When I was a kid I had the biggest crush on Hayley Mills in Pollyanna. Who did you have a crush on when you were young?
For your reading pleasure, we have the first 400 words of a novel submitted by an anonymous and brave author. It takes guts to share your baby with others on a public forum. I’ll provide my feedback below. Please share your constructive criticism in your comments.
Naomi white-knuckled her steering wheel, working to stave off a panic attack as she drove eastbound on Route 50 toward Annapolis and the sanctuary of home. She’d flicked off the radio, as there was nothing but hurricane talk, so she didn’t even have that to distract her.
Where is the person I used to be? Or did I just think I was once someone different?
She focused on calming her breathing. The last thing she wanted was to have an all-out panic attack in full view of other post-work commuters while hurtling down the highway at seventy miles per hour. Her mind conjured a vision of losing control of the car and sailing off the side of the road into the trees. Then it skipped to crossing the median and into oncoming traffic, a reversal of what had happened to Wolfe’s late wife. Such thoughts and visions had to be beaten off with all the will she could muster.
“Get… a… grip,” she hissed, teeth clenched. Picture home.
She steered by rote, brushing aside more creeping mental images of passing out or having a heart attack—which only served to feed the anxiety. Inhaling, exhaling, one breath at a time, she slowly recovered some sense of control. Tension eased and her shoulders dropped. Calmer, her thoughts now turned to mulling over the day’s biggest challenge: the point at which she’d had to put on a neutral face while quashing down her humiliation.
Her phone rang, interrupting her thoughts. She tapped her hands-free device. “Hello?”
“Hey. How’s it going?”
Despite the blasting artificial chill of the car’s AC, warmth flooded her face and neck at the sound of Wolfe’s voice—and the news she had to tell him.
“I’m okay,” she answered, keeping her tone even.
“Uh oh. What happened?” His laconic voice belied an intensity and intelligence she admired, and which she believed many people didn’t immediately appreciate.
“I didn’t get it. I guess they just don’t see me as a leader. Sorry I didn’t call you earlier. I confess I was licking my wounds.”
He was silent a moment. “I’m sorry to hear that. You know they made a mistake in not giving it to you, right? Did you at least throw something at the person who got your promotion?”
“Clint got it. I guess they think he’s more qualified. Things work out like they’re supposed to, I hear.”
Before I give my feedback, I wanted to share my thoughts on where to start a novel. Since I am a thriller/crime fiction writer, I tend to start with a body or an act of violence or action that will change my protagonist’s life and tip it like a first domino colliding with others. An inciting incident disrupts the status quo and stirs things up in an intriguing way for the reader. It jump starts the story arcs and kicks off the plot to take its course.
An example of this is found in the first Hunger Games book where the inciting incident is a ‘district’ lottery drawing that forces Katniss into taking the place of her little sister in a fight to the death broadcast on a futuristic television show. That incident is a punch to the emotional gut of the reader who MUST turn the page to find out what happens.
But what if your inciting incident isn’t that dramatic? What can you do to strengthen your opener?
Point of No Return – One benchmark for a solid inciting incident is that the protagonist can’t retreat once it starts. There should be a point of no return where the hero/heroine is forced to step out of his or her comfort zone and head into the abyss, to take a risk they hadn’t seen coming or that forces them into confronting their worst fears. It’s the author’s job to set the stage for the reader to discover why the hero or heroine deserves a starring role.
To Go Forward, You Sometimes have to Step Back – Ask yourself, what is my story about, the main thrust of the plot? Let’s call that a demarcation line. Now step back to a point where you find your protagonist, living in relative obscurity. What will drive him or her into stepping toward that demarcation line? What will stir, incite, or force them into making a move they might not otherwise? Then ask what would make that move a one-way trip? What is their point of no return, line in the sand moment? Picture a burned out mercenary, living as a hermit in the jungles of Venezuela, when a nun running an orphanage crosses his path. Their meeting may not be the point of no return, but when the villain in your story makes it his business to force the mercenary’s hand (threatening the children or the nun), the anti-hero takes action and can no longer live in obscurity. He’s forced to give up his life of anonymity and face his demons in order to do the right thing.
Questions to Ask About Your Inciting Incident to Make it Stronger:
1.) Review your current WIP for your inciting incident. Does it propel your protagonist (or even your antagonist) into your plot arcs?
2.) Is the inciting incident big enough to sustain a novel or propel it forward in a meaningful and realistic way? Are there enough building turning points to make it a journey?
3.) Are the stakes high enough to make the reader care?
4.) Does the inciting incident influence or jump start the main story question for your plot?
5.) Can your hero or heroine retreat from the inciting incident or is it significant enough to force a change into a new direction? In other words, do you have a legitimate point of no return where they are forced to cross that proverbial line in the sand?
I generally liked that the author started with Naomi white-knuckled behind a steering wheel, knowing there is a hurricane headed toward Annapolis (although Naomi quickly deflates that tension by wanting the distraction of the radio over ‘hurricane talk’). I looked up the area and hurricanes have hit this part of the country with devastating results in loss of lives.
