About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book. www.elaineviets.com

First Page Critique: Reluctant

By Elaine Viets

Here’s another first page from the prolific pens of our TKZ readers. I’ll make my comments after you read it.

Galilee Medical Center, Nahariya, Israel
11 November 1982

The child lay limp and pale on the gurney like a cast-off doll. Blinking hard, I terminated the unrelenting replay of a past tragic failure.

Block it out doctor! But the brutal images of another little girl clutching a Raggedy-Ann doll mocked me, and refused to give way. The little one I tried to save. The one I was forced to leave, to die, alone.

No Moshe. Not now. Save this one!

“Okay Dr. Sabin, we’re ready to go,” said Lydia, giving her a few more breaths with the ambu-bag. The self-recrimination momentarily halted, I slid the laryngoscope blade into her mouth, and gently lifted.

“Suction please.”

I cleared the tiny girl’s pharynx of bloody sputum. She smelled of smoke, dust, and something……what, urine? I was just about to pass the endotracheal tube, when the emergency-room doors burst open. Two medics exploded into the room, pushing another gurney, violently jolting the stretcher under my patient, nearly causing me to lose visual of her vocal cords.

“What the hell?” I blurted, but quickly slipped the slender tube into her trachea and removed the laryngoscope blade before glaring up at the offender. Instantly, the acrid, sharp stench of burned flesh and violence hit my nostrils.

“Burn patient doc,” grunted an IDF medic.

“Hannah!” I shouted to another nurse, “Grab the burn kit. I’ll be right there!” Commanding shouts rang out from beyond the double doors, followed by the high-pitched whine, and whop, whop, whop of an approaching helicopter.

“Huh?” I gasped, taping the ET tube to my patient’s face.

“We’re expecting more casualties, some sort of bombing.” Lydia said, as she attached the ambu-bag to the little girl’s airway. I squeezed the bag delivering a few quick breaths. A blush of pink replaced the dusky, ashen hue of the girls face, as oxygen-enriched air filled her lungs.

The doors crashed open again, and a barrage of wounded IDF soldiers cascaded through.

“You! Doctor!” barked a stocky, red-faced IDF captain, one hand holding a blood-drenched trauma pad against his neck. “Get your hands off that Palestinian dog and treat my men now!”

With that, the captain grabbed the end of the girl’s gurney and gave it a fierce yank, launching the stretcher into the back wall, and ripping the airway right out of her trachea.

Elaine Viets’ critique:
I assume, since the date is written European style, that the author is not an American. The story feels authentic and starts off with a bang. However, it quickly loses its impact when the second sentence trips over Dr. Moshe Sabin’s memories as he tries to save the life of the little girl on the stretcher. That sentence (Blinking hard, I terminated the unrelenting replay of a past tragic failure) is hard to read.

Rather than loading the action-packed beginning with extra information, why not wait until the little girl is breathing? That would be a good time to add the back story about the doctor’s previous failure.

The story is also slowed by medical jargon. Since many of us watch hospital dramas, we have a pretty good idea what an ambu bag is and we may even know where an endotracheal tube goes, but the phrase “lose visual of her vocal cords” should be in plain English.
Why not say: “nearly causing me to lose sight of her vocal cords”?

A laryngoscope is a fearsome-looking contraption. It would be a good idea to briefly describe it and the difficulties and dangers of using it – especially the blade.
What is an IDF medic? Tell us what those letters stand for.

Suppose the author began this way:
The child lay limp and pale on the gurney like a cast-off doll.

“Okay, Dr. Sabin, we’re ready to go,” said Lydia, giving the child a few more breaths with the ambu-bag.

“Suction please.”

I cleared the tiny girl’s pharynx of bloody sputum. She smelled of smoke, dust, and something . . .what, urine?

I was just about to pass the endotracheal tube (AUTHOR, TELL US WHERE ARE YOU PASSING THIS TUBE), when the emergency room doors burst open. Two medics exploded into the room, pushing another gurney, violently jolting my patient’s stretcher, nearly causing me to lose sight of her vocal cords.

“What the hell?” I blurted, but quickly slipped the slender tube into her trachea and removed the laryngoscope blade before glaring up at the offender. Instantly, the acrid, sharp stench of burned flesh and violence hit my nostrils.

“Burn patient doc,” grunted an IDF medic.

“Hannah!” I shouted to another nurse, “Grab the burn kit. I’ll be right there!”

Commanding shouts rang out from beyond the double doors, followed by the high-pitched whine, and whop, whop, whop of an approaching helicopter.

“Huh?” I gasped, taping the ET tube to my patient’s face.

“We’re expecting more casualties, some sort of bombing,” Lydia said, as she attached the ambu-bag to the little girl’s airway. I squeezed the bag delivering a few quick breaths. A blush of pink replaced the dusky, ashen hue of the girls face, as oxygen-enriched air filled her lungs.

Blinking hard, I tried to terminate the unrelenting replay of a past tragic failure.

