About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

The Honest Epitaph

Photo: Ben Churchill [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Having recently celebrated a birthday that was (once again) well past my life’s statistical half-point, I’m feeling a bit maudlin. And maudlin is so dull!

So, tell me. What would your honest epitaph be? It’s the very last bit of writing you share with the world. I’m not looking for the reverent words that loved ones will no doubt honor you with, but the words you would put on there if you didn’t mind embarrassing your kids, your partner/spouse, your mom.

Remember, it’s important to put honest bits of yourself into everything you write…

A few of mine:

“She Wasn’t Good, But She Had Good Intentions.” (via Lyle Lovett)

“Wait! That Wasn’t What I Meant to Say!”

“She Was F.I.N.E.”

“Go Away, I’m Reading”

“Of Course I’m Listening”

“She Was Late for Her Own Funeral”

 

Now it’s your turn, TKZers!

 

 

 

5+

First Page Critique: The List

 

Image from GoDaddy

 

Hop in, fellow travelers. Today we’re off on a short, shocking car ride with the protagonist of The List. I hope you’ll take a few moments to read my critique, then add your own comments.

The List

Everyone has lists. I might have too many. I could probably be accused of living my life according to lists. There are the usual: a shopping list, a bucket list, ToDo lists, vacation packing list, followup email list, books to read list, etc. I even have a list of lists, so I don’t forget I have a particular list. But the list I’m thinking about right now is my I-More-Than-Hate-You list. This is the list of people that I plan to take with me if I ever cross thatline. You know the one. The line where you no longer give a flying fuck about the consequences, because someone’s gonna die. That list. And today I’m thinking about that list a lot.

For many years there was one name at the top of my list; one piece of shit that would have to go first. But over time he was replaced by other bastards that needed to die and finally fell off the list completely because I didn’t think I would ever see him again; didn’t think anyone would. But there he was. I almost rear-ended the car in front of me doing a double take.

“No fucking way!!” I said out loud and circled the block to get another look.

Junior Moore was standing on the corner opposite the bus station looking like a gawping tourist. The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look; never more than a fuzz on his scalp and wrinkles like scars all over it. His head looked as if the skin were too big for the skull inside; like badly fitted upholstery. He also looked to have only a single eye and I could see that one ear was mostly gone. His alley-cat glare followed me around the corner. He looked right at me. There’s no way he could have recognized me after all these years, but I’m sure the astonished gasp on my face made him wonder.

“Shit!…shit…shit…” I muttered as I sped toward the Duck. Thirsty Thursday with the girls was going to be interesting.

_______________________________________________________

 

Our protagonist’s strong voice gives The List a promising start. It takes a considerable amount of practice to make every word sound like it’s coming from a fully conceived character. This character strides onto the page and–to borrow a title from Joan Rivers–enters talking. Good job, brave author.

Let’s talk a moment about the opening paragraphs. I’ve written similar paragraphs many times, and I imagine other TKZers have as well. It’s a Big Intro With a Side of Throat Clearing. Here, you’ve already got the title explained, so that’s out of the way. And you’ve told us a lot about the character. This is an obsessive person. A disturbed person. A Person Not to be Messed With. (I get a strong, post-1978 Shirley MacLaine vibe.) Plus, we have the added bonus of it setting up what’s ahead. But if we look closely, it’s not really a bonus. It’s an impediment to the action of the story.

The reader doesn’t need to be wrapped in a bubble and delivered to the action. Hook us with the action first, and offer explanations and descriptions at a later time, if at all.

Without the throat-clearing, there’s no need for a transition INTO the action. Such a transition is nearly always awkward. When we finally get to the double take/near-accident, we are yanked out of the protagonist’s spotlight monologue intro and plunged into the action. The storytelling changes completely.

Homework for all of the above: Check out James Scott Bell’s latest blog, and all will be revealed.

One of the written and unwritten rules about settings is that you should never set a scene in an automobile. Usually we see two characters talking to one another, either fighting or giving us exposition. (Ah. The stress is off. We’re in the car, gov. Let’s bring each other up to speed on the investigation.) White space would suffice. Here, you have a mix of exposition and action. Because our protagonist is driving when she sees dreaded Junior, the car is perfectly appropriate for the action. Bravo! Now just eliminate the exposition. (Caveat: If you’re reading this and have been thinking about setting a scene in a car, proceed with caution.)

I like the promise of this page. I’m interested in the character, and want to know exactly what Junior Moore did, when he did it, and how/if he’s going to pay. I would definitely read on!

A few words about word choice, punctuation, and description. (I’m not sure of the sex of this character, though from the last line I’ll guess female. Her age is also unclear. She doesn’t sound like a Millennial or younger. And the fact that she’s got a long list of people on her um, shitlist (couldn’t resist), suggests to me that she’s at least in her forties.

First paragraph: I am seeing the word “list” way too many times, and I want it to go away with the paragraph. Have one of the protagonist’s friends make fun of her lists.

There are four semicolons in the piece. I will mourn with you over the loss, but they have to go. Replace them with periods or commas, as you see fit. Oddly enough, sentence fragments are now considered more acceptable than semicolons in fiction. Crazy, right? So feel free to type: But over time he was replaced by other bastards that needed to die and finally fell off the list completely because I didn’t think I would ever see him again. Didn’t think anyone would. But there he was.

Exclamation points and speaking out loud:

“No fucking way!!” I said out loud and circled the block to get another look.”

While this quote is, indeed, an exclamation, we’re only allowed one exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Exceptions are emails and notes to friends and family, birthday cakes, texts, and anything written in sidewalk chalk.

If we are speaking, it’s redundant to say that we’re doing it out loud. (It’s only in the last couple years that I’ve dropped out loud from my own prose.)

No fucking way!” I shouted, slamming one palm against the steering wheel. I circled the block to get another look.

Junior Moore:

Oh, there’s so much to love about this description of Junior Moore. It’s full of spite and anger and fierce observation. It reminds me again of why I’d like to read more. There are a few tweaks that could tighten it up.

“Junior Moore was standing on the corner opposite the bus station looking like a gawping tourist. The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look; never more than a fuzz on his scalp and wrinkles like scars all over it. His head looked as if the skin were too big for the skull inside; like badly fitted upholstery. He also looked to have only a single eye and I could see that one ear was mostly gone. His alley-cat glare followed me around the corner. He looked right at me. There’s no way he could have recognized me after all these years, but I’m sure the astonished gasp on my face made him wonder.”

I won’t totally rewrite the paragraph, but here are some suggestions.

“The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look…”

From here it’s not clear which characteristics Junior had “always had” and which were new. This can be fixed easily with something like:

…The years hadn’t been good to him. While he’d always resembled a grizzled alley cat, now he was downright monstrous (terrifying, hideous, etc). I was stunned to see that he’d lost an eye, and that part of one ear had been torn away. Wrinkles like puckered scars swam between the islands of sparse fuzz on his scalp. One thing that hadn’t changed was the way his skin hung like badly fitted upholstery on his too-small skull. I shuddered. His catlike glare followed me as I turned the corner…

I changed “alley-cat glare” to catlike glare to get rid of the repetition. Taking out “He looked right at me.” makes the image stronger. As a gasp is a sound, you might change “astonished gasp” to astonishment.

