Breathing Life Into Secondary Characters

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As writers, we all lavish attention on the main characters of our stories. But what about the minor characters? Too often, a story’s  secondary characters get short shrift during the writing process.

And that’s a shame, because it’s often the minor characters–the second bananas–who often carry the show. Don’t short change your reader by giving them secondary characters who are generic or cardboard: the “leggy blonde” who is tossed in for a frisson of sexual tension; the “beefy cop” who turns up at a crime scene; the “tired-looking” hotel clerk. Those types of descriptions tell the reader that the writer needed to include a particular character to move a scene forward, but didn’t put any effort into bringing the character to life.

All secondary character need to live and breathe for the reader. In his book On Writing, Stephen King said that every character in a book thinks of himself or herself as the main character. Whenever that character is on stage, even briefly, he should be presented as if a spotlight is shining on him.

When it comes to strong secondary characters, a few standouts come to mind: Dill in To Kill A Mockingbird; Melanie in Gone with the Wind; the wealthy, pompous Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice.

Which secondary characters are the most memorable for you in thrillers or mysteries? As a writer, do you struggle with the challenge of portraying second bananas?

First Page Critique: “Deliah and the One Penny Blue”

Today we have yet another in our series of soul-crushing First Page Reviews.

Of course, I’m being a bit sarcastic. The intention is never to be soul-crushing, even when that seems to be the outcome. (We’ve all been there, on both sides of these little eviscerations.)

I’m not a big fan of first page reviews. They aren’t without some value, of course, because certainly they provide a glimpse of the writer’s ability to render readable prose, which is a square-one necessity in this business. (You’ll notice that this alone usually eats up over 90 percent of the feedback we provide here, and about 60 percent my own feedback today). And perhaps, to set up a scene… specifically, an opening scene. But that’s about it. They tell us little about the story arc itself. Nor should they. Stormy skies and perfectly coiffed hair and the color of sunsets, because we’ve all seen the color of sunsets and don’t need to be told – often the hallmarks of a first page – aren’t really the point, while they certainly can be stage lighting if handled properly.

We also often get some sense of initial foreshadowing, of course, but if the entire story is visible beyond a vague hint on page one, that, too, is a mistake. First pages aren’t there to tell us about the story itself. Nor should they. They are there to begin the process of setting up the story. Stormy skies and perfectly coiffed hair – often the hallmarks of a first page – aren’t really the point, while they certainly can be stage lighting.

And therein resides a paradox. Because if we don’t yet know the story arc, we can’t really access how well the setup for it has been handled… beyond, of course, the prose itself. So here we are, having come full circle to focus on the sentences.

That said, let’s see how today’s brave author (we are contractually obliged to include that phrase in these intros) does with her or his first page.

My not-quite-as-cynical commentary (really, I’m hoping I can help) follows.

Twilight coloured everything with purple shadows. Squeals echoed down the slope while the last of the kids raced the darkness home, the boys rounded up and kept safe by girls like us.  Surrounded by poplar trees, at sea in a stretch of grass and daisies, the tall ship appeared around the curve of the hill. A well-worn and familiar playground in Old Town, the tilted deck was strung with rope nets and a faded black flag flew above.

Our shoes stirred up the damp smell of woodchips as the two of us reached the hull and climbed up onto the deck. The boards sounded hollow, empty beneath our feet. Leaning back against the worn timber, I tore open the paper, and hot vinegar clouded up into my face, sharply comfortingly. With my eyes downcast, I offered the chips to Martha.

We ate in silence as the night pressed down around us. My wet clothes had chilled with the evening air and kept me from forgetting what had happened earlier. Though I tried to fill up somehow, swallowing past the rawness in my throat, my jaw was hard with tension. I felt overly conscious of every gesture and the quiet was building.

When the food was gone, I scrunched the paper, holding it close to my nose to inhale the familiar scent. It smelled of late nights; the familiar bustle around the fryers and the fluid motion of Martha working beside me. I clenched the paper tighter, wringing it between my hands. Sweat budded over my top lip and I coached myself to speak, to break the spell somehow.

Alongside, Martha crossed her arms and tilted back against the wooden balustrade, looking up at the sky. Waiting.

It was lonely, sitting side by side with my oldest friend. I toyed with the discarded paper, flicking it back and forth with my fingertips. I had a sense of something counting down.

“Can you stop that?” said Martha. Still, she didn’t look at me.

My cheeks flushed hot but I imagined I could hear ice cracking over dark water.

“I didn’t mean for it to go that far!” I choked suddenly, swiping at my eyes.

Martha finally looked at me, lips pressed tight together. “So, what the hell happened, Penn?

