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: 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.

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.
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.



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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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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Book Signing Jitters

By Elaine Viets

I still remember my first signing for my first mystery, Backstab. It was a frozen January afternoon in St. Louis, and the streets were slick with ice. I didn’t expect anyone to show up, but there was John Lutz in the bookstore, stamping the snow off his boots. Yep, that John Lutz, the thriller writer whose novel SWF Seeks Same became the movie Single White Female.

I was a recovering newspaper reporter who’d crossed over to novels. “Congratulations,” John said. “You’ve managed to find a business even more screwed up than newspapers.” The copy I signed for John was my first book signing sale.
Mystery writers support one another. That’s still true. Since then, I’ve had too many signings to count, but I still remember how nervous I was at that first signing in 1998.

 Now mystery writer Patricia Hale is facing her first signing for her new novel, The Church of the Holy Child. “It’s my first signing ever, so I’m a little nervous,” she wrote. “I know there will probably be no one there and I’m mentally prepared for that. Do any of you experts out there have some advice?”

Congratulations, Pat. Be sure to tell your audience this is your first signing. They’ll love the idea that they “discovered” you. Here are some things you should be doing:
Right now. Publicize your event. Publicity for an event starts at least six to eight weeks out, but it’s not too late to send an e-newsletter or an e-blast to your friends, family, co-workers, and potential readers. Post your news on all the mystery lists and on Facebook. Tweet it. Send a notice to your community papers and radio stations. It may be too late to make the news columns, but many of them have local events pages that will list your signing for free. Check their Websites. 
Food and treats. Check with the bookstore about its policy. Some don’t allow food because chocolate thumb prints can ruin a book. The damaged novel will be sent back – and charged against your royalties. Other stores allow cupcakes, veggie trays or other snacks. A little alcohol can liven up the event and pry open wallets, if the store permits it.

If you can’t bring food for your audience, don’t forget the sales staff. I often bring cupcakes or Krispy Kreme doughnuts for the booksellers’ break. They’ll remember you remembered them, and maybe recommend your work to their customers.

If the bookstore has a cat or dog, bring it a treat. Unless you’re seriously allergic, take time to pet and praise the bookstore cat. I had a signing where the store’s big orange tabby plopped down on my table in the middle of my talk. The audience laughed and photographed the cat sitting on my books. Afterward, readers brushed the cat hair off the books, and bought them.

Bookmarks are a good way to publicize your books. A less expensive option is business cards with your cover in color on one side and your name, Website, and author e-mail address on the other.

The day of the signing. If you don’t have an audience. You said you were prepared if no one shows up – but if no one comes to your signing, you’ll be rattled. At least, I am. It doesn’t help to tell myself it’s happened to Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark: those empty chairs feel like an accusation. If no one shows up, talk to or help the bookseller. I also do guerilla signings if no one shows. I’ll go up to people entering the store and say, “Hi, do you like mysteries?” If they say yes, I’ll hand them a copy of my new book and tell them about it. Stalking customers works.

If you do have an audience. Even the kindest readers look scary at your first signing. Early in my career, I was told, “If you’re scared, just imagine the whole audience is naked.” That idea was too traumatic. Instead, imagine the audience is your friends and favorite relatives. After all, some of them will be. While waiting for the signing to start, talk to the people. Ask them about themselves. Compliment them on a pretty piece of jewelry or a fun T-shirt. Ask what kind of mysteries they like to read. Once you get people talking, they’ll be your fans.

During your talk. Be prepared to give your readers two or three fascinating facts about your novel, or an unusual bit of research. Tell them why you chose this subject.
Should you read from your novel? Only a short selection, no more than a page or two. And practice first.

               Bring a notebook. Ask readers to sign up for your free e-newsletter.

                    Do not be surprised if someone asks you where the bathrooms are. Just tell direct them. You may also be mistaken for a bookseller. In that case, find a staff member who to help the person.

After the signing. Thank the bookseller for the signing and the nice display. Ask if you can sign your stock. Signed stock can almost always be returned. Often, after the signing, the bookseller will display your signed novels on a table, an end cap (the display on the end of the shelf rows) or best of all, next to the cash register. This is prime bookstore real estate.

Help clean up and put things away. If you brought food, ask the staff if they’d like it.