That the protagonist is headed to Thirsty Thursday to hang out at the Duck with her girl gang made me smile. Good lead-in to the next scene/chapter.

Language:

Some readers may object to the F-word, etc. I don’t have any concerns myself. In fact, “No fucking way!” is a statement I make way too often. But do check out TKZ takes on profanity. There’s plenty here. Be sure to read comments. Our own Kris Montee/P.J.Parrish takes on profanity in crime stories in a 2016 post. Jordan Dane has a First Page Critique that addresses it as well.

Okay, fellow travelers. You’ve read what I have to say (and thank you for reading!). What comments and advice do you have for our Brave Author?

6+

Sabbatical

–GoDaddy Stock Photo

When my kids were ten and three years old, I ran away from home for a week. Given all the pre-trip planning, list-making, grandparent arrivals, and pantry-stocking, it might have looked like I was about to take a solo vacation, but appearances can be deceiving. Inside, I was holding my breath, telling myself I could get it all done, hold out until the day I would pack up the ridiculously large, white, American sedan I’d rented, and cruise onto the highway, the “Girls Singing for Your Trip” mixtape cd my bff had made me cranked up on the stereo. The first song was Vacation by The Go-Go’s [sic]. The second was Walk Like an Egyptian by The Bangles. By the time I was actually in the car, blowing bye-bye kisses to the kids, I felt like a teenage bandit who’d stolen Grandma’s Buick and could only count on a few hours of freedom before the cops pulled me over and ushered me home.

Did I feel guilty? Yes, I did. But I also knew that if I didn’t get away—my stated reason was that I wanted time to myself to write—I would either collapse into a useless puddle of mommy-shaped goo, or have to take refuge in a small closet and refuse to ever come out again.

Roanoke, Virginia to Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, is a long drive—though I confess I thought it wouldn’t be. They looked so close together on the map. It was a good thing I liked driving alone. The ferry ride that ended my journey was a kind of revelation, a reminder that I was, indeed, far from home. Ocracoke is overwhelmingly beautiful, with pristine, protected beaches, and (at least back then) a small-town vibe that made me feel comfortable and safe. I felt Very Far Away from my life.

Now, I had a pretty darned good life back home. I loved my husband and children intensely. It wasn’t like I couldn’t take time to write. I had part-time childcare, and a lovely house set up on a hillside, among trees. And I liked my kids. It didn’t matter that they occasionally vomited on me, or threw the occasional floor-pounding tantrum in the post office, or didn’t pick up their room. They were still mine, and I loved them. But every mother has her limits, and as much as I loved my family, I knew I had to go away for a little while so I could remain in love with them.

Have you ever felt that way? Perhaps not about children, but about your work, or your partner, or circle of friends?

A couple of months ago, I stopped writing. Oh, I didn’t stop completely. I showed up here, and also wrote a couple of blurbs. I journaled just a bit. But for the most part, my computer screen was fallow. At first, the stoppage wasn’t intentional. I’d had a professional disappointment that left me deeply frustrated. But like so many things that look grim on the outside, it was hiding something useful on the inside. It led me to take a good hard look at my work and career, and what they meant to me. And that’s when I decided that my writing sabbatical needed to continue for a while.

I love writing. I really do. It’s the only thing I ever set my heart on. I’m terrible at goal-setting because I’m easily distracted. There’s a story I heard once about a distinguished scientist who told himself he was going to count the steps he took walking to work every day. He did it successfully the first day. On the fourth day he remembered that he’d made that plan earlier in the week, but had only counted his steps that very first day. His is the story of my life. The good news is that I mostly get distracted in good ways, by new projects. But writing is the thing I’ve never been distracted from for very long. When I was in my mid-twenties, I decided I wanted to write fiction, and I’ve been trying to learn to be a better writer ever since. [Note: If you’ve stopped learning, go back to where you left off, and begin again.] It is the only vocation I have ever truly wanted to pursue because it’s the most challenging, maddening, rewarding work I’ve ever done.

Sometimes writing (and often publishing) will vomit on you. It will wring you out of every emotion, and leave you panting for inspiration. It will break your heart, and flip you the bird on the way out the door. It will whisper or shout your shortcomings. But then it will snuggle you like a puppy or a two-year-old wanting comfort. It will bring you bright and shiny presents—a brilliant detail, or the perfect sentence. Most of all, it will make much of itself. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes it can be too much of a muchness.

I’m not fond of crises. I panicked when I realized I wasn’t writing. For a while, I thought I might never write again. (Did I type that out loud?!) Fortunately, that panic didn’t last forever. But I did let myself feel the panic while it was happening. Yes, that old touch-feely feelings stuff. I let myself see that there could be a life beyond writing. I don’t have to write! Ever! In fact, there are already plenty of writers. I could clean houses, dig ditches, paint portraits, design video games, become a professional birdwatcher or baker or phlebotomist. In fact, if I stop writing and get a 9 to 5 job—or even take a permanent copywriting gig—it would be a financial boon to the family coffers.

I could have run away from my family. I could have stayed on that island beach until my money ran out, then gotten a job somewhere in the mid-Atlantic area. But I loved my family. Deeply. I just needed to be by myself for a little while so I could build up the energy to give them more, love them more. I hope I came back a slightly better parent.

During my writing sabbatical (a gentle word), I read some, watched television, bought furniture, decluttered the house quite a bit. I still have some power washing to do. And more reading to do. After two years of lightening the tone of my reading, and, to some extent, my writing, I’ve delved back into much darker stuff (the astonishing Mo Hayder has changed my life, I think). It’s got me thinking, and doing some unexpected planning. I’m still in love, but perhaps a bit wiser. That’s never a bad thing.

Have you ever had to get away just so you could stay?

 

 

6+

Guest Post: Carolyn Haines, Southern Mystery Doyenne

Hey, y’all! I’m so excited to have writer Carolyn Haines visit with us. Decades ago, even before Carolyn started her mystery series featuring Sarah Booth Delaney, I saw several of her books shelved in a place of honor at a friend’s house. My friend told me that Carolyn was a wonderful writer, and as an unpublished newbie, I immediately got stars in my eyes knowing I was thatclose to a famous writer. Carolyn’s writing is truly wonderful, and these days, I’m proud to call her my own good friend.

(If you’re in the Houston area, dash over to the amazing MURDER BY THE BOOK for a signing event with Carolyn, plus Terry Shames, TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m.)

Carolyn is here to talk about the pleasures and pitfalls of having a successful, long-running series. Please give her a warm TKZ welcome!

LONG LIVE THE BONES

I’ve been writing about my amateur detective Sarah Booth Delaney for over 20 years—and I have 20 books documenting her mystery-solving skills. The latest, GAME OF BONES, was just released. But I have to tell you, it’s my time to whine. In the world of Zinnia, Mississippi, Sarah Booth Delaney seldom ages. In the twenty years I’ve been writing about her and the rest of the gang, Sarah Booth has aged less than two years. I, on the other hand, have stacked two decades onto my total orbits around the sun. This is not fair.

