About James Scott Bell

International Thriller Writers Award winner, #1 bestselling author of PLOT & STRUCTURE and thrillers including ROMEO'S RULES, ROMEO'S WAY, ROMEO'S HAMMER , TRY DYING, DON'T LEAVE ME, and FINAL WITNESS. You can be the first to know about his new releases by going HERE.

How to Talk Tough

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Mickey Spillane

Those of us who write thrillers, noir, and crime fiction know that a huge part of our craft is tough talk—dialogue from the mouths of hardboiled protagonists, street hustlers, cops, thugs, hitmen, femme fatales, homme fatales, and other denizens of the dark side.

It’s not easy to do it artfully, for it is much more than littering the page with the F-bomb and its misbegotten progeny.

I saw a movie the other day, a highly-touted crime thriller. I won’t name it because I don’t like to put down other writers, but I will say the dialogue was pretty lame. What I mean is that there were a lot of F words tossed around without any originality or élan. Characters would just spout “F you” or “F that.” (But that’s how people talk in real life! you might be thinking. Well, you’re not writing real life. You’re writing fiction, which is a stylized rendering of life for an artistic purpose. Just recreating “real life” sounds doesn’t move the needle.)

So how can you talk tough without falling into the lazy lacing of platitudinous profanities? Let me suggest a few:

  1. Be Witty

This is the toughest (!) form of tough talk, but it pays big when you can pull it off. The master of this kind of gab, of course, was Raymond Chandler. His novels featuring PI Philip Marlowe are filled with snappy banter that works because (and this is the key) it is perfectly in Marlowe’s voice. It never seems to be a strain. Like this exchange in The Long Goodbye:

“See you around,” the bodyguard told me coolly. “The name is Chick Agostino. I guess you’ll know me.”

“Like a dirty newspaper,” I said. “Remind me not to step on your face.”

Or this from The Little Sister: 

“That slut. What does she say about me?” she hissed.

“Nothing. Oh, she might have called you a Tijuana hooker in riding pants. Would you mind?”

The silvery giggle went on for a little while. “Always the wisecrack with you. Is it not so? But you see I did not then know you were a detective. That makes a very big difference.”

“Miss Gonzales, you said something about business. What kind of business, if you’re not kidding me.”

“Would you like to make a great deal of money? A very great deal of money?”

“You mean without getting shot?” I asked.

“Sí,” she said thoughtfully. “There is also that to consider. But you are so brave, so big, so—”

“I’ll be at my office at nine in the morning, Miss Gonzales. I’ll be a lot braver then.”

Take your time with exchanges like this. Don’t force the issue. Play with the language. A different word here or there can make all the difference. I like the line from Lawrence Block’s short story “Headaches and Bad Dreams.” A detective is describing a suspect who is not exactly lovely to look at. “God made him as ugly as he could and then hit him in the mouth with a shovel.”

  1. Be Crisp

Tough talk is often clipped. It gives nice white space to the page, too. This was Robert. B. Parker’s preferred method. Here’s a bit from one of his Sunny Randall novels, Melancholy Baby:

“Sarah took a lot of drugs.”

“More than grass?” I said.

“Oh, yes. Hard drugs.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. I don’t use drugs.”

“Good for you,” I said.

“I graduate this June, and next year I want to be in a really good MBA program. I don’t want to do anything to spoil my chances.”

“So her drug use was disruptive?”

“Yes. She’d come in at night, late sometimes, and act crazy.”

“Like?”

“Like she’d be crying and seeing things and …” Polly shook her head. “Did you ever go to college?”

“I did,” I said.

“What did you major in?”

“Art.”

“Really?”

I could tell that Polly found that puzzling.

“How did you do?”

“I was a good artist and a bad student,” I said.

Go over all your dialogue scenes and look for words to cut. Replace some verbal answers with silence or an action beat. You’ll love the results.

  1. Be Over the Top

This is the opposite of #2. It should be done sparingly. But every now and then consider having one of your characters give vent with a paragraph or two of straight tough talk.