Here’s my first impression. And really, I say this with love and empathy: you’re trying too hard. Much too hard. My fear is a crusty old editor, whose taste for purple prose (ironic, since this is the color you evoke in your opening line) has soured like the tongue of a senior chef auditioning newbies for a cooking show.

Okay, now I’m trying too hard.

Shadows aren’t purple. Dusk skies are purple. Shadows are a lack of color. It’s never wise to try to revinvent nature.

So the girls have rounded up the boys and are keeping them safe on the way home, all of them squealing. Really… I don’t think this works. And if they’ve all headed home, nobody is squealing anymore.

Your sentence introducing the “tall ship” works better if you flip it around, like this: The tall ship appeared around the curve of the hill, surrounded by poplar trees, at sea in a stretch of grass and daisies. Another note: hills don’t curve, they slope. And the ship doesn’t “appear” unless ot or you are moving (a point of view thing); rather, om this case it is fixed in place, because it isn’t really a ship at all.

You’re trying too hard. The biggest rookie mistake, and the most common, is to try to sound like a professional author, but end up sounding like someone trying to sound a certain way. Professional authors live in a world where they understand that less is more, where adjectives and adverbs and over-wrought metaphors are the very things that mark the writing of a newbie.

This essence – sounding like a professional – is the hardest thing to teach and to learn (among a core set of more precise principles, which are absolutely teachable and learnable). The best way to learn is to have someone blue pencil your own narrative to understand why it is perceived as otherwise.

Your next paragraph is a confusion of up-and-down geometry: shoes stirred up… climbed up… empty beneath… leaning back… tore open the paper… clouded up… eyes downcast. This is literary motion sickness, I’m afraid.

Martha looked up at the sky… waiting for what, exactly? Whatever she was waiting for, it wasn’t going to descend from the heavens.

Nothing (beyond description) happens until your sixth paragraph. This is the whole point of the scene (and the first page): they feel like something is coming. That all of this is “counting down” to something, and this is the something that will crack open the story. This moment is the point of the scene… I suggest you get to it a bit quicker, cutting out all the existential pondering of sights and sounds, which really means nothing in context to what’s about to be revealed between the two girls… who must have taken a pass at gathering boys and protecting them on their way home.

Because that is what the reader will care about. The reader won’t care about what kind of tree surrounds them, or what smells are wafting about, or what vinegar smells like… because none of that is what the scene is about.

Begin with this awareness, and build an impactful lead into the moment when the girls get real about whatever happened that still haunts them, in context to what they know or don’t know, and can discuss or shouldn’t discuss.

This upgrade is an example of what I like to call mission-driven scene writing, versus overly sensated English Comp 101 scene writing. At the professional level, even on a first page, crusty old agents and pub house readers and even browsing readers on Amazon’s preview pages instinctively know the difference.

One other comment: your title… it makes me go, “huh?” You can do better.

Hope this helps. Killzoners (I won’t say “what think ye?” again, I got killed for that one), please weigh in and help this writer get over this purple hump.



How to Cure Mid-Novel Sag

by James Scott Bell

The plot doctor is in.

I see the waiting room today is full of pantsers. They have that lost look in their eyes that usually appears in the middle of their first drafts.

One comes up to me and says, “Doc, I was having so much fun! I was writing along, letting the characters take me wherever they wanted to go. Now I’m forty thousand words in, and I’m frozen. I don’t know what to write next! Every choice seems like a rabbit hole! Help me, Doc, please!”

“Of course,” I say. “Just have a seat and—”

“Is there any hope?”

“Who’s your plot doctor, huh? Now just wait a moment and all will be well.”

There are plotters here, too. One approaches slowly, as if fearing recognition. He whispers, “Doc, I can’t figure out what went wrong. I had the whole thing mapped out and the pieces were falling into place. But the middle is sagging. Not enough oomph. What can I do, Doc?”

“Well, let me tell you—”

“Not so loud, Doc. I don’t want these pantsers giving me the raspberry …”

I’ve treated many such cases over the years. A cursory examination of the patient usually calls for three things: a shot, a couple of pills, and preventive measures.

1. The Shot

The first step is a shot of the potent “mirror moment” drug. I’ve seen immediate improvement to the eyes (which sparkle) and the mouth (which smiles or shouts Yesss!) after an injection.

The mirror moment gives the writer a new and powerful insight into what their novel is really all about. That illumination shines both backward (to the beginning) and forward (to the ending), stimulating new scene ideas and added character depth.

2. The Pills

Now I give the writer a couple of pills, with the following instructions: take the first one and see if that clears things up. Give it a few days to work. If, however, the symptoms persist, pop the second.

