About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar-nominated author of six novels, including the gothic suspense Bliss House trilogy: Bliss House, Charlotte's Story (Booklist starred review), and The Abandoned Heart. Her fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, PANK, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, she grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and claims both as hometowns. Get to know her better and read her blog at www.laurabenedict.com.

First Page Critique: The Root of Atlan

photo by Laura Benedict

It’s a veritable feast of First Page Critiques this week here at Kill Zone. No one planned it this way, but it sure is fun. Today, we have a Fearless Writer and the opening of The Root of Atlan. The actual submission is just below, then my comments.

I hope you’ll weigh in as well.

The Root of Atlan

Day One

I woke to an excruciating headache and shouting. The last thing I remembered was walking through the airport after my flight and then what seemed like a bolt of lightning. When I pried my watering eyes open I found it was twilight or predawn and there were torches all around me. It hadn’t felt like I was unconscious but I definitely wasn’t where I had started and I was a bit groggy. I was surrounded by a number of other people, all of us lying on a circle of odd black stone ringed by tall stone pylons and mud.

My breath steamed in the chill air. Surrounding us were about fifteen men holding torches. They were dressed in brown leather armor and looked like they had stepped out of a fantasy novel. Looking closer at them I could see that they weren’t, strictly speaking, men. At least, not like men from home. Their faces resembled a cross between human and gorilla with dark ash-brown skin, receding chins with heavy jaws, and short, pushed-in noses surmounted by bald heads. Their faces were tattooed heavily.

They were armed with short, heavy swords and they were all heavily muscled. Overall, they made Neanderthals look elegant and poised in comparison. They were shouting at us incomprehensibly and I could see from the faces of my fellow travelers that they didn’t understand either.

A new group of the ape-men came into the circle of torches and began tying our hands behind us. When one of them got to me I fought back as best I could. I had been raped once and refused to be a victim again. Since I had spent the years since the rape learning how to defend myself, my best was actually pretty good despite my weakness and grogginess. It eventually took three of them working together to get me pinned so they could tie me up. I was not going to go along quietly with whatever they had planned.

Being tied up was never a start to anything good unless safe words and mutual consent were involved. I ended up wrapped up almost like a mummy and bruised over a significant portion of my body.

I wasn’t the only one who fought back, or even the most successful. One guy actually managed to get away, the last I saw of him was with a couple ape-men in hot pursuit, but I didn’t think he was going to make it. They moved pretty fast for their bulk and they looked angry. The rest of us were herded out of the muddy clearing we were in and down a path through some woods. The light grew as we headed out, but we missed the sunrise due to the heavy cloud cover.

We hiked for a couple hours until we came to an encampment. Off to one side, there were lines of what were almost horses if you could picture them with horns and split lips like a springbok. Their hides were brown and tan with barring or stripes in black and medium brown.

We were herded to the center of the encampment and ropes were tied around our necks. The ropes were then staked to the ground so that we couldn’t stand. Since our hands were still tied behind our backs it was almost impossible to get a grip on the stakes. We weren’t fed or given any water and those on the edges of the group were the targets of a kicking or cuffing as soldiers passed by. I had been heartened when I saw my pack and duffel along with a few other bags that were clearly from my fellows unloaded and put in a tent. If I could just get to them I had some stuff that might give me an edge in getting away.

My Comments

Dear Fearless Writer.

Please, take a breath. I feel like I’ve just read twenty pages of an action screenplay in 400 words. Relax. You have a whole novel to write.

This is what seems to be happening:

A traveler (male? female? transgender?) experiences some kind of time/place shift after a bolt of lightning, and “wakes” surrounded by shouting, tattooed, non-human creatures. Other travelers have been transported as well, and they all attempt to fight off the creatures. The creatures are determined to tie up the travelers, and lead them out of a muddy clearing and to an encampment. At the encampment, the travelers are staked to the ground with short ropes, then starved and beaten.

The Root of Atlan has an energetic, rather exciting premise, but there’s both too much and too little going on at once for a reader to get a good handle on the numerous scenes. Even though the storytelling is done in first person, the narration feels way too distant. Too dispassionate and detached, yet immediately observant of the scene. (i.e. facial details, numbers of men, black stone, pylons, mud, swords, etc.)

First person is, well, personal. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the past tense—it still needs to feel a bit raw and immediate. There’s pain and noise, but where is the confusion and terror? This traveler has come through a hole in the universe. Where’s the shock? The traveler is almost immediately attacked, and we get an explanation about this person having been raped, instead of the sweat and dirt and pain of the immediate fight. Treat the rape with the seriousness it’s due. It’s a great revelation that explains the character’s toughness, but let’s have a few demonstrations of that extraordinary toughness first. Then deepen the character.

(Get to know your character. Here are Proust’s 35 Questions, a survey of your character’s personality. I’m not saying you have to use all that you come up with or even fill it all out. But the more you know about your first-person character, the better grip you’ll have on their view of the world.)

“Being tied up was never a start to anything good unless safe words and mutual consent were involved.” Clever and amusing, but a weird aside for someone whose life is obviously in danger. Unless this is intended to be satire or comedy—and it doesn’t feel like it’s meant to be.

I count no fewer than three scenes in this opening:

–Traveler awakens in a strange place, surrounded not only by fellow travelers, but tattooed, angry locals who are joined by more locals, bent on tying them up. Travelers unsuccessfully fight back.

–Travelers go on a forced march (hike seems too tame a word).

–Travelers arrive in a camp, where they are tied down and starved.

Here’s a bit of practical advice. An exercise, if you will. Take one of these three scenes and work the heck out of it. Put yourself in it. You are the person fighting for your life. You’re the one waking up in a strange place, surrounded by angry, combative creatures. You’re the one who was on the way to the bathroom before you got transported, and you really had to pee, and you’re so freaked out you notice it happened without you realizing it but you barely notice because you’re being attacked by tattooed human/gorilla creatures brandishing swords!

Who are your fellow travelers? Do they count at all, or are they simply redshirts who will all be dead by the time you escape the encampment and go on with your adventures? Is there someone who fights bravely beside you that you will want to stay close to?

Your single traveler is not going to see everything at once. The forced march is a good time to observe more details about our fellow travelers, and the creatures—single one or two out that are especially frightening or you think might help you.

Write long. Indulge in the scene. Then come back and tighten it up and edit. You may not even use everything you write, but you will have observed it. Keep the vital, most visceral parts. Write the experience, not an overview of the experience.

Dialogue?

As I read through this the third time (I’m slow on the uptake, I guess), I realized there’s not a word of dialogue! Creatures are shouting unintelligibly, but the travelers don’t even offer a grunt. No one is screaming? No one is crying for her mother? No one is saying, “Get your hands off of me, you damned dirty ape!”? (Sorry, I have zero idea how to punctuate that sentence.) The lack of dialogue is a big part of the narrator’s detachment from the story.

Mention the duffel or the absence of the duffel sooner. I really like the idea that it exists and that the traveler wants the stuff inside it. We can already see what the traveler’s first action mission will be.

Think about opening the book with your character already escaped from the encampment and living in this strange new world. You don’t need to start at the very beginning of the traveler’s arrival—surprise us.

Go and read the beginning of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend to see how he immediately immerses the reader in the story. The scenario—that the world is now inhabited by zombies and Robert Neville is the last man—is not the story. It’s a masterful tale of humanity and hope and survival.