Mickey Spillane liked to do this. He of course invented the quintessential hard-boiled PI, Mike Hammer. But he also wrote stand alones. In The Long Wait (1951) the narrator, Johnny McBride, has been dragged in by the cops for questioning. McBride insults the cops (this will get him beaten up later) and tells them to inform him of the charges or let him walk. The lead detective says:

“I don’t know what kind of an angle you think you’re playing, McBride, and I don’t give a damn. The charge is murder. It’s murder five years old and it’s the murder of the best friend a guy ever had. It’s murder you’ll swing for and when you come down through the trap I’m going to be right there in the front row so I can see every twitch you make, and there in the autopsy room when they carve the guts out of you and if nobody claims the body I’ll do it myself and feed you to the pigs at the county farm. That’s what the charge is. Now do you understand it?”

Pick a tense moment of tough talk and put yourself inside one of the characters. Write a 200 word rant. Do not pause to edit. Come back to it later and review. Even if you only end up using one line, it’ll be a good one.

  1. Be Suggestive

As I said, tough talk does not have to be laced with expletives. You’re a writer. You have a whole palette of possibilities open to you.

Writers of the 40s and 50s often simply wrote things like: He cursed and walked out of the room. You know what? That still works. Readers can fill in the blanks in their own heads.

There are other methods. In Romeo’s Way I have a character, Leeza, who is young and foul-mouthed. Mike Romeo is trying to help her. She doesn’t want any. This character would definitely unleash a curse storm. But I didn’t want to lay that on the reader. So I did it this way:

She jumped back like I was the guy from Friday the 13th.

“I don’t think you’re safe here,” I said.

“What the h—”

“No time to talk. Come with me.”

I put my hand out. She slapped it. “Get away from me.”

“I’m on your side,” I said.

She began a tirade then, peppered with words with a hard K sound. She was a symphony of K. It was so constant and crazy, it hit my brain like woodpecker woodpecker peck peck woodpecker.

“Ease up,” I said. “There’s bad people who want you. Did you forget that?”

Woodpecker woodpecker!

“Your boss, one of your bosses, Kat Hogg, is in a car over there. Come with us.”

Leeza looked across the street. Then she turned and ran.

I said something that sounded like woodpecker myself and gave chase.

Dialogue, as I’ve said many times in workshops and in books, is the fastest way to improve a manuscript. So when it comes to tough talk, don’t be lazy about it. Be crafty.

4+

The Ingredients of a Great Series Character

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet

Many pulp writers of old made good bank with a hit series character.

Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan.

Erle Stanley Gardner gave us Perry Mason.

Dashiell Hammett penned the Continental Op.

The ladies were represented as well. An obvious pen name “Lars Anderson” wrote a series featuring college-educated Ellen Patrick, who fought corruption in 1930s Los Angeles as “the Domino Lady.” The pulp magazine she appeared in was Saucy Romantic Adventures, and wouldn’t you like to have a few original copies of that?

Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous example of the hit series character. So popular was Holmes that his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, couldn’t get out from under him. At one point Doyle killed off his detective, but the public demanded he be brought back. His resurrection was by way of the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. When it was first published in The Strand magazine, the circulation of that periodical went up by about thirty thousand.

In other words, Doyle, though feeling a bit trapped, took that feeling all the way to the bank.

What Makes a Great Series Character?

I see five qualities in the best series characters. If you can pack these in from the start, your task is half done. Here they are:

  1. A point of uniqueness, a quirk or style that sets them apart from everybody else

What is unique about Sherlock Holmes? He’s moody and excitable. Among the very staid English, that was different.

Jack Reacher? Come on. The guy doesn’t own a phone or clothes. He travels around with only a toothbrush. Funny how every place he goes he runs into massive trouble and very bad people.

  1. A skill at which they are really, really good

Katniss Everdeen is killer with the bow and arrow.

Harry Potter is one of the great wizards (though he has a lot to learn).

  1. A bit of the rebel

The series hero should rub up against authority, even if it’s in a quiet way, like Miss Marple muttering “Oh, dear” at the local constabulary. Hercule Poirot is a needle in the side of Inspector Japp.

  1. A vulnerable spot or character flaw

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian has a vicious temper that sometimes gets the better of him.

Sherlock Holmes has a drug habit.

Stephanie Plum keeps bouncing between two lovers, who complicate her life.