While Sarah Booth remains eternally young, still able to consider pregnancy (though she is pushing that really hard as her personal “haint” Jitty would tell her) and still able to perform the physical feats that make her a good detective (and also a bit like Lucille Ball), I am feeling the passage of the years in my bones. Sarah Booth has never met trouble she didn’t want to get down and wallow in. I have not been arrested in a while, so I’m a slacker.

I’ve read a lot of blogs from authors who talk about “when it’s time to end a series.” To be perfectly honest, when I wrote THEM BONES, I didn’t realize I was writing a series. The book sold at auction and the publisher who bought it wanted a 3-book deal. I was terrified. I’ve always read mysteries, but I never considered myself a skilled plotter. But there I was—with two additional mysteries to write, and then two more, and then two more, and then three, etc., etc.

Now, the characters are so much a part of my daily life that it’s hard to imagine NOT writing about them. They are family, and I love the work of bringing their adventures to the page.

Over the course of two decades, I’ve outlined the series arc. I know what the last book in the series will be, but since I just signed another three-book contract, it won’t be until after 2022. (There will be two books in 2021. One in May, my regular publication time, and a special Christmas book.)

Through the years, folks have pressured me to marry Sarah Booth off and let her have young-uns. I’ve resisted this pressure for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Sarah Booth doesn’t listen to me or to Jitty, her ancestral ghost who tries to boss her around for her own good. I tried to edge Sarah Booth toward more romance with one character, but she balked completely. She knows her own mind. As I said, she is like family and the Haines clan is known to be hard-headed. My guidance is often rejected. But again, that makes the stories interesting to write.

Aside from Sarah Booth’s recalcitrant behavior, there are other reasons. I’ve read a lot of series books and watched a lot of series television where the two leading characters finally give in to lust, love, or domesticity. That’s the point I lose interest in the characters. I realize not all people are like me, but as the writer, I refuse to spend time in a world that bores me. As it stands now, Sarah Booth has a love interest, but romance is always a dicey business with my feisty anti-belle. Sarah Booth breaks the rules of polite society and she disdains the expectations to marry.

Each book in the series is a complete, standalone mystery, but the characters do change. I’m really proud of the way that my characters have grown. While Sarah Booth and her friend and partner Tinkie have madcap adventures, they are serious about the life decisions they make and the values they buy into. The cases they tackle highlight some tough issues, but always with humor. Most of all, the characters and I want to make you laugh and have fun. “A lot of life’s hardships are soothed by laughter.”—that’s a Sarah Booth quote.

I just finished the last season of GAME OF THRONES, where a lot of characters die. Some I watched with relish and others I mourned. I don’t have any plans to kill off any characters in the Zinnia universe. Just remember, I don’t have total control of this world. Sarah Booth goes her own way and she’s been heard to say, when asked why there are so many homicides in her small town of Zinnia, Mississippi, “A lotta men just need killing.” I concur. Some people beg for a swift end. Sarah Booth would be happy to deliver on that. Patience is a virtue she doesn’t have.

When I listen to other writers talk about ending their series at 8 or 9 books, I understand. Writing a book is an intense relationship with the characters. When a writer is tired of a character, it’s time. Give the series a dignified ending. What I really hate is an abrupt end to a series with so many questions unanswered—and no way to find an answer. The pulling of the publishing or television plug is an unfortunate part of the business that upsets both readers and writers. I do have an exit strategy, but I am a long way from executing it.

I write other series, and I think that keeps me fresh to “document” Sarah Booth’s escapades. I love writing humorous books, but I am also a fan of gothic/horror and mystery/fantasy, so I explore those worlds in other series. I’ve published over 80 books. I love riding my horse, caring for my pets, pranking my family and friends—and telling stories.

Sarah Booth will tell me when it’s time to let go, but I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon.

Where to find Carolyn:

Carolyn’s Facebook Page

GAME OF BONES  links

Carolyn’s Newsletter Sign-up and Website

Carolyn Haines is the USA Today bestselling author of the Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series and a number of other books in mystery and crime, including the Pluto’s Snitch paranormal-historical mystery series, and Trouble, the black cat detective romantic suspense books. She is the recipient of the Harper Lee Award for Distinguished Writing, the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence, and the Mississippi Writers Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. She is a former journalist, bartender, photographer, farmhand, and college professor and lives on a farm where she works with rescue cats, dogs, and horses.

 

10+

TIGER BEAT and Other Things That Made Me a Reader

 

As I write this, my knees and hands hurt with a flavor of arthritis that has yet to be specified, I’m snuffling from allergies, my house is musty from dozens of inches of rain, I was only able to trim my cats’ toe nails before they escaped my trimmers, and it’s their ice pick dew claws that dig into my shoulder every time. A quarter of my garden has been overtaken by invasive Japanese irises that multiply every time I blink. Don’t even get me started on the house mouse that LICKED the peanut butter out of two traps without setting them off, and also apparently thumbs (poetic license—mice don’t have thumbs) its tiny rodent nose at my do-less, dew-clawed cats.

All the way from here I can hear you saying (over your coffee and lightly toasted buttery croissant—which is what I imagine you’re having for breakfast, or elevenses, if you’ve been up writing into the night, like I so often do), “What the heck, Benedict? This has nothing to do with writing. You’re just whining!”

Well, when life gets vaguely annoying, I like to complain for a while, and then pull a giant piece of particle board over the cozy fort/hole I’ve dug into the backyard. There I can ponder distant, gentler times. Here’s today’s note from the fort:

I’m thinking about the things I read as a kid that I don’t read much of today. As a kid, I acted without prejudice when it came to choosing reading materials. It’s not even that I chose things—they just showed up and demanded to be read. Gobble us up! You can have us all! We’re delicious! And I was totally game. Like a primitive Pokémon player, I was ready to catch them all. Perhaps it was that there were fewer printed (?) words floating around in the world than there are now, and so it seemed like an achievable task. There were moments (okay, hours) when I sincerely believed that if I tried hard enough, I could track down and read every word ever printed.

Dearest Reader, I never even got close, and at my age it’s not looking good.

BrainyQuote.com tells me that it was Arthur Ashe who said, “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” So here I am, on the journey, savoring the offerings along the way.

Back when I was first tempted by all those words, there were plenty of children’s books to keep me enthralled. Little Golden Books, library books, readers. (Damn, I loved those boring Dick and Jane and Spot books, but mostly because I thought they were funny. And also because I was made to sit behind the filing cabinet and read ahead, by myself, because I kept interrupting the other kids, telling them the words when they got stuck. Who doesn’t like to be allowed to read ahead?! In other news, I could be an insufferable brat.)

Then there was the good stuff. The stuff nobody told me to read, but that I couldn’t resist.

*Warning: If you are under the age of 45, you may have to consult a search engine. Think of it as research.