Then show us what you know about your protagonist. It’s a fascinating premise and has great potential to be a terrific tale. Take your time. Enjoy the ride. Have fun with it.

TKZers, what are your thoughts on this submission?

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The Wrong Story: A Cautionary Tale

 

(GoDaddy stock photo)

 

I’m in the final stretch of an edit for my next suspense novel, One Last Secret. It has to be  in my editor’s hands by close of business today. Fortunately, I’m past the “dropping potato chip crumbs all over the keyboard as I type in a blind panic” phase. Today is the “last read to make sure I didn’t leave in embarrassing formatting and continuity mistakes” portion of the program.

So I’ll be brief.

When I first started sending out short stories, I concentrated on contests and fellowships. Things with specific deadlines and guidelines. It’s a method I highly recommend to newbies.

I was newly married, living in West Virginia when I decided to submit a story to be considered for a West Virginia Arts Fellowship because it was a literature year. (I don’t know that they still have the same program in place. Perhaps something different.)

I submitted a very nice story about–okay, I honestly don’t know which story I thought I submitted, but I do remember that it was very PG-rated. I was new in the area and I didn’t want to shock the nice West Virginia committee.

Lo and behold, I won a fellowship. It was a couple thousand dollars, I think. A real boost to my ego and burgeoning career. There were festivities and news articles, etc. But when I read the title of the winning story, I thought, “How odd. I don’t think that’s the story I sent in.” And then I turned bright red and got woozy. The story that won was not a PG story at all. It was a dark, shocking tale about a woman who hooks up with a rather pathetic married businessman in a hotel bar. I was mortified. Pleased, but mortified. Because I was a young writer, you see, but I was also a new mother, and someone whose husband’s family was well known in the state and in their small town. Just call me Jezebel.

I assumed no one would actually read the story. West Virginia is a relatively small state, and people always say they’ve read things when they really haven’t, to be polite. But unfortunately, one of the women on the executive board lived in our town, and I ran into her at a cocktail party. She was forty years my senior, and very proper.

“Congratulations on your award,” said she.”It was a very interesting story. Was it autobiographical?”

And then I died.

Please tell me you have your own horrifying submission or publishing stories. Misery loves company.

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First Page Critique: STEEL

Welcome to the Tempering Zone, where we’ll examine and hone the first page of STEEL.

(You know I had to go there.)

Today I’ve asked our Brave Writer lots of questions. As writers, we want to keep our readers asking the right questions—questions that occur to them because they’re excited to imagine how a story might move forward. What we don’t want is for readers to furrow their brows because they don’t quite understand what’s going on.

I get a pleasing sense of the world the Brave Writer is building: antique and magical, with a strong protagonist who is emotionally complex. With a little examination and reworking, it can be an very good beginning to what I assume is a YA novel.

STEEL

Chapter 1
Helia crept along the wall, her senses on high alert. The stars shone into the open-air courtyard, the uncertain light drawn toward the low-burning fire pit in the center. She walked just on the edge of this light as she carefully drew the spell of invisibility. It wasn’t true invisibility, but this spell made the caster as unnoticeable as was humanly possible. Another person would only see her if they looked at her directly. The flickering flames and trembling starlight could conceal even that.

Even with the spell, Helia forced herself to walk as if she was being watched. Straight and stiff, with her head held high with confidence. She walked as thou a crowd were analyzing her every move. As if the royal family was there to evaluate her. As if she needed to prove to the gods that she was strong, stronger than they gave her credit for.

She almost made it. She almost left her house without losing her guise. But as she passed the opening to the living room, both her confidence and her spell crumbled.

Her eyes flickered for just a moment to the right. Just for a moment, because they were so used to looking there. Looking for her twin brother and seeking his approval. Because Urian was the only one she felt like she could trust completely. And so he was the only one who could stop her from doing what she needed to do.

I need to do this, she reminded herself.  It’s for everyone… No it’s for me. It’s all for me because if I stay here…

If she stayed here she would have to face many more months of pity and severe disappointment. Her mother bursting into tears, her aunts scowling and scolding, and the rest of the village skirting around her like she was a plague. She needed to be somewhere where people didn’t know her, a place where the past wouldn’t crush her.

This was the right thing to do. But still, she stood there for half a minute—wishing hard for her twin to come out and tell her to stay—but then she forced her feet forward and flew toward the entrance of their tiny house. Just before she went outside, she snatched her bow and quiver from the stand right next to the door, heedless of the clatter it made.

Laura’s Mini-Synopsis:

A girl tries to use an invisibility spell to sneak out of her house and run away because she’s affected adversely by some event in her past. But she loses her confidence and the spell falls apart, so she’s no longer invisible. She leaves anyway, knocking stuff around noisily as she grabs her bow and quiver from beside the door.

Thoughts

“Helia crept along the wall, her senses on high alert. The stars shone into the open-air courtyard, the uncertain light drawn toward the low-burning fire pit in the center. She walked just on the edge of this light as she carefully drew the spell of invisibility. It wasn’t true invisibility, but this spell made the caster as unnoticeable as was humanly possible. Another person would only see her if they looked at her directly. The flickering flames and trembling starlight could conceal even that.”

Immediately I envision a wall with a wide, flat surface at its top, and it sounds like Helia is  creeping along there in a cat-like manner. Further reading shows that she is in fact walking, keeping her back close to a wall. Please be more clear.

We have stars shining into the courtyard, their light “drawn toward the low-burning fire pit.” Is there a fire in the fire pit? Or is the fire pit itself on fire? Wouldn’t a fire actually compete with starlight to the starlight’s disadvantage? It’s a pretty-sounding sentence, but feels like window dressing.

Cloak of invisibility: Let’s leave the revelation that it isn’t true invisibility for a slightly later reveal. We are dragged down by this detail. It’s a cloak of invisibility! Let us enjoy it for a moment before dashing excitement about it. Later, we can discover its limitations. IRL we purchase things that immediately seem fabulous, and later find they aren’t all we think they are. (I’m looking at you, As Seen on TV Bacon Boss!) And I don’t really understand what “that” describes in the last sentence.

The first paragraph of a novel works well when it’s focused on character and action, with  a small bit of scene-setting. Not trappings. We know she is being careful and alert. But that’s all we learn about her. Too much detail about the cloak and the light slows down the action in what is a very tense situation.

“Even with the spell, Helia forced herself to walk as if she was being watched. Straight and stiff, with her head held high with confidence. She walked as thou a crowd were analyzing her every move. As if the royal family was there to evaluate her. As if she needed to prove to the gods that she was strong, stronger than they gave her credit for.”

This paragraph is at odds with the first. She’s supposed to be creeping, yet she’s also trying to walk with royal self-possession. It makes her sound very childish. If this is the intention, okay. But it is still confusing. Use “as if she were” rather than “as if she was.” Use “were” if the situation is conditional or contrary to reality. Same goes with “As if the royal family were there…”

There’s a lot of information here: we learn that she’s someone who might be viewed by a crowd, or a royal family, or the gods. Either that, or she has a very active fantasy life. Again, it slows the action, and feels like it’s only there to foreshadow or telegraph what’s in her universe. Don’t try to give it to us all at once.

“She almost made it. She almost left her house without losing her guise. But as she passed the opening to the living room, both her confidence and her spell crumbled.
Her eyes flickered for just a moment to the right. Just for a moment, because they were so used to looking there. Looking for her twin brother and seeking his approval. Because Urian was the only one she felt like she could trust completely. And so he was the only one who could stop her from doing what she needed to do.”