  1. A likable quality

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe has some of the greatest quips in the history of crime fiction. We like them because Marlowe is also vulnerable—to getting beat up, drugged, or otherwise manhandled by forces larger than himself (like Moose Malloy).

Wit is one of the great likability factors.

Another is caring for others besides oneself. Stephanie Plum has a crazy family to care for, not to mention her sometime partner Lula.

Will the Character Grow?

One decision you should make early on is how much character growth there will be. While you’ll hear a lot about the necessity for character arcs, they aren’t always necessary.

For example, Jack Reacher doesn’t change. I once heard Lee Child talking about this on a panel, and he said, “Arcs? We don’t need no stinkin’ arcs.”

Ahem.

Michael Connelly, on the other hand, has brought tremendous change to his series character, Harry Bosch. He decided, too, that he would age Bosch right along with the books, a decision he has come to ruefully regret. Bosch is getting up there!

At the very least, your character ought to grow stronger with each adventure. Why? Because without that there is no tension or conflict in the story. Each new tale must challenge the character in some way that threatens him with death (physical, professional, or psychological).

Test Marketing

Self-publishing today provides the writer with a way to “test drive” a potential series character. You can do that in a number of ways.

You can write a story and send it to several beta readers. These are people you know and trust to give you honest feedback.

You can publish in a free venue, like Wattpad, and collect the feedback that way.

There’s always the option of going to Kindle Direct Publishing, and using Kindle Select exclusivity so you can promote the story for free. Promote the heck out of it. Read the reviews.

The pulp writers of old weren’t shy about testing a character and then moving on if that character didn’t create enough buzz. Their big problem was the lag time between sending in a story and waiting months for it to appear.

Today, you don’t have to wait.

Who are some of your favorite series characters? What do you think is the key to their popularity?

6+

The Midstream Temptation

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m currently writing a series featuring a character named Mike Romeo. I have three books out in that series. I also have a little over half of the next Romeo completed.

But during my creativity time a couple of months ago, I was playing the first line game. That’s where I just make up first lines, not knowing anything else about what is to follow. I have a file full of firsts that I would love to develop someday. All I need is a 28-hour day and and a perpetual espresso machine.

Anyway, I wrote an opening line and it blasted me. I just had to know what it meant. So I found myself writing an opening chapter. And when I was finished I knew I had the makings of a stand-alone thriller that I wanted to write.

Only I wanted to write it now.

I call this the midstream temptation.

I was faced with a choice. Continue to write this new project, leaving Romeo sitting there waiting for me to get on with his story? Or finish Romeo and come back to the new one? (A third option, writing both at the same time, seems to have worked for Isaac Asimov, but it gets me too confused.)

When I was writing for a publishing company, they had a triple-barreled vaccine for the midstream temptation—a contract, an advance, and a deadline.

But as an indie, I am free to decide what to write, and when.

Now, I know enough about the mental game of writing to realize there’s a danger here all writers face. Sometimes you reach a point in a novel where you hit “the wall.” For me that’s usually around the 30k word mark. It’s a place where you’ve got a whole lot of book to go, but start thinking maybe your concept isn’t as hot as you thought. Or you wonder if you are really the writer you thought—or hoped—you were. Maybe the day of reckoning has come, and they’ll all find out you’re a total fraud!

For me, I just write through the wall. The doubts go away.

But that wasn’t the case with Romeo. I didn’t hit a wall. The book is solid. I know my signpost scenes.

So I had another thought (two thoughts in close proximity!). When I finish a first draft I always set it aside and let it cool for a time before my first read-through and edit. So! Why not let the Romeo cool off now? Use the cooling period to write this new one while it’s hot, and then approach my Romeo manuscript as if it is a first draft (a short one, to be sure)!

Which is what I decided to do.

