About Debbie Burke

Crime novelist, suspense and mystery novels are her passion. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Her nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications and she is a regular blogger at The Kill Zone. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

Interview with cozy author Leslie Budewitz

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Tis the season and I have great fondness for Christmas cookies. Today’s guest Leslie Budewitz is an expert in those buttery, sugary treats. She is also an Agatha-winning author for fiction and nonfiction as well as an attorney. Her latest book As the Christmas Cookie Crumbles is a tasty mystery with recipes.

Leslie is the author of two cozy series and a reference guide for writers: Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately about Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedures. She’s a past president of Sisters in Crime and, after a two-year stint on the board of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, will be joining the national board of MWA in January.

Welcome, Leslie!

Leslie Budewitz

Question: Although you write cozy mysteries, you also tackle serious themes. How do you balance the lighthearted tone of a cozy with grim issues like homelessness and family dysfunction?

Leslie: Any mystery—any novel—depends on conflict, some internal, some external. Those conflicts often arise from the world around us, whether it’s family tension or a dispute over whose turn it is to beg on a particular street corner. Other cozy authors have tackled social justice issues as well—Cleo Coyle, Elaine Viets, and Diane Mott Davidson among them. The trick in a cozy, I think, is to explore the emotions and motivations that the issues raise and make sure that the external actions flow from those internal tensions, because a cozy is ultimately about the personal impact of a crime and the community response to it.

I tend to use an ABC plot structure, with the murder the A or primary plot, the protagonist’s relationships the B or main subplot, and life in the shop or community the C or secondary subplot. That keeps the balance, I hope, and allows me to sneak in some humor and lighter moments while giving the murder the respect it deserves.

Question: The Spice Shop series is set in Seattle; the Food Lovers’ Village series takes place in a tiny Montana town. Can you talk about the differences in handling urban vs. rural settings? Do the personalities of your big city characters differ from those in a small town?

Leslie: To me, the heart of a cozy is community, and the role of the amateur sleuth is to probe and protect it. That makes a small town a natural setting. An urban cozy works when it is set in a community within a community—the Pike Place Market and Seattle’s restaurant community, or Coyle’s Greenwich Village coffee house and the coffee business in NYC.

On the flip side, small-town series are prone to Cabot Cove Syndrome—after a while, there’s no one left to kill! You can root the conflict in the town, bring it in from outside, or create a clash between locals and visitors. An urban setting makes a high crime rate more credible, and allows you to move around the various neighborhoods of a city, although you have to simplify geography and keep the protagonist’s home or shop at the center.

As for differences in personalities, that’s a great question and not one I’d considered. Both my main characters grew up where they now live and identify deeply with their communities. Erin Murphy in the Village series left for 15 years before returning; that’s a common story, especially in Montana; it’s my story, and I’m enjoying exploring it through her eyes

Question: You’ve worked with a Big Five publisher as well as smaller presses. Share with us the contrasts.

Leslie: They’re not as different as you might think. In both, the author’s primary relationship is with the editor. At my nonfiction house, Quill Driver, my editor was also the publisher. At my fiction houses, Berkley, Midnight Ink, and Seventh Street—large, medium, and small—the editorial relationship is still key, even when the structure differs. Larger houses tend to have more robust systems for accounting, routine publicity, and sales and distribution, although smaller houses often contract with big companies for the latter.

Both the decision of the post-merger Penguin Random House to drastically cut mass market paperback originals and the recent decision of Llewellyn to stop publishing new Midnight Ink titles after the Spring/Summer 2019 catalog, as well as the still-fresh sale of Seventh Street Books, demonstrate that business decisions beyond your control can come out of nowhere and dramatically change your career. The only thing you can control is the work itself. Fortunately, that’s the most satisfying aspect, but being able to predict your cash flow ranks pretty high, too.

Question: You’re an attorney yet none of your fiction features a main character in that profession. Is there a reason you’ve chosen other fields for your characters? Is there a legal mystery in your future?

Leslie: A cozy depends on an amateur sleuth; lawyers and journalists are semi-pros, so if one were to star in a cozy series, she’d probably need to be retired and running a bakery! Pepper Reece in the Spice Shop series managed staff HR for a large law firm that collapsed in scandal, and she uses her knowledge of people rather than a knowledge of the law to solve crimes. But she also reaches out to lawyers and paralegals she’s worked with now and then. Erin Murphy consults her step-father, a lawyer turned herbalist and acupuncturist, when she needs to understand a legal detail or two.

I don’t see myself turning to legal mysteries or thrillers, but I can say that injustice will always be at the heart of what I write.

Question: Anything else you’d like to talk about?

Leslie: While writing is a solitary activity, one of the most important elements in a writer’s career is her community. You and I met ages ago, long before we’d published any fiction. We shared a magical writers’ group for a couple of years, and have met for countless lunches and cups of coffee since then, brainstorming and bolstering. I encourage Kill Zone readers at all stages of their writing careers to form and maintain those communities, on line and in person. Cozies are sometimes criticized as unrealistic—as if Jack Reacher were more realistic than Jessica Fletcher—but one thing they get absolutely right is the fundamental importance of community.

Thanks, Leslie, for sharing your thoughts with The Kill Zone.

****************************************************************************************************

At TKZ, even cookies have aliases. Below is Leslie’s recipe for Russian Teacakes AKA Snowballs AKA Mexican Wedding Cakes:

Merrily’s Russian Teacakes

by Leslie Budewitz

The classic shape is a ball rolled in powdered sugar. But they can also be made as slice-and-bake cookies dipped in chocolate. A reader suggested the Dirty Snowball—add a little cocoa powder to the powdered sugar when you roll the cookie. A delicious idea, especially since a snowball plays a crucial role in the climactic scene.

Whatever you call these scrumptious little treats, I know they’ll be popular with everyone you see this holiday season—even the Grinch and Mr. Scrooge.

1 cup butter (2 sticks), softened

1/2 cup powdered or confectioners’ sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup finely chopped pecans

1/3 cup additional powdered sugar, for rolling

optional:

2-3 ounces semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, for dipping

1 tablespoon cocoa powder, for Dirty Snowballs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter, ½ cup powdered sugar, and vanilla. Combine the flour and salt and stir into the creamed mixture. Stir in pecans. Chill up to an hour.

Roll dough into 1-inch balls and bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for 10-12 minutes. Pour the additional powdered sugar into a flat bowl or on a plate; for the dirty snowball, add the cocoa powder. When cool enough to touch but still warm, roll cookies in the powdered sugar. Cool, then roll in the sugar again if you’d like.

For slice-and-bake cookies, shape the dough into two logs, about 2 inches wide, and wrap in waxed paper, plastic wrap, or parchment paper. Chill about 20 minutes. Slice and bake 18-20 minutes. Cool cookies on a wire rack.

Melt the chocolate and dip one end of each cookie in the chocolate, or drizzle a bit on the end with a spoon. Return to rack to allow chocolate to harden.