Block it out doctor! But the brutal images of another little girl clutching a Raggedy-Ann doll mocked me, and refused to give way. The little one I’d tried to save. The one I was forced to leave, to die, alone.

No Moshe. Not now. Save this one!

The doors crashed open again, and a barrage of wounded IDF soldiers cascaded through.
“You! Doctor!” barked a stocky, red-faced IDF captain, one hand holding a blood-drenched trauma pad against his neck. “Get your hands off that Palestinian dog and treat my men now!”

With that, the captain grabbed the end of the girl’s gurney and gave it a fierce yank, launching the stretcher into the back wall, and ripping the airway right out of her trachea.

 

Anonymous Author, the last three paragraphs are outstanding. Congratulations on an intriguing first page. I’d really like to read this novel.
What do you think, TKZ readers?

Win Backstab, the first e-book in my Francesca Vierling newspaper series. The police say the deaths of the St. Louis columnist two friends were accidental, but Francesca is searching the city for their killer — before he finds her. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com

3+

Confessions of a Book Reviewer

By Elaine Viets

A reviewer for a major print magazine complained to me about a novel he was reading, when it dawned on me – this was news writers could use. If we know what’s wrong, we can fix it before the reviewer writes about it, for all the (mystery) world to read.
This reviewer is not some crank who looks for excuses to rip writers. If he has to give a book a bad review, he agonizes over that decision.
But here are some writing wrongs that upset this reviewer.

(1) Padded Middles. This is my reviewer’s number one problem – novels that slow down in the middle. “The padding doesn’t advance the narrative,” the reviewer said. “It’s pages and pages of the thoughts and feelings of people who aren’t very interesting. They offer no valuable insights. Sometimes, I wonder if editors make writers add this unnecessary information because big books are so popular. Most books I’ve read recently are 20 to 30 pages too long. Often, there’s a good book buried in that excess fat.”

(2) Switching names. “The character is introduced as Joseph Smith. Then the author proceeds to call him Joe, Joey, Joseph, and sometimes just Smith. It’s hard to figure out who the writer is talking about.”

(3) Who’s talking? “A character is introduced in the first 50 pages, and then shows up 200 pages later with no ID.” Take tax accountant Mary Rogers. She has a brief scene in chapter 2 and then in chapter 25 we see this line: “I think the suspect embezzled half a million dollars,” said Mary Rogers.
Huh?
“I’m frantically pawing through the book, trying to figure out who Mary Rogers is and why she’s saying that. If the author said, ‘I think the suspect embezzled half a million dollars,’ said tax accountant Mary Rogers’ that would make it easier for readers.”

(4) Writers who fixate on a certain word. “Like ass. I read an author who used ‘ass’ constantly. His character fell on his ass, showed his ass, got his ass kicked and had his ass handed to him. He dealt with asshats, ass clowns and of course, assholes.” Cuss words are necessary for realism, but don’t overdo it.

(5) Dumb and proud of it. “Writers who want to assert their real-people identities trot out lowbrow snobbery. Their favorite phrase is ‘I don’t know anything about . . .’ Then you can choose one or more of these – opera, classical music, gourmet food, Shakespeare.” Assume your readers are intelligent – after all, they bought your book.

(6) The hero with the drinking problem. He – or sometimes she – “is haunted by the awful things they did when they were on the sauce. Yes, people drink. And some authors handle this well. But most of these characters are tiresome cliches.” Reading these novels is like getting your ear bent by the garrulous drunk at the end of the bar.

(7) Writers who don’t do their research. If you really want to frost this reviewer, have your hero open a Heineken with a twist-off cap – there’s no such animal. And Jack Daniel’s whiskey always has an apostrophe. If you’re writing a thriller set in Nazi Germany, you’ll score extra points with this reviewer if you don’t say “Hitler was elected president in a democratic election.” You’ll find plenty of people who’ll write that, but the Website Mythfact.com says it’s complicated.
“In America we hear ‘Hitler was elected President in a Democracy’ a lot,” the Website says, “but the sentence is so semantically wrong . . . In summary, the whole thing is almost too complex to apply the ol’ ‘Hitler was elected democratically’ quip to, but since it is important, perhaps it is best phrased as, ‘Hitler and the NAZI party seized power in a democratic system.'”
Got that? Good.

(8) Basic copyediting errors. “These are turning up in books by major authors,” our reviewer said. “I’ve seen ‘grizzly murders,’ when I’m quite sure the local bears are innocent. Clothes are tossed down a ‘laundry shoot,’ and people ‘tow the line.'” If you really want to see steam come out of this reviewer’s ears, mix up “it’s” with “its” and “your” with “you’re.” Granted, we all make mistakes, especially when we’re writing quickly. But somebody should catch those errors before the book is printed.

(9) TMI in the first chapter. Nearly every one of us at TKZ has written about this problem. Overcrowded first chapters slow the pace of your novel. Our reviewer said, “It stops a good book dead when the first chapter has an overlarge cast of characters and I can’t keep them straight.”

That’s all for now. Readers, what stops you when you’re reading a novel?