 

Highlights Magazine

God bless the Highlights writers. How did they know I wanted to do puzzles and read stories about animals and other kids? I thought Gallant of Goofus and Gallantwas a kiss ass prig, though I did understand that Goofus was not to be admired. The peg-jointed Timbertoes were fun. Did Ma remind anyone else of Olive Oyl?  I lived for Hidden Pictures. They were the first thing I went for as soon as the magazine arrived. In fact, when I later subscribed for my children (right, it was for the kids), I learned the Highlights people published entire magazines made up of only Hidden Pictures. And the jokes. I still can’t remember a joke to save my life, but Highlights always had one ready.

Dictionaries

I miss paper dictionaries. Was there anything better than sitting down with one to read row after row of new words? Old ones are true cultural artifacts. I refuse to throw away my 1980s vintage Webster’s.

Fan Magazines

Granted, I wasn’t allowed to have these at home. But my girl friends had them. Tiger Beatwas the preferred title. What does that title even mean? Somehow it was important for me to know what Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy ate for breakfast, and what they liked a girl to be like (and what does thateven mean?). I’m not going to tell you how many times I pretended to be Bobby Sherman’s wife, and mother of his children, before I was ten.

Cereal Boxes

I still tell people to read cereal boxes. Though now they’re not as much fun because they talk about having less sugar and more fiber, and there are no prizes in the boxes because trial lawyers have made sure we can’t have fun things anymore. Even worse, there are hardly ever hidden pictures on the back of boxes now. I think the trouble began with Wheaties and their fancy profiles of sports figures. Give me a Toucan word search any day.

Sears Catalogs

I’m not so old that you could still buy a house or a bride in a Sears Catalog when I was a kid. But those catalogs were the Internet of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The descriptions of the items were persuasive—at least they were to me—and worthy forerunners of The J. Peterman Company catalog. The pictures were great, sure. Particularly in the early 1970s when the kid models started looking extra-excited instead of sitting there like mannequins. The Sears Catalog was the first place I saw a bra, and men’s underwear. A real education.

Encyclopedias

Our family set of encyclopedias had belonged to my dad’s parents (I think). Printed in the late 1940s, I remember using them for reports into the early 1970s. They seemed purely informational to me, but it was information that entertained. Even if the article was about turbines. Or airplanes. Or beetles or waterfalls pictured in black and white. My mom’s parents had an even older set, geared to children. My favorite volume had watercolor illustrations, and old songs and poems. I never memorized what volume it was, but I knew where it lived on the shelf.

Children’s Bible

I had no time for a grown-up Bible. I adored my Children’s Bible Stories, and tried to take it to church with me. I was probably nine years old before I realized it wasn’t actually a Bible. Until I started reading books like Black Beauty and Kidnapped and Sherlock Holmes stories, they were my favorite adventure stories. Nothing says adventure like chariots being felled in a tsunami, and a brawny guy with bloody eyes pushing down pillars.

Maps

Cue the Dora the Explorer song. I’m a map! I’m a map! I cut my reading teeth on my grandparents’ AAA maps –every page flip showed some new blue (or red) line to somewhere new. Even when we weren’t traveling, I could imagine where the lines led.

Okay. I feel better. The lawn guy has texted and says he can come soon and mow so I won’t have to hear the deer ticks mocking me as they sway atop our foot-tall grass.

 

Tell us: What were your earliest written word influences? 

6+

First Page Critique: They’re Gone

 

Greetings, writers.

Today, join us for a peek into the life of the cutest family ever! Take it away, Brave Author:

CHAPTER 1

We all have secrets. Josh prefers to keep his hidden, especially from his wife. Josh Benson is a 35 year old family man, devoted father, and loving husband. He has no idea his life will shatter in the next 24 hours.

Josh is scrolling through cell phone photos. He stops at one in particular. It’s from his first date with Lauren. He looks fit and his blue eyes are staring into Lauren’s without a hint of deception. Things change. This photo was taken nine years ago.

He hears little footsteps scurrying across the hardwood floor. Sean and Cooper come running into the living room and jump on the couch like it’s a trampoline.

“Mommy, Daddy, can we watch tv?” It’s a Saturday morning so this excitement is expected.

Lauren says, “Yes, but you need to quit breaking the couch. I’ve told you a hundred times.”

“Fine Mommy, we’ll stop.” The things kids say just to watch television.

Josh clicks a button on the remote control and asks the boys what show they want to watch.

They both respond at the exact same time as if they’re the Backstreet Boys. “Sesame Street!”

Josh looks at his two greatest accomplishments and just smiles. He loves them more than life itself.

After the kids find out the number of the day, they consume some snacks like Joey Chestnut in a hot dog eating competition.

Josh says, “Okay boys, guess what today is?”

“Family day!” Everyone cheers. Josh and Lauren are taking the boys to the Philadelphia Zoo for the first time.

“Who’s ready for the zoo? Who wants to see a lion?”

Cooper starts roaring as loudly as he can. He’s 3 years old so this is appropriate behavior.

The boys are adorable, as in they’re so perfectly good looking, you would think Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston had kids in their prime and out came Sean and Cooper.

Sean, their 5 year old, is full of life and never stops. He’s like the Energizer bunny. He says, “I’ll be right back, Daddy!”

He plays a quick game of frogger to avoid the never-ending amount of toys scattered across the living room floor. Once he finds the right bin, he puts on his favorite costume. He dresses up in a black mask, puffed out chest, gold utility belt, and a long black cape. He hustles to the kitchen table and taps Josh’s shoulder.

 

__________________

Before rushing into the meat of this submission, let’s address the piece’s first word: We. “We” is a huge word, and its implications are several.

  1. “We” implies a rare, first-person, plural narrator.
  2. Who is included in this we? Does it include all humans? Is it a Greek-style chorus of Josh’s friends and family? Perhaps an alien tribunal?
  3. Hearing this particular “we,” I’m immediately put in mind of Rod Serling’s opening and closing monologues on the original Twilight Zone television series. Serling’s monologues had an intimate, confidential, we’re all in this together, feel. He seemed to be addressing each listener across a table set with crystal ashtrays and chilled cocktails.
  4. A story with a first-person, plural narrator is definitely akin to second-person narration, which uses “you” handily. As in, “You may be reading this thinking, ‘Oh! The author is going to kill off that darling little puppy!’ But you would be wrong. We all know I’m way smarter than that.”

“We,” as intimate as it sounds, here leads us into a scene over which we hover as though we’re watching images sent back to us via drone. An opening scene sets the tone of the entire novel–and while there are plenty of clues that we’re dealing with a happy family and proud father, there is no other tension except Josh’s slight frustration with Elmo repeating himself.( My sympathies, I’ve been an Elmo prisoner.)

All this is to say, please give us some small, physical signs of John’s frustrations. Is he always the perfect, fun dad? Or is he occasionally grouchy and overly-protective.

Josh pulling out an old photo of him and his bride is a bit cliché.

Given the title, and the tale’s dire, first paragraph prediction, I’m going to assume that it’s the two adorable children who are the “They” who are soon gone? With those assumptions, the story will clearly be a thriller. Except…there’s a whole lot of cuteness to navigate that serves to make me wonder if that’s really going to be true.