But the minute Naomi retreated into her head, asking where her old self had gone, it was a head fake into a different direction that stutter-stepped into the next paragraph. In paragraph 3, there is more faked or forced emotion that takes place in her head, with an emphasis on “telling” what she’s feeling. The fabricated suspense of imagined car accidents and panic attacks are quickly deflated when Naomi gets a call and she says, “I’m okay.” The imaginary incidents reminded me of Calista Flockhart in Ally McBeal where her inner thoughts were more exciting and dramatic than her real life, but those were done with dark humor and dancing babies as her biological clock ticked down.
I had to wonder, as an aside, where Naomi could drive 70 mph on a packed commuter highway. It’s hard to tell if the other cars are stopped and she’s the only one careening across the lanes and through trees, since the action only takes place in her head.
I don’t know if the author intended for the reference to the death of Wolfe’s late wife by car accident is intentional and a foreshadowing. Let’s hope so, but I was confused by the description “a reversal of what had happened…,” deciphering between Naomi’s imagination and what might’ve happened to his wife. That description forced me to reread and I still didn’t understand.
In the dialogue we learn that she has lost a job promotion to someone else, Clint, and she seems to accept it like a worn welcome mat. The reader doesn’t know what she does for a living either. It’s hard to relate to Naomi or get invested in her life with an opener that is more about misdirection.
The author is capable of writing a suspenseful scene. There are good parts to this submission if the author can stay focused on visualizing the fictional world through Naomi’s eyes and how her emotions manifest in her body or her senses (showing rather than telling), but when the narrative drifts to imagined car accidents, fake heart attacks or passing out at the wheel, these descriptions read as ‘over the top’ and forced emotions as more of Naomi’s story is revealed about her losing a promotion to Clint, a co-worker.
Since we don’t know from this limited 400 word submission which direction the plot will go or what genre this is, we won’t know if Naomi is a mild-mannered woman capable of hiring a hit man to take out Clint to get her promotion or doing that job herself with hours spent at a gun range. Or did the author intend for this to be a taste of Naomi’s world until the hurricane hits and she discovers what’s really important in her life? We simply don’t know.
I think the author would have a more compelling start if the contrived emotions were stripped from this intro and we get to know more about Naomi and care about her. There’s a lot of pressure to getting a lot packed into 400 words, but this intro could orient the reader into Naomi’s world with the hint of foreshadowing where the story will go. It doesn’t have to be all action and suspense when the story is a drama about a woman’s struggle to find balance in her life and how she makes a dynamic change to make to happen. How would that story look?
Maybe Naomi has been hit in the teeth by losing another promotion to a better candidate because she is overlooked at every turn, but the impending hurricane forces her out of her comfort zone and she confronts her demons that change her forever. I would read that story.
1.) What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?
2.) What tips do you have for finding the right place to start your story?
It’s a veritable feast of First Page Critiques this week here at Kill Zone. No one planned it this way, but it sure is fun. Today, we have a Fearless Writer and the opening of The Root of Atlan. The actual submission is just below, then my comments.
I hope you’ll weigh in as well.
The Root of Atlan
I woke to an excruciating headache and shouting. The last thing I remembered was walking through the airport after my flight and then what seemed like a bolt of lightning. When I pried my watering eyes open I found it was twilight or predawn and there were torches all around me. It hadn’t felt like I was unconscious but I definitely wasn’t where I had started and I was a bit groggy. I was surrounded by a number of other people, all of us lying on a circle of odd black stone ringed by tall stone pylons and mud.
My breath steamed in the chill air. Surrounding us were about fifteen men holding torches. They were dressed in brown leather armor and looked like they had stepped out of a fantasy novel. Looking closer at them I could see that they weren’t, strictly speaking, men. At least, not like men from home. Their faces resembled a cross between human and gorilla with dark ash-brown skin, receding chins with heavy jaws, and short, pushed-in noses surmounted by bald heads. Their faces were tattooed heavily.
They were armed with short, heavy swords and they were all heavily muscled. Overall, they made Neanderthals look elegant and poised in comparison. They were shouting at us incomprehensibly and I could see from the faces of my fellow travelers that they didn’t understand either.
A new group of the ape-men came into the circle of torches and began tying our hands behind us. When one of them got to me I fought back as best I could. I had been raped once and refused to be a victim again. Since I had spent the years since the rape learning how to defend myself, my best was actually pretty good despite my weakness and grogginess. It eventually took three of them working together to get me pinned so they could tie me up. I was not going to go along quietly with whatever they had planned.
Being tied up was never a start to anything good unless safe words and mutual consent were involved. I ended up wrapped up almost like a mummy and bruised over a significant portion of my body.
I wasn’t the only one who fought back, or even the most successful. One guy actually managed to get away, the last I saw of him was with a couple ape-men in hot pursuit, but I didn’t think he was going to make it. They moved pretty fast for their bulk and they looked angry. The rest of us were herded out of the muddy clearing we were in and down a path through some woods. The light grew as we headed out, but we missed the sunrise due to the heavy cloud cover.
We hiked for a couple hours until we came to an encampment. Off to one side, there were lines of what were almost horses if you could picture them with horns and split lips like a springbok. Their hides were brown and tan with barring or stripes in black and medium brown.