What is the cause and effect here? As it reads, everything falls apart, and then she looks into the living room, seeking out her brother. Or does she lose her confidence and guise because her eyes flickered to the right, hopeful that her brother is inside, waiting to stop her? (I assume she looks toward the living room.) As I read the second bit, I assume the latter is how you mean it.

Whichever way you mean it, try to make the sequence immediately clear to the reader. Don’t require the reader to step lively to follow the action. Linearity and cause and effect are things that even mature writers sometimes struggle with. I know I do. I’ve put characters on scene, then added a quick couple of lines about how they got there. Lots of writers get away with it all the time, but it’s not a good habit. Reveal with subtle details, not exposition.

Also, her breaking of the spell seems like it would be a bigger disappointment to her. We get no reaction.

I do very much like the way Urian fits into the story. In a few lines you’ve sketched out their relationship: they are very close, and he is the sensible one, and she’s the one prone to acting on impulse. Nice.

“I need to do this, she reminded herself. It’s for everyone… No it’s for me. It’s all for me because if I stay here…
If she stayed here she would have to face many more months of pity and severe disappointment. Her mother bursting into tears, her aunts scowling and scolding, and the rest of the village skirting around her like she was a plague. She needed to be somewhere where people didn’t know her, a place where the past wouldn’t crush her.
This was the right thing to do. But still, she stood there for half a minute—wishing hard for her twin to come out and tell her to stay—but then she forced her feet forward and flew toward the entrance of their tiny house. Just before she went outside, she snatched her bow and quiver from the stand right next to the door, heedless of the clatter it made”

The reader will assume she’s already had this discussion with herself. You only need a line or two about what a relief it will be to not see her mother’s disappointment, and have the villagers avoid her. Give us just enough to make us curious. The internal dialogue is awkward and you’ve already done a good job of showing her hesitation by talking about wanting Urian to talk her out of it.

Is the house tiny? Given that it has a courtyard, I imagine it to be bigger. And I wonder about the phrase “living room” too. It doesn’t feel like a contemporary story and the concept of a living room is modern.

I might end with something like this:
Fighting tears, but resolved, Helia flew for the doorway, pausing only long enough to snatch her bow and quiver from their stand. The loud clatter of the stand falling onto the tiles followed her as she disappeared into the night.

Title: The opening doesn’t seem to have any connection to steel at all. Is it perhaps a story about the invention of steel? Or is it that she needs to prove herself to be as strong as steel to the gods? I’m not sure.

In a way, this first chapter feels like a prologue to a story. We know that Helia’s young and feels compelled to leave a difficult, if ultimately safe situation. I would expect that Chapter 2 might see her well into the action—perhaps older, already having some adventures behind her. But if it is, indeed, the very beginning of her adventures, leave more of your juicy details for later revelations.

Thanks for sharing this with Kill Zone!

*photo credit: GoDaddy stock photo
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Pushing Your Boundaries

 

By J.T. Ellison

To prepare for an upcoming meeting, I’ve been looking at a few of my earliest books. Last night I was reading my debut, and it was somewhat frustrating. Now, I can see all the mistakes: the thought inversions inside paragraphs, how things start slowly because I was setting up all the characters, dialogue interruptions—typical rookie mistakes. Throat clearing, as I like to call it.

Then, I didn’t know these things. I had passion and verve for storytelling, but I wasn’t the professional writer I am now, not at all. Yes, I’m being rather hard on my debut self, but I’d love to take apart that first book and make it more in line with my later ones. Happily, it remains a fan favorite. These are tiny details readers aren’t going to fuss over. It’s just me and my overdeveloped sense of perfectionism.

Nineteen books later, I am a much stronger writer. I know how vital it is to get the story started immediately instead of worrying about setting things up. My voice is the same, but the stylistic choices have changed. I go for the impact immediately, don’t write nearly as flowery, work out the plots beforehand to assure the greatest story impact.

That’s what two million words and ten years does for a writer.

But it’s not enough, is it? It’s never enough. We want to learn and grow, to push ourselves. And to do that, you have to get better at your craft.

I liken this struggle to baseball. You can’t win the World Series every year. But if you have all the right components, you can make it to the playoffs regularly. That’s what I try to do. I try so hard to make every book the best I’ve ever written. I push all the boundaries, pull out all the stops, tweak and caress my story and my characters. I want the World Series every time, damn it, though sometimes that is out of the writer’s control. Life, the market, the world get in the way.

But the playoffs are achievable, if you work hard and never give up.

Every once in a while, that World-Series-possible book comes along. You pull together something new and different. A book that stands apart. These are the books that nearly kill you, that break every rule you’ve ever learned, that keep you up late, that drive you to the page daily. They help you level up your writing.

I’ve had three of these books. Three out of nineteen. Three books that I knew were the best work I had in me at the time. That I’d left everything on the page. The old “open a vein and bleed” adage stands true. When you leave it all on the page, it will show.

One of these three books comes out September 5. It’s called LIE TO ME, and I pushed every boundary I could with it. From structure to setting to topics and POV, I forced myself to take chance after chance to make it work.

Will it? I don’t know. Only the readers can truly affirm that for us. I do wonder if ten years from now, I’ll look at it and cringe. If I’ll see the mistakes, see the paths less traveled I should have taken.

Here are some suggestions for ways to level-up your own writing:

  • Read widely, in and out of your genre
    Though I write almost exclusively in the thriller world, I get some of my best ideas from reading YA fantasy. Fantasy world-building is an incredible guide to developing solid crime fiction. It gives you a new landscape to think about, and for me, that tends to jar loose all kinds of ideas on how to expand my own concrete universe. I also keep up with several brilliant crime fiction writers whom I greatly respect, to see how they grow over the years. Karin Slaughter, Lisa Gardner, and Daniel Silva come to mind. These are writers at the top of their game, and still getting better with each book. They are utterly inspiring to me, living proof it’s possible to grow as a writer.

 

  • Travel to new and interesting locales
  • This is writing 101, really, but putting yourself in the shoes of other people will truly allow you to explore different story ideas and expand your realities. Whenever I have a foreign locale in my books, I make a point to travel there while the book is being constructed, or during editorial. I’ve saved myself from major mistakes by doing this. Sometimes, the Googles don’t give you the best information. Plus, it is my firm belief you have to smell a city, taste its food, walk its streets, to get to its heart. It’s something no one but you can process and extrapolate onto the page, almost as important as the concept of voice.

 

  • Do some hands-on research
  • One of my books that leveled-up did so because I finally plucked up the courage to attend several autopsies. I write a medical examiner, and while I’d done a ton of research to make her character real––virtual autopsies, reading autopsy reports, detailed conversations with medical examiners and death investigators—it wasn’t until I stuck my head inside a chest cavity that I got a real sense for what my character’s job entailed. Hearing the saws, dissecting tissues, taking vitreous fluids, discovering the cause of death, it all changed me, and as such, changed my writing. The book I was working on came alive in so many ways when I had that textural context to pull from, and I still draw on those experiences to explore my character’s world. For my co-written FBI series, I visited the FBI in New York. For my homicide squad series, I did ride-alongs. New experiences are the easiest way to take a step forward in your work.