This is the first time I’ve done something like this. The conditions had to be just right. So let me run through some thoughts on the matter:

  1. When you are tempted to leave a book in midstream for another idea, resist the temptation and keep writing on your WIP.
  2. If the new idea keeps demanding your attention, take one day off and…
  3. Put on your “thinking cap,” as Mrs. Barshay used to tell us Kindergartners. Ask yourself if you’ve merely hit a wall of doubt. I suspect a lot of the time the answer will be yes.
  4. Write some analysis. Talk to yourself about your WIP. Identify issues, and make a list of possible solutions.
  5. Keep at your WIP unless you are at a point where it’s pretty much complete in your mind. That means you have a good bulk of it done and are pretty sure where it’s heading, and how it’s likely to end. (Admittedly, this is more difficult for a panster. And it should be. Because you’re a pantser.)
  6. Take a day to do some freewriting on the new idea. Then take another day to map out where the story might go. Do a preliminary outline, at least of signpost scenes.
  7. Write the opening chapter. Then ask yourself if you, as a reader, would have to read on. Do you have compelling characters? Are the stakes death (physical, professional, or psychological)?
  8. If the answers to #6 are affirmative, take one more day to make sure you’re not going to the new project just to avoid facing the task of the WIP.
  9. Make your decision.
  10. Continue to meet your quota. (Don’t have a quota? Get one!)

I don’t know that I’ll ever do this again. My routine for twenty years is to finish a full draft while at the same time developing the next project with notes, index cards, character work and so on. I just got caught up in the excitement this time. The new idea kept tapping on the window, inviting me to come outside and play. And isn’t spontaneous play what we used to love as children?

Okay, so writers are big children. That’s how we roll.

But if we want to be paid for our play, we need more than a little discipline. So when a midstream temptation comes calling, subject it to hard and objective scrutiny. If it passes … go play!

And be sure to look both ways before crossing the street.

Have you ever had a major midstream temptation? What did you do? Do you ever hit a wall in your first draft? How do you handle it? 

6+

The Great American Novel That Wasn’t

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The 1950s was a robust decade for American letters. The letter B had a particularly good run.

In the other kind of letters—literature—there were two tracks that fed a voracious reading public: the mass market paperback, and the middlebrow-Book-of-the-Month-Club-style hardback.

With paperbacks, dozens of writers made good money writing crime, Westerns, mysteries, Sci-Fi, etc. Most covers were salacious, for these were marketed as impulse buys on wire spinners in drug stores, bus stations, and truck stops. Real bookstores did not carry titles like these:

Ignoring the paperback original neighborhoods, the literati were about hardcovers and reviews in the New York Times. This was where the “important” novels were to be found. Perhaps even that white whale, The Great American Novel.

Those who put themselves in the running for this prize were authors like Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, John Steinbeck, Ayn Rand, John O’Hara, Irwin Shaw. And one of the ways they measured the potential was pure, raw page count. These authors put out doorstops. Some of the pantagruelian publications—like East of Eden, Marjorie Morningstar and Atlas Shrugged—were big bestsellers. Others, however, no so much.

Perhaps the biggest flopperoo of all weighed in at a staggering 1,230 pages—the longest novel published by an American author to that date (1957). It was Some Came Running by James Jones, a novel that took six years to write and was absolutely savaged by the critics.

Jones was, of course, the author of another big book that was a smash success as both novel and movie: From Here to Eternity. It was his first novel, too, which put enormous pressure on him to produce a fitting follow-up. Didn’t happen. A sense of the critics may be found in a clip from one of the reviews:

From Here to Eternity was both moving and comic because of the herculean efforts of its hero to fight the System; Some Came Running fails because the hero’s resistance to the system has now been elevated into a philosophical principle. Jones’s new determination to lay down doctrine is doubtless due to his inflated sense of his role as a novelist, a result of his first success.

Because of Eternity, the movie rights to Some Came Running were gobbled up by MGM well before the book came out. I wonder what the boss at MGM, Joe Vogel, thought when he read the novel … or at least looked at it sitting on his desk.

Fortunately, the project was given to Vincente Minnelli and turned into a commercial hit. It starred Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, and Martha Hyer. A highly abridged paperback (!) was released to go along with the movie.

The book soon fell out of print. But in the new digital age is has been brought back by Open Road Media.

I read it. At least most of it. Well, maybe 75% of it, because I did a lot of skimming starting around page 500. What went wrong with this novel? For me, the following:

First, Jones made an odd stylistic choice to eschew apostrophes in the conjunctions. So you get lines like this through the whole novel:

“Ill probably never get another chance,” Dave had said, “but if I did, I still dont think Id take it.”

Second, about 85% of the book is narrative summary. In other words, the great majority of the novel is not presented in immediate scenes, given beat by beat on the page. Rather, we get page after page of the author telling us what happened.