We were herded to the center of the encampment and ropes were tied around our necks. The ropes were then staked to the ground so that we couldn’t stand. Since our hands were still tied behind our backs it was almost impossible to get a grip on the stakes. We weren’t fed or given any water and those on the edges of the group were the targets of a kicking or cuffing as soldiers passed by. I had been heartened when I saw my pack and duffel along with a few other bags that were clearly from my fellows unloaded and put in a tent. If I could just get to them I had some stuff that might give me an edge in getting away.
Dear Fearless Writer.
Please, take a breath. I feel like I’ve just read twenty pages of an action screenplay in 400 words. Relax. You have a whole novel to write.
This is what seems to be happening:
A traveler (male? female? transgender?) experiences some kind of time/place shift after a bolt of lightning, and “wakes” surrounded by shouting, tattooed, non-human creatures. Other travelers have been transported as well, and they all attempt to fight off the creatures. The creatures are determined to tie up the travelers, and lead them out of a muddy clearing and to an encampment. At the encampment, the travelers are staked to the ground with short ropes, then starved and beaten.
The Root of Atlan has an energetic, rather exciting premise, but there’s both too much and too little going on at once for a reader to get a good handle on the numerous scenes. Even though the storytelling is done in first person, the narration feels way too distant. Too dispassionate and detached, yet immediately observant of the scene. (i.e. facial details, numbers of men, black stone, pylons, mud, swords, etc.)
First person is, well, personal. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the past tense—it still needs to feel a bit raw and immediate. There’s pain and noise, but where is the confusion and terror? This traveler has come through a hole in the universe. Where’s the shock? The traveler is almost immediately attacked, and we get an explanation about this person having been raped, instead of the sweat and dirt and pain of the immediate fight. Treat the rape with the seriousness it’s due. It’s a great revelation that explains the character’s toughness, but let’s have a few demonstrations of that extraordinary toughness first. Then deepen the character.
(Get to know your character. Here are Proust’s 35 Questions, a survey of your character’s personality. I’m not saying you have to use all that you come up with or even fill it all out. But the more you know about your first-person character, the better grip you’ll have on their view of the world.)
“Being tied up was never a start to anything good unless safe words and mutual consent were involved.” Clever and amusing, but a weird aside for someone whose life is obviously in danger. Unless this is intended to be satire or comedy—and it doesn’t feel like it’s meant to be.
I count no fewer than three scenes in this opening:
–Traveler awakens in a strange place, surrounded not only by fellow travelers, but tattooed, angry locals who are joined by more locals, bent on tying them up. Travelers unsuccessfully fight back.
–Travelers go on a forced march (hike seems too tame a word).
–Travelers arrive in a camp, where they are tied down and starved.
Here’s a bit of practical advice. An exercise, if you will. Take one of these three scenes and work the heck out of it. Put yourself in it. You are the person fighting for your life. You’re the one waking up in a strange place, surrounded by angry, combative creatures. You’re the one who was on the way to the bathroom before you got transported, and you really had to pee, and you’re so freaked out you notice it happened without you realizing it but you barely notice because you’re being attacked by tattooed human/gorilla creatures brandishing swords!
Who are your fellow travelers? Do they count at all, or are they simply redshirts who will all be dead by the time you escape the encampment and go on with your adventures? Is there someone who fights bravely beside you that you will want to stay close to?
Your single traveler is not going to see everything at once. The forced march is a good time to observe more details about our fellow travelers, and the creatures—single one or two out that are especially frightening or you think might help you.
Write long. Indulge in the scene. Then come back and tighten it up and edit. You may not even use everything you write, but you will have observed it. Keep the vital, most visceral parts. Write the experience, not an overview of the experience.
As I read through this the third time (I’m slow on the uptake, I guess), I realized there’s not a word of dialogue! Creatures are shouting unintelligibly, but the travelers don’t even offer a grunt. No one is screaming? No one is crying for her mother? No one is saying, “Get your hands off of me, you damned dirty ape!”? (Sorry, I have zero idea how to punctuate that sentence.) The lack of dialogue is a big part of the narrator’s detachment from the story.
Mention the duffel or the absence of the duffel sooner. I really like the idea that it exists and that the traveler wants the stuff inside it. We can already see what the traveler’s first action mission will be.
Think about opening the book with your character already escaped from the encampment and living in this strange new world. You don’t need to start at the very beginning of the traveler’s arrival—surprise us.
Go and read the beginning of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend to see how he immediately immerses the reader in the story. The scenario—that the world is now inhabited by zombies and Robert Neville is the last man—is not the story. It’s a masterful tale of humanity and hope and survival.
Then show us what you know about your protagonist. It’s a fascinating premise and has great potential to be a terrific tale. Take your time. Enjoy the ride. Have fun with it.
TKZers, what are your thoughts on this submission?
Today we’re critiquing the first page of A RAGING NEED TO KILL, which was submitted anonymously by a reader. I’ll add my comments at the end, and then please give your feedback in the Comments.