Thinking about dialogue:

““Mommy, Daddy, can we watch tv?” It’s a Saturday morning so this excitement is expected.” –Who is talking here? Both of them? It would be weird and truly scary to have them say this simultaneously.

““Fine Mommy, we’ll stop.” The things kids say just to watch television.” –“Fine, Mommy, we’ll stop.” sounds a bit Stepford-child-ish. And, again, is it both children saying this?

“The things kids say just to watch television.” Is this Josh’s thought? Again, it feels like an intrusive narrator’s words, rather than those of a character.

All that said, I love the children’s presence, and the intense family feeling here.

Please keep in mind that an opening scene needn’t be saccharine to imply general happiness. If this is, indeed, a thriller, put in more tension, less Elmo.

Set to, dear readers! I’ve left plenty of open territory for other criticismsl

 

2+

First Page Critique: Coyotes

Gentle Readers, We’re in dusty New Mexico today, at a delightfully grisly scene. Let’s go!

(Coyotes)

Three days is a long time to be dead, especially out under the intense New Mexico sun. The bodies were stacked like cord wood; if they were wood, I’d wager there was a good half a cord there. New Englanders know these things.

The smell was overwhelming; the chorus of a few thousand flies filled my ears and the half-cord sized pile shimmered with writhing maggots. I gagged but forced myself to look, to see the coyotes’ empty yellow eyes.

There were at least fifteen of them, maybe more, it was hard to be sure. Blocks of wood with a date scrawled in black marker—October 20th, three days ago—had been placed into the animals’ mouths, to what end I couldn’t imagine. Temporary markers for temporary remains, I guessed. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel like those small sections of two-by-four pressure treated wood had been placed there with any measure of respect.

The coyotes’ once sumptuous red-gray coats were matted, their fur dulled by the ever-present dust that blows across the desert, by the lack of lifeblood for nourishment. Their bodies had already begun to shrink. To flatten, sinking back into the plains where they had made their homes, where they had hunted their prey. Where they’d eaten berries and birthed their young and filled the night with their songs. No one would come to dispose of their bodies; the BLM land would simply reclaim them.

I looked away then. I didn’t understand it but, when I’d risen this morning, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’d needed to see for myself. “Fucking hell,” I whispered and wished I had a cigarette, but they were a quarter of a mile away, in my unit—dubbed the Eunuch by my friend Ben, since my unmarked Charger “has no balls and protects divine royalty.”

Ben has a little bit of a crush on me.

“They think of it as a sport,” he’d sputtered the night before, his youthful cheeks red with righteous indignation, his prominent nose red from the beers. Ben’s half Jewish and has the shnoz to prove it. He’s also very tall and thin and his tagline, when meeting new people is, “Ben Short. All my life.”

______

Dang, there’s so much to love about this passage. I’m wild for it. We’re BANG, right into the scene of the crime, with a smart narrator showing us around. The slaughtered animals tell us this isn’t going to be a gentle story, and the grisly detail is carefully observed. Such an opening won’t be for the faint of heart, but this will find plenty of fans. And there’s humor here to leaven it. I don’t have much more than praise to offer, so I’m going to give it a line edit.

______

“Three days is a long time to be dead, especially out under the intense New Mexico sun. The bodies were stacked like cord wood; if they were wood, I’d wager there was a good half a cord there. New Englanders know these things.”

Terrific opening line. Don’t change a thing. Except maybe get rid of “out.”

Not identifying the bodies as belonging to coyotes is misleading. I assumed they were human, and felt a little confused and dopey when I learned they weren’t. Whole different story. 

__Three days is a long time to be dead, especially out under the intense New Mexico sun. The coyotes’ stiffened bodies were stacked as high as a half cord of firewood so that they appeared to be one hideous creature with way too many heads. Against my better judgement, I moved a few steps closer.__

(Okay. The “so that they appeared to be one hideous creature with way too many heads” may sound like too much, but you need something to carry forth some rhythm into the middle of the paragraph.)

Lose “New Englanders know these things.” Keep us in New Mexico for now. You’re in it for the long haul, and the confident voice needs no justification pertaining to knowledge of cords of wood.

“The smell was overwhelming; the chorus of a few thousand flies filled my ears and the half-cord sized pile shimmered with writhing maggots. I gagged but forced myself to look, to see the coyotes’ empty yellow eyes.”

I want to know more than that the smell was “overwhelming.” What does that mean? That it’s so strong that the narrator staggers and might faint? That it smells like rotting hamburger wrapped in the socks of a million sweaty feet? Be specific. Give us a sentence.

Same deal with the flies and their sound.

 __A thousand hovering flies, their electric hum vibrating in my ears, swept and dove at the pile, which already shimmered with patches of wriggling maggots. Gagging, I forced myself to look into the coyotes’ empty yellow eyes.__

“There were at least fifteen of them, maybe more, it was hard to be sure. Blocks of wood with a date scrawled in black marker—October 20th, three days ago—had been placed into the animals’ mouths, to what end I couldn’t imagine. Temporary markers for temporary remains, I guessed. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel like those small sections of two-by-four pressure treated wood had been placed there with any measure of respect.”

You’ve got an amazing visual and powerful commentary by the narrator here. Remember to keep the voice active and confident.

__I counted fifteen heads, but there may have been more that I couldn’t see. A block of wood scrawled with a date of 10/20–three days earlier–jutted from each animal’s mouth. Temporary markers for temporary remains, I guessed. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel like those small sections of two-by-four pressure treated wood had been placed there with any measure of respect.__

“The coyotes’ once sumptuous red-gray coats were matted, their fur dulled by the ever-present dust that blows across the desert, by the lack of lifeblood for nourishment. Their bodies had already begun to shrink. To flatten, sinking back into the plains where they had made their homes, where they had hunted their prey. Where they’d eaten berries and birthed their young and filled the night with their songs. No one would come to dispose of their bodies; the BLM land would simply reclaim them.”

“Matted.” Were they bloody? Were the coyotes shocked to death, or shot? Attacked by vampires/vampire bats?! The “lack of lifeblood” implies they’ve lost blood.

Call me an idiot, but I wondered at the (BLM) Black Lives Matter land reference. Further investigation suggests that it refers to Bureau of Land Management land. Adding the BLM reference dulls the poignancy of the last line. Slip it in a tad later.

__The coyotes’ once sumptuous red-gray coats were matted, their fur dulled by the ever-present dust that blows across the desert, by the lack of lifeblood for nourishment. Their bodies had already begun to shrink and flatten, sinking back into the plains where they had made their homes, where they had hunted their prey. Where they’d eaten berries and birthed their young, and filled the night with their songs. No one would come to dispose of their bodies. The land would simply reclaim them.__

“I looked away then. I didn’t understand it but, when I’d risen this morning, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’d needed to see for myself. “Fucking hell,” I whispered and wished I had a cigarette, but they were a quarter of a mile away, in my unit—dubbed the Eunuch by my friend Ben, since my unmarked Charger ‘has no balls and protects divine royalty.'”