The biggest problem, though, is that I didn’t bond with any of the characters. The protagonist, Dave Hirsh, is a novelist and war vet (a thinly-veiled James Jones) returning to his home town after nineteen years. He finds it hard to write, but not to drink. And brood. That wasn’t enough for me.

The movie succeeds, in my opinion, mainly because of Shirley MacLaine as Ginnie. In the book, Ginnie is a “floozy” who falls for Dave. Dave marries her only because the other woman, the virginal Gwen, rejects him. Ginnie does not wear well on Dave, who is let out of the marriage …

**SPOILER ALERT**

… by getting murdered at the end of the novel.

**END SPOILER ALERT**

MacLaine, on the other hand, earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. She’s wonderful and heartbreaking, especially in the final scene (quite different from the book).

So what’s the point of all this ruminating on a novel from the 1950s? Let’s see if I can figure it out:

  1. It doesn’t matter how many pages a novel has, without character bonding there’s no reason to read them.
  2. “Show, Don’t Tell” is a fundamental (rule?) for a reason.
  3. Every author needs a good editor (note: see the unedited, author’s version of The Stand).
  4. Still, you have to admire James Jones. He had the nearly impossible task of following From Here to Eternity. The sheer effort in writing Some Came Running is something only another writer will understand. All authors write books that don’t make it, but few take six years to do so. Credit James Jones with the grit to keep on writing, eventually producing two other books in his war trilogy that will stand the test of time—The Thin Red Line and Whistle. All three are now available in one set from Open Road.
  5. The writing life is one of highs and lows, with a few sprinkled in-betweens.

So how are you dealing with the highs and lows?

NOTE: I wrote a book about such dealings if you’d care to have a look.

2+

Eventually, You Have to Bring Order to the Story Stuff

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Last week my lovely wife and I were in New York for ThrillerFest, and as usual found time to enjoy some of the city. We did the Strand bookstore (where I scored an autographed Mickey Spillane from a spinner of used paperbacks), then walked up Park Avenue to my favorite building in all of New York: Grand Central Station, the beaux-arts beauty of midtown.

Why do I love it? Start with the clock tower sculpture, because it captures the robust spirit of classic New York, back a hundred years ago when the city was the unapologetic colossus of commerce. That’s why you have the three Greek gods above the clock. Mercury, god of merchants, dominates the piece, with Hercules (representing strength) and Minerva (representing the arts and professions) on either side. I love coming out of the subway stop, looking up and seeing this magnificence.

Inside Grand Central, the main concourse always seems larger than I remember. You can’t help thinking of Cary Grant at the ticket window in North by Northwest, or any of a number of movies from the 30s and 40s featuring New Yorkers getting on trains. There’s a dining concourse below, with our favorite oyster bar. Cindy and I shared a dozen, along with a nice chardonnay.

And we attended the International Thriller Writers Awards banquet, where I was honored to receive the award for Best E-Book Original (for Romeo’s Way). (And thank you for all the kind comments that have already been posted here at TKZ.) It was a delight for Cindy and I to share a table with the amazing Joanna Penn and her husband, Jonathan (Joanna, writing as J. F. Penn, was a Best E-Book Original finalist for her novel Destroyer of Worlds.)

The coolest thing about ThrillerFest is all the off-the-cuff conversation with fellow writers, usually at the hotel bar following the day’s proceedings. That, in fact, is where I caught up with brother John Gilstrap and one of our longtime TKZ commenters, Basil Sands. We were soon joined by weapons expert Chris Grall, and it wasn’t long before John and Chris were instructing us on the best way to cut people to ribbons with a sharp knife … and exactly what a body does when hit by a blast from a shotgun.

Also got to chat with TKZ emeritus Boyd Morrison and current blogmate Mark Alpert.

Reed Farrel Coleman (photo by Adam Martin)

Another guy I always like to see at these conventions is Reed Farrel Coleman. Reed was an ITW Award finalist for his novel Where It Hurts. At the Awards “after party” I had a chance to ask him about his writing method, as I’d read in interviews that he describes himself as a pure “pantser.”

I started by asking what his novel was about, and Reed gave me the backstory of his lead character, Gus Murphy. How he was a cop with a family, but now is divorced and off the force, working a low-end job, drowning in grief due of the death of his son. “That’s where the book starts,” Reed said.