Makes about 4 dozen.

Wishing you all a joyous holiday season!

 

 

5+

First Page Critique – Zip & Millie: Siberian Adventure

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Please welcome today’s Brave Author who’s submitted a first page entitled:

Zip&Milly: Siberian Adventure

Russian train – courtesy of Wikimedia

“Raccoon” — an inquisitive legal assistant from Ducklingburg, U.S.A., appeared in the car of a speeding Siberian commuter rail quite unexpectedly.

Appeared being the operative word. Raccoon was not exactly sure how he got there.

He did not board the rail; did not catch the rail; did not even wake up there with a start. He just . . .  appeared.

A gentle waft of extraordinarily fresh Spring-smelling air shifted and carefully inserted Raccoon’s body into a tight spot between two groups of bulkily dressed people . . . then, before he could get oriented, that same fresh-smelling waft nudged on and pushed him forward, along the swaying length of swiftly moving train, down the narrow corridor with a row of closed compartment doors on one side.

Instinctively, Raccoon steeled his gait — stance wide, head forward, chin in . . . and, finding no grounding point to balance himself, fell in into the closest compartment.

First thing he saw was Zip — or, more precisely, Spaniel Zip’s rear quarters.

“Score! There you are! Zip! Get here!” whispered Raccoon, leaning down. Losing their best client’s dog would be hard to explain back in Ducklingburg.

The Spaniel lay stiffly in the most unflattering position. Head buried deep under the train bench, black hind paws and short un-wagging tail sticking out on the floor, spread like a dead frog, and Zip’s most embarrassing part — the bright-yellow spot of fur under his tail that made him look like he — was not to careful doing business — was shining in full view.

Not like Zip at all, Raccoon plopped on the floor, sinking feeling in his stomach. Anybody who met Zip knew: Zip would rather die than let his rear side be seen in public.

Raccoon caught a glimpse of red under Zip’s hind paws . . ..

“Zippy?!” Raccoon hunted under the bench, hooked his arm around the dog’s neck and, scooping Zip, pulled gently, cajoling, “Zippy, why are you hiding — come outta — OUCH! Don’t bite!”

Zip whimpered, and scrambled, burrowing deeper under the bench, from where he growled with an unapologetic menace.

“Alive!” breathed out Raccoon, and for the first time, glanced up. Where are we?”

The train definitely looked like nothing that connected through their native Ducklingburg.

***

Let’s get to work.

This story appears to be a humorous fantasy about teleportation directed at young readers. The POV character is described as an inquisitive legal assistant named Raccoon from Ducklingburg, USA. He suddenly appears in a speeding Siberian commuter train without knowing how he got there. Kudos to the brave writer for starting with action and minimal backstory.

Animal names set a playful, lighthearted tone but also raise a question: is Raccoon the nickname of a human character or is he actually a furry, four-legged critter with a black mask across his eyes?

In all genres, pictures from the writer’s vivid imagination must translate to the page. In fantasy, that’s even more important because the world is unfamiliar.

Unfortunately, in this first page, the reader feels as lost and confused as poor Raccoon.

A scene in a fantasy world must be made clear to the reader. How does Raccoon know he’s on a Siberian commuter rail as opposed to, say, a New York subway?

The laws of physics in a fantasy world must also be clear.

How does a gentle waft of air carefully insert a person into a crowd? How does it then push him along a corridor? A waft isn’t powerful enough to move a person. Waft means “a gentle movement of air,” so adding gentle is redundant. Perhaps “force field” would be a better term to describe it.

The compartment doors are closed. How does Raccoon physically move through a closed door? Or do you mean a door is ajar and he falls through the opening? Clarify. Delete the extra word: fell in into.

There are too many modifiersquite unexpectedly; was not exactly sure; gentle waft of extraordinarily fresh Spring-smelling air; carefully inserted. Overuse of adjectives and adverbs dilutes the power of the prose.

You’ve chosen some good verbs, like nudged, hooked, scooping, but they’re used awkwardly. Suggest you simply say nudged, rather than nudged on. Also you don’t need pushed in addition to nudged.

The description of Raccoon attempting to steady himself on the swaying train confused me.

Instinctively, Raccoon steeled his gait — stance wide, head forward, chin in

He’s actually steeling his stance, not his gait, which describes movement (walking, running).

Head forward, chin in sounds inherently off-balance, which is how I felt reading this submission. Try physically acting out the movements in order to more clearly explain what’s happening.

Next, Raccoon spots Zip, a spaniel that belongs to an important client. However Raccoon’s dialogue causes confusion.

“Score! There you are! Zip! Get here!” whispered Raccoon, leaning down.

“Score!” is an odd word to use when Raccoon first sees the dog, unless it’s made clear earlier that Raccoon has been searching for him and finally finds him.

“Get here!” should read “Get over here!”

Why does Raccoon feel the need to whisper? Is there someone else in the compartment he doesn’t want to overhear him? If so, you need to show that character.

Losing their best client’s dog would be hard to explain back in Ducklingburg is a good summation of the story problem but seems misplaced. Suggest you move the sentence earlier in the page.

Was not to careful doing business should read Was not too careful doing his business.

When Raccoon sees blood, he worries Zip is dead. But the dog quickly proves he’s alive by nipping, scrambling away, burrowing under the bench, and growling. At the end of all these actions, Raccoon says, “Alive!” The timing of that exclamation is too long after the reader understands Zip isn’t dead.

Here’s one way the page could be rewritten:

Zip the spaniel was missing. Raccoon, an assistant at the Ducklingburg Law Firm, sat at his desk, wondering how to tell his boss that their best client’s dog had disappeared. He took a deep breath. From nowhere, a smell of spring flowers filled his nostrils.

Without warning, a gust of wind whisked Raccoon from his chair and set him down inside the crowded passenger car of a speeding train. The swaying movement made him stagger. He stumbled into a woman dressed in a bulky, fur-trimmed parka. She glared at him and spoke in a language that sounded like Russian. Outside the train windows, snow drifted across tundra.

Before Raccoon had time to steady himself–let alone wonder how he’d gotten there–the sweet-smelling wind shoved him into a corridor with compartments lining one side. He tried to stop the force by planting his feet but the gust tumbled him like a fallen leaf. He fell through the open door of a compartment, landing with a jolt on the floor, sprawled on his hands and knees.

Under the bench seat, he saw a dog’s hindquarters, stained with red, black rear paws spread out like a dead frog. Raccoon zeroed in on a bright yellow spot that looked as if the dog hadn’t been careful while doing his business—the embarrassing spot under his tail that Zip always tried to keep hidden.

“Zippy!” Raccoon reached under the bench to scoop him out but the spaniel sank sharp teeth into his hand. He jerked back. “Ouch! Don’t bite!” Blood seeped from the punctures. “Thank goodness you’re alive. But what are you doing here?” Dazed and dizzy, Raccoon glanced around the compartment. “What are we doing here?”