Have fun. I know, that sounds easy to say. But you’ve worked hard to write your book. Now, enjoy showing it off.

If you’re in Newburyport, Mass., Patricia Hale’s signing is Thursday, August 17, from 5:30-7 p.m. at The Book Rack, 52 State Street.

Good luck, Pat. See you on the bestseller lists.

               TKZ readers and writers, what advice would you give Patricia?


Mystery Cliches: Are They Boring Your Readers?

By Elaine Viets

Are you writing cliches? Of course you are. We all do. Call them cliches or give them a Hollywood make over and claim they’re literary tropes, certain scenes and characters appear again and again in the mystery genre. We writers need to be aware of them. Masterful writers can turn tired scenarios into art. But in lesser hands, those same cliches can annoy readers. Here are a few cliches that real, book-buying readers have identified.

Cozies– The heroine looks at her body in the mirror and describes herself. This has been done again and again.

– The stupid detective who makes major errors no police officer would. Cozy heroines often need a reason to investigate the crime, and a stupid detective is the standard one. But I threw a book against the wall when a cozy heroine went back to the victim’s home and found her diary SITTING ON THE DESK IN HER OFFICE in plain sight and it just happened to have a major clue. Any police officer with a pulse would have taken that diary!

– The protagonist who is Too Stupid to Live and confronts the killer alone. I’ve seen this in all genres – even noir, where cops who should know better confront the killer without calling backup – but it happens more often in cozies.

– I used to pick up every “cupcake bakery mystery” and “knitting circle sleuth” book, but I found that they all opened with a description of the new woman driving into town thinking about how she just broke up with her fiancé, just sold her house, just quit her job, or just inherited the family shop, and how she’s starting over, yadda yadda.

– In one series, the writer starts every book with a scene of waking-up, feed-the-cat, think about what we do for a living, and the people we deal with as we shower. Every time we encounter a character we hear again the same basic spiel that was in book one about the back story of the character or location. We even have to hear about people’s nicknames and why they have them. This gets extremely tiring and I have to skip past it by books two and three.


– I’m tired of books that are always about lost artifacts that good guys race against bad guys to find. Too much detail and a predictable story line.

– This thriller was told in present tense, but then shifted between different time periods and different points of view. I couldn’t keep it all straight and jumped to the end. I don’t want to work that hard to stick with a book.

– Story jumped from city to city to city. The author didn’t set the scenes, just changed the place and dateline at the start of the chapter. I lost interest trying to figure out where it was.

– Ordinary minivan dads and moms suddenly develop SEAL-level skills to save their spouses and/or children. I know parents can perform extraordinary deeds to save their family, like lift up a car to save the baby from being crushed to death, but gimme a break! Or give them a background where they’ve been in the military or have some kind of special training.

– The nice guy hero with the psychopath friend who does all the killing and dirty deeds the good guy won’t do.

– My pet peeve is cardboard characters. Any mystery can have stock characters, but I think they’re especially common in thrillers, where character development is too often sacrificed for action. It’s a turn-off.

Chick lit

– Look, I know it’s a genre – chick lit mysteries – but I don’t always know I am downloading one until I listen to the setup (someone croaks or is croaked) and when the police come, the female protag suddenly notices how tight the sheriff’s shirt is over his manly pecs, and we are off! I have had several opportunities to call the police and never did I start sniffing their aftershave and swooning. Seems like every book with people of both genders in it, two opposite ones (usually) will immediately glom onto each other. Dunno – it’s kind of funny and kind of stupid.

– Don’t know about cops, but it has become apparent to me over the years that all firemen, no matter where they live, have to pass some sort of hunk test before they’re hired. The pizza delivery person has never been hot and interested in me nor has any auto mechanic ever offered special services. Very depressing.

– The heroine has a sidekick friend who is either old, fat, or weird, wears wild clothes and behaves outrageously.

– I’d like a mystery where the characters are not over-the-top having sex with the detective and the ex and so forth, and they have to work to make a living.

– The protagonist’s wife/husband and child were killed in a car accident or a plane crash and the protag crawled into a bottle. Yes, I know that happens sometimes, but it happens so much in the mystery world I’d be afraid to let any family members board a plane or even drive to church.