13+

Road Work

By Elaine Viets

I was reading a fast-paced thriller when suddenly, the action stalled. The sheriff was chasing the killers, pursuing them on the back roads – and I was stumbling through sentences like this one: “Where State Road 41 turned north to Wyandotte, I went south on US 64, and west on Highway 27 until it intersected with Route 441, and then . . . ”

And then I lost interest. My thriller had turned into Mapquest.

Never mind who wrote this novel, or the real names of the roads and town – all writers lose their way sometimes.

Even big name authors will give you turn-by-turn directions to the Santa Monica Freeway or the Holland Tunnel.

Donald Westlake parodied this habit in his funny Dortmunder novels. Stan, the driver for this band of feckless crooks, always discussed his routes through New York City. Here’s a Stan sample:

“Anyway, the Van Wych’s no good because they’re putting in the monorail. I figured the old streets are still okay, I’ll take a straight run up Flatbush Avenue, come to Manhattan that way.”

Mentioning lots of streets may seem to give your novel gritty authenticity, but those streets should help illustrate your story. If your hero is chasing drug smugglers through the back country, describe those roads so they are more than jumbled numbers. Is the highway deserted at night? Is that rutted road hard to see in the rain? Are there isolated farmhouses nearby – or is this road so far off the grid your hero will have no help in an emergency?

Use those roads to give us a feeling of what’s going on. This information can rachet up the tension in your novel.

Paddy Hirsch, in his historical mystery, “The Devil’s Half Mile,” about Wall Street in 1799, mentions a spaghetti tangle of Manhattan streets. But look how he does it:

“Bedlow Street and Timber Street had the high ground and the views, while Cherry Street had the seafront promenade, but the maze of lanes and alleys that tumbled down the hill and connect them was something else entirely. Most of the land there was marsh, and the work to drain the soil and fill in the incline had not gone well. The lanes were sunken, and the buildings on them flooded in the fall, froze in the winter and attracted mosquitos in the summertime. The mysterious fevers and sicknesses that plagued the city seemed to center on those sinkholes, so that only the poorest and most wretched lived there. But the rents were cheap, and as a result they were overflowing with newcomers seeking a fresh start in the growing city.”

Hirsch outlined an entire neighborhood in one paragraph, and named the major streets.
One of the best examples of stellar road work is in T. Jefferson Parker’s “California Girl.” It’s 1960 and teenage Andy is driving his girlfriend home in his car, nicknamed the Submarine.

“Andy steered the Submarine up Red Hill Avenue, into Lemon Heights. Meredith sat close beside him, her hand on his knee. Through his jeans, he could feel the exact shape of her palm and thumb and each finger. He tried to open his leg a little, invite her hand to go farther up, but he had an accelerator to work and she’d never moved much north of his knee anyway. Wasn’t going to in the middle of day, heading home from school. That was for sure.”

They talk about their plans and then:

“Andy downshifted and made the left onto Skyline. Meredith had removed her hand from his leg but he could still feel it there, warm and soft and a little damp. . . .

“Lemon Heights was where the rich people lived. The heights were rolling foothills with eucalyptus and avocado and sycamores, even a few lemon trees from the old days. The houses were big and each one was different, not like the tracts expanding below, where two or three floor plans repeated themselves up one street and down the next.”

Using streets can give your story real direction.

6+

First Page Critique: The Secret of Thieves

By Elaine Viets

It was a pleasure to critique this first page. Our Brave Author had an intriguing premise and a fresh way of starting this story. As you can tell, I liked it. In fact, I really liked it. I found a few things that might be changed, but here’s how it was submitted:

The Secret of Thieves
I don’t believe in ghosts, magic, or lucky charms. There aren’t fairy godmothers or elves. If you lose your wallet or the concert tickets you distinctly remember placing in your purse, it wasn’t because of a goblin. I’d know, because it was probably someone like me who took them. And I am as red-blooded and white-boned as the next girl. As brokenhearted and scared. As daring and tough. And a hundred percent, just like every other person, I am haunted only by my memories—not that they aren’t doozies.
Like the one where my best friend dies right in front of me.
That’s why I’ve come back to the lake, to the spot where Lance and I’d spent so much time when we were young. I’m not trying to contact the dead. There’s a difference between trying to contact the dead and retracing your steps to figure out where you went wrong.
I close the door of my car and walk slowly around the hood. Ever since I first set young eyes on this cliff and watched a grinning Lance leap into the air, I’ve been afraid. Was it a fear of heights, I wonder, or fear that he was leaving me behind?
I stash the keys by the front tire and hesitate. When I’d started the list of my failures last night, I’d known the lake would be first. This cliff. This time of year. Lance’s favorite adrenaline rush. My own pulse trips wildly. I clench my teeth. It no longer matters that I’ve always thought it impossible to jump. I pull off my t-shirt dress, slinging it across the side mirror, then take one step and another toward the cliff, hugging my bare middle.
My progress is buffeted by inarticulate gasps, but I don’t stop until I’m at the edge. An unhinged laugh escapes and I clap my hand over my mouth. It’s as bad as I thought it would be. His cajoling never got me this close. Neither did his dares. But there it is, the lake ripples twenty feet below. A pebble dislodges under my water shoe and tumbles over the edge, clipping the cliff face once, twice, like a loose bullet, before disappearing beneath the dark blue water. I jerk my gaze up, wiping sweaty palms on my bikini bottoms.