The Best Move Pill 

Step away from your manuscript. Go find a quiet spot or your favorite coffeehouse table, and use a pad and pen (I find this an aid to creativity).

Write down the names of every major and minor-recurring character in your novel.

Now, dedicate a page to each of these characters, answering the following question: Considering what this character wants out of the story, what is the best possible move he or she can make RIGHT NOW?

Please note that most of your characters will be “offscreen” at any given moment in your manuscript. That’s okay. They are not inert. They are in the process of planning, conspiring, sneaking, escaping, suffering … they are all doing or experiencing something. (When characters are offscreen, I call their activities “the shadow story.”)

This exercise will give you lots of plot material, scene ideas, and possible twists. See how it goes. After some time has passed if there is still significant sag, you have this:

The Guy With a Gun Pill

Raymond Chandler once wryly noted, “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Of course it does not have to be a literal man with a gun. It can be any character introduced in some surprising fashion. We’re not talking about a one-off character in a scene, but a recurring character who will add complications to the protagonist’s life.

When you place a new character in your story, you immediately inherit all of that character’s backstory, agendas, secrets, shadow story and so on. Additional scenes arise organically. As you create the new character, ponder a few questions:

  1. What can this character do to make life more difficult for my Lead?
  2. Can this character bear a secret that will upset my Lead’s applecart?
  3. Do they still make applecarts?
  4. Is there a hidden relationship this character can have with another in my cast?
  5. What is this character’s agenda?
  6. How far is this character willing to do to gain his objective?
  7. How can I give this character an even stronger motive?

Writers who dutifully take their medicine usually contact me in a few weeks to report being in the pink again. They have pep in their step and a twinkle in their eye, along with a few other clichés.

I am happy to hear it, but then I advise one further measure.

3. Preventive Medicine

If you want your heart to be healthy, you’ve got to eat healthier (and I never even went to med school!). Have you heard of Burger King’s new offering, the Rodeo Burger? It’s described as “two savory flame-grilled beef patties totaling more than ½ lb. of beef, topped with three half-strips of thick-cut smoked bacon, our signature crispy onion rings, tangy BBQ sauce, American cheese and creamy mayonnaise all on our sesame seed bun.”

I’m so there!

(Yeah, maybe once every three years.)

Anyway, I try to make my heart happy. It takes some discipline (e.g., steamed broccoli) and some hard work (e.g., actually eating the steamed broccoli).

Writing is no different. So if you’re a pantser, don’t be afraid of work and study. Get over the fear that any planning beforehand is stifling to your creativity. It’s not. You need to learn that surprises happen in the planning, too.

You plotters can continue to shore up your foundations with a growing knowledge of powerful story beats, which will allow you to leave a planned route for another choice. You can do that because you’ll know the next beat to write toward. You won’t be lost; you’ll be enjoying the trip!

Ah, the waiting room is clear. My work here is done. The doctor is out.

Do you often feel a sag in the middle of your manuscript? How have you solved that problem in the past?

READER FRIDAY: What creature in the animal kingdom best describes your writing style?

Wikimedia Commons public domain

Are you the slow but steady turtle? Do you write as fast as a rabbit in heat? Get creative and describe your writing style. (This is a tee up for Basil Sands who never disappoints.)

For bonus points, share your favorite author and tell us what his/her ‘writing style’ animal would be?

A Brief Pause To Refresh, Recover

We are taking a “Personal Day” time-out to give some of our impacted bloggers time to recover from Hurricane Irma. (And we haven’t forgotten Harvey!) Our thoughts go out to everyone who was affected (and continues to be affected) by the weather events.


First Page Critique: Angry Vines

By John Gilstrap

A brave anonymous author offers up a page for feedback.  First, the page, then the feedback (Italics are all mine):

Title: Angry Vines

A man, dirty and thin from living too many months with too little of anything, traveled slowly through the woods. He had been paid to deliver a package, and was traveling by the light of an oil burning lantern. Even though it was early enough now that the first hint of the sun was starting to peak over the ground and bleed into the sky, he’d been told that the cottage was well disguised, and didn’t want to risk missing it.

He was searching for any hint of a building of some sort. A crow that had been circling overhead for some time flew down and perched on his shoulder, cawing loudly in a mocking laugh when the man jumped. 

When the man regained his composure he shook the bird off, swatting at it as it flew to a nearby branch. “What did I say about doing that without warning me?” He said with the same tone someone might use to talk to a very young child that just broke a well established rule.

The crow cocked its head and blinked its beady black eyes. The man assumed this was the only response he was going to get and walked past it, holding his lantern up to continue his search. He didn’t stop when the crow finally spoke, hopping from branch to branch behind him.

“I didn’t see a thing up there. Are you sure you didn’t get us lost?” 