– The hero is beaten unconscious in one chapter – kicked, pounded, bloody, broken nose and maybe other bones – and in the next is running around chasing the bad guy, without any damage.

So readers, what cliches turn you off?

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First Page Critique: Like Hell

Critiqued by Elaine Viets

Thank you to another brave soul who gave us this intriguing first page, called Like Hell. This seems to be a mystery with paranormal elements. Let’s start with the first page, then my comments for AA – our Anonymous Author – and then yours, TKZ readers.

Alyssa lay facedown in a pool of blood that wasn’t hers. The weight of a stranger’s body crushed her, smothered her. She tried to tamp down her panic, but she was drowning in his blood. It bubbled in her nose and mouth, soaked through her clothing. The metallic taste of it gagged her, but she didn’t dare move.

The shooter was still here, his boots echoing in the university library. Someone whimpered, and received a burst of gunfire in response. He talked in a steady stream, in a language Alyssa didn’t understand. She had no idea who he was speaking to.
The thud of his boots approached and Alyssa held her breath. He kicked her ankle and she choked back a cry. With a grunt, he fired another shot into the poor stranger who had tried to shield her when the shooting started.

Somehow she didn’t scream. The shooter maintained his monologue as he paced the room. A door slammed, then … silence. Alyssa felt hot, sick, as she battled the gorge rising in her throat.

The door slammed against the wall with a loud crack and she nearly screamed. Heavy steps, running straight at her. Suddenly, the body sailed off her, striking the wall with a thud. Impossible. The dead man had to weigh at least 250 pounds.
Alyssa opened her eyes. This man was much smaller than the one who’d shielded her, but he hauled her up with ease. Panic flashed in his blue eyes. He seized her face and jerked her head to the side.

“Where are you hit?” he demanded, as his fingers crawled over her scalp, searching for a wound.

“It’s … not …” Alyssa swayed and he caught her. “It’s not my blood,” she whispered against his chest.

Footsteps thundered into the room. Alyssa clutched the stranger and squeezed her eyes shut.

Bullets struck him in the back. She heard them thud, felt their impact, though he barely flinched.
He roared something incomprehensible. Alyssa glanced at him just before he peeled her off him. His blue irises were replaced with flames.

Stunned, she fell as he pivoted. Black wings erupted from his back, protecting her as he screamed at the shooter in his own language.”

The shooter shrieked. Babbled.

Something crashed against the wall. Her protector cursed. He turned and hauled her up again. His wings closed around them an instant before the room exploded.

Elaine’s Comments: You’re off to a sizzling start, AA, and I’d like to see more of this novel. But I’m itching to change the very first line. Try, “Alyssa lay face down in a pool of blood.” Extra words – “that wasn’t hers” — are distracting, and you tell us whose blood it is a few paragraphs later, when Alyssa tells the creature who saved her, “It’s not my blood.”

The “black wings erupting from his back,” and “blue irises were replaced with flames” are intriguing details: Is Alyssa’s savior an angel or a devil? He’s definitely supernatural. The last line is vivid – I want to know more about who – or what – saved Alyssa and why.

But here’s the major problem with an otherwise good beginning: Alyssa is too sketchy. Give us a few more details. This is a university library. Is Alyssa a teacher, a student, a scholar or a librarian? How old is she? What does Alyssa look like? These vital questions can be answered with a few phrases.

Also, tell us where we are: Is the university library in New York, the Midwest, another country? A word or two will solve that unnecessary mystery.

There’s a stray pronoun that needs to be rounded up and branded in this pair of sentences: “Someone whimpered, and received a burst of gunfire in response. He talked in a steady stream, in a language Alyssa didn’t understand.” Make that “He talked” into “The shooter talked.”

I’d find another way to phrase this sentence about the gorge in her throat: “Alyssa felt hot, sick, as she battled the gorge rising in her throat.” Technically, “gorge” means “throat,” and Merriam-Webster says, “‘Gorge’ is often used with ‘rise’ to indicate revulsion accompanied by a sensation of constriction – ‘my gorge rises at the sight of blood.'”

You might also want to combine these two sentences into one paragraph: “Footsteps thundered into the room. Alyssa clutched the stranger and squeezed her eyes shut. Bullets struck him in the back. She heard them thud, felt their impact, though he barely flinched.”