 

  • Get out of your comfort zone
  • If you only write first person POV, make a shift to close third. If your mired in past tense, switch to first. I literally just finished a novel draft that simply wasn’t working, because it was written in third close past tense. I shifted it to present tense and it was suddenly real, visceral, and lightning fast. Was it a lot of work to change 100k from past to present? Yes. But it was right for the story. Being lazy with your writing is a surefire way to get caught in a rut.

 

  • Move your series/standalone to a new locale, or spin off a character for a new storyline
  • My novels are mostly based in Nashville, Tennessee. There came a point, eight novels into the series, that it was getting rather hard to believe the characters were facing the same issues yet again. So I took the drastic step of spinning off a main character and moving her to another city. Bam! Immediately, the world grew larger, the canvas was broader, and I had a whole new set of people and locations to work with. This move probably saved my writing career, by the way… it breathed new life into a beloved but squarely mid-list series.

 

  • If you write series, try a standalone, and vice versa
  • When I got into publishing, series were all the rage. Now, standalones are wildly popular. The market shifts. Be willing to shift with it, and you could truly up your game. Now, this isn’t a recommendation to chase trends, not at all. You still need your own original, brilliant concepts. But if the market is clearly moving one way, and you stay put, you may see publishing stride ahead without you. Take a chance, and see what shakes out.

Have you written a book or story you feel elevated your craft? Do you have any leveling-up advice of your own? And for the readers, have you read one by a favorite author that’s a real standout?

So many thanks for having me on today! What an honor to speak to TKZ’s awesome audience!

J.T. Ellison is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of eighteen critically acclaimed novels, including LIE TO MENO ONE KNOWSWHAT LIES BEHIND, and ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, and is the coauthor of the “A Brit in the FBI” series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. J.T. also cohosts the EMMY® Award-winning television series A Word on Words.

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School’s In Session: World Lit

 

–Stock photo by GoDaddy

How much fiction from other parts of the world do you read?

When I attended high school in Kentucky in the late seventies, my English class reading lists were very traditional—as in traditionally Euro/America-centric. They were replete with Shakespeare, Dickens, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. But there were outliers like John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which from my sixteen-year-old point of view was delightfully scandalous. (It was the seventies, right?) Around that time I also picked up a Harold Robbins book or two from my parents’ shelves, though to be fair, that’s also where I first discovered MacBeth.

In school we also read Dostoyevsky and Chekhov (Russian), Ibsen (Norwegian), Kafka (Austrian), Plato (Greek), as well as the epic poems, Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon), and Song of Roland (French). Most everything else was either American or British. You see where I’m going here. There was no such class as World Literature. It was just English 9, 10, 11, and 12. No broader looks at non-Western cultures. It was Western Lit all the way.

College for me was a Bachelor of Science in business degree, and so my fiction reading was purely off-syllabus, featuring Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Michael Crichton, Ken Follett, Stephen King, Peter Straub, and…Tennessee Williams.

You can see that I didn’t have a very deep well to draw from at the beginning of my writerly education. And while there have been many great writers whose own influences were decidedly geographically and culturally limited, anyone can now overcome those limitations easily: Internet lists, free online lectures and podcasts, discussions with other writers either in person or on social media, networked libraries. I lucked out and got to meet and listen to a number of established writers when I worked at my university’s public radio station, and later took writing classes. And I can’t tell you how many of my husband’s publishing and academic colleagues gave me recommendations when I asked. I devoured books by Gariel Garcia Márquez, Isabel Allende, Umberto Eco (okay, he’s Italian, but he counts), Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Haruki Murakami, Henning Mankell, Isak Dinesen, Salman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe, and others, others, others.

While I’ve never set my work in a country besides this one, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been influenced by those writers from other cultures. That’s one of the things that’s so attractive and important about novels and stories, isn’t it? We can immerse ourselves in the unfamiliar in ways that we can’t by watching a film or staring at photographs. The communication between a writer and a reader is intimate, and builds understanding. Understanding is something every writer needs to have buckets of.

This week I’m putting together a World Literature reading list for my son’s senior year of high school. I’ve been stunned to see that many of the high school World Lit lists online still lean very heavily on Western culture. That’s a very narrow definition of world. I want him to know just how rich in stories the whole world is.

What books would be on your World Literature list?

 

 

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The Edit Has Landed

(photo via GoDaddy stock)

 

The edit has landed. I repeat: The edit has landed. This is not a drill.

This refrain runs through my head every time I get an initial editorial letter from my editor after I’ve sold a manuscript. For the uninitiated, the editorial letter contains detailed comments and suggestions for changes the editor would like to see in the next version of a contracted manuscript.

On Sunday evening, the editorial letter for One Last Secret, my next suspense novel, arrived in my inbox.

I’m going to gloss over the agonizing hour or so I spent actually analyzing my letter. Imagine cheers or tears or cringing or reallys?! or ack–how did that get through? or yays! It’s a private moment that you are already familiar with if you’ve workshopped your own writing, or have had editors or truthful friends comment on it.

There’s a fine line when it comes to accepting or rejecting an editor’s suggestions. Ego can get in the way. Unless we’re collaborating with another writer, our stories have incubated in our own heads for months or years. Perhaps the initial drafts have been read by friends or spouses, etc, but they’re still essentially ours. It can be hard to let go, to be willing to let the manuscript change. But while an editor is also a reader, and often a fan, they are not just any reader/friend offering suggestions. They’re professionals who have a financial interest in seeing that the story appeals to a large number of readers.

An editor or reader is attracted to a novel or story as a result of the writer’s ability to successfully communicate a vision of the story that exists in the writer’s head.

But as we know, no two visions of a story are even close to identical. The best writing speaks loudly to people for myriad reasons, and tugs at the chords deeply anchored to our souls. And no two souls are alike. It’s a huge compliment for a writer to have a reader say a writer’s work resonates with them, whether it’s something as simple as a character with whom they identify, or a whole new world into which they can escape for an afternoon  and beyond.

An editor is an agent of the re-visioning process. (I’ve probably mentioned re-visioning before as a concept mentioned by Joyce Carol Oates.) In a re-vision, the vision of the story becomes something totally new for the writer. This new vision will change with each new addition or deletion or deepening of the story. It can be brought about with mechanical precision by making sure the story has all the necessary beats, or meets and even enhances the conventions of the genre. Or it will change when the writer combines characters, kicks the hero(ine) into higher gear, or tweaks the emotional impact of a scene. It’s a birth process that goes on and on until both the editor and the writer agree that their mutual visions meet on the page and are compatible enough to be presented to the world. They’re both happy. (Or they run out of time!)

For me it’s both wrenching and exciting to work with an editor. In theory—and it’s a theory I extoll frequently—I want to write and edit in service of the story. I write toward that Platonic ideal that exists for every story. The ideal we can only ever express as a shadow. But I want to at least make it a shadow that lives and makes other people see it as an ideal thing in their heads. It should have no visible seams, no dull moments, no unnecessary details, clear ideas, smart dialogue, and compelling images. In other words, as close to an ideal as possible.

Occasionally though, the old ego wants to dig in its heels when the suggestions come. My story! it cries. Mine! Mine! Mine! It begs me to leave it alone. Very occasionally there are story elements that I feel are integral and necessary to the story, and I try to negotiate their continued existence. Now that I think about it, the very few times that has happened, various editors have been very supportive. But I generally keep my ego in check. It really is all about the story. And a good editor knows how to balance the writer’s need for respect/story integrity with her own need to make the story more appealing to the marketing department and readers.