Elaine’s Critique
Like I said, I enjoyed this first page, starting with the reader-grabbing title. There are some nice turns of phrase, including the ones in this sentence: “A pebble dislodges under my water shoe and tumbles over the edge, clipping the cliff face once, twice, like a loose bullet, before disappearing beneath the dark blue water.”

However, there are some things I’d change. I had a problem with this sentence, and would rework it: “I’d know, because it was probably someone like me who took them.” That “them” might be clearer and in agreement with the subject if it was changed to “your things” or “your valuables.”

Also, this sentence is awkward: “And a hundred percent, just like every other person, I am haunted only by my memories – not that they aren’t doozies.” I’d smooth that out to: “And, just like every other person, I am haunted only by my memories – and they’re doozies.”

The next sentence would be more effective if the phrase about the best friend was in past tense – then we’re sure Lance is dead. So I’d change: “Like the one where my best friend dies right in front of me” to: “Like the one where my best friend died right in front of me.”
Two paragraphs later, I’d make it: “Ever since I set my young eyes on this cliff . . .”
And one last nit to pick – I’d explain what a “water shoe” is. Water shoes are generally used for walking along pebbly surfaces or surf walking, to protect your feet.
Now there are some questions that our Brave Author has to answer, and soon: Where are we?
What time of year is it? It’s obviously a warm day, because our character is wearing a bikini, so it could be spring, summer, fall, or a warm winter day.
What is our thief’s name and what does she look like?
And most important, what is her age? She talks about “since I first set young eyes on this cliff” but she also refers to herself as being “red-blooded and white-boned as the next girl.” So if she’s still a “girl” how old is she?
Answer these questions, and your novel is off to a terrific start, Brave Author. I look forward to reading the rest of it. Good luck!

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Win the new e-book reissue of Death on a Platter, Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper mystery #7. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com

3+

What Did You Say? Writing Realistic Dialogue

By Elaine Viets

My agent just sent me his suggestions for rewrites on my fourth Angela Richman mystery. Most of his criticisms were about dialogue: it was too long, too wooden, a speech turned into a rant. Based on his critique, I developed these dialogue tips:

Six Dialogue Tips By Elaine Viets

(1) Listen to How People Talk
Go to a bar, restaurant or a coffee shop or a McDonald’s and listen to conversations. I love to eavesdrop on conversations. They help me pick up the rhythm of real speech – and sometimes I hear things I can use. Like the man at the bar who talked to his friend about how to kill his wife. They discussed various fatal scenarios until he finally concluded that he should “accidently” push her radio off the shelf into water when she was in the tub. I was about to call the police when I realized the two men were plotting a novel.

(2) Don’t be too realistic
People say “uh,” and “er” and rarely speak perfectly. They interrupt one another. You need to make your dialogue believable without making it absolutely realistic.

(3) Beware of stereotypes and accents
If your character speaks with an accent, point it out for a sentence or two: He spoke with a heavy Russian accent – but don’t make your readers wade through it for pages.

(4) Cut the small talk
You don’t need all those hellos and good-byes. Normally, they add nothing to the story. If your scene starts with a wife coming home from work and it begins this way:
“Hi,” she said.
“How are you?” he asked. “How was your day?”
Skip the hellos and start with “How was your day?” And let us know if the couple kiss. That could be a key to their marriage.

(5) Break up the dialogue with action
If two characters are talking over breakfast, have them pour syrup on their pancakes, sugar their coffee and cut up their bacon between sentences.

(6) Avoid dialogue tags
She sputtered. He chortled. She raged. He observed. She exclaimed. He interjected. She purred. These are all dialogue tags. Now forget them.
Dialogue tags attribute a line of dialogue to one or other of the characters, so that the reader always knows who is speaking. Tags should be invisible.
All you need are “he said” and “she asked.”

(7) Avoid the “You know, Jim,” syndrome
That’s an information dump disguised as regular dialogue: “You know, Jim, if you want a tax break, equipment that qualifies for the Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit includes solar, wind, geothermal and fuel-cell technology.” Nobody talks like that in casual conversation – not even a salesperson.