“I didn’t understand it but, when I’d risen this morning, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’d needed to see for myself.”

I don’t get this at all. Are we not on the immediate scene? Had the narrator been told about the coyotes sometime earlier, and that’s why they’re now at the scene? Very confusing. If that’s the case, make that super clear and don’t drop it randomly in here–tell us at the end of the scene when they’re driving away or something. “The captain was going to be pissed as hell that I’d gone by the scene, but I’d been up all night thinking about it after Ben told me. I had to see it for myself.”

__I looked away then. “Fucking hell,” I whispered, and wished I had a cigarette. But they were a quarter of a mile away, in my unit—dubbed the Eunuch by my friend Ben, since my unmarked Charger “has no balls and protects divine royalty.”__

“Ben has a little bit of a crush on me.”

I must ask. Does our narrator identify as a man, woman, as transgender, or something else? Please make this clear, and sooner. It will matter to many readers because they’ll want to get the picture in their head.

“Ben is a bit of a comedian. He also has a crush on me.”

“They think of it as a sport,” he’d sputtered the night before, his youthful cheeks red with righteous indignation, his prominent nose red from the beers. Ben’s half Jewish and has the shnoz to prove it. He’s also very tall and thin and his tagline, when meeting new people is, “Ben Short. All my life.”

Okay. Now I see that Ben is the one who told her about the coyotes the night before. Still, the implied timeline is confusing. There’s no need to go back and forth–just tell us straight out what the narrator is doing there and at whose behest. Earlier.

Who is “they?” Maybe he can refer to them as son-of-a-bitches or bastards, etc. If he doesn’t curse, he could say “Jerks.”

The line about Ben joking about his name is cute. But given the intense scene, I think it’s one joke too many on top of the grisly coyote situation.

“Ben’s half Jewish and has the shnoz to prove it.” Really? This sounds like a line from a 1940s noir. It’s a stereotype that some people might find offensive. Use at your peril.

__“Bastards think of it as a sport,” he’d sputtered the night before, all six feet of him towering unsteadily over me. His youthful cheeks were red with righteous indignation, his prominent nose red from the beers.__

____

Again, I think this is a terrific beginning, and can be near-perfect with a small amount of thoughtfulness and editing.

What do you all think? Tell us your advice for our Brave Author!

 

5+

In Which We Talk Swag

Panorama pic of Left Coast Crime 2019 Swag Table

In recent years, the bags of free goodies celebrities receive for going to awards shows or film festivals has become the stuff of–well, if not of legend, then over-hyped fodder for gossip sites and their related television shows. These “swag bags” often contain things like  vacations, certificates for plastic surgery (booty lift, anyone?), jewelry, designer duds, catering, gaming systems, computers, booze, beauty products, therapy consultation, car leasing, protein bars, and much, much more.

If you’ve been to a book festival or conference, you know that attendees sadly must settle for less.

Back in the 00’s, a fan might pick up the occasional button, keychain, or bookmark. (Much to author Bill Cameron’s puzzlement, I still have a button with his LOST DOG (2008?) cover, and put it on my Christmas tree every year.) Now, it seems that the majority of authors attending conferences are giving at least a little something away with their name, website, and book cover to potential fans. When the number of authors at a conference can run well into the hundreds, you’re talking about a lot of stuff.

Over the years I’ve given away bookmarks, laminated magnets, flower seed packets, plain magnets, chip clips, lots of candy (not branded), postcards, and did I mention bookmarks? Those were all paid for directly out of my pocket. For THE STRANGER INSIDE, Mulholland Books created some kick ass keychains to give away at a Little Brown event at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg. I snapped up the five or six left on abandoned tables after the event. (Never leave your swag behind!) I never could’ve afforded to sponsor such a high-value bit of swag myself, so I was very, very grateful.

As I’ve just returned from Left Coast Crime 2019, Whale of a Crime, in Vancouver, BC, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the immense amount of swag I saw there. No, I didn’t ask any of these authors if I could post photos, as the items are–I assume–meant to advertise their books. But I did take the photos, and they itched to be shared. If you’re promoting your own work already, or someday will be, I hope they’ll be useful to you. Pics are in no particular order.

KEYCHAIN: This was one of my favorite bits of swag. Janice Peacock/To Bead or Not to Bead. The cover is charming and colorful, and a keychain is one of those items that’s going to hang around a long time. Unfortunately, no website address.  $$$

CARD LIST: I wasn’t sure what to call this, so “card list” it is. I had to read the list and the headline a couple of times before I understood that it was just for fun. Used online, this would make a cute Facebook or Pinterest image. As clever as it is, I would’ve liked to have seen at least one of the book covers as well. I went to Becky Clark’s “Books” page to see that Mystery Writer’s Mysteries is a collection of books featuring mystery authors. When I first saw the card I thought it was maybe a group of authors who wrote them. Bonus points for eye-catching colors, website addy, and stand-out size. $

RECIPE CARD: How lovely is this?! Coincidentally I have been wanting to make scones. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have any identifying information–as though it’s at the wrong conference. I assume there’s book and author information, and perhaps a book cover on the reverse side. As you can see in the photo, the stack is similarly placed. NOTE: The swag table is a crowded place–you can’t expect a browser to turn every thing over to see what’s on the back. Be sure you have book and author information on BOTH SIDES.

Four-color printed, large card: $$

 

WINE STOPPER: Unique at the conference. Good author name presence, especially with the added bookmark. Alec Peche/Damian Green Series. Visited her website to see if the books were wine related. They don’t appear to be, but lots of people drink wine like they use keychains, bookmarks, etc. $$$

DRINKS COASTER: On theme, useful, and good information. Could use a website address. These went quickly. Leslie Karst/Sally Solari Mysteries $$$

SURGICAL MASK: Another unique item–meaning no one else brought them. I found this both charming and a little alarming. At first I thought maybe the books were Michael Crichton-type horror books, but they’re hospital mysteries. I breathed a sigh of relief! Card attached to the mask with good information. Again, these went fast. (There was no shortage of folks wearing surgical masks on the streets of Vancouver!) Very on-theme. Liz Osborne/Robyn Kelly Mysteries $$$

PRINTED SHORT STORY: Content! Smart offering. Eye-catching and large. (Large might be a drawback, as attendees take home many books and might not have much room for more.) Good to mention it’s a story in a series universe. No website address? D.R. Ransdell/MARIACHI MEDDLER $$

PAPERBACK BOOK: Not sure if this paperback was meant to be a giveaway, or if it’s related to the black pens in front of it. I didn’t see any other copies. Very cool cover. Henebury/SLEEP $$$$

Publishers often give away paperback ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) at conferences. It’s a pricey option, but there’s nothing better than getting an actual book, IMO.

PEN/CARDS: I liked this combo a lot. The pens were adorable, and had the book series name and website (as I recall). The cards offered every other bit of info you could want. Plus an author pic. If there hadn’t been colorful pens, I think I’d have wanted to see a book cover. Also, a rabbi writing about a rabbi is a fascinating combo. Rabbi Ilene Schneider/RABBI AVIVA COHEN Mysteries $$$$

When you have multiple items, there’s a chance they’ll get separated. (Note Alec Peche’s useful box above) And you’ll notice that the pens went way faster than the cards. So the pens need maximum info.

