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: Jolted

By Elaine Viets

Another brave Anonymous Author would like us to evaluate this first page. Read it first, and then my comments. I’m looking forward to seeing yours. Here’s the offering:

JOLTED
From the window of the school bus, Hannah spotted her dad’s new black truck above the hay fields. A dry, cold Wednesday afternoon, the farm’s normal colors were today blanketed in shades of gray. The roof of the familiar BMW parked outside the horse barn seemed to glisten redder than usual.

Close to four o’clock—feeding time. Hannah skipped the steps and jumped from the bus before the creaky doors had fully opened, figuring that her impatient pony was already running circles in his stall, anticipating her kisses and treats, the appetizers to his half-quart dinner of grain. But hearing the rickety doors of the bus squeal again behind her, she quickly doubled back to get her books, which the driver was tossing onto the mud-stained snow.

Hannah sloshed her way up the icy drive and entered the barn through the tack room door, her wet-soled boots squeaking on the dry clay floor. She dropped the books on the nearest tack trunk and ran into the aisle past the horseback riding is a dangerous sport—ride at your own risk sign on the wall. When she got to Sparky’s stall, she threw open the door and wrapped her arms around his chunky neck, covering his muzzle and cheeks with damp kisses. The pony licked her from chin to forehead, the girl giggling as she wiped at her sticky face with her hands. “Yuck!” she said. “Pear juice!” A perfumed smell of ripe apples and riper pears drifted into her nostrils from next door, where the kindly owner of the BMW was slicing the fruit for a painfully thin mare.

“Hi, Mrs. Fields,” Hannah said, smiling. “Sparky says thanks!”

The pony nickered as though on cue. “You’re welcome, Sparky,” Mrs. Fields said, funneling a chunk of apple to the fat pony through the stall bars as the mare pressed against her and buried her wet nose in the grocery bag of fruit. “So, what do you think, Hannah? Does my girl look like she’s picked up any weight?”

Hannah held on to the stall bars, careful to keep her sleeves from riding up, and stood on tiptoes as she stared at the mare’s ribs, which were pushing up and out through the soft chestnut-colored hairs. “Yes, I think so,” she said, too afraid of her dad to tell Mrs. Fields why the mare had suddenly gotten so thin.

ELAINE VIETS COMMENTARY

The first paragraph is hardest part of any novel. Once you get that out of the way, you can introduce us to your characters and start your story. This first paragraph is confusing. It’s supposed to be an establishing shot, but we can’t figure out what we’re looking at. .
This Anonymous Novelist did an excellent job of creating young Hannah, eager to jump off the school bus to see her fat little pony. There’s a good sense of foreboding at the end of the section, when Hannah is “too afraid of her dad to tell Mrs. Fields why the mare had suddenly gotten so thin.”
But we’re missing opportunities to use that fear.

Consider the opening:
From the window of the school bus, Hannah spotted her dad’s new black truck above the hay fields. Fear gripped her heart. That meant her father was drinking and angry – and looking for trouble.
Give us some kind of reason who her father’s truck is in those hayfields.
And tell us where we are. So far, this farm is floating out in space: We don’t know if it’s in Kansas or Connecticut.
And why is her father’s truck “above the hay fields”? Is this hilly country, or are we seeing his truck from a distance?

The author sets the mood well: A dry, cold Wednesday afternoon, the farm’s normal colors were today blanketed in shades of gray.
(That’s a nice touch and the author could keep that mood going. Instead, the author introduces another vehicle.)
The roof of the familiar BMW parked outside the horse barn seemed to glisten redder than usual.

It’s obviously a bright spot in this bleak landscape, but tell us why. Who is the mysterious Mrs. Fields: Does she board her horse at the stables? Is she a riding instructor?
Give us more details about Hannah. She needs a first and a last name. How old is she? What color is her hair? These details can be supplied in a few words without slowing the pace of your opening. Here’s what I mean: 

JOLTED
From the window of Hannah’s (give her last name) school bus, she could see the normal (bright?) colors of her family’s farm (Is this correct?) were blanketed in shades of gray. She spotted her father’s new black truck above the hay fields. (Why is this truck important? How does make Hannah feel? Anxious, alarmed? afraid?)
The roof of Mrs. Fields’ (use her name here) familiar BMW parked outside the horse barn seemed to glisten redder than usual. (Who is Mrs. Fields? Why is she and her car a bright spot?) 

Close to four o’clock—feeding time for the horses. (You can give us Hannah’s age here) Twelve-year-old Hannah skipped the steps, and jumped from the bus before the creaky doors had fully opened, figuring that Sparky, (use the pony’s name here) her impatient pony, was already running circles in his stall, anticipating her kisses and treats, the appetizers to his half-quart dinner of grain.
But hearing the rickety doors of the bus squeal again behind her, she quickly doubled back to get her books, which the driver was tossing onto the mud-stained snow.