“I know how to read a map.” He replied indignantly. The man had it tucked under his arm, with the package.

“Don’t take everything I say so personally.” The crow flew back to the man’s shoulder, apparently too tired to keep hopping after him. “Maybe there isn’t even a cottage to begin with. I don’t think the kind of person that would hire a strange man to deliver something would have any problem sending him on a wild goose chase through the woods.” 

    The man shook his head. “I’m delivering this for a witch, and a powerful one at that. If someone like that wanted to mess with me, she would have done it by shrinking my head or turning my skin green. Not pay me to not deliver a package.” 

“Oh.” The crow said. “I didn’t know she already payed you.” And after a moment added “I think you’d look better with a smaller head.”

Hi,  It’s Gilstrap again.  And now for my thoughts:

First of all, I love the crow.  I love the wry sense of humor, and the last line of this sample is perfect.  I do hope it’s the end of the scene because that would be a very strong close.

Structurally and stylistically, I think this is a troubled piece, and the trouble starts with the first two words: A man.  Unless there’s a compelling reason to keep this character’s identity a secret, it’s very hard for a reader to bond with a pronoun.  If at all possible, give him a name.  For my purposes here, we’ll call him Tony.

Whose POV is this?  Who perceives him to be dirty and thin from living too many months with too little of anything?  This would work so much better if we were in [Tony’s] POV, and rather than seeing what he looks like, we could feel his exhaustion.

“Traveled slowly” is a great example of why -ly adverbs are loathed by so many.  Trudged, crawled, staggered, wandered and countless other stronger verbs would make a stronger sentence.  Consider: “. . . trudged through the woods, his way lit only by the dim light of an oil lantern.  Overhead, a crow flew lazy figure eights, no doubt mocking Tony for his dwindling strength.”  See below for why I added the crow here.

I don’t think we need to know in para 1 that he’s been paid to deliver a package.  Let us know that he’s searching, and let us wonder why.

[A]ny hint of a building of some sort is redundant.

A crow that had been circling overhead for some time flew down and perched on his shoulder, cawing loudly in a mocking laugh when the man jumped. The sudden introduction of the crow is jarring.  Stay in Tony’s POV.  Consider:

The flutter of approaching wings startled him and he jumped as the crow that had been mocking him landed on his shoulder.  When the bird cawed, Tony heard laughter.  He swatted it away and it flew to a nearby branch.  “What did I tell you about startling me?”

The crow hopped to a new branch, and then another one.  “Are you sure you didn’t get us lost?”

“I know how to read a map,” Tony replied.

“And I know how to fly,” the crow said.  “I didn’t see a thing up there.  And I’ve had enough of this hopping business.”

Tony made no effort to prevent him from returning to his shoulder.

“Maybe your witch friend sent you on a wild goose chase,” the crow said.  “Maybe there is no cottage.”

“It’s here,” Tony said.  “If she were trying to mess with my head, she could have just shrunk it.  Or turned my skin green.”

They trudged in silence for a few steps.  “I think you’d look better with a smaller head,” the crow said.

Okay, that was presumptuous of me.  I took the liberty of essentially rewriting your piece, but I did it for a reason.  By sticking to the moment and eliminating backstory, the narrative becomes more compelling.  Let us come to like the characters and experience things through their eyes as the events unfold.

Much of what you expose in dialogue, such as “I’m delivering this for a witch and a powerful one at that . . .” is information that the characters would already know, and therefore would not reasonably be spoken at this time.

That’s my take on the piece.  What say you, TKZers?  Fair warning: When this blog entry is posted, I will likely not have a reliable Internet connection, so I will probably not be able to interact with other posters.

Time To Start Thinking About Book Two!

“Everyone has a novel in him or her. Not everyone has a SECOND novel.” – Jeremiah Healy.

By PJ Parrish

We really need to talk about your second book.

What? Are you nuts? I’m still working on the first! I’ve been working on it for five years and it’s killing me!

Yeah, I know. But you really have to trust me on this one. Even if you haven’t published squat yet, you really need to hear me out on how important it is to starting thinking now about your sophomore effort. Why? Two reasons.

  1. Your first book might not get published. What then? You going to curl up and die? Or will you live to write another day?
  2. Your first book might get published. What then? No one can ride a one-trick pony to a successful career. Not even a scribbling monkey scribe.

All of us here at TKZ are at different points on the writing path. Some of us are just starting out. Some are mid-road and mid-list. Some are published but stalled. Some are gliding along with dozens of titles up on Amazon. But all of us need to think about that “second” book…or for some of us, the “next” book, always the next book, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf. So even if you are sitting there at Book I, Chapter 4, this is still something you need to think about. Because being a successful writer isn’t about playing checkers. It’s all about chess, and looking a couple moves ahead, even if you’re stuck on moving out your pawn.