Not everyone likes the revision process. As I said, it’s both wrenchingly difficult and exciting for me at the same time. Change is hard, and changing our stories can be particularly tough because edits often feel like judgments. I just keep telling myself that an edited story is something shiny and brand new in the world. A new creation. And who doesn’t like the feeling of having created something new?

 

How do you approach the editing process—whether suggestions are from reader friends or paid editors? Do you love it, hate it, or see it as just one more step to be endured?

Or tell us about an editor you’ve loved working with…

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Writer, Stretch Yourself (Like a Big Black Cat)

 

My own green-eyed black cat, Sylvie

I’m on summer vacation. No, I’m not taking any beach trips, darn it. I enjoyed a fun birthday/writing retreat in Nashville at the beginning of July, and spent the weekend of the 16th in Cincinnati with my parents for their 57th anniversary, instead of going to Thrillerfest. Mostly my vacation means I’m making only occasional excursions to social media, and I’ve given my daily blog a rest. Okay, the rest is really for me, not the blog. Oh, and I’ve been writing a novel.

Yes, that is what I do for work, too. But somehow writing this novel feels less like work and more like a summer enrichment project I might have worked on for fun when I was a kid. (One elementary summer I did a public television school math course where we had to order the workbook by mail, and I loved it. Geek much?)

For years I’ve wanted to write a cozy mystery. My existing novels are so far from being cozies that when I tell people of this desire, they give me looks that range from alarm to puzzlement. But for me, it’s just a matter of wanting to try something new. The novel I’m publishing with Mulholland Books next year, ONE LAST SECRET, is straight suspense, without any supernatural elements–and that is new for me. The cozy I’m working on is simply me trying another new thing.

Have you ever done a modeling writing exercise? I had a workshop teacher who often gave us exercises in which we would try to write in the style/voice of a famous writer: Flannery O’Connor, Dashiell Hammett, Hemingway. Hemingway was my favorite. We wrote as less distinctive writers, too. It’s an excellent exercise for emerging writers because it’s rather like walking in the shoes of the greats. Those shoes never fit, of course, but it’s as fun as being a four-year-old in Mom’s high heels. It’s useful, too. Developing one’s singular writing style takes a long time, and the exercise puts you immediately into the head of an established voice.

While I’m not particularly mystical, I have a strong belief in Things Happening For A Reason. So when my good writer friend, Carolyn Haines–who has written around 850,000 books and stories in the past few decades–said she was in search of writers to be a part of her new black cat detective mystery series, Familiar Legacy, featuring Trouble, the black cat detective, I said I’m in! before I’d even heard the details.

I mean, why not? I’d never written a black cat detective mystery, but I sure wanted to try.

The Trouble books have a familiar formula that includes girl meets boy, and a mystery-loving critter. Trouble the cat is the son of cat-hero detective, Familiar, who was the star of of Carolyn’s long-running Harlequin Intrigue book series, Fear Familiar. She rereleased many of the Fear Familiar books this spring, and launched her first Trouble novel, Familiar Troubleon July 10th. The second in the new series, Trouble in Dixie by Rebecca Barrett, comes out in August.

My first job was to come up with a synopsis, and a title. The synopsis blossomed into a detailed outline. For me, it was a very detailed outline. I usually write skeletal outlines for my own books, but I rarely know how the book will end before I start writing. Then there’s that messy middle bit. For Small Town Trouble I pretty much know every turn, from beginning to end. There have been a few changes as I write, but nothing too substantive. And they’ve enhanced and deepened the story.

I’ve mentioned before that I used to imagine complete stories, but then told myself that since I knew the ending it would be boring to write it out. With this book, I’ve found the complete opposite is true. It’s a huge challenge for me to follow a story I’ve put together ahead of time–but it’s also a huge amount of fun. When I sit down to write, it’s a relief to take out my outline and note which scene I’m going to write, because I’ve already done the hardest part. It relieves me of those fearful blank moments, the ones in which I’m not sure what I’m about to write–if I can write anything–is going to move the story along.

The other big challenge is to keep the voice of Trouble consistent. The good news is that Carolyn is such a pro that the voice is clear and vibrant throughout her book, so I have an excellent model. That’s where my love of the modeling exercise comes in–it’s enjoyable to have the voice ready-made for me. I simply keep Familiar Trouble open on my desktop for reference. Carolyn has read my first chapter, and approved the voice, so I’m headed in the right direction. I’m only halfway through the writing, so let’s hope it sticks.

I’m loving this new challenge. I feel like I’m growing as a writer. Learning to write in a different style grows bran cells. I’m sure of it!

I’m anxious to finish writing Small Town Trouble to see how my first cozy experiment has gone. I could write more here about how writing this book is different from others I’ve written, but I’ll save that for another day, perhaps on my own blog, Notes From the Handbasket (you can go there even though I’m on sabbatical–I think I have 8 years’ worth of posts).

Do tell. What new projects have you taken on to encourage yourself to grow as a writer?

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First Page Critique: Legend of the Wild Ones

Photo courtesy of GoDaddy

Greetings and salutations, TKZers! Today a brave, anonymous writer has sent us the opening to a deliciously dark, supernatural tale. My comments are below. Hope you’ll weigh in, too.

Legend of the Wild Ones

Red covered the holly flour. A shadow was standing in the middle of the room red covering its hands, a corpse at its feet, a knife in its hand. The shadow leaned over the corpse and with its free hand checked the pulse of the body. Dead. Pleased the shadow walked over to the rope that hung next to the bed and pulled. It then sauntered back to the corpse, sat down next to it and waited.

At the other side of Woodrest Manor Ryker flew through the halls with a speed most humans would marvel at. His long blonde hair swishing behind him. His destination: the room of the master of the forest. He opened the holly door and for a while just stood their gawking at the sight before him. He shook himself out of his trance. No matter how many times it had happened he would never get used to this sight.

The room was basked in moonlight. In the middle of the room there was a big puddle of blood. In the midst of it lay a corpse with a shadow sitting next to it. Slowly the shadow turned around to face Ryker. Though its face didn’t show any emotion it’s ember eyes showed enough. They twinkled with a sadistic kind of joy, that send a shiver down Rykers spine. Slowly he began to make his way over to the dead body. As if approaching a wild animal, not breaking eye contact with the shadow for a second. He crouched down to check for a pulse, there was none. Sighing Ryker relaxed and looked at the shadow with questioning eyes. “So Kaenia how did he get in this time?” Anyone knew that whoever even dared to think about breaking into Woodrest would be killed. And trying to get into Kaenias room was only for the suicidal.

Dear Brave Writer:

There’s a handy quote from an unlikely quarter—President William Howard Taft—that all writers should keep in mind: “Don’t write so that you can be understood, write so that you can’t be misunderstood.”

After reading this opening scene a couple of times, I think I understand what’s going on. But it would be much clearer on a single reading with clarification and correct punctuation. Readers—this one included—will sadly stop reading very quickly if they have to work too hard to understand what’s on the page.

My interpretation: Ryker, of the long blonde hair, is a kind of factotum for Kaenia, the shadowy master of the forest (and perhaps for others, as well), at Woodrest Manor. Someone—a “he”— broke into Kaenia’s room, and was subsequently killed (possibly by Kaenia, but we’re not certain). Kaenia rings for Ryker, who attends right away. Ryker is sickened, but Kaenia is pleased with itself (if it is a supernatural creature—here no gender is implied). Ryker bravely questions Kaenia, and the reader is left wanting to know if it will answer. (Cliffhangers are always good!)