Odd punctuation was distracting. Insert spaces between Zip & Milly. The “s” in spring-smelling isn’t capitalized. Semicolons are generally not used in fiction. Try Googling punctuation rules to see when dashes, ellipses, and italics should be used. Here’s one helpful link: https://www.myenglishpages.com/site_php_files/writing-capitalization-rules.php

Be careful with your choreography. Movements have to make sense, be clear, and occur in the correct order that they happen. Action comes before reaction. Cause leads to effect.

I suggest you pretend to be on a swaying train and examine exactly how your body feels as you stagger and fall. Kneel on the floor and reach for an imaginary dog under a bench. When it nips, your arm will instinctively jerk back before you yell, “Ouch!”

By physically acting out the movements, rather than simply visualizing them in your head, you’ll have a better idea how to explain each step to the reader.

Brave Author, your humor comes through. Play up that quality. The story premise is fun. Your description of the dog’s hindquarters “spread like a dead frog” is spot on.

You’ve already taken an important step by submitting this first page. Opening yourself to feedback takes courage.

Critique can hurt as much as Zip’s bite. Read these suggestions. Feel free to jerk back in pain and yell “Ouch!” Wash the wounds and put on Band-Aids.

Then come back later and reread. Suggestions don’t hurt as much the second time around. At TKZ, we want to help you make your story as good as it can be.

Most important, please don’t be discouraged. Keep writing.

 

Your turn, TKZers. Any ideas to help out our Brave Author?

 

 

First page critiques work. Shortly after Debbie Burke submitted to TKZ‘s review, her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and was published.

3+

SATURDAY EVENING POST – 200 Years of American History

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

When I was a tot in the 1950s, my grandmother lived with us. She smoked Raleigh cigarettes and saved the coupons in her top dresser drawer.

Raleigh cigarette coupons could be redeemed for gifts, keeping smokers loyal and addicted.

The scent of tobacco and Yardley’s English Lavender mingled in a rustic perfume that belonged uniquely to her.

Looking back, I realize how much she influenced me to become a writer. In her clipped British accent, she read Mary Poppins and Dr. Doolitle to me, awakening a love of books. She introduced me to the romance of storytelling as she related her own exciting teenage adventures, like the time she stole a boat and sailed from England to Spain

She also subscribed to the Saturday Evening Post, which she used to teach me to read.

Each week when the magazine arrived by mail, we’d sit in her bedroom and giggle over the cartoons. Hazel was my favorite and became the basis for a popular 1960s TV sit-com starring Shirley Booth as the wise-cracking maid who was smarter than her bosses.

Today, the Saturday Evening Post has endured when most print magazines have disappeared.

Recently the Post unveiled their new website that includes every issue all the way back to 1821. The task of scanning and digitizing tens of thousands of pages took nine years.

For $15/year, subscribers receive six current issues plus access to nearly two hundred years of history. I just subscribed as a fond trip down memory lane because of my grandmother.

However, the deeper I delved into the Post’s archives, the more I realized what a valuable resource this could be for writers of historical fiction. Nearly two hundred years of American life are collected in one convenient location. I soon got lost in bygone eras.

Below are a few ideas how the Post archives can enliven your historical fiction:

Language: Reading prose written during your chosen era helps you better capture the particular phrasing, jargon, and speech rhythms of the time.

In an example from 1821, a fanciful story features a talking mirror warning readers about vanity with this snippet of dialogue:

“How many charming creatures have I spoiled, and made beauty the greatest misfortune that could befal [sic] them! . . . Alas, why was I made a Looking glass?”

Contrast that flowery style with the terse dialogue from Alastair MacLean’s 1960 short story, Night Without End:

“From now on, Zagero, you and Levin ride with a gun trained on you!” Mason snapped.

Setting details: Illustrations for architecture, building styles, and period home furnishings add authenticity to your story world.

Creative Commons

 

I was drawn to advertisements for home appliances from the 1950s, recalling brands like Kelvinator and Hotpoint, and refrigerators in a choice of colors like pink and turquoise.

 

 

Employment: In the 1910s and ’20s, many ads featured motor oil, tires, and batteries, reflecting industrialization as society changed from carriages to automobiles. A character living in Ohio then might work at the Timken Roller Bearing Company in Canton or manufacture Grande Cord tires at the Republic Rubber Corporation in Youngstown.

Styles: Fashion illustrations in the Post showcase clothing, shoes, and hairstyles of each era. In 1927, a female character might straighten the seam lines on her Realsilk hosiery while her husband shines his stylish Selz shoes.

1929 Ford 5AT Tri-Motor N9651-Wikimedia Commons

Transportation: In the span of two hundred years, horse-drawn carriages and stagecoaches were replaced by trains and steamships which gave way to airlines like Pan American and Trans World Airways. Automobile ads from the early twentieth century feature now-forgotten brands your characters might drive, like Hupmobile, DeSoto, and LaSalle. Or they might fly on a Ford Tri-Motor.

Health/Medical: In the 1960s, ads for Chesterfield, Pall Mall, and Viceroy played counterpoint to feature articles like “Crash Effort for a Safer Cigarette” from April, 1964. By the 1990s, the Post’s focus had shifted to breakthrough medical developments, with nary a cigarette ad to be found.

Warning: resist the temptation to pack in too many details simply because you don’t want to waste the research. Use only as many as are needed to capture the flavor of the era.

Perspective: By reading Post issues prior to a major historical event, the author can find insights into what precipitated the event.

I found one example in a cautionary article from 1900 by a young member of the British Parliament named Winston Churchill. He warned that a complacent citizenry and a weak, underfunded military could lead to future conflicts. His predictions came true in 1914 with the Great War. By 1940, he became Prime Minister and led the Allies against the Axis in World War II.

Political Issues: Letters to the editor illustrate why people believed and thought the way they did at the time. They voiced opinions based on how certain topics affected them that day, without knowing what was in store in the future. Articles, bios, and op-eds from the Post can lend authenticity to the attitudes of your characters during a given period.

For instance, in early 1960, the Post interviewed then-candidate John F. Kennedy. At the time, Pope John XXIII mandated a total ban on birth control. When JFK, a Catholic, was asked about his position, he stated: “Our government does not advocate any policy concerning birth control here in the United States.”

Letters to the editor expressed concern that JFK’s Catholicism would sway his political direction. In the 1960 election, separation of church and state was considered a critical issue.

By 1962, that concern was overshadowed by the Cuban missile crisis. As Americans stockpiled canned food and built backyard bomb shelters in anticipation of nuclear attack, JFK’s religion faded into a non-issue.

Authors and readers of historical fiction have foreknowledge. We know the North won the Civil War. However, story characters in 1860 can’t know that. Character A may feel optimistic about a certain event while character B views that same event with trepidation. The difference in opinion amplifies conflict between A and B. Plus, the reader feels an added layer of tension, knowing that event will soon lead to the bloody battle between the Union and the Confederacy.

