About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including the forthcoming The Stranger Inside (February 2019). Small Town Trouble, her latest book, is a cozy crime novel. 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.

Letting Go of Books: Is it Even Possible?

 

Me, looking vaguely terrifying in front of our messy, three-deep bookshelves

I’ve been scarce around here lately, and I always regret that. Beginning last week I started the toughest edit of any novel (for me, at least): the read-aloud edit. It’s slow, slow, slow. But it’s the only way to catch errors that might not ever get caught. There’s something about hearing the words out loud that is completely unlike reading them silently. I always retain information better if I hear it, rather than just read it on the page. Reading my work aloud helps me take ownership of the work, and it’s almost like I’m reading it for the first time. Does that happen for anyone else?

A few months ago, I wrote about my affection for audiobooks. Lately I’ve found that I don’t want to be without one–ever. It might have a little something to do with the Apple AirPods I got for Christmas. (Which, in my middle aged way, I usually refer to as Ear Pods, because, really, that’s what they are, right?) They’re so handy, and stay charged forever, and only fall out of my ears if I fall asleep with them in. But I also have a bluetooth speaker I use in the house if I’m the only one home. The little kid in me still feels very special when someone reads to me. It doesn’t matter if the person isn’t in the room, or if they did the actual reading a dozen years ago. So why shouldn’t I have someone reading to me all the time?

The book I started on my break this afternoon is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read it years ago and found it rather tough going, but I’m loving the audio. It’s made me laugh several times in just the first hour. I didn’t really seek out Marquez. I simply scrolled through the “What’s Available” category on Overdrive, and it jumped out at me.

What does this have to do with (physical) books? Sorry, you know how I tend to meander into my blog topic…

The book I finished this morning was a non-fiction book called Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalismby Fumio Sasaki. If you read and liked Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Upyou’ll find Sasaski’s book a rather logical next step. That is, if you’re very curious about the causes and results of the pursuit of minimalism. And possibly desirous of living in a 300 square foot space with…one book. While I love trying new things, and Sasaki is very knowledgable and has some brilliant ideas about what to  cull from your life and why, I draw a hard line at books.

But…

Our house has deep and numerous bookshelves, and I’m feeling overwhelmed simply by the presence of so many books. Our main built-ins can handle three rows of books, back to front. Not all of them contain three rows of books. Only about two thirds, or 90 square feet of shelves have that many. (That’s nearly a third of the square footage of Sasaki’s entire home.) I can’t even get to the second two rows unless I try. Clearly, some books need to go.

How to choose? Marie Kondo’s method is to put ALL the books in the house into a pile and touch each one to see if it still sparks joy. If it sparks, you get to keep the book/object. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not so simple. Sasaki gives many cogent arguments for simply getting rid of things, few questions asked. His main argument is, “The things we say goodbye to are the things we’ll remember forever.” He takes many, many photographs of the objects he releases out into the world.

What about categories? A gloss of my categories: Read or unread, books by friends, reference books, books that formed me at various stages of my career. coffee table books, art books, DUMMIE’S GUIDE books. Books received as gifts. SO many textbooks and homeschooling novels/story collections. Books my kids loved. Books on faith. Beloved paperbacks. Books I’ve published. Books I started reading and never finished. Antique books that belonged to people who have been dead for decades. Craft books, arts and crafts books. Cookbooks. Music books. Single-author collections. FIRST EDITIONS. Just today, as I was linking to the Marie Kondo book, I found a copy of the first American edition for seven dollars. Seven dollars! That’s practically free. I have it on my Kindle, and I listened to it on Overdrive last week. But I don’t have a first American edition!

There are only about fifteen books that I read again and again. That’s not even a shelf and a half’s worth. What would I do with all that bookshelf space? Something has to go on those shelves besides sleeping cats.

Both Sasaki and Kando write about minimalism being life-changing. And Sasaki is persuasive. No one wants to die and leave piles and piles of things for relatives to dispose of. Uncluttered space makes for inspirational space. Creativity can flow through cleared rooms. I’m a believer.

Then again, books are comforting. Books are undemanding, and sit quietly waiting to be noticed. Writing books is my dream, and how can I abandon the dreams of so many other writers? I don’t want to hurt their feelings, even if they don’t know it.

I need some inspiration. To cull or not to cull? Shall I take pictures of their covers and get rid of the majority of the books?

How do you feel about your books? Is it hard to let go? What’s your secret?

 

 

 

4+

Chappaquiddick, The Story

 

 

 

About a month ago, I began to see advertisements for the film Chappaquiddick. Being familiar with the subject–Ted Kennedy’s involvement in the death of a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne–there was no question in my mind about whether I would go to the film or not.