First paragraph:

Let’s talk about the first line: “Red covered the holly flour.” I’m not trying to be silly, but I was immediately brought up short. At first I wondered if Red was a person who was covering up holly flour. As in flour made from holly. But further reading told me that definitely wasn’t the case. I’m guessing “flour” is meant to be “floor?” (Typos happen to us ALL, and breed like rabbits. We just move on.) But then I’m left to wonder at the image of a “holly floor.” A holly floor sounds really, really painful. If this detail is terribly important, give it more weight. It might be woven from the finest, oldest holly trees in the entire forest. Then we’ll know it’s botanical holly, and that the room is very special in a way we might be curious about.

We don’t want to the reader to be at an immediate disadvantage. As writers, we have very strong images in our heads, but we need to interpret those images clearly for readers so that they understand very quickly what we want them to see. We are their eyes, but also their guides.

About the corpse: If we’re talking about a victim, it seems okay to me to refer to it as a body, but best to be more specific, identifying it as a “person” or “man” or “woman” or “creature,” as appropriate. It’s not a corpse until we know for a fact the creature is dead. So the shadow can lean over the creature, check the creature’s pulse, and then when the shadow discovers the creature has no pulse, the creature can appropriately be called a corpse.

Second paragraph:

“At the other side of Woodrest Manor Ryker flew through the halls with a speed most humans would marvel at. His long blonde hair swishing behind him. His destination: the room of the master of the forest.”

Perhaps:

“At the sound of the bell from the Master’s room, Ryker flew through the halls of Woodcrest Manor with inhuman speed, his blonde hair streaming behind him.”

Rather than the floating third person narrative voice the piece now has, you might consider keeping a tight focus on Ryker, who is the most natural character to act as observer for the reader. Beginning the story with his responding to the bell, or even opening the holly door to see the shadow standing over the body, will invest the reader in the story right off the bat.

Third paragraph:

The third paragraph has great interaction between Ryker and the shadow. I love the detail of him approaching the shadow as one might a wild animal.

“The room was basked in moonlight.” “Bathed” would be a more natural choice than “basked.”

“So Kaenia how did he get in this time?” This is confusing. The use of “he” implies that whoever is dead on the floor has broken in and been killed before. While this could be possible in a supernatural story, it needs to be clear if this is the case. If the victim is simply one in a long line of intruders, it should be stated differently. Possibly: “We need to know how they’re getting in here, Kaenia. Did you see where this one came from?”

Finally, Brave Writer, be sure to check your punctuation, including comma and apostrophe usage. There are many, many books out there, and lots of online resources. This website has free online rules.

Thanks for sharing your opening chapter with us!

Dear TKZers, what are your ideas for this piece?

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Writers on Social Media: Does It Even Make a Difference?

 

Posting on social media can feel like you’re sending up hundreds of trial balloons. Which will return?

Today I want to share some thoughts with you about a writer’s role on social media. I’ll start with my experience and understanding of it, but I’m very curious to know what your thoughts and experiences are, so there are lots of questions for you at the end.

I’ve been very active in social media since 2006 and MySpace. I liked MySpace a lot. It was new and fun, and I dove right into it as soon as I signed my first book contract. Author book promotion was in its infancy, and I gained reader, writer, and social connections. Other emerging writers and I were all trying to figure out book promo/social networking together. I blogged there several times a week, usually writing long, long pieces that were very essay-like. Telling stories on myself. Talking about learning to write, and the publishing process. When MySpace began to wane, I—and many other folks—drifted to Crimespace and eventually Facebook. Group blogs like Jungle Red Writers and Murderati sprang up. (Forgive me if I don’t know when Kill Zone began, but I know someone here will be able to say.) I started my own Blogspot blog, where I added interviews and book reviews. Last year, I moved my blog to my (fourth) website.

That all sounds like ancient history doesn’t it? Maybe I’m just old, but the pace of change on the Internet sometimes feels inconceivably fast. The rules—especially the rules for author promotion–change constantly. But the biggest rule is that there are no rules because things move so quickly that there’s little time for non-professionals to figure out what works before things change again. You would think publishers would have entire departments full of professionals that have this stuff figured out, but you would be wrong.

There’s a genuine expectation—sometimes stated, sometimes just understood—for authors to be active on social media. For now, author social media outlets have stabilized: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Goodreads. I don’t know many authors who are very active on Google +, or Snapchat—well, I tried Snapchat and it made me crazy. If there are other very active platforms, please let us know. (Oh, and if someone could help me figure out Instagram Stories so I don’t end up just taking live video of my shoes until I freak out and turn it off, I’d be eternally grateful.)

While many people in the writing/publishing business strongly believe that social media doesn’t sell books, some folks disagree. I’ve put up a lot of links here, but if you want to save a few clicks, here’s the gist: Social media is there to build relationships. People with whom you have relationships will like you. If they like you AND you spend at least 80% of your time giving them great “content” they will tolerate the 20% of time you spend promoting your work. But the conversion rate will be less than 2%, which means you’re selling yourself and your time very, very cheaply. But folks truly dislike a hard sell. Many of the people who say you can sell books through social media want you to pay them to tell you how to do it, and they won’t give you quantifiable forecasts.

(Traditionally published books still sell best through tried and true methods like word-of-mouth, tv, radio, magazine, and web ads, vertical marketing to influencers like librarians and booksellers, hand-selling, and peer reviews. But almost none of those methods is free, and it’s only rational that publishers would prefer free methods that rely on author execution to methods that cost money.)

What is content? Content is added value, often in the form of information: lists, quizzes, articles, expertise, audio or video entertainment, memes, blogs, observations. Given the 80/20 rule, if you do fifty posts in a week, the theory is that at least forty of them should be content and not mention your work at all. Ideally, the content should be at least tangentially related to your field of expertise or the lifestyles of your audience. But even if you automate those posts with Buffer or HootSuite or some other social media-scheduling program, it takes time to curate that content.

A brief cautionary tale: A self-published writer I know spends a lot of time posting on Instagram, but I’d say 80-90% of the writer’s posts are specifically about the book. They’re quotes formatted as memes, or pictures of the cover, or bits of dialogue taken out of context and framed with artistic graphics. The posts are careful and attractive, but I gloss over them, and even find myself a little angry at having to scroll past them every time I log onto Instagram. If the 80/20-percentage figure is at all valid, it’s completely upside down. And the writer uses a blue million hashtags, but only ever gets 10 or 11 likes. I can only imagine how much time the writer spends creating those posts (or perhaps the writer pays for them). Plus, even though it almost looks like content, it’s not, and is off-putting.

There are two big dangers for me when it comes to content. I spend a lot of time crafting my blog posts. This one (I’m adding this bit in editing) has taken me about 3.5 hours, and I’ll spend at least another 45 minutes editing and posting it. On my own daily blog, it’s a challenge to come up with fresh concepts. Then there’s finding the right photos, adding links, and pumping up the SEO. Unfortunately there’s no way to quantify the ROI on publishing blog posts. Another particular danger for me is rabbit holes. Ideally, I like to spend about thirty minutes online in the morning checking out news stories and resources for my own amusement and edification—but I often spend an hour or more. Usually, I’ll manage to bookmark only one or two links to pass on to social media. But which ones to choose?