A Raging need to Kill
Lilli missed her mom and she hated her dad, Henry, but she still cooked dinner just for him. Lilli opened the oven door and ducked over the golden brown turkey to check if it was done. When she poked the turkey with the fork, a piece fell off, she picked it up, and threw it in the trash bin. A smile spread on her face. “Perfect,” she whispered. She stirred in rosemary seasoning, butter, and garlic salt into the cubed potatoes. Thanksgiving dinner was ready when Henry walked into the living room with a beer in his hand.
Lilli’s mom, Kaitlin, had insisted on having the dinner each year and Lilli was determined to honor her tradition even though Kaitlin was dead. Henry walked closer to Lilli and rested his back against the wooden cabinet. The mouth-watering smell of turkey and cranberry sauce was overpowered by the smell of beer mixed with nicotine, wet hay, and manure.
“Did you prep the girls for the auction?” he asked Lilli, making her neck tense up.
“Not yet, sir. I’ll do it after dinner,” Lilli said while she stared at the yellow stains on the backsplash. She resisted moving even if every cell in her body wanted to step a couple feet away, instead she clenched her jaw to steady her uneasiness.
“Are you hungry, Dad?” she asked trying to remind him that she was his daughter.
“She’s not here anymore. Don’t hold on to the past, Lilli. It’ll be easier,” he said in a calm voice but she still noticed his irritation. He took a step closer to her and she grabbed a plate, served the potatoes and turkey, walked to the table, and back to the kitchen.
After serving two dinner plates for the two of them, she sat at the small wooden table. Henry ate the dinner and after a few minutes, he put down the fork and looked at Lilli with suspicion. “What did you put in the food? You haven’t touched yours. What, you poisoned me?”
“No, Dad,” she said and looked down with a small smirk.
He got up and tried to steady himself with the table. His eyes looked disoriented and he reached out for her but she staggered backwards. He threw a punch at her but Lilli ducked and he missed her.
Whoa, talk about a dysfunctional family! I felt the bleakness of the narrator’s world as I was reading this page. I appreciate the way the writer used small details to put the reader inside the Lilli’s POV, such as her staring at the yellow stains on the backsplash.
This scene definitely made me want to learn more about Lilli’s world. I would suggest doing an editing pass to tidy up some punctuation and break up sentences for rhythm and flow.
I would also suggest rearranging the dialogue between Lilli and Henry to increase the tension in the following exchange.
Henry ate the dinner and after a few minutes, he put down the fork and looked at Lilli with suspicion. “What did you put in the food? You haven’t touched yours. What, you poisoned me?”
I suggest breaking up the something like this:
Henry ate the dinner. After a few minutes, he set down his fork.
“You haven’t touched your dinner.”
“No, Dad.” Lilli stared down at her plate and stifled a smirk.
”You put something in the food?” Henry staggered to his feet, then tried to steady himself against the table. “What, you poisoned me?”
In general, job well done! I’m hoping we will find out in the next page whether Lilli did in fact poison Henry. (Sounds like he deserved it).
Our thanks go out to today’s brave writer for submitting this first page! TKZers, how did you react to this first page? Please share your feedback in the Comments.
An analysis by Larry Brooks
As usual with these First Page Critiques, here is the untouched submission, followed by a hands-on analysis. Also as usual, caveats apply.
First page critiques provide a valid quick first look at a writer’s narrative skills, and perhaps, how they launch a scene. And in a rarer instance, some visibility as to how that opening scene launches a story. That said, first pages – and first scenes, for that matter – are unique among all the pages and scenes that appear in a finished novel. The criteria is different. The context and the mission is different. And because it doesn’t demand either a payoff within the confines of a “first page,” nor does it need to be completely clear (often the comments offered on a first page, perhaps because so little else is contextually available, seems to criticize a lack of a sense of what the story will end up being about), any input to it beyond the writing itself, at a story level, should come with an asterisk.
Heck, we don’t even know the genre yet, something virtually every reader of every published novel knows before they even pick it up from a bookshelf, or click the BUY NOW button on Amazon or elsewhere online.
Here is today’s first page, asterisks and caveats implied, as submitted:
Charlotte clutched the armrest with a vice-like grip. The plane pitched. Black clouds loomed outside the window.
I’m going to die!
A chime sounded. The seatbelt sign lit up.
I knew this would happen.
She squeezed her eyes tightly shut.
Think of something nice. Freshly shaved truffles–Domingo singing O Sole Mio–Rosy waiting for me at the airport.
Reaching up with a trembling hand, she twisted the air vent nozzle to full. A baby screamed in the row behind.
Shit! – Another frigging bump. I don’t like this. Get me off this plane!
The wine in her glass sloshed from side to side. She gulped it down.
I need another drink.
Thoughts flashed through her brain so fast, everything blurred. She’d been impulsive, booking this trip. And she desperately needed a change. But this? Going half-way around the world? Perhaps she be running away from her problems. Perhaps she should have done something safe and boring, like she’d always done.
She jumped when she felt a gentle touch on her arm.
“About a million people travel safely by plane every day,” said an accented voice in her ear. “Statistically speaking, you’d have to fly every day for nearly two hundred years to experience a problem.”
Was it that obvious she was scared? Could the stranger hear her heart hammering?
She looked into the rheumy eyes of the man in the aisle seat. An elderly gentleman swathed in an immaculate pinstripe suit two sizes too big leaned toward her.