There’s a ton of advice out there on what’s called Second Novel Syndrome. Some of it is good. Some of it is dumb because as we’ve learned here, not every path is your path, Grasshopper, and advice is cheap and cheap anything is often bad.

Books are like kids. Some slip out easy. Some come out kicking and fighting only after months or years of labor. Your first book, like your first kid, is fraught with tension, tenderness, and outright terror. Oh God, what if I drop him on head? What if my kid is ugly and dumb? Should I switch him from Gerbers to Sprout Organic? The second book, if you’ve learned anything from the first experience, is more like second kid. It’s bath time and dinner! Ah, just set him out in the backyard in the rain with a handful of Cheerios.

Let’s go back to that one-trick pony. Because if you get hitched up with an agent or editor and they buy your book, the first question out of their mouths will be, “What else you got in your pipeline?”  The second question is “How soon can you get it to me?” This is because we are primarily talking about the mystery/thriller genre here and that means you have to be prepared to turn out quality on a regular (like annual) basis.

Even if you are self-publishing you must do this.  Especially if you are self-publishing, because you are going to have an even harder time of getting noticed, and the more real estate you occupy out there, the more often you can feed your readers, the better your chances.

Like my good buddy Jerry Healy said, you have to have more than one novel in you. You don’t want to Question Mark and the Mysterians. You want to be Elvis. Okay, that’s overly ambitious. You want to be Billy Joel. Or maybe Phil Collins but only after he left Genesis.

History is paved with the graves of one-hit wonders in every arena, from music to sports to tech inventions (like the guy who invented the computer mouse prototype and never came up with anything else.).  Maybe the saddest one-hit wonder was a guy named Harvey Bell. He was a graphic artist who created the smiley face in 1963 for an insurance company ad campaign. More than 50 million smiley buttons alone were sold in the 60s. Bell was paid $240 for his design and never hit it big again.

Music is filled with one-hitters. Rick Astley made a career of it. Here’s a whole list of musical one-hitters. Some of my faves are Wooly Booly, I’m Too Sexy by Right Said Fred, and Popsicles and Icicles by the Murmaids. And I have a soft spot in my heart for Funky Town.

In acting, there’s a term called the One-Scene Wonder. This is a character who has one good scene then disappears (not to be confused with a cameo or spear-carrier). My favorite One-Scene Wonder comes in Pulp Fiction when Christopher Walken tells a gross story about his father’s watch. There’s also a terrific One-Scene Wonder in Four Weddings and a Funeral when Rowan Atkinson, as the priest, keeps screwing up his lines.

Sports has its share. Joe Namath, Mark Fidrych and my favorite Ickey Woods, the Bengals running back who scored 15 TDs one season, had a hit dance with The Ickey Shuffle, then shuffled off to Buffalo. (actually, he got hurt and retired).

Which takes us back to books. Now any one of you out there can name a One-Hit Wonder in fiction, but the list toppers include Margaret Mitchell, Salinger, Emily Bronte, Boris Pasternak et al. If you want to know what the New York Times Bestselling One-Hit Wonders of all time are, click here where you find Richard Simmons sharing space next to Stephen Hawking.

This post today was inspired by synchronicity. My writer friend Rick Helms posted some advice on Facebook (and reminded me of Jerry Healy’s quote) on the same day I read a story about a writer named James Ross. I had never heard of Ross, but he published only one novel in his life, They Don’t Dance Much.  It wasn’t really a hit in in 1940. In fact, Flannery O’Connor, who met Ross at a writers conference, wrote to her agent to say, “Ross is looking for an agent. He wrote a very fine book called They Don’t Dance Much. It didn’t sell much.”  The book later became a cult hit, though, with the Washington Post calling it “a hardboiled gem.”

But I am not sure any one of us wants our one novel, gem that it is, discovered 35 years after its birth. So I really urge you to think now about book 2, 3…and 10. For what it’s worth, here’s some things I have learned along the way about this. Maybe it will help, maybe it won’t. But I offer it in good faith as someone whose first mystery came after her third finished (unpublished) manuscript and whose first published book didn’t sell for beans but whose second book is still selling (and got an Edgar nomination).