(This seems unusually mean. Was the driver cranky? Was there a grudge against Hannah’s family? Let us know. Or remove and relocate for later.
And the doors are confusing. Why do they “creak” open and then later “squeal again behind her” It sounds like the doors were closed before she could get her books.)

Hannah sloshed her way up the icy drive and entered the barn through the tack room door, her wet-soled boots squeaking on the dry clay floor. She dropped the books on the nearest tack trunk and ran into the aisle past the HORSEBACK RIDING IS A DANGEROUS SPORT—RIDE AT YOUR OWN RISK sign on the wall. (The sign adds a nice touch of menace.)

When she got to Sparky’s stall, she threw open the door and wrapped her arms around his chunky neck, covering his muzzle and cheeks with damp kisses. The pony licked her from chin to forehead, the girl giggling as she wiped at her sticky face with her hands. “Yuck!” she said. “Pear juice!”
A perfumed smell of ripe apples and riper pears drifted into her nostrils from next door, where the kindly owner of the BMW was slicing the fruit for a painfully thin mare. (Good details about the smell of the fruit.)

“Hi, Mrs. Fields,” Hannah said, smiling. “Sparky says thanks!”

The pony nickered as though on cue. “You’re welcome, Sparky,” Mrs. Fields said, funneling a chunk of apple to the fat pony through the stall bars as the mare pressed against her and buried her wet nose in the grocery bag of fruit. “So, what do you think, Hannah? Does my girl look like she’s picked up any weight?”

Hannah held onto (one word) the stall bars, careful to keep her sleeves from riding up, and stood on tiptoes as she stared at the mare’s ribs, which were pushing up and out through the soft chestnut-colored hairs. “Yes, I think so,” she said, too afraid of her dad to tell Mrs. Fields why the mare had suddenly gotten so thin.

 This last line is a critical detail. Build on it before you get here. I can’t wait to read the rest of this book. Good luck, Anonymous Novelist – Elaine Viets

5+

Refurbished Words


By Elaine Viets

English is a constantly changing language, which is its delight and its difficulty. Old words are constantly being refurbished and given new uses.
One is troll, a word once associated mostly with fairy tales, as in “The evil troll lived under the bridge.”
Thanks to the internet and computers, troll has a whole new usage. As a noun, the Urban Dictionary says a troll is: “One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.”
As a verb, to troll means to fool someone. Sasha Baron Cohen is the current Troller in Chief. He pranked sheriff Joe Arpaio into saying he’d have oral sex with Donald Trump.

Unpacked is another refurbished word. Unpack used to be something you did with a suitcase. Now it means to analyze. How many times have you heard a radio host on NPR say,
“There’s a lot to unpack here in this story on . . . ”
What refurbished words are you seeing, TKZers?

7+

Creative Destruction

By Elaine Viets

I’ve been hard at work on my fourth Angela Richman, death investigator mystery. Until last week I was up to schedule. Then I hit a snag at Chapter 11. An important character was being arrested for drug dealing. I thought – after writing 33 mysteries – that I knew the procedure. So I wrote the chapter. Then I got the little niggling doubt that all writers get, and decided I should check with my police procedure adviser, a former homicide detective.

Good thing I did: I not only had the procedure wrong – but the ex-detective suggested a better idea: Why not have the dealer discovered in the cop shop when a drug-sniffing canine “alerts” to the controlled substance?

Beautiful! Except I had to tear up the whole chapter and rewrite it. Now I’m a week behind.
I’m glad I did – the new scene is better.
It’s not the first time I’ve had to kill something, or even bury it. Like many novelists, I have parts of several novels, including an embarrassing serial killer mystery and a lackadaisical modern Sherlock Holmes pastiche, that I’ve buried deep in a file drawer, where I hope they’re never found.

We’re told (on the Internet) that Hindus worship Shiva as a god of contrasts who destroys as well as creates. “Shiva’s role as a destroyer is also constructive,” one source said. “This extends to all things in the world, meaning that Hindus regard Shiva as the source of all good and evil.”
“Shiva is full of passion which leads to extremes in his behaviors,” said another. “Sometimes he removes himself from the material world and abstains from pleasure, at other times he gives in to all desire. Shiva’s wife Pavarti tempers his passion and gives him balance.”
As good a description of writing – and married writers – as any.
Shiva is my new model, and I follow the art of creative destruction.
What about you?