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7+

First Page Critique: The Devil’s Noose – A Pandemic Medical Thriller

 

Happy Valentine’s Day. You did remember the one you love, didn’t you? If not, finish this blog, then rush out and find something for your special someone.
Today another Brave Author, known as BA, sent in a First Page Critique. Take a look, and then we’ll talk about it. – Elaine Viets

The Devil’s Noose – A Pandemic Medical Thriller

Former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan
Central Asia

Seven-year-old Aliya Nizova darted through the trees, her little horsehair-trimmed boots slipping on the carpet of wet pine needles, heart pounding in her chest.
Her breath rasped in her throat as she ran, desperately seeking someplace to hide. She came to a stop at the edge of a clearing and looked around. To the right, a gray granite boulder jutted from the ground, a rime of dirty snow clinging to its base. To the left, the mucky soil sloped down to a cluster of tangled berry bushes.
A not-so-distant shout filtered through the dark forest. She made her decision and moved to the left. Cold mud squelched under her boots as she knelt behind one of the bushes.
She waited, ears keen to pick up any sign of her pursuer.
Aliya heard a thump.
Unlike the shouts, the strange noise had come from nearby.
It had sounded a little like a heavy pinecone hitting the ground, she thought. She craned her neck to look around at the nearby trees. But none of them had cones dangling from their branches.
A second thump.
The sound was followed by a strange scuffling noise.
Then silence.
Jumping to her feet, she stepped out from the bushes and back into the clearing. At first, she saw nothing but tea-colored earth and gray-green sedge grass. The breeze picked up, cutting and cold.
Aliya skipped back a step as more thumps sounded next to her, one-two-three, like rifle bullets burying themselves in the earth. The clouds parted, allowing a thin shaft of sunlight to bathe the clearing in golden light. They were all around her.
Small, broken black shapes.
The ground was littered with the bodies of carrion crows. Their heavy beaks and ebony plumage glistened as they lay sprawled on the ground, necks broken and wings shattered They’d fallen from the sky as if expiring in mid-flight.


Even at seven years old, Aliya knew enough about the world to think: Something’s wrong here.
One of the dark shapes moved. The bird’s wings fluttered, beating against the ground with a scuffling sound before going still. She knelt next to it, absently grabbing a slender twig in one hand. She gave it a gentle poke in its side.
No reaction. She poked it again.
The crow’s head whipped around as it struck with a convulsive snap.

Elaine’s Comments: This pandemic medical thriller has a good, creepy opening. It’s well-paced and the writing is energetic. But I have some questions:
– Who is the little girl running from?
All we know is he or she is described as “her pursuer.”
– Why is she running?
Since this is a medical thriller, is she trying to escape from someone who wants to use her in a medical experiment? Or is there another reason: she’s the only survivor in her family or village? Or is her pursuer not related to the medical crisis: is the pursuer a soldier? Let us know. It’s distracting to have this unsolved question.
The second sentence would be a good place to give us an answer:
“Her breath rasped in her throat as she ran, desperately seeking someplace to hide” from the white-coated scientist who wanted to take her away. Or from the soldiers who killed her family. You get the idea, BA.
Where are her parents?
Are they dead, in hiding, or have they been taken away?
A misplaced sentence.
“They were all around her” does not work where it is. I’d make a new paragraph, start it like this:
They were all around her: small, broken black shapes.
Describe Aliya for us more.
Her “little horsehair-trimmed boots” is a nice touch. The dead crows hitting the ground sound like “rifle bullets burying themselves in the earth.” That phrase tells us a lot about Aliya. How many seven-year-olds know how rifle bullets sound? A clever hint. But is the girl big or small for a seven-year-old? Dark-haired or blonde? A phrase or two can answer these questions.
The ending scene with the crow is a good one.
There’s much to love here, BA.
What do you think, TKZers?

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4+

Know What You’re Writing

By Elaine Viets

What kind of mystery are you writing?
I ask this question whenever I give a talk to writers, and I’m surprised how many people can’t answer it – at least fifty percent of the audience doesn’t know.
You need to know your sub-genre to sell your book to an agent, or to promote it.
Here are a few types of mysteries. Remember, some of these categories can cross over. Your police procedural may also be a hard-boiled novel.

Cozy mysteries are written in the style of Agatha Christie. The murder takes place offstage, there’s no blood or gore, no graphic sex or cussing. Animals and children are never harmed in a cozy, though Dame Agatha killed at least one Girl Guide. Agatha is the queen of cozies. Cozies are not all tea and crumpets. Many of them address social issues, including racism, poverty and pink-collar inequality. A good example is Margaret Maron’s cozy series featuring Judge Deborah Knott. Long Upon the Land won an Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel.

Chick lit is light mysteries, usually written for women readers. Chick lit centers around female friendships, with a splash of romance and a dash of murder. I’ve written ten chick lit mysteries in my Josie Marcus mystery shopper series, and I have a contest give-away at the end of this blog. Kellye Garrett writes award-winning chick lit. Her first novel was Hollywood Homicide.

Soft-boiled mysteries are between cozies and hard-boiled: some violence and the occasional four-letter word. The best example is Sue Grafton’s alphabet series.

Police procedural. The name says it all. This is a mystery that gives a realistic look at some type of police work, including criminal investigations, forensics, search warrants, and interrogation. Michael Connelly writes top-notch police procedurals, especially his Harry Bosch novels. Start with The Black Echo and keep reading.

Hard-boiled. These mysteries are much darker than cozies. Readers may encounter violence, sex scenes and graphic language. Children and animals can be kidnapped and killed. Hard-boiled mysteries often take place in cities. Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Ross MacDonald write first-rate hard-boiled mysteries.