“So you start with a character and a set-up, and then start writing?” I asked.

Reed nodded, then added that he goes “over and over” the first fifty pages until he feels they are just right. Then he moves on.

“How many drafts to you do?”

“One,” he said, with a definite twinkle in his eye. Then he quickly added that he revises and revises as he goes along, so in effect he’s doing multiple “drafts” by the time it’s all wrapped up.

I wrote Reed a follow-up email. “My thought is that as you are making your way through after those first fifty pages, your brain is starting to come up with future scenes. IOW, the ‘outline’ is taking shape organically, in your imagination, and you start to write toward those scenes.”

Reed answered, “Yes, unconsciously, at least, knowing those early pages cold lets my mind work on an outline for the rest of the book. I don’t think of it that way, but it’s a fair assessment of what’s going on.”

And Reed, of course, understands beginning, middle, and end. He knows what has to happen for a character to pass through the “Doorway of No Return” and into the confrontation of Act 2. When I teach, I tell students the main character better be through that doorway, at the latest, by the 20% mark, or the book will start to drag.

Guess what happens at the 20% mark of Where It Hurts? Yep:

When I heard the sirens, I went back around to the front of the house and waited. But I was through waiting to make up my mind. I was in now, with both feet.

And just to amuse myself, I went looking to see if Reed, by way of his storytelling DNA, had included a mirror moment. You bet he did, and right in the middle where it belongs:

Was this, I wondered, what it was like coming out of a coma? Is that what Krissy, Annie, and I were doing? Were we coming around at last? Had enough time elapsed? Had we all finished acting out? Had we finally proved to ourselves and one another that no amount of pain or grief or self-flagellation or magical thinking or deals with God or guilt or fury would restore to us what we had lost? Was it okay to live again?

My goal as a writing instructor is to “pop the hood” on what writers have technically accomplished (even if they don’t realize how they did it), take it apart, and explain how any writer can assemble similar parts for a similar effect.

Reed’s method is one way to go about things. (See? I come in peace, my pantsing brothers and sisters!) By churning over those first fifty pages, Reed is firming up the foundation for his entire novel. By rewriting his previous day’s work, he’s letting his mind suggest scene possibilities that build upon that foundation. “Plotters” do the same thing, only the churning comes before the writing as they prepare a map, strategy and tactics.

The important thing is that the writer, sooner or later, brings order to the story stuff. That’s what structure is all about. It’s getting things lined up so the readers can best relate to the tale you want to tell them. Even more, the story you want to move them. Without order, no matter how “hot” or “creative” you feel about what you write, most readers are going to be frustrated or, worse, annoyed.

My advice: try to avoid that.

I love New York, but it’s always great to get back to L.A., where I am currently in the process of bringing order to my next Mike Romeo thriller.

What about you? Where are you in the “ordering” process? 

10+

Act First, Explain Later

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today we have another of our first-page critiques, this one with the title Darkness and Blood. Let’s have a look and discuss it on the other side.

A few minutes past midnight in the south of France.
     Pablo de Silva, ex-CIA agent, awoke from the half sleep of a man on the run always fearing capture. Had he heard a noise somewhere outside his farmhouse? he wondered. Intelligence operatives had found his hideaway to snatch him back to his former boss? Terrorists, avenging the killing of one of their own, had tracked him down? Or a jealous husband set on murdering his wife who had fled his beatings and who now, de Silva worried with a glance at her, lay just as uneasily beside him.
   “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” What is it, Pablo? she asked in a whisper. “Something wrong?”
   He whispered back, “Je ne sais pas,” and put a finger to her lips. “Quiet.” He listened a moment longer in the absolute stillness of the country night, trying to place the sound. After a moment longer, sure now he had heard something, he patted her warm naked thigh; stay here, his intimate gesture implied. He leapt from their bed and, tiptoeing in a crouch, he was at the bedroom’s threshold. A quick dash across the darkened living room, and he was at one of the two windows that overlooked the dirt drive. He knelt, feeling the cold wooden floor on his knees, and, parting the curtain, peered out. For a moment, squinting past the partly opened shutters, he saw nothing except the thick blackness of night. He only heard the same sound that kept him tense, a mechanical rattle. It came from a car, he saw at last, its headlights out, its menacing silhouette looming closer to the end of his farmhouse’s drive, and he realized they didn’t have time to flee.
     “It’s him, I know it. He’ll kill us both, Pablo.”
     De Silva glanced over his shoulder. “Stay in the bedroom.”
     “He’s that kind of husband. He’s crazy with jealousy.”
     “Do as I say and lock the door.” De Silva peeked out through the curtain again, ending further discussion. Only one car, not several. Parked about ten feet from the stone steps leading to his front door. Three men in silhouette in the car; a fourth in darkened outline, above average in height, stepping out. Four men in one vehicle, not a convoy bringing a snatch….