Obviously, I fell way down the vast rabbit hole in the Saturday Evening Post archives. I’ll be back for more visits to the archives that refresh memories of my grandmother as well as tidbits about bygone days.

 

TKZers, what are your favorite historical references? Does reading about history tempt you to write about it?

 

 

 

Please check out my thriller Instrument of the Devil, on sale for $.99 until November 15 on Amazon.

4+

Throw Away Your Shoehorn

My adopted mother adored pretty shoes. She used to say if she won the lottery, she’d spend the money on shoes. A great pleasure in her life was dressing up for church on Sunday morning in a beautiful outfit with a fancy hat and matching shoes.

However, her feet were size 10 ½, limiting her choice of stylish footwear, always geared for women who wear size 6AA.

For her birthday, I often took her shopping for new shoes. The salesperson would use a shoehorn to jam, pummel, and squash her poor feet into lovely pumps that were at least two sizes too small.

Her pain made me cringe. I wondered how she could even walk. The ordeal brought to mind Lisa See’s brilliant book, Snowflower and the Secret Fan, about Chinese foot-binding.

By now, you’re wondering what shoes have to do with writing. Glad you asked…

A critique partner is rewriting her first novel. Her subject—a teenager struggling with a compulsive disorder that badly affects her appearance—is fresh and compelling. Her voice is wry and funny. For a relatively new writer, she has a strong grasp of how to write good scenes, from heart-rending to laugh-out-loud hysterical.

But, as good as they are, many of them don’t move the story forward.

No matter how hard we critiquers try to shoehorn these wonderful (but unnecessary) scenes into her plot, they don’t fit.

How do you determine if a scene is needed?

Novelist and writing instructor Dennis Foley identifies four major functions of a scene:

  1. Reveal character;
  2. Move the story forward;
  3. Create or increase tension;
  4. Foreshadow.

To test if a scene is needed, figure out what functions it performs. Today’s fast-paced fiction generally requires scenes that multitask, accomplishing two, three, or all four functions.

Revelations about a character can occur on the fly, while the character is taking action that moves the plot forward.

A scene may foreshadow lurking disaster, which increases tension for the reader at the same time it drives the story closer to that disaster.

Dennis offers another tip to determine if a scene is needed: remove the scene. Does the story still make sense? Can the scene easily be plunked down somewhere else in the story?

If so, it’s not part of the causal linkage that moves the story forward.

Causal linkage means something happens in A that leads to B where something else happens that leads to C, and so on. Each scene builds on the ones that precede it.

This tip is easy when stories are told in chronological order with limited characters.

However, what if you’re writing a Ken Follett-style saga or an epic fantasy with multiple plotlines and a large cast of characters? Such stories may jump around to different locations and time periods. That makes it tougher to determine whether or not a scene is necessary.

Even in “big” books, causal linkage can still be determined. Separate each plotline and string its scenes together. You can do this with color-coded index cards, plotting on a spreadsheet, or using Scrivener. After you’ve put all scenes from one plotline together, read them.

Does each scene link causally with the scene before and after it?  If a scene could fit anywhere, it may not be needed.

“But,” the writer protests, “if I cut those scenes, my book will be too short.” 

That leads to the question: how long should a book be? Lee Masterson at Writing-World.com offers guidelines for various genres but his main point is: a book needs to be as long as it takes to tell the story.

Better to write a concise, effective story than one that’s bloated and boring because of unnecessary verbiage added to reach an arbitrary number of pages.

If the story is “too short” as a novel, consider recasting it as a novella, a short story, or a screenplay. In a screenplay, one page equals approximately one minute of screen time. One-hundred-twenty pages is a two-hour movie.

The problem of excess scenes is not limited to newer writers. I just went through it with my current work in progress. About two-thirds of the way into the first draft, I hit a wall. A critique buddy suggested an abrupt, unexpected turn in the plot that punched a hole right through that pesky wall. Her idea was brilliant!

However, that change meant going back to the beginning and rewriting 200+ pages.

I’d worked diligently to hone certain scenes to the height of emotional resonance. As proud as I was of my darlings, they were now dead ends, irrelevant to the new plot direction.

So I used a trick TKZ authors taught me: cut those parts and stick them in an “outtakes” file.

You’re not killing your beloved children but instead sending them to a time-out.

A funny thing happened. Those scenes waited patiently, out of sight and out of mind. When critiquers and beta readers went through the revised draft, they didn’t notice their absence.

Those deleted scenes almost never get put back into the story. As wonderful as I thought they were at the time, those size 10 ½ scenes just plain didn’t fit the size 6AA plot. To shove them back in would require serious shoehorning.

And that just makes my feet hurt!

TKZers, how do you decide if a scene is needed? Do you have hints to chop the excess?

 

 

Debbie Burke’s thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale in October for $1.99 or FREE on Amazon Prime. Here’s the link.

13+

Pop Quiz

Time for a pop quiz to test your knowledge of sneaky word traps writers can fall into.

Today let’s talk about homonyms, homographs, and homophones.

Homonyms are words that sound the same but have different meanings.

Example: “write” and “right.”

Homophones are words that sound alike but have different meanings and spellings.

Examples: rein, reign; aisle, isle; suite, sweet.

Homographs are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings and different pronunciation.

Example: desert (a hot dry place, pronounced with an accent on the first syllable) or desert (to leave, accent on the second syllable).

Don’t worry—the above definitions won’t be on the test. Only hardcore grammar Nazis care.

Some words are just plain confusing. They may sound similar but are spelled differently and have different meanings.

But…professional writers should know how to choose the right word in a particular sentence.

We’ve all typed “there” when we mean “their” or “to” when we mean “too.” Those fall more into the category of typos.

I’m talking about out-and-out goofs because of incorrect word choices. When your book is published, some readers are quite happy to point out those errors that you missed. Embarrassing.

Standards of proofreading and copyediting are on a steep decline. The below examples are boo-boos I’ve collected lately from recently published books, news articles, and blog posts.

See if you can make the right choices.

  1. Juicy gossip (a) peeked (b) peaked (c) piqued her interest.
  2. The hangman held the rope (a) taut (b) taught.
  3. The professor (a) honed (b) homed in on the novel’s theme.
  4. The study (a) sited (b) sighted (c) cited research from the Mayo Clinic.
  5. A serial rapist is careful to (a) allude (b) elude capture.
  6. The eyewitness (a) poured (b) pored over the photo lineup of suspects.
  7. A new zoning ordinance was brought before the city (a) council (b) counsel.
  8. Floodwaters (a) reeked (b) wreaked (c) wrecked havoc in homes along the river.
  9. A depressed person can suffer from (a) deep-seeded (b) deep-seated anxiety.
  10. The state must reduce the budget by (a) paring (b) pairing expenses.
  11. Skateboarders are getting a bad (a) rap (b) wrap.
  12. The (a) effect (b) affect of the new court ruling will (c) effect (d) affect millions of people.

