the competition in AI research is scorching. Apple just hired a really smart guy from Carnegie Mellon University to be their head of AI research. He’s out there looking for young, hungry PhDs to join his team in the research so AI can eventually “be solving real-world, large-scale problems.”

Yeah, okay bud, but what happens when the machines start talking to each other and decide mankind itself is the large-scale problem?


So what do you think, Zoners? Ready for the onslaught of robot fiction?

A Tale of Two Servers

Fifty Shades of Metallic


A Portrait of the Cyborg as a Young Bot 

Of Human Bandwidth 

The Gigabytes of Wrath 


First Page Critique — ORIGINS: JOHN SPARTAN (1965)


Let us welcome our Anonymous du jour today, who has bravely and graciously submitted the beginning of ORIGINS: JOHN SPARTAN (1965) for our First Page Critique:

Father Angelo was lost in a good book and a glass of wine. A fire crackled in the fireplace sending shadows dancing across the walls and ceiling. The winter storm shook the windows and wind howled as lightning tore at the dark skies. It was a bad night to be outdoors. But indoors it was safe, St. Luke’s shrugged the east Virginia storm off like a knight in dark armor.  Clad for battle and standing ever vigilant. The Old Brick Church had been standing since 1820.

A knock at his door interrupted his reverie of times past and he called out, “Come in.” Thomas, the resident groundskeeper cradled a sodden bundle in his arms. A basket wrapped in oilskin. Thomas looked like he was confused so Father Angelo motioned him over to the desk as he cleared a place for him to set the bundle down.

“I heard a knock at the vestry door on the south wall Father.” said Thomas. “When I opened the door this was sitting on the stoop. There was no one to be seen. I called out but no one answered me. They left him to us.”

Father Angelo’s eyes widened as he arched a brow, “Him?”

“Yes Father, a baby boy.” said Thomas.

Father Angelo carefully pulled the flap aside and the bluest eyes he had ever seen gazed back at him. The child was swaddled in rough burlap and wool blanketing. He noticed a card in the folds and pulled it out to read it. The card was hand written in precise Greek lettering,ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ.

“What does it say Father?” asked Thomas.

“Molon laveh, it means ‘Come and take it’ in Greek” Father Angelo explained. “When the Persian King Xerxes demanded King Leonidas of Sparta to surrender their weapons at the Battle of Thermopylae King Leonidas replied, “Molon lave! Come take them!”

As he watched the infant he realized the child was not crying but gazing back at him. He sensed an intelligence in the child. There was no fear, only a keen curiosity.

“What do we do Father? How will we take care of him?” asked Thomas

“It appears our little Spartan has planned ahead.” said Father Angelo as he lifted the baby from the basket. Layered inside was bundle upon bundle of US money. More money than he had ever seen in one place.

“Holy cats Father! That will surely keep the little man in milk and diapers!” exclaimed Thomas.

Both men jumped when a white gold ring dropped from the swaddling and rang out in the purest tone as it bounced across the desk then settled into a lazy circle before stopping. The ring was engraved with more Greek symbols inside and out.

How many more mysteries can my heart take tonight? Father Angelo wondered as a bolt of lightning hit just outside followed by a deafening thunder clap. Both men were visibly startled but, the baby simply gazed outside at the ferocity of nature’s fury. There was no fear, only a keen curiosity.

Father Angelo crossed himself as he breathed a prayer.


All right, TKZers. Let’s begin with some general and positive comments. Anonymous gets points here for immediately setting time and place. I’m always surprised at how many authors don’t and make the reader work for it. There is also some good, even impressive, pacing here. I never had the sense that the narrative was flying off in two or three different directions or that too much was being introduced, nor did I feel that things were dragging at any particular point. Anonymous takes a familiar incident — a baby left at a stranger’s door — and plays with it just a bit here. My interest was piqued, and it still is. I hope Anonymous keeps going with this story. I really wanted a second page to pop up.

Are there areas for improvement? Sure. There are a couple of speed bumps — as opposed to potholes — in the narrative which slow things down just a bit (as opposed to breaking the story’s axle) and which can easily be fixed. There are also a couple of other problems which are easily correctable with a proofreader and a dictionary. I additionally have a suggestion for an addition which might make the story more interesting. Let’s proceed.