  • Don’t be shy about getting feedback mid-stream as you write. Whether from an editor, agent, critique group or trusted beta reader. Test the waters.
  • Don’t wait. Get going on your sophomore effort as early as you can. Literary folks can maybe afford the luxury of a Donna Tartt layoff. The rest of us, not so much.
  • Don’t write the same book twice. You have to have a flow of fresh ideas. But if you are writing a series, you have to have continuity between books and still be fresh with your second plot.
  • Don’t be afraid. Because you probably learned something from writing book one. You’ve improved. You’ll have some discipline and a better idea of your writing routine.
  • Do understand that you might make the same mistakes. Go back and read your first book and look for what you did wrong. (I did this and boy, what a lesson!) Don’t repeat your mistakes. Watch out for your “writer tics” and try to correct them before they become full blown bad habits. Like using “And then…” (one of mine)
  • Do understand that your second book might gestate and be born in a completely different way. You have to treat each in its way yet impose the same discipline upon your approach to it. (Back to that kids metaphor again, right?)
  • Do establish a deadline. A first book has the luxury of taking as long as it wants to finish. You can’t do that with a second book because if you want to be published, you have to be able to produce on a regular basis that might be at least a book a year. If you give yourself deadlines – daily, monthly, and final – you might have a chance of success. Stephen Fry said of second novels: “If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23 and my second novel takes me two years, which one have I written more quickly? The second, of course. The first took 23 years and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of a lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”
  • Do know that second times are often the charm. Mike Connelly completed four manuscripts before he sent out his debut novel The Black Echo. Alice Sebold’s first book was Lucky, a raw memoir about rape survival. It got no attention. But her second book was The Lovely Bones.  You might have heard of it.
  • Don’t get discouraged if the first book doesn’t fly. Or even gets off the ground. Erosion of confidence is common after a first stab, especially if you didn’t get it placed with a publisher or got a lot of rejection. Well, you gotta toughen up. Maybe it wasn’t you the writer, maybe it was the story. It wasn’t fresh enough. It wasn’t unique. You didn’t quite have your craft under control. You put it out there before it was really ready. If you are knocked down by one blow, you will never be a writer.

Which leads me to one of my favorite One-hit Wonder songs of all time. Hit it, boys!

First Page Critique

Today’s first page critique is a great example of a piece where the ‘voice’ is critical. It’s a stream-of-consciousness, first page narration which we don’t usually see. My comments, follow. Enjoy!

Lilly’s Tree

There’s always been something gratifying in watching Mama suffer, even if it was only a little bug of a thing, like Lilly locking a fist around a swatch of hair hanging from the twisty knot Mama kept her hair tucked into. Lilly would pull on it like she was the force of gravity. Mama’s eyes would tear up, and she’d let out a screech that sounded like a cat with its tail flattened underfoot. That was when Lilly was in the hair-pulling stage of babyhood, right after the biting stage and right before the pinching stage commenced. It did no good trying to restrain those little Houdini arms when they came at you. Once her fingers latched on, no amount of force would make her let go. You had to distract her. Look, Lilly, there’s the firststar shining up there in the sky or Lilly, let’s you and me get some strawberry ice cream. Mama didn’t catch onto that trick like I did. Instead, she’d go off like a struck match. She was never quick to look for the funny in something. Mama I mean, not Lilly. Just about everything had a chance of making Lilly laugh, even Mama.

Before the accident, or even before Lilly for that matter, it felt like Mama was tall as a tower when it came to watching over me. It had some to do with her being protective, I’m sure, but mostly it was because she had a suspicious nature towards me, especially after Tommy Baxter and the hickey incident when I was in sixth grade and the pack of cigarettes she found in my sock drawer last year. I overheard her telling Pastor Mike I was a highly impressionable girl and religious instruction was essential for the development of my good moral character. She was sure he’d start me right in the world. Mama had Pastor Mike visit with us every Sunday after service. He’d talk about matters I didn’t much understand or even care about, but it was pleasant listening to him all the same. The pastor would throw a smile in my direction every so often, even when he was up there behind the podium at church, and his smile would stretch right up to those blue-as-the-sky eyes. I held the belief it was a smile he reserved exclusively for me, which made it impossible not to smile right back.

My comments

This seems at first glance (at least to me) to be non-genre specific – it could be a literary, coming-of-age novel, or it could be a first-person narrated mystery or thriller. At this stage, the scene is set really for either – with enough references to possible paths (Lilly’s accident, the pastor…) to keep this reader guessing as to the novel’s direction. I thought the characterization was strong – even in this first page we get a strong image of Lilly, Mama, and the narrator’s personality.