I read a lot of crime news stories—many are too sensitive or explicit to share without grossing people out over their morning coffee. But I also read some politics (no, never post about that), bits of history and archeology, and stories about textiles or architecture. I’ll occasionally post about writing and books. Nearly everyone likes books. But I don’t think of my personal blog audience as being full of writers. I’m not selling books on writing, and few people who aren’t writers care about writing motivation, or how to build a character. So I save the writer-centric stuff for here or my own blogs about the writing life.

Making content choices is tough. And how much me should my audience have to bear? Where is the balance between plucking out articles that might interest the people who might be interested in my writing, and sharing bits of my life that might actually make me human and likeable? The whole thing feels a bit cynical to me.

I do like this quote from Amy Cuddy’s deservedly influential book, Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges. “When we are trying to manage the impression we’re making on others, we’re choreographing ourselves in an unnatural way. This is hard work, and we don’t have the cognitive and emotional bandwidth to do it well. The result is that we come across as fake.”

Coming off as fake is never, ever good.

Be an individual. Be yourself.

As someone born in the sixties at the tail end of the baby boom, I grew up reading books and newspapers, and watching television and films. No one knew anything about authors. They rarely showed up on television, and if they did, they were already super famous. It was a time when public images were carefully crafted by publicists, agencies, network people, and record labels. Image crafting now begins at birth. Children—and not just celebrity children—have their own Snapchat and Instagram accounts curated by their parents. Soon after, kids learn how to use phone cameras, and take selfies. And they’re not posting pictures of their dirty bedrooms. They’re curating their lives, using images for complaints (school lunches) or self-gratification (I’m wearing blue and puce eyeliner every day this week, and check out my #hairfail hahaha!). They learn early to make their lives appear as they want them to appear. Who knows what’s real?

An entire generation is learning to promote without actually having something to promote. We writers have a LOT of competition for time, interest, and dollars. (Because a lot of people on social media are selling something, or their sponsors are.)

Personally, I don’t remember ever purchasing a book after seeing it on the author’s social media, unless I had already planned to buy the book. Fiction writers seriously are not the best representatives of their own writing—and, of course, their ultimate goal is always to sell me their books. I’m more likely to buy books after reading reviews, associated news stories or essays, coming upon compelling covers, or listening to word-of-mouth from booksellers or friends (sometime even social media friends), or other people I respect.

I buy into the notion that maintaining an active social media presence—including one on one contact through newsletters—is part of a professional writer’s job. But how little is not enough, and how much is too much?

All right. I asked for your help, but I’ve done a whole lot of talking. Now it’s your turn. I have many discussion questions, so feel free to pick and choose. I can’t wait to read what you have to say.

How important is it for a writer to have a strong social media presence?

If you participate, are you programmatic about it?

Do you enjoy it?

How much time do you spend on it daily, and/or weekly?

Who are some writers that you see doing a great job at social media?

And the $64,000 question: Have you ever bought a book because of an author’s social media posts?

 

**Photos via GoDaddy Stock

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First Page Critique: The Last White Rose

Photo by Laura Benedict.

 

Cheery good day, TKZers! It’s time for a critique of an anonymous author’s work. The Last White Rose is an excerpt from a novel that appears to be a modern gothic with both horror and romantic elements. But it might be a thriller.  I’m anxious to know what you think.

 

THE LAST WHITE ROSE

Epigraph

In my dream, I see my own green eyes, filled with terror and tears.I fall to my knees, submitting to the command of invincible blue eyes raging with white fire.His face twists into something else, something evil. He is ending my life. I wake with a strident scream… and stare into the same blue eyes.

Chapter One

Stonington, Connecticut

He was elusive, a ghost I needed to catch. The stranger whose face I’d never seen lurked around town, maintaining enough distance to mask his features in shadow. I saw his face for the first time in late July after the annual Blessing of the Fleet. His bold gaze burned into mine from the opposite side of Water Street. The highland band, piping loud and marching through the center, drew the post-ceremony procession to a close, granting me an unobstructed view.

A shiver slid through me despite the stifling summer heat.

He was magnificent. The kind of man you’d never find living in small-town New England. Imposing height and broad, muscled shoulders defined his stature. He wore jeans and a faded indigo tee shirt that exposed cut biceps and forearms. Sun-streaked, dark blond hair in a classic front wave and a commanding jawline framed his handsome, smirking face.

“Parade’s over,” someone shouted.

Even so, Jess and I held our advantageous spot at the curb. My best friend soaked in the late morning sun, sipping her raspberry lemon mimosa, watching me stare at him.

She elbowed me. “Who’s he and why are you staring at each other? Wait—Ellie, is he…”

My eyes skipped to Jess to deliver a dirty look. When I refocused across the street, he was gone. “The guy who followed me home the other night. Yes, I think so. There’s no one else as tall. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s just staying nearby.”

“And maybe you should say something to someone.”

“Not until I’m certain. Paranoia is my sister’s thing, not mine. Besides, aren’t you always saying I should be more open to meeting new people?”

“You do need to get out of your artsy little head. Just be careful.”

I struggled, trying to reconcile his presence in town and the sense that he watched me. After all, it was summertime. Stonington was a historically rich town, the only one in Connecticut to face the open Atlantic waters, so it attracted countless visitors. It was common to see strangers around town. Drunken tourists wandered the streets at night, unaware most businesses closed before ten. It was a colonial fishing town, and outsiders came from far and wide to work for the commercial fleet. It wasn’t the first time a man from one of the crews or a tourist had looked my way, I reasoned.

Then I saw him again.

The next day after the last of my noisy day-campers had gone, I locked the art studio door and headed for the fishing pier to sketch. It was either that or listen to another of Jess’s lectures. She’d go on about how I wallowed in self-imposed loneliness, and how it left her alone to test the waters in the pool of dateable men. The pool was small—blue plastic toddler swimming pool small—and I didn’t need to dip a toe to know there was nothing left in it for me.

The pier was a respite from my grandmother and sister’s intrusiveness as well. Gran and Isobel were all I had, and they meant well. Trysts with my art kept me sane, human.

I looked out over the harbor and spotted Neptune trudging her way in. The sailboats beyond paled in her presence. I don’t know what it was about the old girl, but I loved that fishing boat. Her emerald green hull had become chalky over time, and the once black and white hoists and booms were covered in rust, but she was still glorious against the backdrop of the sea. I lost myself in the sketch at once.

Photo by Laura Benedict

 

Dear Anonymous Author of The Last White Rose:

What a pleasure it was to critique this novel opening. There’s so much to work with here: you’ve obviously read a great deal of fiction and have a practiced hand in basic mechanics. Your grammar and sentence structure are strong, and even your barely-mentioned characters are vivid and distinctive. You also know how to structure a scene, which is no small feat, and your first person POV is flawless.

I like the Connecticut setting. It gives the story an immediate New England gothic feel. Gothic is one of my most beloved genres, so I’m particular.

Jess and Ellie have good chemistry. Jess is a lot of fun, though she falls down a bit on the best friend front. (More on that later.) These cracked me up: “My best friend soaked in the late morning sun, sipping her raspberry lemon mimosa, watching me stare at him.” And “She’d go on about how I wallowed in self-imposed loneliness, and how it left her alone to test the waters in the pool of dateable men. The pool was small—blue plastic toddler swimming pool small—and I didn’t need to dip a toe to know there was nothing left in it for me.”