Ravi Shankar!—Is Ravi Shankar still alive?
Enormous eyebrows sat like whiskery caterpillars on the stranger’s broad forehead, tufts of white hair sprouting from his ears. A spotless white handkerchief peeked from his lapel, and the Band Aid on his chin showed evidence of a tour of his facial terrain by an unsteady hand.
He patted Charlotte’s arm with a sinewy hand.
“I think of turbulence as bumps on a road. Does it bother you when you’re in a car and go over a few potholes?”
“Then imagine the sky as a big road and the plane as a car. A couple of bumps won’t make a difference to a safe journey. Besides, there’s less traffic up here.”
He let out a high-pitched chuckle, covering his mouth as a cough caught in his throat. Pulling out the handkerchief, he dabbed beneath his eyes. A piece of paper floated from his lap beneath his seat.
“Oh! My landing form. I didn’t fill it out yet since my eyesight’s not too good these days. I’m a bit concerned I may do something wrong. Would you mind helping me please, young lady?”
Charlotte unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned down to retrieve the form from below his seat. The stranger handed her a sterling silver fountain pen with the initials “RCF” engraved into the cap.
“Use this. It’s my lucky pen. Perhaps it will make the flight smoother.”
A Few Comments
First impressions: I like this. It has a sense of being in the moment, and it is something to which we can relate. It also has a dash of wit, countering a hint of fear. And a final line that leaves a question mark – perhaps compelling, perhaps not – that may be addressed on the next line page… or not.
Short of a few comments on specific lines – the low hanging fruit of editing – I don’t have much beyond this positive overall take away. And yet, in many first page panels I’ve seen (at workshops) and read (here, and elsewhere), there seems to be an obligation to find something to criticize, all of it, of course, within the context of trying to find something to help.
But in this piece… honestly, I think it works. Do I know what the story is yet? Not at all. Unless accompanied by a short synopsis that includes, at a minimum, the target genre, it’s impossible to tell. Are we reading the first plucked strings of a love story? A setup for a seduction, perhaps one with nefarious intentions? Will the plane crash land and strand these two on an island?
We don’t know. Should we criticize it because we don’t know? Absolutely not. Full disclosure is not the mission, or even the expectation, of a functional first page. Rather, highest mission is simple and clear, beyond delivering narrative that makes sense either in or out of context.
That mission is simply this: does the page make the reader want more?
My answer here is hell yes. Not so much because of the story – there’s not a lot of story here yet – but because of the writing. I think this writer has some chops, and this story may have legs. Chops and legs combine tend to become a sum that exceeds either part.
So, not to short-change this writer, here are a few little nits. There aren’t many.
When you say, “Perhaps she be running away from her problems,” I’m not sure if you’re trying to be colloquial or if it’s an outright omission of a word or two. Either way, it doesn’t seem to fit the tone. The italicized inner thoughts you offer don’t sound like someone quoting from Shakespeare or Eminem, which this particular line does.
Your narrator poses the rhetorical question: “Was it that obvious she was scared?” and does so in an odd way… because this isn’t an inner thought, which you show in italicized first person. And yet, by definition it is an inner thought, a musing, because an omniscient narrator wouldn’t pose the question, while she absolutely would. And yet, it’s clunky, because it’s pretty darn obvious – to the reader and to the guy sitting next to her – that she actually is scared out of her mind. He notices, which is why he reaches out to her. So posing the question makes her seem a little dim, a little less than self-aware.
The initial description of the Ravi Shankar-esque seat mate… wonderfully done. But you can do better than a “sinewy” hand. You’re being sarcastic in describing him, be sarcastic in describing his hand, too. Like, “his hand looked like it belonged to Keith Richards.”
For a moment, after that paper slips from his lap, we don’t know who is speaking the next line of dialogue. ‘ “Oh! My landing form,” he said’… might work better.
And a landing form – whatever that is… I’m not sure, do we need a slip to land? If you’re suggesting a customs slip to land in another country, say that instead. Otherwise, this sounds like the author has never been on an airplane before.
See, I’m having to work hard to find something to help here.
If there is one thing that might make it stronger, I’d say to give us some stronger hint of what’s coming in a dramatic/story arc sense. A bit more of a hook. A little nub of foreshadowing. Remember, in virtually any genre that isn’t “literary fiction,” it isn’t a story until something goes wrong. And while it doesn’t have to go wrong on the first page (in fact, it really shouldn’t), it helps if we get a sense of something that will be happening, even if it is barely discernable, which is a bit light here. Short of that paper drop, which doesn’t really qualify as a hook, and the assumption that the airplane isn’t about to crash, there’s not much of a sense of what that might be.
A nice start, me thinks. Says the guy who doesn’t recommend trying to sound Shakespearean, ever.
What are your thoughts on this first page submission?
This is my last Killzone post.
I’d like to thank the folks who run and contribute to this post for inviting me and tolerating me. These two years have been rewarding, and I’ve connected with a lot of writers who I wouldn’t have bumped into otherwise.
I’m in the midst of reinventing and relaunching my website, Storyfix.com, working in conjunction with writing guru and contributing writer Art Holcomb. I invite you to check it out (there are nearly 1000 posts archived on all forms of the craft of writing fiction), and if you like what you see, subscribe to the email feed.