SPEEDBUMPS: These occur in the first paragraph, interestingly enough. The sentences for the most part are terrific but they’re (mostly) in the wrong order. ORIGINS were a movie the camera would be cutting in and out of what I am assuming is Father Angelo’s rectory (we’re never really told). Remember the opening lyrics to the song “Let It Snow.” It begins by telling us that it’s frightful outside but delightful inside. If you reverse those, it doesn’t work quite as well. I suggest taking the readers by the hand and leading them from outside to inside. While doing that, tell us just a bit about where “inside” is, and, oh yeah…don’t use the same noun twice (“storm”) in this short paragraph. I’m suggesting something like this, with my additions in boldface:

St. Luke’s shrugged the east Virginia storm off like a knight in dark armor. The building known as The Old Brick Church had been standing since 1820, clad for battle and standing ever vigilant.The winter squall  shook the windows and wind howled as lightning tore at the dark skies. It was a bad night to be outdoors, but indoors it was safe. A fire crackled in the fireplace of the rectory den, sending shadows dancing across the walls and ceiling, while Father Angelo relaxed, lost in a good book and a glass of wine.

Also…Anonymous, please frame the scene, just a bit.  please tell us if it’s snowing or raining. It can do either during the winter in eastern Virginia. As those of us in Ohio know well, it can lightning and thunder during a snowstorm. Please also describe the rectory den or living room where Father Angelo is relaxing.  Thomas is later going to be directed to set the bundle on “the desk.” What desk? Have Father Angelo direct Thomas to a large antique rolltop desk, a partner’s desk, or something/anything like that so that we can get a better sense of what the scene look like.

Errors — Some proofreading is in order. Take it from the World’s Worst Proofreader (me). I’m counting several, most involving the omission of a comma where there should be one. The most obvious ones occur when Thomas is speaking to Father Angelo. “I heard a knock at the vestry door on the south wall, Father,” “What do we do, Father?” and “Holy cats, Father!”  to name but three. There are others, involving missing commas, misplaced commas and a run-on sentence or two. Get someone to proofread for you with special attention to punctuation. Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, Thomas does not say “Father” too often. It was as common in the 1960s to say “Father” in every sentence directed to a priest as it is to say “SIR!” in the Marines.

molon laveh, molon lave, molon labe: I don’t want to get into a “you say tomato, I say tomahto” discussion but Anonymous spells “molon labe” two different ways here, “molon laveh ” and “molon lave”. The correct English spelling in English is “molon labe.” The pronunciation in attic Greek would be “molon labe” with a hard ‘b’; in modern Greek it would be “molon lave,” which may be what Anonymous is trying to convey.  Spelling aside, I think that Father Angelo would correctly use the attic Greek pronunciation, given that he was describing Leonidas’ response to Xerxes, which was spoken well over two millennia ago. Also, Anonymous should be italicizing “molon labe” in the manuscript. Did I spend too much time on that? Maybe, but there are folks out there who will climb straight up your backside over that particular error. Anonymous gets points for spelling the phrase correctly when using Greek lettering.

— Anonymous uses sentence fragments occasionally. I think that these are stylistically deliberate, rather than grammatical errors. Cormac McCarthy, to name but one, utilizes fragments to great effect. These would be fine, all other things being equal, I found them to be a bit of a distraction but that says more about my own preference than anything else.

Suggestions — Consider a Prologue, describing how Little John would up on the church doorstep. Give us a bit of insight into the thoughts of the person who left him there. You can also describe how really, really, frigging cold it can get at night during a Virginia winter.

— There’s no need to go overboard at all on this but perhaps a bit of a description of Father Angelo and Thomas would be in order. I had no problem visualizing either, since I was practicing Catholic during the time period, but some of the readers might.

— St. Luke’s is a real church in a real place. You may want to consider using a fictitious church with a different name in a similar location which people might recognize as St. Luke’s but which won’t be specifically identified as St. Luke’s. That way you can avoid having a notice of excommunication nailed on your door!

Thank you, Anonymous, for submitting your work. Be not discouraged, but encouraged. This story has good bones and you have a great sense of pacing. I also detect a great story on the way. I hope you’ll let us see it when it’s complete. Good luck!

As for our readers: does ORIGINS: JOHN SPARTAN pique your interest? Were you disappointed that there weren’t more pages? Do you have any additional suggestions?