Like forensic mysteries? My first two Angela Richman, Death Investigator mysteries are on sale for $1.99 each: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=node%3D13819722011&field-keywords=brain+storm+by+viets&rh=n%3A13819722011%2Ck%3Abrain+storm+by+viets

5+

Cozy Book Promotion: A Soft Sell in a Hard Business


By Elaine Viets

TKZ regular Eric asked us to define “a true cozy,” as opposed to what he called a “cutesie,” and how to market true cozies. Eric’s definition of a “cutesie” was “novels that start with a silly pun in the title, usually having to do with food or animals or Amish, that have a cartoonish cover, and that go downhill from there into worse silliness.”
Eric’s novel is “somewhat like James Scott Bell’s Glimpses of Paradise, with more crime and mystery and more realistic language.”
Since I’m a former cozy writer who now writes forensic mysteries, Jim asked me to address your question.
Last time, I defined a cozy as “a mystery with no graphic sex, cuss words or violence. Generally, the murder takes place offstage. Dame Agatha is the queen of cozies, but Miss Marple is no pushover. ‘I am Nemesis,’ the fluffy old lady announces, and relentlessly pursues killers.
“Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries are not cozies, though they have many of the same elements. Sherlock has a hard edge to him, and some of his stories, like ‘The Man With the Twisted Lip,’ border on noir. Doyle, like Grafton and Sayers, writes traditional mysteries, but they aren’t considered cozies. You’ve lumped a lot of traditional novels together under the cozy umbrella. Traditional mysteries play fair – they give readers all the clues, though they may be cleverly disguised. You may be writing a traditional mystery.
“The ‘cutesies’ that you object to are simply one branch of the cozy sub-genre.”
Now, on to the promo part. These tips are for traditionally published authors. Self-published promo is a different world.

(1) Know the men writing cozies. Read their work. Here are a few: Jeff Cohen, aka EJ Copperman, who writes several series, including the Asperger’s Mysteries and the Haunted Guesthouse series. http://www.ejcopperman.com/
There’s also Dean James, aka Miranda James and his Cat in the Stacks series, http://catinthestacks.com/
And James Ziskin, https://jameswziskin.com/ whose Ellie Stone series has been nominated for the Edgar, and Lefty Awards and won the Anthony and the Macvacity Awards.
(2) Know the women writing cozies. Put aside your prejudices and read some really good cozies. I’ve mentioned Charlaine (Sookie Stackhouse) Harris’s Aurora Teagarden series. Marcia Talley’s Hannah Ives series, and Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series. Keep on reading and you’ll find lots of cozies that have real social commentary.
(3) Meet your readers. Bouchercon, Thrillerfest, Left Coast Crime are some of the good mystery conferences, but if you really want to meet cozy readers, I recommend the Malice Domestic Mystery Conference in Bethesda, Md. (malicedomestic.org). Malice is devoted to the traditional mystery, but it has the highest concentration of cozy readers. Only a few men attend – lucky you. Also, think about a giveaway of your books for the Malice book bags. If your publisher won’t do it, buy a case of your books for the bags.
(4) Facebook. There are dozens of cozy sites. Get to know them. A few include Save Our Cozies, Cozy Mystery Giveaways, the Cozy Mystery Once a Month Book Club, Cozy-Mysteries.com. “Friend” the cozy writers you admire.


(5) Bloggers you should know. Dru Ann Love and Dru’s Book Musings. Dru calls herself a “book advocate” and she is definitely a friend to writers. Dru Ann won the Raven Award for her work. Another book lover you should know is BOLO Books reviewer Kristopher Zgorski, who’s also won a Raven.


(6) Join writers groups. Stay in touch with your peers. Join the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and don’t forget Sisters in Crime. They accept Misters. Each one of these groups can help you.


(7) Bookstores. Mysteries, especially cozies, are sold by word of mouth. Get to know your local bookstore. Stop by and say hello. Buy something, even if it’s only a card or a bookmark. And ask the owner or manager if they’d like to read a copy of your book. They may ask you to do a signing. Booksellers have done amazing acts of kindness for me through the years. When I was first starting out – and returns could have hurt my career – one bookseller kept a case of my books in her office for a year until she sold them all.
(8) Avoid cutesy giveaways. Pens, tea bags, emery boards, even lipstick, are often given as gifts by cozy writers to promote their books. Unless your publisher is paying for this paraphernalia, don’t bother. I used to work at a bookstore, and we had a box in the break room with all the cozy goodies. If we needed a nail file or a pen, we’d root around in the box. To my knowledge these gifts never sold a single book.
(9) Do get bookmarks. Those are worth your money. They sell books. Most bookstores like to keep them by the cash register, and so do many libraries – and libraries are big book buyers. They buy more hardcovers than the big box stores.
Can’t afford bookmarks? Get business cards with your book cover on the front and your information on the back – including the ISBN and a Website where your book can be bought.

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Like forensic mysteries? Win my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator novella. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com.