These are small complaints, AA, and can be easily fixed. You’ve done an excellent job of building tension when the shooter comes back and kicks Alyssa to make sure she’s dead.

I have one technical question about this sentence: “With a grunt, he fired another shot into the poor stranger who had tried to shield her when the shooting started.”
What kind of weapon was the shooter using? I’m not a Kestrel Ballistics expert, but many bullets can go right through that stranger’s body. Why wasn’t Alyssa hit and hurt?

Keep writing, AA. Hope this sells like hell.


Fire and Ashes, the second Angela Richman Death Investigator mystery, will be published July 25. Pre-order the ebook for $3.99 here.


Spaulding Syndrome: Misplaced Clauses

By Elaine Viets
Groucho Marx’s classic line about the elephant in his pajamas could be called “Spaulding Syndrome.” The brilliant comedian knew exactly what he was doing with that discombobulated clause. Marx said the line when he played the African explorer, Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding in “Animal Crackers,” the movie and Broadway musical.
We writers occasionally stumble in the grammatical jungle and trip over tangled verbiage. Here are a few examples of Spaulding Syndrome sighted in the wild:

Her husband is in ladies’ lingerie: “One night in 1957, a resentful and slightly tipsy Jackie waited up for her husband who had been out at a party, wearing nothing but a slip.”
Oops! That clause is dangling in the breeze, and shouldn’t be exposed in public. A better approach would be: “One night in 1957, a resentful and slightly tipsy Jackie, wearing nothing but a slip, waited up for her husband who had been out at a party.”

Dead wrong: Singer Gregg Allman was the victim of a celebrity death hoax. False reports of celebrities’ deaths are a favorite pastime of the get-a-life crowd. Rest assured, Allman fans, the 69-year-old singer is above ground. So how did the veteran rocker reportedly wind up dead?
According to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, “Gregg Allman took to Facebook on Monday to let fans know he’s at home on doctor’s orders.
“‘Hey everyone. I just wanted y’all to know that I’m currently home in Savannah resting on my doctor’s orders,’ the singer posted on his Facebook page.”
But that message got twisted. “Monday afternoon, a radio station reported that Allman was in the care of hospice, news that was spread on social media,” said the paper.
Allman is alive and well, but guilty of a grammatical misdemeanor. Those doctor’s instructions were mighty tall orders, if they were big enough for a rocker’s rest. Replacing that “on” with a dash was one way Allman might have saved himself from premature burial: “Hey everyone. I just wanted y’all to know that I’m currently home in Savannah resting – doctor’s orders.”

Smoked coffee? Here’s another sentence that went astray: “He smoked his first cigarette along with his coffee.” Change that to: “Along with his coffee, he smoked his first cigarette,” and you get the idea without the horse laugh.

Washed up: “I want to wash my hands and face in the worst way,” a novelist wrote. How about washing them the best way?
Except for Gregg Allman, these clunkers were all written by professionals. Spaulding Syndrome is waiting to attack unwary writers. Forgive us our trespasses, readers.
And ponder this Groucho maxim. It would make a dandy blurb: “From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.”

Like forensic mysteries? Fire and Ashes, my second Angela Richman, death investigator mystery will be published July 25. Pre-order it as a $3.99 e-book. http://tinyurl.com/ltfxsyy




Today’s TKZ guest, author Sasscer Hill, has been involved in horse racing as an amateur jockey and racehorse breeder for most of her life. She sets her novels against a background of big money, gambling, and horse racing, and her mystery and suspense thrillers have received multiple award nominations. She’s well qualified to write about writing with passion. Welcome, Sasscer.   — Elaine Viets



By Sasscer Hill

Here’s what I believe: if a current of passion doesn’t run beneath a story, it will never be as good as it can be.

Let me mention three authors who have greatly influenced me with the passion that appears to drive their writing. All three are terrific writers with an excellent grasp of the craft of writing, but each has that something extra, that something that polished technique alone doesn’t produce.

Michael Connelly, previously a crime journalist for many years, has a visceral theme in his books that appears to be propelled by a desire for justice. His main character, Harry Bosch, strongly believes that someone must speak for the victims of violent crimes. Bosch’s empathy and integrity lends an authenticity and tension to his stories that has kept readers coming back for years.