How many of you looked up the test answers on Google? Come on, tell the truth.

That’s OK. It’s not cheating–it’s research. The lesson here is it’s always better to double-check before you submit to an agent or editor who might turn you down because of improper use. Or before you hit the “publish” button on your indie book.

Self-published books carry a stigma because many are full of such errors. If you’re an indie author, don’t contribute to the bad reputation with sloppy word choices.

Now that I’ve reached a certain age, I may think I’m sure about proper usage but sometimes find I’m mistaken. When it’s so easy to check on sites like Grammar Girl or Writing Forward there really is no excuse not to.

Answers:

  1. (c) piqued.
  2. (a) taut.
  3. (b) homed. “Honed” means sharpening a blade.
  4. (c) cited.
  5. (b) elude. “Allude” means to refer to.
  6. (b) pored.
  7. (a) council. “Counsel” refers to advice or legal help, e.g. The judge said, “Let counsel approach the bench.”
  8. (b) wreaked.
  9. (b) deep-seated.
  10. (a) paring.
  11. (a) rap.
  12. (a) effect, (d) affectThese two words are constantly mixed up. Effect is a noun (The effect of the ruling). Affect is usually a verb (The ruling will affect millions)…unless it refers to a blank facial expression known as “flat affect.” Then it’s a noun.

Not only that, affect is a homograph (spelled the same but pronounced differently). When used as a verb, the accent is on the second syllable. When used as a noun, the accent is on the first syllable.

No wonder writers get confused. Glad I was born in the USA because I’d never master the vagaries of English if I had to learn it as a second language!

 

TKZers, how did you do on the quiz?

Which homonyms, homophones, and homographs do you find confusing?

What words do you tend to mix up?

Do you have favorite tricks or tips that remind you of correct usage?

 

During October, here are two ways to get a cheap thrill:

Debbie Burke’s bestselling thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale for $1.99; or if you’re a member of Amazon Prime, you can read it for free. Click here.

 

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Heil Safari – First Page Critique

Today let’s welcome another Brave Anonymous Author who offers the first page of Heil Safari.

Title:  Heil Safari

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot. He had stepped to the caution line and put one foot on the other side. The caution line, marked with wooden stakes and a strand of wire across the top, warned the prisoners of war from getting too close to the wire fence fifteen feet beyond. On the fence going around the entire prison camp there were signs in English and German that read:

ATTENTION!

Forbidden to Move Inside

Restricted Area

Violators Will be Shot

The American guard in the corner watchtower shouted, “You there! On the deadline! Git back!” The guard raised a rifle to his shoulder. “I said git back!”

But Fritz didn’t move.

“You damn Nazi,” the guard yelled at Fritz. “Git back or I shoot!”

Fritz still didn’t move, apparently not taking the threat seriously. Or caring. But Beyer took it seriously. He cared.

Returning to his barracks after doing his morning toilet, Beyer now stood still, uneasy. Then he heard the click of a breech bolt coming from the guard tower at the other corner of the compound. In horror he saw a guard hunkered behind a machine gun. He was covering the south end of the compound as if at any moment there might be a general uprising. The nearby prisoners, however, remained still and only stared.

But Beyer had to do something other than stare to see how the crisis would turn out. He couldn’t afford to lose Fritz. The only mining engineer in the Officers Compound, Fritz was essential to the success of Hermes. Beyer was desperate for Hermes to succeed. Being too long cooped in the densely packed prisoners and buildings of the enclosure, Beyer, much like Fritz, was becoming unnerved. Beyer frequently broke out in night sweats, his breathing rapid and shallow, and sigh a low, agonizing moan.

Considering that Fritz might be shot, a shiver of fear raced through Beyer at the prospect of a catastrophe. Without Fritz there may not be a tunnel completion, no one would get out, all the hard work done up to now remaining unfulfilled.

“Damn you! Stop!” the guard with the rifle shouted.

The shout startled Beyer, then he noticed Fritz beginning to take mincing steps, his short height straddling the wire in his crotch.

 

Okay, let’s get to work.

Usually first pages arrive naked and unadorned at TKZ, without genre or background information. Page One must stand entirely on its own. That’s good because a strong first page is critical to whether or not a reader buys your book.

However, this submission included a synopsis. And the synopsis was intriguing. For that reason, I’m going to handle this critique a little differently than normal.

Most writers would rather endure an IRS audit than write a synopsis because it’s damn hard to do well.

In the summary, Anon explained the novel was based on a true but largely-unknown incident during World War II at Camp Trinidad in Colorado. I Googled it and found this article. Essentially, The Great Escape got turned on its head with German prisoners of war trying to escape American captors.

Show, don’t tell is oft-repeated advice for fiction. However in a synopsis, telling is permissible because it’s the most efficient way to introduce characters, lay out the story problem/conflict, and set up what’s at stake.

Anon handled that summary very well. German prisoners plot to escape a POW camp in Colorado because they are going mad from wire enclosure fever. A main character, Beyer, would rather die than endure another day in captivity. But there is dissent among prisoners, some of whom are die-hard Nazis while others are not. There are additional complications because Beyer’s friend Fritz, the chief engineer in charge of building the escape tunnel, is teetering on the brink of insanity. Anon sets up external conflict between German prisoners and American captors and among the POWs themselves, internal conflict with severe psychological stress, and a ticking clock with a race to see if the tunnel can be finished before the engineer completely loses it.

Lots of great potential for a historical thriller. Congratulations on a clear, competent synopsis, Anon.

Unfortunately, on this first page, Anon is mostly telling when s/he should be showing.

The POV character Beyer observes the events unfolding not only from a physical distance but also an emotional distance. Anon tells us he’s concerned but the reader doesn’t feel his apprehension, his helplessness, his panic that Fritz’s actions may not only lead to his death but also ruin the escape plan that can’t proceed without him.

The stakes couldn’t be higher–life or death–which is a great way to kick off a first page.

But the problem is: the reader doesn’t care.

Because we’re not inside Beyer’s skin. We don’t feel his guts churning, smell the nervous sweat under his armpits, taste the bile rising in his throat. We don’t see what he sees—the madness in the wild eyes of his friend Fritz who’s trying to commit suicide. We don’t hear the angry bark of the guard with his twitchy finger on the trigger.

We don’t feel the urgency driving both men to risk death because they can’t endure another day in captivity.

Showing is more than visual—it must be visceral and emotional.

The synopsis used the term “wire enclosure fever.” Unfortunately there is no sense of  fever in this first page.

A few suggestions to consider as you rewrite:

Lead off with a simple dateline that immediately sets the date and location. The reader right away understands this is historical fiction set in a military environment. For example:

Camp Trinity, Colorado, 1943

Next, climb inside Beyer’s skin and stay there. Use sensory detail to bring action to life. Actions trigger Beyer’s thoughts and feelings.

As Jim Bell often recommends, “Act first, explain later.” Give the reader just enough information to set the scene and prevent confusion.