5+

Cozies vs. Cutesies

By Elaine Viets

Eric, a TKZ regular, sent this note to our own James Scott Bell:
“It might be good for TKZ to address what defines a true cozy, as opposed to a ‘cutesie,’ and how to market true cozies. I’m having trouble figuring out the cozy genre.
“What I’m writing is neither thriller nor police procedural nor hard-boiled. But it sure ain’t what I call ‘cutesies’–novels that start with a silly pun in the title, usually having to do with food or animals or Amish, that have a cartoonish cover, and that go downhill from there into worse silliness.
“When I search ‘cozy mystery’ on Amazon, nearly all I see are cutesies.
“The paradigms for the cozy mystery seem to be Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham. So I think of Grafton, Giorello, and Greeley’s Bishop Blackie stories as cozies. The young Raleigh Harmon and Bishop Blackie are amateur detectives, like Holmes, Wimsey, Marple, and Campion. Poirot and Milhone are PIs. (Since the adult Raleigh Harmon works for the FBI, does that make those novels ‘police procedurals’?)
“My book is somewhat like James Scott Bell’s Glimpses of Paradise, with more crime and mystery and more realistic language. And it has similarities to the Giorello mysteries, with less detecting and, again, more realistic language. But the raw language would not seem enough to make it hard-boiled. Soft-boiled at most.
“You guys at TKZ are more into thrillers, but I’m sure some of you would have good insight into marketing true cozies as distinct from cutesies.
“Or has the true cozy genre been squeezed into extinction by the more specialized mystery genres, viz., cutesies, thrillers, police procedurals, legal dramas and medical mysteries?”
Whoa, there Eric. You’ve given us a lot to discuss here. Since I’m a former cozy writer who now writes forensic mysteries, Jim asked me to address your question.

First, what is a cozy?
A cozy is usually a mystery with no graphic sex, cuss words or violence. Generally, the murder takes place offstage. Dame Agatha is the queen of cozies, but Miss Marple is no pushover. “I am Nemesis,” the fluffy old lady announces, and relentlessly pursues killers.
Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries are not cozies, though they have many of the same elements. Sherlock has a hard edge to him, and some of his stories, like “The Man With the Twisted Lip,” border on noir. Doyle, like Grafton and Sayers, writes traditional mysteries, but they aren’t considered cozies. You’ve lumped a lot of traditional novels together under the cozy umbrella. Traditional mysteries play fair – they give readers all the clues, though they may be cleverly disguised. You may be writing a traditional mystery.
The “cutesies” that you object to are simply one branch of the cozy sub-genre.
The so-called “cutesies” exist for one reason: They sell.
Amazon does not waste space on books that don’t move. Many readers love to read about knitters, cookie bakers, candy makers and florists who solve murders. In fact, the more arcane the sleuth’s profession, the better. There are cozies about pickle shops, jam shops, antique shops, plus tea, chocolate and coffee shops galore.
The readers for these cozies are primarily women.

And that leads us to another issue: Books by women cozy authors are often relegated to the pink ghetto. They are given a cute title, a cartoon cover featuring high heels, lipstick, or maybe a cat (and never underestimate the importance of cats in cozies) and sent out into the publishing world with little or no support – and I’m not talking about lingerie. Some of the cozy mysteries published by major houses don’t even rate their own press release. They get a “group release” with three or four other similar cozy authors.
This problem exists for many books written by women. The Boston Globe wrote about a Radcliffe alumni panel on women’s fiction. The article said: “Women of letters have been marginalized since the dawn of Western literature. It is nonetheless surprising that this predicament remains so entrenched. In a yearly study VIDA, an organization for women in the literary arts, reliably finds that major publications still carry more male bylines and cover more books authored by men.
“Although their impact is unquantifiable, book covers certainly have something to do with this disparity. Marketing affects the way readers of both genders perceive the artistic merits of a book. Stereotypically feminine signifiers— a lipstick tube, a woman’s naked back — can inadvertently disqualify a novel from the world of serious literature.”

Even literary classics like The Bell Jar aren’t safe, the article said. For the 50th anniversary reissue, the publisher “tarted up Sylvia Plath’s classic novel of existential despondency with an illustration of a woman wearing gobs of eyeliner sneering into a compact. . . . The public outcry was encouraging: In addition to an abundance of op-eds about the cover’s sickening deceptiveness, people designed their own parody reissues of classic novels and shared them on Twitter.”
The Boston Globe then asks: “So how does a publisher signal to a manly reader that a woman-authored book he has in his hands won’t offend him with talk of motherhood, makeup, and menstruation? How do they assure him this novel is worthy of his time, and possibly a literary prize?
“Enter the ‘man trap,’ a phrase Grove Atlantic vice president and executive editor Elisabeth Schmitz coined for her Radcliffe talk. Schmitz defines the man-trap cover as ‘splashier, brighter, more iconic’ and ‘less gendered’ than its pink ghetto counterparts.

She proffered Rachel Kushner’s National Book Award-nominated The Flamethrowers as a case study. Although the novel concerns a female protagonist’s sexual and artistic awakening, it also dealt with modern art, revolution, and motorcycle racing. Its cover image — a decidedly arty, text-heavy affair with an orange-hued photograph of a blond woman’s face with tape over her mouth — lacked all vestiges of feminine frippery.”
You can read the rest of the article here: https://tinyurl.com/yaouzlws

If you want to see the mystery genre difference, look at the cozy cover for my Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper mystery, A Dog Gone Murder versus the cover for my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, Ice Blonde.  You can’t see it, but Josie’s red bag says the novel “includes shopping tips.” That was the publisher’s idea. I hated those suckers, and killed them in the re-release.