Noir, with its dark view of life, is closely related to hard-boiled mysteries. The protagonist is often up against a corrupt system or a wicked world. Women are often viewed as betrayers and heartless temptresses. Many protagonists are self-destructive. Don’t expect a happy ending. Cornell Woolrich writes true noir.

Thrillers are action novels with high stakes: Someone wants to kill the President, blow up New York City, or kidnap a busload of school children. The protagonist races against the clock to save them. My favorite thriller is Thomas Harris’ Black Sunday.

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Win an e-book of High Heels Are Murder, my Josie Marcus, mystery shopper mystery. Click Contest at www.elaineviets.com

4+

First Page Critique: Quandor

Thank you, Brave Author, for sending TKZ your first page. I’ve critiqued it below, and then our readers will weigh in. (NOTE: The punctuation below is the author’s.) — Elaine Viets

Quandor
Quandary, age 13 and the only child of Frando and Zelmar Surdona, quasiborg rulers of exactly one half the planet Xenia, anxiously awaits his next birthday. Little does he know a space exploration science kit will radically change his future and that of the entire planet. Nor does he know the powerful pull of adolescent attraction will gain him an unexpected ally when he needs it most, but at a price.
“Mom, dad didn’t take me with him again to the council meeting.” He whined. “How am I going to take his place as supreme monarch if he won’t teach me anything?”
“All in due time Quannie.” She said.” Right now they are working on the delicate issue of where to find replacements for the dwindling supply of Beryllium and Gallium.”
“Yeah I know. Not enough to go around for the next generation. Hard choices for who gets the quality interfaces and who doesn’t.” He said.
“That’s right dear. Very important for our quasiborg family and worker cyborgs.”
“Well, at least you guys got me that special operation before I was born making me a Superborg. I’ll never have to worry about an interface. And I have lots of advantages over quasiborgs and worker cyborgs when I take over.”
“You aren’t taking over dear. Just learning to help rule. Please don’t talk to anyone about the operation. It’s a private matter.” She said. “Yes you have 70% human and 30% cyborg charactics while the other 1816 family quasiborgs are only 40% human and 60% cyborg.
“Ha. Not so private. An open secret if you ask me. And don’t call me Quannie. Sounds so childish.”
“Ok master Surdona. Is that better? We must get to the store through the thermal cloud tube before it gets crowded.” She said.
“Or we could use dad’s business pass and use the express lane.” He quipped.
“Like father like son.” She muttered as they readied the cloud rider.


Elaine Viets’ take:
Brave Author, this reads like a gentle YA sci-fi story, a coming of age novel. If you’re using it to open your story, it needs more tension to capture your reader. Here are some suggestions:
(1) Give us more world building. Is Xenia a hostile or hospitable planet? Does it have an Earthlike atmosphere, or is it hot and harsh like Mars? Let us know in a few words.
What does a quasiborg, Superborg, or cyborg look like? Do these beings resemble humans, or some other type of alien? What are their skin colors and facial features?

(2) Little does he know. That phrase in your first paragraph is borrowed from the sci-fi classic, Star Wars. It’s like another Star Wars favorite phrase: “A long time ago, in a Galaxy far, far away.” They give stories a fairytale feel. The crawl for Star Wars VI says “Little does Luke know that the GALACTIC EMPIRE has secretly begun construction on a new, armored space station . . .”
That works for the movie, but not for this novel. I’d move that section to the end of this first page to ratchet up the tension. Consider starting your novel this way:
“Mom, Dad didn’t take me with him again to the council meeting,” thirteen-year-old Quandary said. The only child of Frando and Zelmar Surdona, quasiborg rulers of exactly one half the planet Xenia, was in a whiny mood. His mother hated when his voice had that high-pitched demand and he swaggered around their dwelling, making demands. “How am I going to take his place as supreme monarch if he won’t teach me anything?”
“All in due time, Quannie,” Zelmar said. “Right now they are working on the delicate issue of where to find replacements for the dwindling supply of Beryllium and Gallium.”
Right here, Brave Author, you could put in a brief description of the planet, and what these beings look like, then have the rest of that conversation, and mention that Quandary was eagerly awaiting his next birthday. Then your omniscient narrator could add at the very end:
“Little does Quandary know a space exploration science kit will radically change his future and that of the entire planet. Nor does he know the powerful pull of adolescent attraction will gain him an unexpected ally when he needs it most, but at a price.”
Having this prediction here also comes with a price, Brave Author. It will put distance between you and your readers. But it may deliver a better story.
(3) Give us a snappier title. Make us want to read this novel. Maybe use the boy’s name, “Quandary.”
(4) Last, and most important, learn punctuation.
Here’s how those second and third paragraphs should be punctuated:

“Mom, Dad didn’t take me with him again to the council meeting,” Quandary whined. “How am I going to take his place as supreme monarch if he won’t teach me anything?”
“All in due time, Quannie,” she said. “Right now they are working on the delicate issue of where to find replacements for the dwindling supply of Beryllium and Gallium.”