A lot of repetition can be cut and condensed. Consider the first two sentences:

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot.

These two sentences essentially repeat the same information that could be combined into a single sentence with much more punch. Again, it’s telling rather than showing. Instead of having Beyer “wonder” how to save Fritz, he should act. His action may help the situation or it may make it worse. But either way, it moves the story forward.

Every scene needs to accomplish at least five tasks:

  1. Set the scene;
  2. Reveal character;
  3. Introduce a problem or goal;
  4. Demonstrate the stakes if the problem is not solved or the goal is not met;
  5. Propel the action forward.

How do you build a compelling scene? By stringing together groups of sentences that accomplish these tasks.

How do you build a compelling book? By stringing together compelling scenes.

In a fast-paced thriller, each sentence must build on the previous one to push the plot forward. Treat each sentence as a springboard that induces the reader to jump to the next sentence to learn what’s going to happen.

Below is one possible way to rewrite this first page, using additional details gleaned from the linked article.

Captain Martin Beyer fastened the last button of the drab uniform shirt that shamed him every day with its PW insignia: “prisoner of war.” He stomped his feet on the wood steps of the officers barracks to knock the fine silt off his once-shiny Luftwaffe boots. Barbed wire surrounded this desolate, barren patch of dirt named Camp Trinity. On the fence, signs in German and English warned that anyone would be shot if they crossed the caution line, the restricted buffer zone that was fifteen feet inside the compound fence.

“Hey, Nazi, git back!”

The shout from the watchtower caught Beyer’s attention. He turned to see an American guard aiming a rifle at Beyer’s closest friend in the camp, Hans Fritz. The young second lieutenant had stepped beyond a wire stretched taut between wooden posts.

One foot over the caution line into the restricted zone.

Beyer’s gut cramped as he prayed his friend would heed the guard’s warning. Lately, he never knew if Fritz taunted the Americans for sport or if he truly sought death rather than endure another day inside the prison.

There was a wild gleam in Fritz’s wide blue eyes as he teetered on the line, one boot in life, the other in hell.

The metallic click of a breech bolt sounded from the opposite watchtower where another guard hunkered behind a machine gun. “Git back or I’ll shoot!”

“Don’t do it, Fritz,” Beyer muttered. If Fritz died, the escape tunnel plan died with him.

 

The above is about 230 words and conveys most of the same information more concisely plus gives a deeper glimpse into the POV character.

Work on sensory detail that draws the reader in. Let the reader see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the story world you’ve built.

Work on showing emotion and feelings in the POV character. It’s not enough to say he felt alarmed—show his alarm with his sensory reactions.

Examine each sentence. Ask yourself if it repeats information previously stated. If so, choose the strongest version and delete the weaker. Or combine two sentences into one.

Count how many of the five elements listed above are included in each sentence. I try to pack sentences with at least two elements, preferably more. When you compose a sentence, choose an action that reveals character as well as demonstrates the stakes. The consequences of that action either solve the problem or make it worse.

One last point: the title Heil Safari is vague and doesn’t hint at the meat of the story. “Heil” made me think of the Nazi salute so I deduced it took place during World War II. But how does that connect to “Safari”? Maybe refer to the escape tunnel to freedom. Or perhaps the perils that lie beyond the tunnel if they escape successfully. You can find a better title to convince a potential reader to click the “buy now” button.

Don’t be discouraged, Brave Author. You have a compelling storyline based on historical events that are not widely known. World War II history buffs will find this interesting. A strong foundation in fact serves as a solid platform on which to build your fictionalized version. Work on your craft and you should have a good book.

Over to you, TKZers. Suggestions and comments for our Brave Anonymous Author?

 

If you’re a member of Amazon Prime, you can read Debbie Burke’s bestselling thriller Instrument of the Devil for free. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

 

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Writers Conferences – Finding Your Tribe

Courtesy of Flickr

Years ago, my husband and I had a good friend named Jimmy Bogle (not to be confused with the American Ninja Warrior). Jimmy was a little person who stood about four feet six inches in cowboy boots.

Jimmy told stories about growing up in the 1920s and ’30s, during an era when little people were considered “freaks” and “abnormal.” Children born with dwarfism were often hidden away in the basement so they wouldn’t bring shame on their families. Many grew up in isolation, never knowing there were other little people like themselves. A few found homes in circus sideshows or vaudeville but career options were pretty limited.

Then came the casting call for Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.

During the poverty of the Great Depression, parents of little people seized the chance to earn money from their children’s size.

Jimmy was a teenager at the time. He was chosen to take over the role of the Mayor of the Munchkins when the original adult actor (who receives credit on Wikipedia) couldn’t finish the film. Heavy makeup transformed Jimmy into a wrinkled old man.

More than a hundred little people came together and were cast in the movie. Many had never encountered another little person before. For the first time in their lives, they connected with others from similar sheltered backgrounds, with similar problems and feelings. They were no longer isolated but suddenly among friends with whom they had an immediate connection. In 21st century parlance, they’d found their tribe.

Let the celebration begin!

The Munchkin cast was short in stature but long on partying. They drank and danced and pulled pranks. They fell in and out of love several times a night. Full of mischievous exuberance, they trashed the hotel where they were staying.

Knowing Jimmy, we suspect he played ringleader to this merry band of cut-ups.

In 1981, Billy Barty, Chevy Chase, and Carrie Fisher starred in the film Under the Rainbow, a fictionalized account of the making of The Wizard of Oz. Jimmy scoffed at the movie, saying it didn’t do justice to his gang’s shenanigans.

What does this have to do with writing conferences? I’m glad you asked.

Although writers’ families don’t hide us away in basements (at least not usually!), we are often perceived as different from regular people.

Writers work in isolation, living inside our imaginations. Many are shy introverts and are sometimes perceived as antisocial.

That is, until we get around other writers. Then we emerge from our shells.

At my first writing conference, I was a tongue-tied beginner, ill at ease, self-conscious, surrounded by professional authors who, I was sure, wouldn’t lower themselves to talk to an unpublished nobody.

Big surprise. They were welcoming, encouraging, and, amazingly, as plagued with self-doubt as I was. Shyness melted. Friendships blossomed spontaneously from our common passion.

Like the little people who came together as Munchkins, I’d found my tribe.

I became a conference junkie and my dear husband supported my addiction. Instead of birthday gifts, he treated me to various gatherings.

Along the way, I became a volunteer at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (TKZ‘s own Jim Bell is their keynote speaker this year) and Pikes Peak Writers Conference. I judged contests, handled the registration table, moderated panels, etc. Working behind the scenes made me appreciate the experience even more, seeing how much time and effort went into pulling together a successful event.

Because I saw many different presenters, I became a speaker wrangler for the Flathead River Writers Conference sponsored by my local group, the Authors of the Flathead. Inviting editors and agents for a fun weekend in Montana is a far easier job than querying (begging) them to consider a manuscript.