Obviously, the so-called “cutesies” are not your cup of tea, Eric. Some cozies are pure fluff. I don’t read them. But cozies are good ways to explore other occupations and hobbies – hence the knitting and tea shop mysteries – as well as relationships. Women seem to demand this dimension more in their reading than men.
We all have poorly written sub-genres that we don’t enjoy. I won’t discuss the boring thrillers with cardboard protagonists, or clichéd police procedurals with the drunken ex-cop who accidentally shot someone in the line of duty – though Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series takes that tired cliché and turns it into art.
You don’t like what you call “cutesies” and you believe that cozy genre is infested with them. Because of the pink ghetto, you’re missing some fine cozy reading. Here are some cozies with real meat:

Read Charlaine Harris’s Aurora Teagarden series. Aurora is a small-town librarian, and Charlaine can build real menace into everyday life. Try her latest, Sleep Like a Baby. Or, if you prefer your cozies historical, read Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight series about a Victorian midwife. You’ll learn about social justice, poverty and religious prejudice. Cozies can also address justice and racial equality – for that, I recommend Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series.

And if you want to see what’s possible in the cozy format, re-read Agatha Christie. I’m currently reading And Then There Were None, which was published under the now offensive title using the N-word. And Then There Were None has a masterful use of multiple characters and a can’t-put-down story. No wonder Christie outsells every author except Shakespeare.
NEXT MONTH: How to market your cozy.

16+

Re-reading your work

By Elaine Viets

I can’t read my novels when they’re hot off the presses. That’s when I see the parts that sag and the phrases I wish were more graceful.
But when I finally read Shop till You Drop, the first Dead-End Job mystery I wrote in 2003, it almost seemed like it had been written by someone else.

I had to reread all my Dead-End Job mysteries. I have four mystery series: the Dead-End Job series is a collection of funny mysteries set in South Florida. There’s the cozy Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper mysteries. Plus the Francesca Vierling newspaper mysteries. Right now, my current series is the forensic mysteries with death investigator, Angela Richman.
I am “backlist rich,” as my agent, Joshua Bilmes says. Joshua is president of the JABberwocky Literary Agency in New York, and he wanted to re-release my backlist. JABberwocky represents award-winning authors including Charlaine Harris, Brandon Sanderson, Toni Kelner and Tanya Huff, and has made books available from two dozen of the agency’s clients within its e-book program.
Done right, re-releases are expensive: re-releasing my 23 books in the Dead-End Job and Josie Marcus mystery shopper series can cost a solid five figures, and JABberwocky fronted the money. The novels will get new covers and fresh cover copy. We started with the first 13 Dead-End Job mysteries. Jenn Reese at Tiger Bright Studios designed clean, bright covers with a different symbol and color for each novel.
Meanwhile, I had to read all 13 Dead-End Job mysteries, and correct the small errors that happen when the files are converted to book format, plus the occasional typo. I was blessed with good copyeditors for this series, but one was crazy for semicolons. I have a deep, abiding hatred for semicolons in novels. They should be banished to term papers. I rewrote to get rid of the pests.
I recommend rereading your own work. I shouldn’t have waited 15 years. Reading your work will teach you a lot about your writing. Here’s what I learned:


(1) I needed a bible. Not the Good Book, but a list of every character and place I used in the series. I never expected this series to last for so many books. How long did Helen’s deadbeat husband live off her without getting a job? In some books, it was five years. In others, it was seven. I settled on a biblical seven years. And Helen’s age ranged from 41 to 42. She became 42 forever. Even if you have a two-book series, start a bible.
TKZ writer Kristy Montee, one half of PJ Parrish, says she has a high-tech method: She keeps a handwritten notebook. “We started it with the first book. It’s a dossier with a page(s) for every character we have ever created. To be honest, it’s easier to use than a computer file.
“On Louis’s page, for example, we have such strange facts as:
“Foster father was wounded in left leg in Korea.
“Joined Ann Arbor PD Jan. 1981
“His badge number in Loon Lake was #127
“Got college girlfriend pregnant in Feb. 1980.
“Takes 3 sugars in black coffee.
“Refurbished his vintage Mustang in the book Paint It Black.
“We do this for every character. It’s saved us MUCHO grief.”
This is what I should have done.

(2) I was overly fond of certain phrases. Never mind which ones – they’re gone.


(3) I insulted an ethnic group. I described a Caucasian woman who’d had too many eye jobs as having “Chinese eyes.” More than one reader said that was insulting to Asians. They were right. Never mind that I didn’t mean to insult anyone. That phrase is gone.


(4) The novels I thought were the best turned out not to be. I didn’t rewrite them – they got good reviews. But I learned another lesson: don’t overload the first few chapters with too much information.