These basic mistakes would drive an editor nuts. Consider a basic English course at a community college or the local library. You could also read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Many major publishers either follow White’s style, or the Associated Press Stylebook. No editor will buy a book with unprofessional punctuation, no matter how well-written it is.
Writing a novel without understanding proper punctuation is like building a house without understanding how to use carpenters’ tools.
Go forth and create, Brave Author.

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Deadlier than the Male

By Elaine Viets

When I was a girl, Mom warned me about all the awful things that could happen to trusting young women. I was warned to be careful when I went to bars, and never leave my drink unattended, or some sly stranger would drug it and unspeakable things would happen – which she was happy to discuss. The way Mom regarded young men, they should all have “Beware of Dog.” signs.
My brothers did not get these helpful talks. Sure, Dad told them to carry a condom in their wallet in case they got lucky, but young men had nothing to worry about.
Except they do. “Mistress of the Mickey Finn” is the title of my new short story in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine’s November/December issue.

It’s also a warning to young men. No one tells them about predatory women, and they should. Here in South Florida, a travelling gang of young women preys on well-heeled men.

I found out about them from my husband Don’s barber. Oscar Alci, a US citizen from Turkey, is a master storyteller. He told Don about a client who’d been ripped off by a wily young woman at a fashionable Fort Lauderdale watering hole. That story became “Mistress of the Mickey Finn.” Oscar has his own book, Short Cuts from Oscar the Barber, coming out this month. In tribute to his storytelling skills, I made him a character in my own story.
If you write short stories, ideas are everywhere. You just have to listen for them. Hair stylists and barbers are good sources. So are bartenders (and the drinks are deductible as research). Listen to their stories of love gone wrong, problems making payments, and the weird person who came in last Thursday. Then ask yourself, “What if someone could get killed?” Now the stakes are high and you have a short story.
My short story, “Mistress of the Micky Finn,” opens this way:

“She cleaned me out. She took everything—even my towels.”
Will Drickens’ nasal whine echoed off the marble floor in his Fort Lauderdale beach house.
The thirty-something hedge funder pleaded for help with sad, puppy-dog eyes—at least, he tried to look sad. Private eye Helen Hawthorne saw a hound with skin tanned and oiled like a Coach bag.
Will wore enough flashy designer labels to stock a mall. Phil Sagemont, Helen’s husband and PI partner, had trouble hiding his contempt for their new client.

This set-up was typical for this kind of crime: Will met Donna Simon at the Perfect Manhattan. They talked for a bit, and he began feeling woozy. She paid his tab and called for his car, tipping the valet lavishly. Donna drove Will to his beachfront home in his car, and when he recovered, she fixed him breakfast in bed. They enjoyed a romantic weekend together, and on Sunday night, he couldn’t bear to part with her. Donna said she’d always wanted to spend a day at the beach, and Will told her she could stay at his house Monday. He spent his day hearing wedding bells, while Donna’s gang cleaned out Will’s luxurious home.
In South Florida, these gangs “travel up and down the Florida coast from Vero Beach to Miami.”
Oscar the Barber and Phil have this conversation:

“A beautiful woman will spend the whole weekend with the mark,” Oscar said.
“What about security videos?” Phil asked.
“These women are very, very smart. They are careful to turn their faces to hide from the cameras. Many have long hair, and use it like a curtain. Most security systems have such blurry images, it’s hard to see the person. The police rarely get anywhere.”
“Why haven’t the police cracked down on these scammers?”
“These are the cream of the crooks,” Oscar said. “They can spot an undercover cop.”
“How?” Phil asked.
“Easy. These women have fine-tuned senses. They notice little things: the undercover cops trying to pass as rich guys buy their expensive suits at resale shops, so they’re a couple of years out of style. They have ‘cop eyes’—they’re alert, watchful, not like someone having a drink at a bar.”


Oscar wasn’t my only source. A retired Fort Lauderdale detective told me these gangs have been around since at least the mid-’80s. Sometimes they work in teams—the woman drugs the mark’s drink, then drives him home, takes whatever she can carry out of his apartment, including his pricey watches and jewelry. Her accomplice may pick her up, or she may steal the mark’s car, too. By the time he wakes up, it’s in a chop shop or being loaded on a freighter to a foreign country.
The victims of this game are men of astounding innocence. The way Will met Donna at the mythical bar is classic:

“I stopped by the Perfect Manhattan on Las Olas. Just for some conversation,” Will said.
Right, Helen thought. Conversation. The two words heard most often in that bar were “how much?” and the customers weren’t asking
the price of the drinks. The Perfect Manhattan was known for “handcrafted cocktails” for the no-holds-barred singles set. Stunning supermodel bartenders displayed their implants as they “built” twenty-dollar Manhattans and whispered, “Would you like a cherry?” with a suggestive wink and a giggle, straight out of an old-school men’s magazine. The servers—all women—were expensively enhanced and barely covered.
“Donna was sitting at the bar in a black dress and pink heels. She told me they were Manolo Blahniks. Sexy as hell—little tiny roses all over and straps halfway up her legs.”
“Cage sandals,” said Helen, who knew her shoes. “They cost twenty-two hundred dollars.”
“For one pair?” Phil said.
“Donna appreciates the best,” Will said. “I asked if I could buy her a drink, and the next thing I knew we were talking. She was easy to talk to.”
Your mother should have named you Mark, Helen thought. You were the easy one.