I learned they were not cruel gods who cavalierly damned struggling writers to slush pile purgatory. They are human beings who genuinely feel bad about rejecting manuscripts. They struggle with budgets, timing, and marketing constraints. They serve as midwives who are often as ecstatic as the author when a book is born.

And they like to talk to writers. They’re glad to demystify the publication process.

Conferences provide a rare opportunity to interact face to face with editors and agents. If traditional publication is your goal, meeting the pros in person can be a big step out of the slush pile. When you’ve paid tuition, they can see you’re serious about your career.

Whether you go the traditional route or self publish, contacts at gatherings can enhance your knowledge in ways you never imagined. I once spent an afternoon in a hotel lobby listening to an FBI agent and a forensic anthropologist trade stories. My collection of business cards is a great source for experts in all kinds of fields.

While the cost of conferences can be off-putting, many organizations offer scholarships or internships. Volunteer help is always needed and may earn discounted tuition.

You can also cut expenses by splitting the gas bill and sharing lodging. I’ve roomed with three pals whom I only see at conferences. Our reunions are always a blast. Like happy Munchkins, we drink, laugh, and stay up all night, although we don’t trash the hotel…at least, not that I remember!

Conferences provide more than education and professional contacts. They take us out of our solitary world and give us a chance to connect with our tribe. I always come home energized, inspired, and eager to write.

Now for a shameless plug: if you’re looking for a friendly, intimate gathering that offers lots of useful information for a reasonable price, please check out the Flathead River Writers Conference, September 22-23, 2018 in Kalispell, Montana.

Look me up—I’d love to meet TKZers in person. We’ll celebrate like Munchkins.  

 

 

 

When Debbie Burke is not writing suspense and thrillers, she’s on the planning committee of the  Flathead River Writers Conference, now in its 28th year.

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Eight Lessons from Digging in the Dirt

Garden in late June

Join me today as we get down and dirty to root out a few parallels between gardening and writing.

  1. Timing matters

The first few years we lived in Montana, a handful of warm, sunny April days always fooled me into thinking winter was over. Sparkling blue sky lured me outside where I chipped through ice to dig up black dirt. New life abounded—robins scouted for nest locations in the bare branches of apple, pear, and apricot trees that were just starting to bud. I couldn’t wait to get seeds in the ground.

Inevitably I planted too early—a spring blizzard usually dumped a foot of new snow the next day and the seeds never germinated. I’d have to buy more and try again weeks later when the weather finally warmed for real.

In those early days, I sent out novels that weren’t ready. In my eagerness to get published, I was blind to immature plots that needed more development and characters that didn’t ring true. Market conditions, pfft! Who needs to worry about that?

Often those submissions resulted in biting blizzards of rejection.

2. Persistence

Veteran Montana gardeners know to plant corn seeds three times in succession. The first batch rots because the soil is still too cold and wet; crows gobble the second round; with luck, the third grows and produces.

Nine earlier novels of mine didn’t make the grade. But I kept replanting to hit the right editor/agent at the right time. Gardeners and writers must be persistent and never give up.

3. Patience

Gardeners and writers must play the long game. Cherry trees don’t bear for seven years after they’re first planted. Books may require similar time from the initial seed of an idea to publication.

I’m more patient these days, willing to give my stories enough time to grow and ripen.

4. Dirty, backbreaking work

While my hands root around in the dirt, my mind stays busy digging out a more compelling plot, digging into the puzzling psyches of difficult characters, or digging out of the inadvertent rabbit hole I burrowed into.

Sometimes my mind winds up as muddy as my body.

5. Weeds, like bad habits, never die

Dandelions, black medic, and quack grass keep coming back no matter how often I pull them. Same with stubborn writing problems. Someone needs to invent Roundup for word tics, repetitions, misspellings, and excess verbiage.

6. Some crops do better in certain years than others

This July’s raspberries ripened fat, sweet, and juicy, while last summer they yielded only hard seeds. Peas that had been plentiful in the past did poorly this year, no matter how much I pampered the vines.

Sometimes I’ve written articles because the subject fascinated me yet they never found their way into print. Other stories I thought were ho-hum surprised me when editors accepted them and asked for more. Perhaps I was trying to sell peas in a market looking for raspberries.

7. Sometimes hard luck negates hard work

Rogue deer crash through the mesh fence and claim the salad bar for themselves. Aphids suck the life out of tomato plants. Grasshoppers strip plants down to mere stems. A freeze in August can destroy the harvest overnight.

Even so-called foolproof crops aren’t immune to whims of nature. One year I dug up what promised to be a bounty of potatoes to find voles had eaten the insides of every single spud, leaving only hollow shells behind.

After almost three decades of novels being rejected, my thriller Instrument of the Devil was published last year. The editor expressed strong interest in the second book in the series, Stalking Midas. I’d finally made it.

Right.

Six months later, the publisher closed up shop. Voles ate the heart out right of that potato crop.

8. Seasons ebb and flow in the garden and in writing

Here’s the current ebb and flow in my career:

Although I’m back in the submissions grind, at least I have lots of practice.

The first draft of book 3 in the series is close to complete and I’m still excited about the story.

Marketing keeps me spinning my wheels in the mud.

This regular gig at TKZ is great fun. I get to write about my passion, interact with interesting authors, and learn. What’s not to like?

 

“The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye”

 

Today in my garden, “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,” to quote the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma. In a few weeks, I look forward to breaking cobs off the stalks, rushing inside to nuke them in the microwave while still in their husks, then slathering them with butter. In that first burst of flavor, the memory of sore muscles from stooping, bending, and digging fades into the background.

But if a September hailstorm strips the garden bare, there’s always next spring with seeds of a new novel to plant.

 

TKZers, where are you in your seasons of writing?

 

 

Even though Debbie Burke is searching for a new publishing home, Instrument of the Devil remains available on Amazon here.

 

 

 

 

 

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First Page Critique – Sofa

Creative Commons usage

Today we welcome an Anonymous Author with a first page that takes place in an unusual location—the East Siberian Sea. Please enjoy this submission. My comments follow.

Title Sofa

August 2007

Overhead clouds cast pale grey shadows over the floating ice chunks adrift on the East Siberian Sea. The Wolf stood at the prow of a crimson, expedition vessel, inhaled the unpolluted air of the Artic, and wondered if this refreshing air existed anywhere else on Earth. He marveled at the inviting crystal-clear water imprinted with cloud shadows, and the magnificent ice shelf that erosion had sculpted into a piece of frozen art. The silence stirred something within him a memory of gentler times, peaceful times.

The Wolf, aka, Dimitri Volkov tore his eyes from the surrounding beauty of nature and focused on a drifting iceberg 100 yards in the distance. He gazed at the NASA Aqua satellite photograph of a massive iceberg floating off the shoreline. He raised his binoculars and zoomed in on his target, inspecting the surface of the immense mountain of ice. A sharp crack vibrated through the air. Startled, he watched as a wall of ice broke off the ice floe and crashed into the sea. It disappeared beneath the icy water and shot an angry spray of seawater hundreds of kilometers into the air.