It is heavily reliant on the success of the first person narrator and this voice is what will carry a reader through the entire story so it has to be perfect. All in all I think this voice is successful so far and, as a reader, I was pulled along and wanted to read more. That being said, there were times when the word choice used seemed out of sync with the overall tone (use of the words ‘gratifying’ and ‘commenced’ and the ‘Houdini’ reference seemed a little more sophisticated than the voice appeared to be (at least to me). One of the key elements of any successful first person voice is the consistency and authenticity of the voice so this would be my only caution to the author – make sure you fully inhabit this narrator and make word choices accordingly. At this stage we don’t know enough about the narrator, beyond her being about middle school age, to be sure, but the sentence structure and voice on this first page seemed chatty, childlike, and unsophisticated (to me it also sounded very Southern – but as an Australian I’m not very good at picking American voices in literature). There was also an undercurrent of something a bit darker which I liked. In fact, if anything I’d like to see more darkness (particularly when it comes to the Pastor – not sure why, but I’m already suspicious of him!).

There wasn’t much in the way of action or dialogue on this first page but I think this worked in this stream-of-consciousness style beginning. For me there was enough narrative pull and tension to keep me reading but other readers may have wanted something more dramatic on the first page.

TKZers, what did you think?

Let us know what comments you have on this submission and how this first page can be improved.

The Power of Decency in Fiction

by James Scott Bell

If you’ve been in my workshops or read a few of my writing books, you know about the “pet the dog” beat. The name is not original with me, but comes from the old Hollywood screenwriters. Blake Snyder changed it to “save the cat.” So pet lover-writers can choose their preferred metaphor.

I have refined the concept to make it something more specific than merely doing something nice for someone. In my view, the best pet-the-dog moments are those where the protagonist helps someone weaker or more vulnerable than himself, and by doing so places himself in further jeopardy. Thus, it falls naturally into Act 2, usually on either side of the midpoint.

I think of Katniss Everdeen helping little Rue in The Hunger Games. Or Richard Kimble in the movie The Fugitive, saving a little boy’s life in the hospital emergency ward (and having his cover blown as a result).

David Janssen as The Fugitive

And speaking of The Fugitive, I’ve been watching the old TV series starring David Janssen. The show was a big hit in the 60s, and after watching a few I came to see that a big part of the reason is the pet-the-dog motif in almost every episode. There usually comes a time when someone is in need of medical attention. Kimble, therefore, has a dilemma. He can help and give away his medical skills (leading to suspicions about his background). Or he can quietly walk away.

What do you think this decent guy does?

An episode called “Fatso” will serve as an example. It’s a particularly good entry, directed by one of the best of that rare breed, the female Hollywood director—Ida Lupino.

Kimble (now using the name Bill Carter) has hitched a ride with a traveling salesman who is fighting off sleep. For safety’s sake, Kimble takes the wheel into the next town. Unfortunately, an errant driver forces Kimble to swerve and rear end a parked car.

Knowing the local cops will soon be on the scene, Kimble tries to sneak away, but is nabbed by the sheriff and arrested for fleeing the scene of an accident. They take his prints. Kimble, sitting in the clink, knows it’s just a matter of time before they identify who he is.

Jack Weston as David in “Fatso”

He shares his cell with a sad sack, an overweight drunk named David (played by that reliable character actor of the time, Jack Weston). When the sheriff comes to release David, Kimble socks the lawman and knocks him out. He heads for the door. David begs Kimble to take him along. They hop a train, heading for David’s boyhood home.

Meanwhile, Lt. Philip Gerard (Barry Morse), who is always one step behind Kimble, gets the report based on Kimble’s prints. He flies to Kentucky where all this is taking place.

Kimble learns that David, who everyone calls “slow,” wants to see his estranged father, who is dying on the horse ranch where he grew up. David is full of fear because of his father’s disapproval. Something happened in the past that caused his father to throw him out.

Kimble and David arrive at the ranch and are met by David’s younger brother, Frank. This guy is a real jerk. He calls David “Fatso” and needles him about that terrible thing that happened.

Frank is also suspicious of Kimble. Why would a guy like this befriend a loser like David?

As the episode goes on, with Gerard getting closer and Frank feeding the local sheriff his suspicions, Kimble tries to help David. Knowing that the only way David can become whole again is to confront the past, not run from it. To gain David’s trust, Kimble admits he’s a doctor. He then walks David through the night that the barn burned down and killed several horses. David was drunk and alone on the farm, and everyone, including David, is convinced he set the fire.

But Kimble does some digging and finds out that Frank was AWOL that night from the local army base. He presents this evidence to David’s father and mother. They confront Frank. He confesses. He set David up to get him disowned and out of the will.

David’s father asks for David’s forgiveness.

It’s all very redemptive, but there’s one problem: Gerard has just pulled up to the house with the sheriff!

The mother, played with gusto by that wonderful character actress Glenda Farrell, sends Kimble out the back door and proceeds to delay the investigators.