I’ll remain active in this wonderful community of writers, though, chipping in when I feel I can contribute.
I wish massive success for you all. And I join you in welcoming my friend Sue Coletta, who slides into my every-other-Monday seat here armed with a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm to share.
Yes, it’s almost here, November—which is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This singular event challenges writers all over the world to complete a 50,000 word (or more) novel in only one month.
I’ve participated a few times in the past and produced a couple of published books out of it. (Not, I quickly note, without a lot of revision work!) While that is all well and good, there is perhaps a better reason for jumping in—to recapture the joy of writing.
I love the NaNo vibe. Writers writing. Newbies trying. Keyboards clacking. Coffee brewing. Possibilities awakening. It’s a major accomplishment to finish a novel. To do it in one month is astounding.
Of course, it’ll only be a first and very rough draft. But it will exist. You can let it sit for a month and then figure out what to do with it. One likely outcome is that you’ll use it as a “discovery draft” that now allows you to structure a re-write. Another is that the novel never sees the light of day. That’s fine, so long as you get some writing lessons out of it. Analyze the draft. Judge your craft. Make a plan to strengthen your skills.
At the very least you will have proved something to yourself. Unless you’re a full-time writer, averaging 1667 words a day is hard. Doing so for a month stretches you. When you get back to your normal rate of production, try to up it by 10% now that you’ve gone through NaNo.
Here are three other NaNo tips:
NaNoWriMo is catnip for pantsers. But a little planning (starting today) can make all the difference in your final product.
First, take a day to do some free-form journaling on your idea. Who it’s about, why it matters, why anybody should care. Jot down scene ideas that come to mind, in random order.
Second, take one day to define your concept with a three sentence “elevator pitch.” This will be your plumb line, what keeps you from getting too far away from the essence of your story. Even if you go down rabbit trails, you can use this to get yourself back on the main track. (On the form of an elevator pitch, see my TKZ post here.)
Finally, brainstorm a tentative “mirror moment” for your main character. This beacon of light will help you find your way if you get stuck in the dark.
Check out my 10 tips for powering through NaNoWriMo.
Try to get a “nifty 350” words done the very first thing in the morning (or second, after you get the coffee going … hey, maybe invest in a coffee maker with a timer!)
Don’t edit your work except for a quick review of your daily pages. If you can do that review right before hitting the sack, so much the better. Your “boys in the basement” will work through the night and you can dive into writing the next morning.
Go to NaNoWriMo.org and sign up. It’s free, and will give you access to “pep talks” and local groups of participants.
Even if you’re not going for a NaNoWriMo “win,” you can still use November to re-charge your writing batteries. Cheer others on via social media and get excited about their progress. Use that positive energy in your own writing. Set a November goal. Try upping your quota for the month. Or complete the development of a new project.
But whatever you do, do it with a sort of wild abandon. Be a “crazy dumbsaint of the mind,” as Kerouac put it. Repossess your writing mojo. Then spread that out for a year, when you’ll come up to November again!
Anyone planning on doing NaNoWriMo this year? How about your past experience with it? Any tips for those who are about to try?
Don and I have had no phones or Internet since last Thursday. We live in a mandatory evacuation area in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. When we were ordered to leave our condo at noon, Thursday, Sept. 7th, we packed up the cats and headed for our friend Anne’s house in Boynton Beach to ride out the hurricane. Irma was coming and she was mean. We didn’t know if we’d see our condo again.
It was a week before we could go home. We had electricity, but no Internet and no phones. We still don’t.
It may be the best thing that ever happened to me.
My agent wanted me to write a short story, and write it fast.
“Do you have any ideas?” he asked.
A couple. He nixed the idea that involved cute animals. “I think your heart is really on the dark side,” he said.
So I told him about an idea flitting around in my head. You know what I mean. It’s in your brain like a mosquito in your bedroom late at night. You can hear its annoying whine, but you can’t get rid of it. The only way to make it go away is to turn it into a story.
My agent liked the idea: a conversation I’d had with a man in a bank line several years ago – yes, it had been buzzing around that long.
I knew the story’s main characters. I had an idea for the opening. But what did I do after that?
I hadn’t the foggiest. I didn’t know where to take the idea. I had no plot. I had no ending. But it was time to get it out of my head.
“How quickly can you write that story?” he asked.
“Three weeks,” I said. That was fast, since I hadn’t written one word.
I started writing the story three days ago and it’s almost finished.
No Internet and no phones.
I discovered I’m an Internet addict. I’d get so far in my writing and then, when I got to a difficult part – when I needed to start a new scene or describe a character – I’d automatically go online to answer a question for my story: How do you spell Keurig? What are some names for the Devil?
You get the idea. It would be a half hour or more before I got back to my writing. My train of thought had been derailed. I’d write for a bit, but with less enthusiasm. Then another question would come up, and I’d be back on the Net. And I’d post on Facebook, tweet, and answer my e-mail. That took more time. Then I’d see a fascinating video about the 90-year-old sweethearts reunited after 50 years. Their great-granddaughter was the maid of honor . . .