(5) Some lines made me laugh. In Clubbed to Death, Helen’s co-worker says this about their hated boss: “Her heart is as hard as her fake boobs.”
When Helen meets her future husband in Dying to Call You, she notices, “His nose was slightly crooked. Helen liked that quality in a man.”
The novels were wistful at times. In Murder with Reservations, Helen wonders, “How come when you finally got what you wanted, it wasn’t what you needed?”
After reading all the novels, I liked them. They’re mysteries with a sharp look at Florida life.
But from now on, I need to woman up, and get booking. I’m taking my own sharp look at my writing.

Thirteen Dead-End Job mysteries are being re-released as e-books by JABberwocky Literary Agency. Buy the whole set or treat yourself to the books you missed. Prices start at $2.99 and go up. Check them out here. http://awfulagent.com/ebooks/elaine-viets

15+

First Page Critique: Sequenced Humanity


Critiqued by Elaine Viets

Another intriguing offering from an Anonymous Author. This one seems to be science fiction. Read it first, and then I’ll add my comments.

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He had no memory from before waking up inside the tank. A bespectacled face peered at him through the water, which flashed red at set intervals. A worried smile played across her features as the water flushed from the tank. With a soft hiss the glass panel in front of him slid open and he fell forwards into her arms. He shivered against the cold air as she helped him further out of the tank. She inhaled, the sound sharp in his ear.
“It feels so good to hold you. I know you don’t know who I am,” she placed her hand on his shoulder as she pulled back. “I’m your mother, in a manner of speaking.”
Her hand felt cold and trembled as it grazed his naked skin. The red lights were still flashing and he noticed the sound of an alarm now, like a deep throbbing pulse to accompany the light.
She pointed down the hallway behind her, “You have to go now son, quick, I’ll try to give you time.”
He opened his mouth as if to speak but she shook her head, then she cocked it sideways and ran her hand through his hair and peered into his eyes. “Blinking seems OK, you understand what I’m saying . . . The memory engrams were integrated then,” she muttered under her breath. Then she pecked him on the cheek. “Go now,” she whispered in his ear.
He nodded and ran in the direction she pointed. The alarm shifted in pitch. He could hear voices, loud and sharp. Were they coming for him?
“Go!” his mother repeated.
He ran and stopped as soon as he heard several loud bangs behind him. A woman screamed and then fell silent. Was it his mother?
His heart pounding in his ears, he ran faster. Pushing through a door, he felt snow crunch underneath his bare feet. His shivering became more intense as his teeth began to chatter. Small branches hit him as he crashed through the bare trees, but he kept going, not knowing where. With no light to guide him this far from the building he let his eyes adjust to the night. The moon slid in and out of view behind clouds above, providing scant illumination to guide him. A gust of biting wind blew across his skin and he stifled a sharp cry.
Something roared in the distance below him and he came to a sudden halt as the ground dropped away in front of him.
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Wow! I’m impressed. This grabbed me from the first sentence. The unusual opening, creepy setting, and plenty of action kept me reading to the last line. Now I wonder what’s going to happen to our “newborn” man.

Sure, I can nitpick this offering.
In this sentence, I’d take out the word further: He shivered against the cold air as she helped him further out of the tank.

And the punctuation for the dialogue is odd. In this sentence I’d put a period after “who I am” and make the next part a separate sentence. “It feels so good to hold you. I know you don’t know who I am,” she placed her hand on his shoulder as she pulled back,” so it looks like this: I know you don’t know who I am.” She placed her hand on his shoulder as she pulled back.

I’d make some of the dialogue into separate sentences instead of running them together: “You have to go now son, quick, I’ll try to give you time” would become: “You have to go now, son. Quick! I’ll try to give you time.”

But these are minor quibbles. Sometimes, the art of editing is knowing when to leave something alone. You have a terrific piece of writing here, AA. You say that “Squenced Humanity” is a working title. Give it a better title, and you’ll have a winner.
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Legacy in Blood: First Page Critique

By Elaine Viets

Another courageous writer has volunteered a First Page Critique, Legacy in Blood. This first page gets off to a such a rip-roaring start, I think the submission only needs light jiggering. Read Legacy in Blood. My comments follow it.

Legacy in Blood

The first time I met Shauna Kelly, she’d come to my rescue and over the years since, that never changed. That time my cantankerous temper and heaping passel of pride teamed up to push me over a line I shouldn’t have crossed.

The whole second grade class of boys surrounded me in the playground with nary a teacher in sight. Not even my colory imagination could conjure me walking away without my ration of lumps. Fat Eddie Langtree had stolen his last lunch from a scrawny kid who looked like he could use the meal and I’d had enough of his bullying.

I lowered my chin and raised my fists as the jackass wall closed in tight. When someone moved to my right, I turned to take a swing, but Shauna Kelly shoved through the line of idiots and stood by me—the prettiest girl in school.

‘You don’t need to do this,’ I’d told her.

‘Shut up.’ Pretty Shauna had her game face on. ‘You’re not the only one who hates bullies.’