Dimitri grabbed his satellite phone and punched in a number. “Zdravstvuj, “Its here, but melting,” he said, in Russian. He listened for a moment, nodded several times, and ended the call. He twirled his fingers in the air and pointed to the sea. A sleek Poseidon inflatable boat splashed into the water; The Wolf shouldered a mustard-colored, waterproof equipment bag and lowered himself over the side, jumping the last few feet into the rubber dinghy. He revved the engine and maneuvered the inflatable toward the iceberg.

As he approached the glacial mass, Dimitri noticed the iceberg cast a blue-green sheen, a dead giveaway; the iceberg was melting faster than he thought. He nosed the inflatable to the base of the berg, shut off the engine, and pitched the anchor overboard. He opened his equipment bag and snagged a pickaxe, ice drill, laser, clawed shoe cleats, and a spool gun. Aiming the spool gun at the iceberg, He shot an aluminum wire into the iceberg twenty feet above the waterline.

            The ice creaked, moaned.

Concern clouded Dimitri’s deep-set, black eyes as he glanced up. A crack appeared in the center of the blue-green haze.

Okay, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

The setting with ice floes and an expedition ship in arctic waters is exotic and intriguing. But you need to spell Arctic correctly. I’m guessing this is the start of a thriller or Clive Cussler-style adventure about climate change and melting polar ice caps, with the potential for international conflict because of the geographical location, north of Russia near Alaska. That’s compelling.

However, the title Sofa doesn’t hint at anything like that. My first thought was couch? Not compelling. You’ll come up with something better, perhaps relating to the locale, the intrigue, or the conflict.

The second sentence begins with The Wolf. Right away, I thought that was the ship’s name because ship names are italicized while human names generally are not. Why introduce the character in a way that causes momentary confusion?

Instead: Dimitri Volkov, aka The Wolf, tore his eyes from the surrounding beauty…

Whoops, another hiccup. Eyeballs generally stay in their sockets unless someone tears them out. It’s the gaze or focus that can be torn from the surrounding beauty.

Your description is vivid and colorful, but inviting doesn’t feel like an accurate adjective for water that must be near freezing temperature. You do a good job with sensory detail–I can smell and taste the fresh bite of pristine air. Nicely done. His memory of “gentler times, peaceful times” hints that the present is neither gentle nor peaceful–good foreshadowing.

Strengthen the sentence even more by cutting the vague word “something”: The silence stirred something a memory within him, a memory of gentler times, peaceful times. 

Work on more precise word choices (details below). Improve the clarity of action so the reader can see exactly what is happening. Also cut repetitions of ice, iceberg, and icy. Here’s a possible rewrite of the second paragraph to address those issues:

The Wolf, aka, Dimitri Volkov, aka The Wolf, tore his eyes gaze from the beauty of nature surrounding him beauty of nature and focused on a drifting iceberg 100 yards meters in the distance. He gazed at compared it to the photograph he held in his left hand–a the NASA Aqua satellite image taken a year before of photograph of a massive the same iceberg floating off the shoreline. He raised his binoculars and zoomed in on his target, inspecting the surface. of the Although still immense, the mountain had shrunk significantly of ice.

[Paragraph break] A sharp crack vibrated through the air. startled him. He watched as a wall of ice broke off the ice floe and crashed into the sea. It disappeared beneath the surface, icy water and shot an angry shooting spray of seawater hundreds of kilometers into the air.

Watch out for switches between US and metric measurements. The iceberg is 100 yards away, then water shoots hundreds of kilometers in the air. One hundred kilometers equals 62 miles in the air. I’m guessing you mean meters, not kilometers.

Next Dimitri jumps the last few feet into the dinghy and shoots a wire twenty feet above the water line.

Incorrect or inconsistent word choices jar the reader. Suggest you stick with the metric system since presumably Dimitri is Russian.

Need to fix typos in the following:  Dimitri grabbed his the satellite phone from his belt holster and punched in a number. “Zdravstvuj, “Its it’s here, but melting,” he said, in Russian.

This excerpt has been written in fairly close third-person point of view (POV). Yet you deliberately withhold the other side of the phone conversation. That may lead to the reader feeling cheated since the close POV gives him/her the expectation of hearing responses from the person Dimitri called. If the plot requires the speaker to be kept secret (and it probably does), suggest you come up with a different technique to mask that information.

Clarify the action in the below examples:

Why does Dimitri nod several times? That doesn’t make sense because the listener can’t see him unless it’s a video phone, unlikely in 2007.

Make clear when Dimitri twirls his fingers in the air that he is signaling to deckhands and giving the order that they lower the inflatable. As it reads now, the dinghy appears to fall magically from the heavens.

Recommend you replace semicolons with periods. Semicolons belong in nonfiction, not fiction.

Calling him both Dimitri and The Wolf seems unnecessary because, at this point, the reader doesn’t know the significance of the alias or code name. Suggest you defer the nickname until later, for instance, when another character refers to him as The Wolf or it comes up naturally as the plot unfolds. Right now, switching between the two names seems forced and pretentious.

Dimitri first needs to start the dinghy’s engine before he revs it.

Snagged is a good verb but it doesn’t quite fit here because he’s removing a number of items from the gear bag. Snagged sounds more like grabbing one item on the fly.

The following should read: Aiming the spool gun at the iceberg, he…

You say the iceberg cast a blue-green sheen. I like the visual a lot but the verb cast implies a reflection on another object, like the surface of the sea. A paragraph later, you write: A crack appeared in the blue-green haze. Is the reflection cracking or is it the actual iceberg? Suggest you find a more precise verb than cast, perhaps emitted a blue-green sheen or glowed with a blue-green sheen.

Don’t need italics for The ice creaked, moaned. By putting the sentence in a paragraph by itself, you’ve already emphasized it without using italics unnecessarily.  

Concern clouded Dimitri’s deep-set, black eyes is a POV lapse. He can’t see his own eyes cloud or that they’re deep-set. Also black eyes raises a question for the reader. Does he have a pair of shiners? Or is the iris color a very dark brown?

A few paragraphs earlier, Dimitri just watched a massive wall of ice crash into the sea. Now he’s at the base of the same iceberg. It could come down on him. Wouldn’t his reaction to the cracking sound be more extreme than simply glancing up? If it were me, I would jerk back, haul up the anchor, and get the hell out of there!

I realize you’re at the end of the first page but Dimitri should have a stronger reaction to the danger.

Brave Author, you have a colorful setting and you’ve set up a promising conflict that could go in interesting directions. But your attention to detail needs work. Correct punctuation, accurate proofreading, and precise word choice are vital. Once you master those skills, you should have an exciting story.

Be especially careful with word choice. Remember Mark Twain’s admonition:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightningbug and the lightning.”

 

Your turn, TKZers. What suggestions can you offer our Brave Author?

 

 

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