My parents were Catholic sweethearts still in their twenties when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June, 1968. One of my early memories is of my mother watching his funeral on our small black and white television. Just a little over a year later, two weeks after I turned seven, Mary Jo Kopechne died, suffocated in a car submerged in the dark water just off the Dike bridge near Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts. Senator Ted Kennedy, who was positioned to run for president in 1972, was driving the car when it went into the water. He didn’t report the accident until ten hours later. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was given a two-month, suspended jail sentence.

I’m not sure when I truly became aware of this terrifying story. While the adults around me spoke pretty freely at the time, I’m certain no one mentioned the details of the accident right after it happened. Given my visceral reaction every time I think about it, I must have first heard about it when I was a young teenager. What imaginative child doesn’t spend at least some time thinking about drowning? Worse, I had a fear of both water and bridges. We often traveled across the Ohio River, and my sisters and I tried to hold our breath as long as the car was on the bridge. It was a great distraction.

This blog really isn’t about the Chappaquiddick film. No, I won’t be going to see it. I know the story, and have read all sorts of accounts and theories about it. I won’t offer my opinion on it here. But it would be interesting to know what viewers unfamiliar with the event think after seeing the film.

This blog is about a book.

In 1993, I read Joyce Carol Oates’ novella, Black Water. Oates has boldly fictionalized real-life situations and characters in several novels: Blonde, about Marilyn Monroe; Sacrifice, about the Tawana Brawley case; and My Sister, My Love, about JonBenet Ramsey’s death. There are many, many true crime books, and novelized historical fiction is very hot right now. Oates’ writing is always intensel, and delves deeply into the psychology of her characters. So I guess it’s no surprise that I found myself profoundly affected by Black Water. It nails two of my darkest fears, and throws in the always-timely subject of young people (often young women) betrayed by powerful figures (often older men).

This 1992 Washington Post article reports that Oates says, “The Senator in “Black Water” shouldn’t be mistaken for Ted Kennedy, Kelly Kelleher isn’t a pseudonym for Mary Jo Kopechne, and this brief tale isn’t about Chappaquiddick at all.” (Reporter’s quote, not Oates’ actual words.) But it is a story about a party, a senator, a girl, a car accident, a death in the water, and a betrayal. It’s all there.

Black Water is written in Oates’ unique close third voice–a voice which also hints at the existence of a rather arch and wise narrator. Kelly Kelleher is her own memoirist, judge, jury, cheerleader, critic, and inner child. As she waits for the senator to come back to save her, she fights desperately to live. She’s flooded (no pun intended) with memories, and  tells herself stories about what’s happening in the outside world. She clings to her optimism.

I’m told by someone who spoke casually with Oates about the novella that she means for it to be read in one sitting of two hours–the same amount of time the authorities believe Kopechne lived after the car went into the water. That notion leaves me breathless. This will sound ridiculously theatrical, but I almost wish that this fact were written on the page facing the ending of the novella.

The true horror of this story lies in those two hours. Forget the party. Forget Kelly’s romantic thoughts. Forget the way the senator kicks at her as he propels himself away from the sunken car. Forget the alcohol and rumors of infidelity. All you need to know about is those two endless, infinite hours. At the end of those two hours, she is dead, but the reader has visited her entire life just as Kelly relived it–In bright and dark patches of emotion, wonder, and terror.

Why would I want to see the film? After reading extensively about the Chappaquiddick incident, I’ve come to my own conclusions. I’m not particularly interested in hearing more theories. The story has always been about those two hours for me.

This is the power of the book. Don’t get me wrong. I watch at least a couple films a week. But film viewing is mostly passive, even when the film is well done. I’m not saying that films don’t inspire or teach, horrify or amaze. It’s only that prose fiction engages imagination and emotion in a unique way. I want more of that. Always.

Okay, TKZers. How do you feel about the novelization of history? Are there any books you believe truly capture the spirit and heart of a real-life story?

 

9+

Tough Love

 

–GoDaddy stock photo

 

I have a dear writer friend with whom I talk everyday. We don’t always talk about work, but yesterday she told me it was time to “stop messing around” and finish my proposal for the novel I’ve been dithering with for the past two months. “You’re out of time.”

“But…but…my daughter’s wedding! Ordering things! Cleaning! And what about taxes?” I whined. Except I knew she was totally on target. I’d been resisting, fretting that this novel couldn’t possibly match the promise of the one I’d just turned in. She didn’t respond that I was being foolish, or that I could also get those other important things done. “This is your job,” she said. “If you don’t do your job, you get fired.”