Now I can’t do that. I still have the urge to run to the Internet when I have a question. My fingers itch to hit that browser button. They actually twitch when I see the Firefox icon. Then I realize I don’t have the Internet.
Instead I take a break, have a cup of tea, walk around the house – and the idea comes to me. Suddenly, I can see the next scene. That character is standing in front of me and I can describe him. Or I didn’t paint myself into a corner after all. I know how I can solve the problem. And damn, that opening, the one I’ve cherished for two years, is dull. I need to tear it up and rewrite it.
Writing is faster and easier without the Internet.
The AT&T repair person will be here Friday morning to restore our phones and get us back on the Internet.
I hope I can stand the itching and twitching of withdrawal, and not get caught in the Net again.
Note: I finished the short story, “The Deal,” two days later, and sent it to my agent. At last, it was out of my head. Our condo is livable, but damaged: Don’s bathroom ceiling collapsed and water damaged one wall and our bedroom ceiling. Compared to how Irma pounded the Caribbean, we are lucky. We got phones and Internet Friday, September 15, and well, I went on the Net again. Just to check my email. I swore I’d be strong, and stay away the distractions, but I had to find out what was going on in our country. And if Bo Derek still looks good now. And how to clean my house using all-natural ingredients. I’m supposed to finish a manuscript, but there’s this story about two women who tried to take selfies with a freaking elk. My name is Elaine and I am an addict . . .
I’ve never understood very much about my own creative process (God, I hate that phrase), and because of that, I try not to think about it very much. Where do ideas come from? I have no idea. They just arrive, and always just in time. I talk to writers whose minds are filled with stories demanding to be told, and I admire them. My ideas stumble into my head one, maybe two at a time, and they just sit at the bar and stare. “Go ahead, Writer-man,” they say. “Do your job and make us pretty.”
One constant in my life for more than a decade now has been a September 15 deadline for the next Jonathan Grave book. I plan my entire year around that deadline. A second constant is a July 1 publication date for the book that was submitted the previous September 15. That early July drop date is important because of its proximity to ThrillerFest, and the boost in publicity brought by that. But July is also Gilstrap Beach Vacation Month, so that’s another week gone from the ten weeks leading up to my deadline. (I bring my computer and writing pad to the beach, but if I get 1,000 words written over those seven days, I’m lucky.)
On the far side of my deadline is Joy’s and my wedding anniversary, which almost always includes an exotic trip to somewhere. This year, it was 16 days in Scotland, commencing September 12. That shortened my deadline by three whole days! That means there was no possibility of overshooting the deadline by only a day or two. It was either submit two days early or four weeks late. In my world, we call that “motivation.”
Because I’ve been doing this for so long, I’ve figured out a system that (almost) always works. If I can be at the 200-page mark by the opening of ThrillerFest, I can be at 70,000 words by August 1. Given a 100,000-word manuscript length, that makes August busy but doable. Plus, by then, I’m transitioning to the third act, which for me is the easiest to write. I can usually have a polished first draft done by the first week in September, which leaves me 10 days or so for final revision.
This year, reality bitch-slapped me. ThrillerFest didn’t start until July 13, easily a week later than usual, and from July 19-23, I was on the faculty of the Midwest Writers Conference in Muncie, Indiana. When all was said and done, I’d effectively lost 16 writing days in July.
And September 12 still sat there, immovable.
I hit my 70,000-word milestone on August 8, three days after I taught an all-day seminar at the Smithsonian, and the one day after an all-day charity signing event. Math was beginning to work against me. I needed to write 10,000 words a week for the next three weeks in order to give me the cushion I needed for final revisions. Sounds horrible, but doable.
Then came the long lunch with a grieving friend who reached out because he didn’t want to be alone. And the long overdue birthday dinner with another friend. The un-turn-downable invitation to a luxury suite at the Washington Nationals. Let’s not forget the long-standing three-day commitment to the always-fabulous Creatures Crimes & Creativity Conference from September 8-10.
Tick and Tock were both laughing at me. In fact, they were mocking me.
Oh, and God forbid the book actually pull itself together at 100,000 words. Perish the thought. The final count came in at 112,230 words, and I clicked send for Scorpion Strike on the evening of September 11, 2017.
Never in my life have I written so much in so little time. That’s 42,230 words in what was effectively 14 writing days (as opposed to editing/revision days). If I wrote evenly, that would be over 3,000 words per day, but that’s never how it works for me. The last two writing days were each 6K-plus. It was exhausting.
As I jetted off to Scotland, I fully expected to receive a polite but scolding email regarding the revisions that would be necessary. And that was fine, because that’s what revisions are for. Instead, the email from my agent included the phrase, “best book you’ve ever written.” Surely, she was pulling her punches so she wouldn’t ruin my vacation. No, she promised, she and her assistant both read it through in one long gulp, loving it the whole way.
When we returned from our trip, my editor called and told me that they were sending Scorpion Strike straight through to copy editing. For the first time in the history of history, there would be no editorial letter. No structural changes, no punching up of this character or toning down of that one. Just spelling and continuity.