It should’ve been ‘game on,’ but something hit me hard—a thing that came from inside me. No one had ever taken my side before. I knew about standalone fights. I’d grown up in the ‘throw away kid’ system and never knew my mother or father. I was on my fourth foster home and I had more in my future. When Shauna stood by my side, the adrenaline came in a rush and I felt the warm sting of tears. No way would I cry in front of Fat Eddie.

For the first time, someone had fought…for me.

I lost a tooth that day and Shauna scored her first black eye. ‘No one wins in a fight like that,’ she told me, but I had to disagree. I’d found my first real friend and I had Fat Eddie and a peanut butter sandwich to thank for that.

That memory of Shauna made my heart ache even more as I wandered through Lafayette Cemetery in the dark. Lost, I’d come to find her again—like a dog missing the only human I ever loved. A rumbling thunder cloud started to cry and I welcomed its fury and its tears. I knelt by Shauna’s headstone and touched her name with my fingers and let my tears fall. As the menacing storm closed in, I drowned in the flood of lifetime memories of me and my best friend.

Not a day has gone by that I haven’t missed her. Now I had to have her back—in the only way I could. I had to find her killer.
______________________________________________________________________

Anonymous Author sets an intriguing scene: Two second-grade classmates fight a schoolyard bully and become lifelong friends. As an added twist, one fighter is a girl, and we learn at the end of the first page that she’s dead. Bravo! I’m hooked.
A few tweaks would improve this already good submission.

(1) Is the narrator a man?

I assume he is, but let us know. Introduce him. Give us his name. You can do that early in the selection. Here’s an example, but I’m sure you can find a better way:

No one had ever taken my side before. Me, Billy Smith. I knew about standalone fights. I’d grown up in the ‘throw away kid’ system and never knew my mother or father.

(2) Put this first page in simple past tense:

The first time I met Shauna Kelly, she came to my rescue and over the years since, that has never changed.

(3) Consider making that first line into two sentences. Then simplify the second sentence to “over the years” or something similar:

The first time I met Shauna Kelly, she came to my rescue. Over the years, that has never changed.

(4) Where are we? Please tell us.
Where is this happening? What country or region? What year is it?
I assume this scene is set in recent times because the narrator talks about “growing up in the ‘throw away kid’ system” and “never knew my mother or father.”

(5) If the selection is set in modern times, why use the archaic language?
Why does the narrator use such 19th century terms like “heaping passel of pride,” “nary a teacher in sight,” and “not even my colory imagination could conjure me”? Is this scene set in an isolated community and that’s how people still talk in that part of the world?

(6) Are you British, AA?
The quote style seems to be British English, which uses single quotes around dialogue and other terms. If you’re not, switch to US punctuation.

(7) Fix a confusing phrase in the last line.
The section ends dramatically: The narrator is lost, alone, crying over Shauna’s grave in a cemetery.
He vows to avenge Shauna’s death, but the phrase “have her back” is confusing. At first, I thought you meant “have her back” as in “have her back alive.” On second reading, I realized you meant “protect her” or “save her memory.” You might want to recast that phrase:
Not a day has gone by that I haven’t missed her. Now I had to have her back—in the only way I could. I had to find her killer.

That’s it. Congratulations on an inventive, well-written work. I look forward to seeing this published.

 

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One Less Word

 

By Elaine Viets

There are 250,000 English words. Maybe. Even the Oxford English Dictionary isn’t sure.
There is definitely one word I can do without. I hate it. So far, no one’s spoken it around me. But just reading it sets me off.
Here goes.
Bildungsroman is a highfalutin word that simply means “a coming of age novel.”
My chief beef against bildungsroman is that it sounds ugly. It looks like a Frankenword cobbled together from other unwanted words: – “bil,” which is way too close to a four-letter word that means “to owe money.” The second syllable is “dung,” or excrement.
The other problem is this word sounds ugly. Bildungsroman is not pronounced trippingly on the tongue. It sounds like someone threw a bag of garbage down a trash chute. You can hear it hitting the smelly metal walls as it bounces down to the Dumpster:
Bil (thud), dungs (slam), until it finally lands in a squishy heap of other trash with a splat and a flabby roman.
Bildungsroman first showed up in print in 1906, Webster says. That vintage word year brought us such beauties as banana split. (Can’t you just see one, heaped with whipped cream and slathered with chocolate syrup?)


And useful words like bonehead. (Add a picture of your brother-in-law or boss here.)
Seriously, bildungsroman has German roots. I’m told – okay, I read it on the Internet, so it must be true – that the “German word Bildung refers to forming and shaping, and the first Bildungsromane in 18th-century Germany focused on the hero’s self-formation. Modernists such as Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf adopted and reinvigorated the Bildungsroman form as a means of telling stories about longing and transition.”

Okay, I get it. Bildungsroman allows the worst sort of academic to sound important. But the word is so darn pompous.
I’m not prejudiced against all German words. English has borrowed some fine examples, include schadenfreude. That means “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.” It’s how you feel when you see the snippy high school cheerleader who used to torment you now weighs 250 pounds and works at Walmart.
Bildungsroman has no business being used. Stick with coming of age, and let this word die a quiet death.
Okay, I showed you mine. Which words would you wipe out of the English language?