Born in 1908, M. M. Kaye, author of the book, The Far Pavillions, had a lifelong fascination with India and the history of the British Raj. She had a wonderful story idea for her book. But her passion for India’s exotic culture, the mysticism and mystery found in its rugged land and among its people appear to have impelled her to create a book that became an international bestseller.

Lke me, author Walter Farley had an intense passion for horses and horse racing. His love of speed and the thrill of the sport, coupled with his ability to translate it into fiction, made his Black Stallion series one of the most popular children’s series of all time.

As a reader, I graduated from Farley to Dick Francis, the famous British author whose career began with horse racing mysteries. In school, the only thing I truly loved, and consequently excelled at, was literature and creative writing. My extracurricular activities centered on horseback riding.

When I set out to write my first horse racing mystery, I worried. Just because I loved the sport, how could I make my racing novel mysterious or compelling for others? Back in the eighties, I went to Maryland’s Laurel Park racetrack quite often. One day standing by the winner’s circle and gazing beyond the vast oval track to the backstretch beyond, I realized it was all there, right in front of me. From the terrible intensity of the gamblers, to the possible cheating by trainers, owners, and jockeys, and finally, to the drug problems. And more importantly, the love and care shown to the horses by the backstretch workers. Most important of all, the heart and courage exhibited by the jockeys and horses when they reach deep inside themselves to pull out that win. I was pretty sure that if I could weave these things with good craft, I could produce a competent and entertaining novel.

Lacking craft, that first novel wasn’t too competent and still hides in a drawer where, I fear, it belongs. I knew nothing about plotting, and had no idea was a story arc was. So I took mystery classes at Maryland’s Bethesda writer’s center where I wrote Full Mortality, the first of four Nikki Latrelle books. The novel was published and garnered nominations for both Agatha and Macavity best first book awards. Several years of hard work and a new agent later, I finished the first in the Fia McKee series and landed a two-book contract with St. Martins. The first in this series, Flamingo Road, will appear on April 18. If adult mystery-thriller readers like the novel half as much as the kids who still love the Black Stallion books, it will be one of the greatest events of my life. If you’re interested in the best horse racing tips there are hundreds of useful websites to help you out!

Flamingo Road, published by Minotaur Books, St. Martins Press, can be found at Amazon, bookstores, and any ebook outlet on the April 18 pub date. Find it here?http://tinyurl.com/gq4lyql


First Page Critique

Admin note: Strong language, content advisory.

By Elaine Viets

Another brave writer has sent in this untitled first page for a critique. We’ll start with the page, then my comments.

Chapter One (Monday)
“I hate men.” Faith sat on the bed cross-legged, Indian style, naked, dipping pineapple chunks and strawberries into chocolate fondue.
“Well, you do have valid reasons to feel that way.” Bill stretched out along the side of the bed opposite the fruit and chocolate, naked.
“I only want to hate men that I knew before I was 24, so I can include Troy. But the list keeps growing.“
“I want you.”
“You’re trying to distract me.”
“Obviously, doesn’t change that I want you.”

“Why are you the only man I can stand to be around?”
“Because I want you for who you are. Because I respect the hell out of you. Because I accept all that you are, and all that you aren’t. Because I don’t want to change a single thing. Because I don’t want to control you. Because I don’t need to have power over you to feel like a real man. And some other things that nicely pass the eye-test.”
“Because you are the only man I have ever felt comfortable with.”

“Exactly what I said, just a bit more concisely. Pass me a strawberry. And you keep eating the pineapple.”
“Ha, you and your pineapple. That’s an old wives’ tale.”
“Not at all. I’ll let you taste my tongue next time.”
“I need to get to the office. Lots to do and I’m losing time here.”
“What? No session two? What the hell?”
“Not today. I owe you, rest up for a few days old man.”
“Fuck. OK. Go harass some men, make the world a better place, save some women, be the super-woman that you are. I will patiently await your blessing me with your presence again.” Bill stood up, picked-up the platter of fruit and fondue and turned toward the door. “Stay moist my friend.”
“Oh, you know I will. Someday I’ll understand how you make me wet and every other guy makes me grind my teeth.”

* * * * * * * * *******************************************************************
“Everyone, in the conference room please. Bring your creative and strategic minds and plenty of coffee. It’s time to change the world.” Faith skipped down the hall of her tiny set of offices and headed straight into their conference room, which was really just the largest of the tiny offices that she rented for her not-for-profit agency. “It’s time to rid the world of domestic violence. Are you WITH ME?”