###

We have here the makings of a great opening scene. Ex-CIA on the run, bad guys want him, not to mention a jealous husband. What I think we need is some slicing and dicing to move things along more briskly. My suggestions are for that purpose, but I don’t want them to distract from the overall point that this is a nice set up.

The axiom act first, explain later applies here. Readers who are caught up in a tense scene will wait a long time for fuller information to come out. In fact, they prefer it. One of the pleasures of reading a thriller is to guess at what’s going on before all is made clear.

Thus, I’d cut the first line. It’s going to become evident this is night soon enough. And the France bit is implied by the dialogue. The exact location can be dropped in at another point.

So let’s look at that all-important first paragraph:

Pablo de Silva, ex-CIA agent, awoke from the half sleep of a man on the run always fearing capture. A man on the run always fears capture. The opening line works better without the redundancy. Had he heard a noise somewhere outside his farmhouse? he wondered. We are in his POV, so the he wondered is not necessary. (Regarding POV and exposition, even ex-CIA agent could be cut and saved for later.)

The rest of the paragraph is packed with exposition, three possibilities going through Pablo’s mind. It’s a bit much for a reader to process. It slows the action. Why not keep us guessing? Consider cutting this part. By the end of the page we’ll still know there’s a jealous husband out there, and that the ones outside are a group.

Next we have:

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” What is it, Pablo? she asked in a whisper. “Something wrong?”

First of all, for foreign phrases, the norm is:

  1. The phrase, italicized.
  2. The attribution.
  3. The translation.

Like this:

Dónde está mi ropa interior?” he said. Where is my underwear?

Thus:

Qu’est-ce que c’est?” the woman whispered. What is it? (You added Pablo to the translation when it wasn’t in the foreign. It must be an exact match. Also, the phrase “Something wrong” stands out. Is it in English? Then why did she speak French? It’s also redundant. What is it? already implies something is wrong).

Then:

He whispered back, “Je ne sais pas,” and put a finger to her lips.

To be consistent, you ought to make it:

Je ne sais pas,” he whispered back. I don’t know. He put a finger to her lips. I’d cut “Quiet” because that’s implied with the finger to the lips.

Now we have a long paragraph, and I’m going to make a very simple, yet effective suggestion: White space! It’s no secret that these days many busy readers are intimidated by long blocks of text. So make it easy for them by adding breaks, like so:

     He listened a moment longer in the absolute stillness of the country night, trying to place the sound. After a moment longer, sure now he had heard something, he patted her warm naked thigh; stay here, his intimate gesture implied.
     He leapt from their bed and, tiptoeing in a crouch, he was at the bedroom’s threshold. A quick dash across the darkened living room, and he was at one of the two windows that overlooked the dirt drive. He knelt, feeling the cold wooden floor on his knees, and, parting the curtain, peered out.
     For a moment, squinting past the partly opened shutters, he saw nothing except the thick blackness of night. He only heard the same sound that kept him tense, a mechanical rattle. It came from a car, he saw at last, its headlights out, its menacing silhouette looming closer to the end of his farmhouse’s drive, and he realized they didn’t have time to flee.

In the above section, I’d cut After a moment longer, sure now he had heard something… It is part of a really long sentence and isn’t needed. We can guess all this from the action. Also, and this is one of my personal bugaboos (so feel free to ignore it, although you ignore it at your peril!) I hate semi-colons in fiction. And I’m not alone! If you care to, you can read my reasons here.