TWOFER

CONFERENCE CARD (large): It’s not just authors who promote. There were quite a few offerings from workshops and retreats. IDK if there’s info on the back, but there’s no website on the front. Again…Everything should be obvious and immediate. Colorful and eye-catching. $$

STICKY NOTES: Colorful, useful, informative. These sticky notes are a great giveaway. The author’s name and website is right there, along with the name of the series. Sticky notes can hang around a desk a long time. Pricey. $$$$

STANDING POSTER: See what I mean about things getting covered up? I had to rearrange things to get the full poster shot. It’s smart that she made it so large that it could tower over the stuff people put in front of it. Real estate is precious. I don’t know if there were copies of a short story to go along with the poster, but wouldn’t you think so? The cat kills me! Bonus points for excellent design. Website addy? Denise Dietz/Annie and The Grateful Dead.  $$ for just the poster, $$$ if story copies were included.

TWOFER, though it doesn’t look like it

MAGNETS: Magnets used to be super expensive. They involved sealing an image and putting a magnetic back on it. Now they can print on long strips of magnet.

This is my moment of shame: Great cover for THE STRANGER INSIDE, yes? Magnets hang around a long time on refrigerators or on metal filing cabinets, etc. Note the bits of white on the edges of my magnet. When the magnets were cut from sheets, they didn’t cut cleanly, and some of the black edge was exposed as white. Ugh. Also, this last magnet shows fingerprints. No website addy. $$

Note: You can’t tell the difference between the magnet and the four-color cards surrounding it. That’s a problem. Unless someone picks it up, they’ll never know what it is. Magnets are great to hand out directly, say at book festivals and signings. But they’re useless flat on a table. I did do bookmarks as well, though. They have all the info.

CARDS: The number of beautifully produced cards was astonishing. Michael W. Sherer’s were particularly high quality and had great variety. Useful if information is on the back. Book covers are striking. If they’re striking enough, people may be moved to pick them up to investigate. They also have a collectible quality about them, and make good bookmarks.

BOOK COVERS: Colorful, all the information about the author, and the book. Author Libby Klein had several versions of these. They seem to be bigger than postcard size. Maybe they are actual book covers? Interesting souvenir. $$$

FREE PROMO CARD: Deborah Coonts/AFTER ME. Striking size and design. Lots of good information, including cover, synopsis, blurb, and download code. No website addy? (I didn’t look at the back).  $$ or maybe $$$ including the download.

I did a free download of a short story on a bookmark for my sixth book. I didn’t have all that many downloads, but it is a clever gimmick and a great freebie. The idea that you have to type in the address and can’t just click on the picture is still funny to me.

OTHER STUFF

BOOKMARKS: Bookmarks are the go-to swag for the thrifty author. They’re useful, colorful, have the book’s cover, and room front and back for lots of critical information. I also include blurbs, the pitch line, and website address. $

MATCHES: This was a first for me. I believe they are simply the cover, and matches. Talk about on-theme! Very cool. $$$

BUMPER STICKER: I didn’t know SNOPES was at the conference…Interesting concept, though I’ve never seen a book bumper sticker. Ever. Not even on that weird car that’s so covered with bumper stickers that you can’t see the color of the car anymore. $$$

PENS: Pens are stupidly expensive. I love them, but am very wary of poor quality. They also have limited room for your info. Book or series title and website seem to be the most common/useful. $$$$

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something. Authors are very creative when it comes to promo.

Final thoughts. Look at that table! IMO the conference could have used a second swag table. This one was like a tiny, violent sea, with flotsam and jetsam constantly bobbing and bumping on its surface. It became a kind of game to see how my own magnets would appear and disappear, or pop up in different places when I dropped by. I was stunned when the big box of matches appeared, sitting on a dozen other offerings.

Keep in mind:

Swag costs money. Spend wisely.

Your stuff is going to get covered up by other stuff. Keep an eye on it.

Don’t be a jerk and cover up other writers’ stuff.

Don’t put out magnets unless you don’t mind spending the money to have people not pick them up because they don’t know what they are.

Don’t be hurt if you have swag left over. Take it home for the next event or to your library.

IDENTIFY YOURSELF ON BOTH SIDES.

Include your website.

Buy the highest quality swag you can afford. But don’t go into debt for it. Who knows what the return is?

If you stick a couple dozen in your badge pocket, you can give your bookmark/magnet/card to everyone you meet.

Have fun with it!

Okay, TKZers. Have at it. What’s your swag experience? Are you fer it, or agin it? What’s your favorite swag? Has swag ever led you to buy a book?

8+

First Page Critique: ALEXA

 

The Party Busload of Exposition (GoDaddy Stock photo)

 

Dearest Readers,

Step into the Kill Zone Critique Parlor, where today’s Brave Author has a tragic tale to tell. Pull up a tuffet, and buckle up. I have Thoughts.

 

ALEXA

Tom’s death changed everything.

I sat in my car, the engine idling, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian. I wasn’t cheered.

It was only twelve weeks past his funeral. When I wasn’t sobbing, I was frowning at the myriad details I’d had to deal with in the days following the end of life as we know it. That’s how I thought of it. I’d packed up the furnished rental, mailed out change-of-address forms and done my best to put on a brave face for TJ. I was exhausted from the long drive that brought us to Ohio.

We’d been planning the move before Tom…went away, but now I was making it alone. Well, with TJ. Tom inherited the yellow house from his grandmother when she passed away six months ago. He’d flown out to look it over and reported back that it needed some updating but had good bones. He said there were lots of rooms, which sounded like heaven in comparison to our tiny two-bedroom in the city. “It has a huge country kitchen,” he said with a grin, poking me in the side and causing me to jump and make a face at him. At the time I was chopping veggies in the postage-stamp that passed for our current kitchen. I leaned my head back against his shoulder and sighed, daydreaming of twirling around in our future house, giddy at all the space.

I’m so angry at the goddamn drunk driver who snuffed out my husband’s life on March 16, 2017. March 16, 2017…a day that will live in infamy. Oh, ha ha. Bitter much?
I guess I have a right to be. All that crap about forgiving. I will not forgive the one who stole his life…and my life and TJ’s.

Maybe with time. Everyone’s quick to say that holding on to the hate I feel for Mr. George Goddamn Daniels will only poison me and not bring Tom back. I feel the poison in me now, but I embrace the huge empty hole eaten away by the acid-generating hatred. I don’t want to feel good, because everything’s bad now. Maybe with time….

I glanced in the rearview mirror at TJ. His face was sad, like mine. He gazed at the yellow house, not moving to open the car door. Maybe the two of us could stare it into becoming our home.
“Ready, buddy?” I asked as I opened my door. My heart broke at his wan smile and “Sure, Mom.”

____________________________________________________

Let me say right off that I’m impressed with the voice of this story. The narrator’s voice is confident and mature. Believable. The sentences are tight and declarative–my favorite. Let’s talk story.