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7+

First Page Critique: Excellent Imagery, Intriguing Find

By Elaine Viets

 

This first page critique takes us back in time and back to the Old Country – Ireland. Let’s take a look at this offering. After the critique, I’ve made some comments. What do you think?
——–
No Title
Ireland 1240 AD

Eoin kicked the fallen oak’s trunk in disgust. He raised his face to the sky and loosed a stream of curses at the dark clouds. The reply came in a torrent of heavy rain drops that slapped his face like a thousand tiny fists, forcing him to turn his eyes back to the massive tree that that’d crushed the stone wall and let his sheep escape into the next farm. His father, Aengus O’Dowd, would have demanded his neighbor Finn return the lost sheep. But Finn hated Eoin, sole survivor of the fever sickness that had recently claimed both parents and his sister. According to tradition, if Eoin died Finn would have first right to claim the O’Dowd lands as his own. Therefore Finn counted Eoin’s recovery as theft, prevented him from becoming the wealthiest farmer in the county.

Lightning cracked in the sky, illuminating the twisted limbs like demon fingers reaching from the bowels of the earth to suck the remaining flicker of life from his Eoin’s weary soul. He tossed a scoop of mud over his shoulder and stabbed the blade back into the ground. The shovel jerked wildly as it glanced off a flexible tendril of root, slipped from his hand, and fell into the hole beneath the tree. It landed with a hollow wooden thump.
“What is this?” Eoin muttered as he stared down.

He jumped into the hole, mud splashing as he landed. He picked up the shovel and poked the metal blade into the soil probing for whatever it had hit. On the third jab he got the same hollow knock. He scraped soil away to reveal a smooth black surface, then dug until he found the edges of what appeared to be a large wooden box. Eoin soon freed it from its earthly tomb and heaved the chest up to the surface, climbing out after it. As wide as the length of his forearm and about two thirds that in both height and depth, sealed completely in pitch.
|
Night was falling. He carried the box into his house.
“Get away,” he hissed at the cat, who’d immediately gotten under his feet, “or I’ll step on you.”

Too exhausted to light a lamp he, he shrugged off his wet clothes, exchanging them for dry, dropped a peat log onto the embers in the fireplace and passed out on his mat nearby.

=================================================================

Elaine Viets: The author has a mystery here: Eoin has found a mysterious box under an uprooted tree. But there may be too much mystery in this first page.

Who is Eoin? How old is he? What does he look like? Is he a big man? Bearded? Muscular? Scrawny and overworked?

Eoin’s soul is described as “weary,” and Eoin recently survived a “devastating” fever. Has the fever left him weakened? Give us some hints.

Eoin’s sheep escaped. How many? If he’s a farmer, he knows exactly how many sheep he lost: two, five, six. Part of his wealth is gone.

Do we really need Eoin’s father’s name in this sentence?

“His father, Aengus O’Dowd, would have demanded his neighbor Finn return the lost sheep. “We have several names thrown at us in one paragraph: Eoin, his father and Finn.

What if you tried something like this?

            Eoin’s father would have demanded his neighbor Finn return the lost sheep.
The paragraph raises more questions:
Why doesn’t Eoin demand Finn return the sheep? Is he afraid of Finn? Is he too weak? Is Finn politically connected? We should know.

Instead we’re told, “But Finn hated Eoin, sole survivor of the fever sickness that had recently claimed both parents and his sister. According to tradition, if Eoin died, Finn would have first right to claim the O’Dowd lands as his own. Therefore Finn counted Eoin’s recovery as theft, prevented him from becoming the wealthiest farmer in the county.”

Finn’s hatred shouldn’t keep Eoin from claiming what is rightfully his. Give us a good reason.

There’s too much writing about the weather. First, the rain beats down on Eoin’s face:
“He raised his face to the sky and loosed a stream of curses at the dark clouds. The reply came in a torrent of heavy rain drops that slapped his face like a thousand tiny fists . . .”

Then, “Lightning cracked in the sky, illuminating the twisted limbs like demon fingers reaching from the bowels of the earth to suck the remaining flicker of life from his Eoin’s weary soul.”

That’s a little overdone. Think about stopping the sentence after “demon fingers.”
There is excellent imagery here. I especially liked the discovery of the box. Well done! But how does Eoin feel about this discovery? Does he think it might have a treasure to make him rich? Will it bring more trouble? Has he heard rumors that something – or the bones of someone – were buried in this area? Show us his feelings.

When Eoin gets home, he bullies the cat. Is that deliberate? Do you want to make him less sympathetic? The page ends with a cliff hanger: Eoin is “too exhausted” to open the box. I’m not sure that works. Maybe you could have him faint from exhaustion.
Be careful of the typos.

You have an intriguing situation here, Author, and good imagery. Solve some of these mysteries and you’ll have a first-rate beginning.

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4+