Two naked people are in bed eating chocolate fondue. This is a bold start to a novel. Many writers are shy about writing sex scenes, or in this case, postcoital scenes. Congratulations for a beginning that grabs readers by the (eye) balls.
This first page has so many possibilities, but many are unfulfilled.
Most important, who are these chocolate lovers? They seem lost, ghostly figures adrift on this mattress like shipwreck survivors on a raft.
All we know is they are naked.
What do they look like?
How old are they? What color is their hair? This is the one time we will truly know if characters are natural blonds. Is her hair tousled from sex and sleep? What about his? Does he even have hair, or is he all the way bare? We don’t know.
They’re both wearing birthday suits. What color is their skin: flour white, deep chocolate, caramel? Are they fit and tan? Pale and flabby? Wrinkled? Or well-nourished and well-developed, as the pathologists say?
What about the lovers’ relationship: Is this a long-term romance? Is it a romance at all? Are they married or single? This appears to be a passionless encounter. Is this true? If there’s heat, we need to know it. If love is dying, we need that too.
Where are we? We know it’s Monday, but what month? What’s the weather? Is it a sunny morning? A chilly afternoon? Is the day as hot as the potential scene? And what about the room? Is this a poorly furnished apartment? A luxurious home? Again, that mattress is floating in space.
The scene is supposed to be sexy, but there’s a strong ick factor. Bill says, “I’ll let you taste my tongue next time.” No, thanks.
Why does Faith hate Troy? Give us a hint: did he beat her, abandon her, or betray her? A word or two would ratchet up the tension.
“I want you.” Bill says this twice. Are these three words said with a sensual smile, or simply a demand? Does Bill love Faith, is he obsessed with her, or does he just want more sex? What actions go with those words? Show us what he’s doing. Show us her reactions: Does she love Bill? Is she bored with him?
What’s he doing with that fruit while they’re talking? Is Bill still eating strawberries? Dipping them? Dripping chocolate on her body? Painting it on his? Does she want him to do that? How was the sex for him? Is he exhausted? Exhilarated? Satisfied? Or was it just a routine roll in the hay?
Bill says he wants her, but is there any physical evidence? Is he fully erect? Does he reach for her? In this version, he’s all talk. Is that intentional?
POV: What’s the point of view here? It needs to be stronger.
Fix that misplaced naked. This sentence reads better as: Bill stretched out naked along the side of the bed opposite the fruit and chocolate. Otherwise, it sounds like the fruit and chocolate are naked.
What old wives’ tale about pineapple?
The dialogue starts out interesting, but slips in to self-help cliches. Bill says, “Because I want you for who you are. Because I respect the hell out of you. Because I accept all that you are, and all that you aren’t. Because I don’t want to change a single thing. Because I don’t want to control you. Because I don’t need to have power over you to feel like a real man. And some other things that nicely pass the eye-test.”
Does he mean that? Or is he being ironic? We can’t tell.
The scene at the office is confusing: We don’t know it’s Faith talking until four sentences into the paragraph. Set the scene first, please. Tell us the time of day.
Now that we’re naked – what are we doing? What kind of story is this? What are we reading? Is this a mystery? A thriller? Crime fiction or adult fiction? A line or two, a little foreshadowing, can answer this questions: “Faith wanted rid of domestic abusers, and she knew the best way was to eliminate the men who hurt those women . . .” “Faith knew the best solution for domestic abusers was to stash them six feet under.” You can come up with better examples, but you know what I mean.
You’ve got the start of a fascinating first page here, Anonymous. Now make it live up to that potential.
What do you think, TKZers? Feel free to add your criticism – constructive criticism only, please. We writers have tender feelings.

Elaine Viets is the author of the critically acclaimed Brain Storm, an Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery. “Brain Storm has everything I love in crime fiction – complexity, intelligence, pretzel-plotting, and a touch of dark humor.”– PJ Parrish, New York Times bestselling author of She’s Not There and the award-winning Louis Kincaid series.
Brain Storm is an e-book, a trade paperback and audio book. Buy it here: http://tinyurl.com/hr7b9hn