And the scene with the Neptune was completely charming and nicely visualized. I could picture the boat “trudging” its way in. Your descriptions are—for the most part—very nicely done.

Please, dear Anonymous Author, read all of the above twice, because I know that, like most writers, you will forget it immediately as you read my criticisms and suggestions.

 

Here we go:

I’m not sure what sort of novel this is, and that distresses me. It contains gothic and demonic elements and is set in an old New England town. But there’s some romance as well. I need a few more hints. Does our heroine feel strangely attracted to the giant hot guy stalking her? Or is there some menace in the town that he might be connected to? The strong emphasis on the stalking makes me think it’s trying to be a thriller, but the stalker’s attractiveness makes me wonder if he’s a demi-god or paranormal beast or demon. Another mystery is that we don’t know if he’s the guy in the epigraph or not.

There’s a phrase that I learned from my mother-in-law very early in my marriage: “too much of a muchness.” That’s what you have in this opening section. You need to take a breath. Don’t try to tell us everything in 672 words, and definitely only tell us things once. Readers are smart. This section has too many repeated actions, too much stalking, and way too many characters. It’s important to mention or introduce all of your significant characters in the first thirty pages of a novel, but if you try to do it in the first three, your reader is going to be very confused. Fortunately, you can look at this as an embarrassment of riches because you can use much of this detail in other parts of the novel.

It’s also important for you to balance the light and dark. You can have both.

The last thing I want to address is your heroine, Ellie. Good heroines can be tough to write. Sidekicks get to be fun, villains get to be fun. Heroines can be a bit dull. Thoughts on Ellie below.

 

Epigraph

This is a dream: check.

I’m a bit confused as to how Ellie’s seeing her eyes in one line, then is falling to her knees in the next. Is she watching herself? Or is she experiencing it? Just clarify. Even if it’s a dream, it has to have its own dream physics and dream logic.

Perhaps reframe it so we know she is watching it as a scene, wondering at her own complicity.

“Strident” is awkward. As is “invincible blue eyes raging with white fire.” There’s an awful lot happening in those eyes all at once.

“He is ending my life.” Simple and to the point, but “ending” feels a bit tame since she’s about to be devoured/murdered by what appears to be a demon.

Clarify the last line and be specific:

“I wake, screaming, to find those same blue eyes—now watchful and worried (or laughing and scornful, etc)—gazing into mine.”

Chapter One

First paragraph:

The opening lines are confusing. He’s a ghostly elusive guy that has been skulking around the shadows for…some period of time. Months? Weeks? Two days? Then in the next sentence she gets to the immediate scene: “I saw his face for the first time…”

Instead, get right into it.

We’re prepped by the epigraph for scary and dubious. Give us something new at the top of chapter one. I’d much rather read: “The first time I saw Jeremy Porter’s* handsome face, he was smirking at me from the opposite side of Water Street.” Something straightforward adds a bit of levity, and keeps the story from being so frontloaded with ominosity (technically not a word, but ominousness is clumsy). I confess that I’ve been guilty of over-ominosity myself, so I know whereof I speak. He seems more condescending than threatening. If you want to make him threatening, change “smirking” to “staring.”

*Don’t be afraid to name the guy. We know he has a name. As Ellie’s telling the story, she already knows his name because she’s telling it in the past tense. As it is, it’s cheap suspense. If the story were all in present tense/present action, then we wouldn’t find out his name until she learns it. But the cat’s already out of the bag.

By making the opening of Chapter One just another in a series of stalking incidents, you’ve taken away the power of the epigraph, which could be very compelling. The epigraph hints that she dreams of a man who might be a demon, but she wakes to find him watching her in real life. My assumption is that she becomes romantically involved with sexy stalker guy during the course of the novel…? But we still don’t know if epigraph guy and stalker guy are the same.

The epigraph has already set your tone. Let it rest. We get it.

“He was magnificent.”

Our guy is obviously a gorgeous, eye feast of a man, and the word “magnificent” is striking. I kind of imagine him as a blond Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast. Is he unreal in his perfection? Some small flaw would make him more believable—unless you’re going for supernatural perfection.

Let’s break it down:

Why would we never find someone like him living in small-town New England? Where would we see a man like him? Hollywood? The cover of a magazine or romance novel?

Imposing height—how tall? Ellie says: “There’s no one else as tall.” What does that mean? Significantly taller than everyone else in town? Wilt Chamberlain tall? If so, someone would have surely noticed him by now. A man that tall would be a very poor skulker.

Instead of using an indefinite phrase like “defined his stature,” let’s see him through Ellie’s editorial filters:

“I’d never seen a man so tall in real life, at least not one with shoulders so broad that they made me wonder for a moment if he had to have his dress shirts specially made. But he wasn’t wearing a dress shirt. His taut, cut biceps emerged from the sleeves of a beautifully faded black tee that just reached the waist of his indigo jeans. And his black motorcycle boots looked comfortably worn. Most women I knew would pay a fortune to have their stylist give them highlights like the ones that seemed to flow naturally through the waves of his dark blond hair. His jaw was strong and commanding, reminding me of paintings I’d seen of ancient Roman centurions on my last trip to the Louvre.

“Parade’s over,” someone behind me shouted.

I startled, and felt my face flush. The slow smile of the man I came to know as Jeremy Porter told me he’d caught me staring.”

Then you can go on and have her interact with Jess. But let’s have some more urgency and concern in their exchange. Is Jess implying Ellie should call the authorities? Who is the “someone” of whom she speaks? Be specific.

In this next section, we get a lot of new characters introduced: noisy day-campers, dateable men, Gran and Isobel, an anthropomorphized fishing boat, drunken tourists, sailors. It’s overwhelming.

And, suddenly, skulking sexy guy appears again.

What is this book about? Right now I’m just reading stalking scenes, and I’m feeling fearful that they will just go on and on…

Three scenes (including the epigraph, if it is the same guy), three appearances. Actually four, because we learn he followed her home on some other night (super alarming to have a giant follow you home!). We have no resolution of his parade appearance in Chapter One before the pier scene. He has now let her see his face, and he’s still obviously stalking her. Please give Ellie some spunk. She seems incredibly unaffected by his stalking—her friend acts alarmed but then apparently lets her go home and go about her business and go to work the next day without any further investigation of the guy. It’s one thing that Ellie’s not paranoid. It’s quite another to make her seem not very bright. And I think she is bright.

Your opening chapter has to do more than establish the tone, and Chapter One tells us little more than that Ellie is living in a historic small town and is being stalked by a hot guy. It’s an ominous situation, but she’s reacting in a way that’s not credible. And we still don’t know if this is a romance, a thriller, or a paranormal story. Give us better clues.

My first suggestion would be to work on the epigraph and just let it set the tone. Then in your opening chapter, have Ellie confront hot stalker guy after the parade. It will make her the real protagonist rather than a woman who seems to be setting herself up as a victim. I love the sketching scene on the pier, but it’s too much with what you have already. Save the setting and scene—maybe it happens after they’ve actually met.

Having her confront the guy right off puts us immediately into the story, and will surprise the reader. Even if he is our villain, he will be put momentarily off-balance. Ellie and the hot guy instantly become equals, and thus more interesting adversaries. Or a more interesting couple. Therefore it becomes a more compelling story. Be bold.

That’s my two cents. I think this story could go far.

Chatter over, TKZ friends and bloggers. What say you?

 

 

 

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