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First Page Critique: Dearest Executioner

By Elaine Viets

Today’s entry by an anonymous Brave Author has the intriguing title “Dearest Executioner.” Read this first chapter, and then I’ll give my critique. I look forward to your comments, readers.

Dearest Executioner

Mara sat atop the splintered bench between the oarsman and executioner, hysterical laughter bubbling in her throat. Her hands were bound behind her back, heavy rusted shackles rubbing her wrists raw. The moon hung low. Lights of the distant manor dwindling into darkness. Would the souls wandering those warm halls shudder at the echoes of screams? Or close the shutters, certain they heard nothing more than howling winds? As it was, no breeze rustled her hair.

Mist sat stagnant over the fetid bog. Insects hidden in the reeds chattered their solemn eulogy. The oarsman guided the decaying ferry through the thick muck with practiced rhythm. His rows slow, steady. As though allowing his passengers time for morbid reflection of their sins. Ought she contemplate her own? Perhaps no. No journey would be long enough. The urge to laugh intensified.

Her gaze flicked to the other man aboard. Shrouded in a fine black tunic and gloves, hood hiding his face. A grin split her chapped lips.

“Did someone tell you executioners wear black, or had you read it in a silly book?”

His shadowed visage angled away from her.

“Yes, surely the marsh is more fascinating than your soon-to-be victim.” She leaned closer to him, the wood creaking beneath her. “Don’t you wish to hear my crimes, dearest executioner?”

“Your crimes are against Lord and Lady Loch. That is all I need know.”

She nodded her head several times. “A sensitive family. Easy to offend. And quick to punish. Murder seems rather disproportional a sentence for honest speaking, but who am I to decide what’s fair?” She tipped her head. “How have you offended them?”

His attention snapped to her. Voice cruel. “I’ve done nothing.”

“Oh, but you have, you have. Perhaps murdering me is how you atone? A dark gesture of loyalty and all is forgiven? I think, no. Evil things haunt this marsh. Hungry things. Oh, dearest executioner, you’re as dead as I.”

He stared at her a long moment. “You’re mad.”

“Perhaps a giddy spirit has taken claim of my wits. They’re about in this unholy marsh, don’t you know? Others, too. Others dead, but not.”

“There are no unnatural beings here,” he said. “Only we three.”

The little bubbles rose, coming out as tremulous giggles. “You’re a sure man. A sure, sure man. A man who will not survive this night.”

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Elaine’s Critique

You’ve done a fine job of setting the mood here, Brave Author. This is an impressive piece of writing. While you’ve painted an eerie scene, it doesn’t go anywhere. A first chapter is supposed to deliver three things: Time, Place and Point of View.
Your POV is quickly established: This is third-person omniscient, a good choice for storytellers. First-person would be too limiting.
But this first chapter is floating in time and space. What century are we in?
What season is it? I’m guessing, from the sounds of the insects, that it’s either summer or fall, but let us know.
Where are we? What country? I’m guessing it’s either Scotland or Ireland, but tell us.
Mara is a little too mysterious. What has she done that’s condemned her to this lonely death? Did she commit treason? Is she a witch? What she part of a plot?
Please tell us.
Who and what are Lord and Lady Loch? Are they powerful land owners? Rulers of the county? We need to know this.
These issues can be quickly fixed. Most of this information could be added in the third sentence. Something like:
“The witch (or traitor or rebel) watched the moon hang low over the Scottish highlands . . . .”.
There’s fine writing here, Brave Author.
The title immediately captures my interest.
I’m impressed that you didn’t need to tell us that Mara was in a boat. Instead you said:
“Mara sat atop the splintered bench between the oarsman and executioner, hysterical laughter bubbling in her throat.”
That not only says where she is and that she’s on her way to her death, it establishes her own mood.
I admire the death images in the second paragraph:
“Mist sat stagnant over the fetid bog. Insects hidden in the reeds chattered their solemn eulogy. The oarsman guided the decaying ferry through the thick muck with practiced rhythm. His rows slow, steady. As though allowing his passengers time for morbid reflection of their sins. Ought she contemplate her own? Perhaps no. No journey would be long enough. The urge to laugh intensified.”
One small quibble. It should be reflection “on” their sins, not “of.”
There’s foreshadowing, too, as Mara warns the executioner: “You’re a sure man. A sure, sure man. A man who will not survive this night.”
Good job, Brave Author. A few small changes and you’ll have a first-rate story. I can’t wait to read it. What about you, TKZers?

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Win the new e-book version of Catnapped!, my 13th Dead-End Job mystery, set in the strange world of show cats. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com 

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