My understanding is that ALEXA is about a newly-widowed woman and her young son who are moving into the house her husband inherited from his grandmother before he was killed by a drunk driver named Mr. George Daniels. The new house is somewhere in Ohio and they’re coming from a bigger (?) city, where they’d lived in a two-bedroom, furnished rental apartment. She loved her husband Tom very much, and she and her son are very sad that he’s dead. She feels poisoned with hate, but doesn’t yet want to go of her consuming, awful feelings.

This opening telegraphs that this is a family or personal drama, and neither a thriller nor mystery. It could end up with a romantic story line, but it doesn’t feel like that will be a focus.

Title

This story is called ALEXA, and there’s no evidence that it has anything to do with Amazon’s AI, Alexa. I was confused right off the bat. I know young women named Alexa, and while I would never confuse any of them with the AI, it’s different when I run into the name as a title. Perhaps I’m being picky (“I’m not picky, I have standards.” –Mindy Kaling), but Amazon comes up first in my brain. Amazon has appropriated the name, and there’s no going back.

Is our narrator named Alexa? Was it the grandmother’s name? If so, somehow let us know asap so we’re not left hanging. This seems to me a sad and rather tender story. If I’m mistaken, and they walk into the beautiful country kitchen (What is considered a country kitchen these days? There are many, many online definitions, but my ancient understanding is that it is a large kitchen with maybe a seating area and perhaps a fireplace. I don’t know what image it suggests to others.) to discover that ALEXA has taken over the house and is programmed to terrorize them, then it’s a story that surely takes a shocking turn on Page 2.

Pacing

May I just say… WHOA THERE, NELLIE!

I was exhausted by the time I finished the first 400 words. I was even more exhausted the second and third and fourth times I read it. I worry because at this pace the novel will only be approximately 60 pages long.

It feels as though you’ve decided to get the backstory out of the way so you can move on and proceed with the action.

We start out very well: “Tom’s death changed everything.”

“I sat in my car, the engine idling, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian. I wasn’t cheered.”

It’s clean. It’s direct. It’s compelling. Though you might consider shifting to present tense with the second line to give the story immediacy and emotional punch.

“I sit in our idling Toyota, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian house. I’m not cheered.”

The third paragraph continues with our narrator relating the many, many things she’s been doing in the past twelve weeks besides staring: sobbing, frowning, dealing, packing, mailing, and putting on a brave face.

In the next paragraph we learn that the family was moving. Tom was also inheriting, looking over, flying, reporting, grinning, poking, and causing our narrator to jump. And she’s making a face, chopping veggies, leaning back, sighing, and daydreaming about twirling and being giddy.

In the fifth paragraph, we learn how Tom died.

In the sixth paragraph, we learn that she’s really, really pissed off at the guy who killed him, and won’t be forgiving.

The seventh identifies the drunk driver.

Then we finally get back to the boy in the car, and the yellow house.

Whew!

What we have here is a busload of exposition. Exposition–a chunk of narrative or backstory plunked in the middle of the action to give the action context (see what I did there?)–can be a useful tool in small doses. In large doses it distracts from the action of the story and slows it down. Note my second paragraph in the TITLE section above. I digress on what a country kitchen might be for such a long time that the reader probably had to go back and figure out what I said about a country kitchen before I opened the parentheses. Even I had to go back and look!

It’s tough to give the reader just enough information to get them interested, and keep them reading.

The thing to remember is that you’re writing scenes. Sentences build scenes. Scenes build chapters, chapters build books. A good way to start is to write one scene per chapter–even if it makes the chapter short. You’ll keep the reader focused, which is what you want to do. At the end of that scene, give the reader a reason to read on.

Here, you could continue this small scene with the boy bravely opening the car door. (I would discourage you from have her opening her door as she asks him if he’s ready. It’s a weighty moment that doesn’t need an activity.) The reader will naturally want to know what they do and see when they’re out of the car. Does she take his hand? Does he shrink back, used to the smallness of their previous home? Is there someone waiting on the porch?

“I’m so angry at the goddamn drunk driver who snuffed out my husband’s life on March 16, 2017. March 16, 2017…a day that will live in infamy. Oh, ha ha. Bitter much?
I guess I have a right to be. All that crap about forgiving. I will not forgive the one who stole his life…and my life and TJ’s.”

There are a lot of critical emotions here. We don’t need them all on the first page. She has a good, direct, confiding tone. But it’s too soon to jump into this. Sure, her feelings are complex. Right now, she’s just arrived at this house. Slow it down.

An aside– Mr. George Daniels is the drunk who caused the accident. It’s probably just me, but I couldn’t help but think of George Dickel and Jack Daniels as though the two whiskey brands had morphed into one drunk person.

“Maybe the two of us can stare it into becoming our home.” This is a beautiful line.

I don’t often suggest rewrites, but here’s a brief beginning. I can envision them getting out of the car, continuing, but you can too.

Tom’s death changed everything.

I sit in our idling Toyota, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian house we were supposed to move into together. I’m not cheered.

Our son T.J. sits in the backseat. In the rearview mirror, I see that he, too, is staring at the house. Maybe the two of us can stare it into becoming our home.

“Ready, buddy?” I ask. It’s been twelve weeks since we buried his father, my husband. My heart breaks at his wan smile, and the way his sad eyes meet mine in the mirror.

“Sure, Mom.”

Get to it, TKZers! I’ve left a couple things unaddressed because I want you to have some fun. What have I missed?

7+

Quit Trying to Write

 

You were expecting Yoda?

 

Having coffee this morning? Yum!

Now, try to pick up the cup. Go on… Are you touching the cup? No, no, no–that’s not allowed. You’re only allowed to try to pick it up.

Is your hand hanging uncertainly in the air?

This is not a trick. Okay, maybe it’s a little tricky, but it demonstrates something very important. Trying doesn’t get things done. It isn’t a thing. There is only doing. *insert Yoda here*

I think I read the phrase “I’m trying to write a (insert genre) novel” online five or six times a week. Although I empathize with struggling, beginning, and frustrated writers–as I’ve been them all–I want to gently shake these “trying” authors by the shoulders of their faded university sweatshirts and tell them to stop trying and just keep writing.

Either you’re writing a novel, or you’re not writing a novel. We can prepare ourselves to write. We can take a break from writing, or we can quit writing, or we can continue writing until we’re finished, and start the next one.

If you’re bogged down, or stuck, admit it. Don’t hide it. Ask for help, then quickly get back to your keyboard. Don’t worry: if you’re thinking constructively about your work, you’re still writing. But don’t think too long. Take an afternoon, or a day. Don’t lose your momentum, even if it’s the momentum of the  hundred words you wrote during the fifteen minutes before breakfast yesterday.

If you’re writing, you’re a writer.

Keep writing.

Help other writers.

Don’t bother trying. Make the choice to do, and not give up.

 

Are there things you find yourself “trying” to do, instead of doing them?

(for me it’s “trying” to lose weight)

 

14+