In each show’s epilogue, as we see Kimble disappear into the night, we hear the dulcet tones of one of the great voice-over actors, William Conrad, giving an ominous send-off. In “Fatso,” he says: “A Fugitive has to watch his step. Every step he takes, every hour, every minute, every second, any move he makes might lead to Death Row. There’s no way of knowing in advance. There’s never any way of knowing.”

Thus, virtually every episode is built around Kimble, on the run, arriving in some locale where he manages to pick up a menial job, but then gets involved with another character who is having some life-and-death problem, too … and Kimble is in a position to help.

I say this pet-the-dog motif is the secret of the show’s popularity. David Janssen was perfect for the part. He does a lot of acting with his face—trying to appear innocent as the questions get more pointed; attempting to ignore someone’s troubles even as his core goodness makes that impossible.

The movie works in the same way, with a similar stellar acting job by Harrison Ford. There’s one moment that makes me smile every time. After Kimble saves the little boy’s life in the hospital, he’s confronted by a doctor (Julianne Moore) who had seen him checking out the boy’s X-ray. She calls security. Kimble races to the stairs and starts down, almost bumping into someone.

“Excuse me,” he says.

I love it! Even as he’s running for his life, he can’t give up his fundamental decency.

Why do we respond so strongly to this motif? It’s not hard to understand. In this life, which Hobbes described as “nasty, brutish, and short,” we long for decency, thirst for kindness, are grateful for compassion. Seeing it manifested in a lead character draws us to him, creates the bond that is one of the big secrets of successful fiction.

What are some of your favorite pet-the-dog moments in movies or books? Don’t you find yourself really drawn to characters who show compassion for the vulnerable?

Josecius and the Kitten

Photo by Bing Han on

By popular demand (okay, I had trouble of thinking of something else): here is another story involving a cat. Parts of the story will sound familiar but it is nonetheless true. This tai…I mean, tale, also has something to do with writing, believe it or not. Please bear with me.

In 1984 living I was living in a townhouse apartment, the back of which bordered a small woods. My unit was the sixth in a block of eighteen, nondescript from the others and generally quiet.

I was awakened early on a football Saturday morning by my sons, ages six and three, who insisted that I get up immediately. There was a scary noise, they said, outside at the back door. I came stumbling downstairs.  They were right. There was an unusual noise, all right. It was the sound of an animal in panic or pain. Or both. I opened the door and found a small kitten sitting there, making a loud and repetitive cry as it looked up at me. I bent down and saw that it apparently had been dumpster diving for breakfast. A chicken bone had splintered and wedged in its mouth across its canines. I sat down on the stoop, picked the kitten up, and put it on my lap. It continued to cry but displayed no fear of me as I gently opened its mouth and carefully pried the bone off of its teeth.

The kitten, overwhelmed with gratitude, bit me and ran off. I required a series of rabies shots and was sick for several days and never saw it again. But that isn’t what happened. No. It got off of my lap, rubbed figure eights around me, and then promptly ran into my apartment when I went back inside. I gently retrieved the kitten (with the help of my sons and our very jealous beagle) and put it outside. An hour later it presented a dead mouse at the back door. A few hours later a somewhat chewed robin was left at the front door. A series of similar grisly gifts appeared at irregular but frequent intervals over the next couple of days. Fortunately, I had a friend who was looking for a nice kitten. He adopted it. The kitten grew into a cat and lived to the age of nineteen. I would once in awhile stop over to visit. When I did so the cat, upon seeing me, would disappear outside and show up a half hour or so later with tribute in the form of a mouse, chipmunk, or squirrel. It apparently never forgot me.  Nor have I forgotten it.

I wondered for a long time why the kitten showed up at my particular door as opposed to someone else’s. There were any number of residences from which to choose. Why mine? I finally came up with a possible answer. About fifteen years ago I started shaving my head. I decided it was time when my hair became engaged in a follicle race to see whether each one would fall out or turn gray first. I discovered that I had a birthmark shaped like a catspaw on the back of my head. Go figure.

What does this have to do with writing? It’s simple. You are the cat. Your mouth is the story. The chicken bone is that story point that you get stuck on and just can’t get past. Find someone — a person to whom you normally go to in order to ask advice who will give you straight, no-nonsense advice in a gentle way — and ask them what to do. Don’t knock on their door early in the morning, screaming in distress. Wait for a decent hour and approach them. If they are of help to you, leave dead mice at their front door. Or, if you are otherwise inclined, mention them by name in your acknowledgements when you get published. They will tell their friends who will in turn buy your book, or at least read it. Your friends want to help you; sometimes they just need to be asked.

That’s all I got. Tell us, if you will and/or can, a cute animal story where you helped a creature in distress. Include what occurred afterward. In the alternative, please tell us a story about how going to a friend who got your story or novel unstuck and on the right track. Thank you.