So . . . what the f-bomb? How could my most hurried book turn out to be my least-flawed, in the eyes of my writer universe? I don’t have an answer–not even close–but if I were one to be introspective about my creative process (have I mentioned that I hate that phrase?), it might be worthy of consideration.
Here’s what’s off the table: I’m not going to try to recreate the magic of 6,000-word writing sessions. I like being able to feel my legs and stand up straight. I like a focal length longer than twenty-four inches. And that much coffee can’t possibly be good for me.
Next deadline: First two chapters of the next Grave book by November 1. Piece of cake.
By PJ Parrish
A writer friend of mine, Tim Hallinan, had an interesting post on Facebook the other day. Well, all his posts are interesting, but I thought this one you all at TKZ might really enjoy. Plus, I read it at a special point while my writing my new book. Here’s the post. Then I’ll be back and we’ll talk.
Bruce Springsteen in the NY Times today, talking about his goals for his one-man Broadway show:
“I think an audience always wants two things. They want to feel at home and they want to be surprised.”
If I had a single writing space, I’d put those words on the wall.
I think book readers want the same things, except that by “at home” they mean knowing instinctively that they can trust the writer not to violate the covenant between them, the sort of handshake made in the first few pages, that says the writer will do his/her best throughout the considerable amount of time the reader is generously volunteering to the experience. The reader needs to “feel at home” in their expectation of the kind of story and the level of quality and commitment the writer is attempting to bring to the experience. (It’s actually more like an airbnb, in that readers might expect different kinds of experiences from different spaces or books.)
But in addition to that level of comfort, they also want to be surprised — the book needs to take them places they weren’t expecting to go. And I think that covers everything from major story developments to tiny moments of grace among individual characters, maybe just a new way to say something.
I can’t think of anything, from a mild chuckle to a moment of illumination, that this doesn’t imply.
Isn’t that great stuff? Both from Bruce and Tim. A couple years back, I read Tim’s Edgar-nominated book The Queen of Patpong. Normally, I don’t go for Asian settings, but I really was transported by his rendering of his location and the arc of his character Rose, village girl turned sex worker. Her story reminded me of another book that took me east, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, another tale of a girl sold into sex trade. (Click here to read the opening of The Patpong Queen to get a taste of of what it’s like in a Bangkok lap bar. Tim’s latest release, by the way, is coming in November — Fools’ River)
I’m also a big Springsteen fan. Not just for the tunes. Mostly it’s because he’s a great storyteller. So many of his songs are short stories, filled with damaged characters and locations painted with Van Gogh virtuosity. With just a few quick impasto strokes, Springsteen makes me see his places —
New Jersey Turnpike riding on a wet night
‘Neath the refinery’s glow out where the great black rivers flow.
License, registration, I ain’t got none
But I got a clear conscience ’bout the things that I done
And makes me feel for his people —
My name is Joe Roberts I work for the state
I’m a sergeant out of Perrineville barracks number 8
I always done an honest job as honest as I could
I got a brother named Franky and Franky ain’t no good
Now ever since we was young kids it’s been the same come down
I get a call over the radio Franky’s in trouble downtown
Well if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away
But when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way
Me and Franky laughin’ and drinkin’ nothin’ feels better than blood on blood
Takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria as the band played “Night of the Johnstown Flood”
I catch him when he’s strayin’ like any brother would
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good
Like a good novelist, Springsteen honors the covenant between writer and reader. He makes us feel at home in his genre and his world, yet his song-stories can surprise through their ability to ignite a memory, touch a heart, or thrum a fear. I’ve cried listening to him perform Independence Day, a song about a son’s inability to connect with a father. This is what great books do as well — they resonate, they connect, they make you think when you read them, yes, that is exactly how I feel!
As Tim so nicely puts it, a novel “is a handshake in the first few pages” that the writer will do everything in her power to keep up her side of the bargain. And as for that element of surprise both Bruce and Tim talk about, well, that’s the magic, isn’t it.
“Surprise” isn’t just a mere plot twist (though that can be fun). It isn’t just the final revelation of who did, indeed, do it. (though that can be satisfying). It isn’t the colorful rendering of your location (though who doesn’t want to visit far away places with strange-sounding names, like Bangkok and Bayonne?) “Surprise” is, as Tim says, the magic dust you spread throughout your entire book, from the care you put in your plotting, to the love you invest in your characters, even the bad ones, maybe especially the bad ones.
I’m one chapter shy of finishing the latest book. This book has taken my sister Kelly and I “home” in that we have returned to our series character Louis Kincaid, and I am hopeful this story will make Louis’s fans feel a comfort that maybe they didn’t feel with our previous stand alone thriller. And we’ve worked really hard — and long — on this one to strengthen the covenant by producing what we really hope is a subtle and mutli-layered psychological mystery.
But I also hope the readers will be surprised. We’re taking them up to the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where small skeletons are found buried in abandoned copper mines, and into the arcana of the Catholic religion, where good cops struggle to reconcile the sanctity of the confessional with their need for justice.
This is why Tim’s post resonated with me. It is also why I started out today with one of my favorite quotes from Styron. We’re about ready to type THE END. I’ve had some experiences. I’m a little exhausted. And I’ve lived a couple lives while writing it. I can only hope the readers will feel the same.