I’m okay with Pablo patting her warm naked thigh. But then you don’t need stay here, his intimate gesture implied. That’s a POV violation, since it’s not Pablo who would pick up the implication, but the woman. And anyway, the pat itself is enough.

With all that said, this part could read:

     He listened a moment longer in the absolute stillness of the country night, trying to place the sound. He patted the woman’s warm naked thigh and leapt from their bed.
     Tiptoeing in a crouch, he was at the bedroom’s threshold.

Next:

For a moment, squinting past the partly opened shutters, he saw nothing except the thick blackness of night.

I’d make it, simply:

He saw nothing except the thick blackness of night.

The reason is that of course it’s a moment. Everything in the scene is a moment, and unless you are conveying something like a moment later it’s not needed. The squinting part is already implied by the peering out.

And I bring this up for another reason. The –ing construction is repeated throughout. I’m not a grammar guru, but I believe this is called a present participle phrase:

trying to place the sound
tiptoeing in a crouch
feeling the cold wooden floor
parting the curtain
squinting past the partly opened shutters
ending further discussion
stepping out

There is nothing grammatically wrong with a present participle, and on occasion it can add variety to the style. But overuse can get taxing. So just be aware of it. There’s never anything wrong with converting one long sentence into two shorter ones … and ditching the –ings.

Okay, that’s a lot of notes. The remainder of the page works for me (okay, one more note: I’d cut the line ending further discussion as that’s evident from the action).

As I said at the top, this is a compelling opening scene. Edit it a bit and I would definitely turn the page to see what happens next!

Your turn, TKZers. Help our brave author out with your own notes. I’m on the road today but will try to check in.

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I Just Finished My First Novel And …

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

…I was hoping you could recommend an agent.

…I was hoping you’d have a look and tell me if I’m on the right track.

…I was hoping you’d tell me the best way to self-publish so it will have a chance to sell.

These are all variations on a theme in emails I’ve received over the years. I’ve answered each one, but calculate that in the cumulative expenditure of time I could probably have written a novel or two. I thought I’d write this blog post so the next time I get such an email I can simply send a link!

So … Hello, hopeful first-timer! And thanks for your email.

A few thoughts:

You are not ready for an agent. Most likely, that is, for an agent is not looking for a book to sell. An agent is looking for a writer to represent, one who will be able to produce quality books (plural). And by quality, I mean something that stands out, is bold and beautiful, but also has a reasonable chance to capture a significant market share. Can you say that about this first novel? And by the way, are you developing a second novel? Have you got a great idea for a third?

I can’t read your manuscript. I am a working writer, and there are only so many hours in a day. If you attend a conference where I am reading manuscripts as part of the deal, I will have a look at your first 3000 words or so. I can tell a lot about a writer in 3k…so, by the way, can an agent or editor. But outside of that limited venue, I just don’t have the time, and I don’t read for a fee. There are good teachers who do. One of them is blog brother Larry Brooks via Storyfix.

You are probably not ready to self-publish. You could be the exception, but generally speaking your first novel is going to need a lot of work. By the way, have you heard that writing is work? Making money self-publishing is work. Tossing up books that aren’t ready for prime time is not the way to make money. Becoming a professional about things is (and I use professional in the sense of doing productive things in a systematic way). You need a plan, and business sense. Here I can recommend a book.

But you’ve finished your first novel. Congratulations! That is a big step. There are more:

  • Let your manuscript sit for three weeks or so. Print out a hard copy and read it as if you had just purchased the book and it’s from a brand new author. Take minimal notes, but be looking for places where things slow down or don’t work for some reason. Mark those places.
  • Do any fixing you can. If something’s not working, try to figure out for yourself what to do about it. Books on revision, for example, can help you here. You will learn invaluable lessons that will serve you in the future.
  • Write a second draft.
  • Show your second draft to beta readers, people you know and trust to give you specific feedback. It helps to give them a checklist of questions, like this one.
  • Re-write again.
  • As this is your first novel, a pass from a good professional editor is a good investment.

You’re here? You’ve done all that? Good going! I trust, then, that you are at least halfway through the first draft of your next novel.

What?

Yep.

This is the work ethic of the career writer.

Repeat over and over the rest of your life.

Thank you for your email.

Keep writing.

JSB

Any other advice for such a one as this?

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