Damn, the truth can hurt. But truth it is. If I don’t write consistently and spend time imagining, plotting out, and writing at least one book and a story or two every year, I get wound up in my own head and go a little crazy. Also, publishing could very well leave me behind. It happens to professional writers all the time. It’s happened to me. Once you have hold of the train, you have to keep moving to stay caught up.

Resistance–real and imagined–provides me with plenty of excuses not to get down to my work. It’s an old, tired story. Writing is my true love, but I can only get it done if I work in spite of my resistance. (This is our theme song.)

I feel awfully fortunate to have someone in my corner who understands what I care about. She focuses my attention on reality instead of standing by and watching me substitute busyness for business. Writing can be such a lonely endeavor. The isolation and the living-in-one’s-own-head can put us at risk for depression or make us twitchy with neuroses. When you spend a lot of time in places that aren’t actually real, the boundary between reality and daydreams blurs.

Having a friend who keeps it real–at least when it counts–can make all the difference in the world. And sometimes you get the privilege of doing the same for her.

If you don’t have one already, make a friend of a another writer. Support that writer and you’ll be helping yourself.

So, TKZers. Where do you get support for your work? What can you offer another writer?

 

 

8+

When A Thing Becomes a Motif

There’s a lovely word that describes an object or idea that shows up again and again in a story: motif. To be a true motif, that object or idea should reinforce the story’s theme. But I confess that when we start to talk too long about things like stories’ themes my eyes tend to glaze over. So I’m perfectly happy to expand the definition to anything that appears repeatedly.

Years ago, it was thought that you could up your chances of getting poems into the New Yorker if you included water images in them. I think I read that something like 40% or more of the poems actually did have water in them for a period of time.  Even if an individual poem only contained one mention of water, water was still a motif that strung together many, many issues of the magazine.

Famous literary motifs: a handsome prince, a poor, but humble girl who becomes a princess, darkness, fog or rain, in gothic stories. In Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, there are sets of doubles, Lord of the Flies has the conch shell, and The Wizard of Oz has a heart, courage, and a brain. Both Shakespeare and the Bible frequently use references to light and darkness to make a point.

In some mystery and thriller stories: the emotionally scarred cop/investigator, the town gossip, weapons, a MacGuffin, a wise mentor. I know there are many more. Motifs and tropes are closely related.

For years, I had an antique comb, mirror and brush set in every story (until someone pointed out to me how weird it was). But now my main motif is a house. I find it hard to write a story unless some of the characters are closely identified with a particular house. As in dreams, a house can be a metaphor for oneself. For me, a house represents a home, and that motif matches up with a theme that’s common to all my books: home is the most important place in the world, even if it’s a terrible, frightening place.

(Update: I originally forgot to include a motif in one of my own stories that someone who was teaching it for a college class pointed out to me. I confess I had never realized it was there, which was probably the reason it worked so well. It’s a recurring dialogue exchange but spoken between varying characters: “Are you there?” “Yes, I am here.” Here’s the link to the story in PANK Magazine. “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.”) 

Do tell, TKZers. What motifs stand out in stories you love? And what things show up again and again in your work?

 

 

9+

First Page Critique: I Wish I Had Her Job

 

 

Greetings, fellow travelers! Welcome to the latest installment of First Page Critiques.

Our brave writer has submitted the opening to “I Wish I Had Her Job” for your comment. Read closely. There’s a lot going on here.

I wish I had your job…

Alone at last! Loretta thought. I’m home! I’ve finished dinner. Now I can relax.

Today as always at Demon Investigators, there’d been too much to do, not enough time, too much criticism, and never enough pay.

Today, on top of everything else, her manager James Manetti got a call from the Global Center of Anti-Demonic Operations. They said that they had lost track of most of the Potential Vampire Stakers. Over the past two months, they’d all just disappeared, from wherever they were in the world. No one had any idea where they were.

I have no idea, Loretta thought, what they expect Jimmy to do about it. He promised them that we’d all look into it, and see what we (meaning me) could come up with.

After he hung up, she’d asked Jimmy, “If the Global Center of Operations can’t find them, what do they expect from us?”

He’d shrugged and said, “Who knows?”

There’d also been another annoying call from the Feds; routinely asking again if we’d heard anything about the whereabouts of Sylvia Demarco.   Sylvia, the former Vampire Staker, who’d been convicted of armed robbery and murder, had disappeared from her prison cell about a year ago.  The Feds had no idea where she was.  Nobody who worked at Demon Investigators, her former place of employment, had any idea where she was either.

This evening, 23 year old Loretta Carolton sat alone on the sofa in the living room of her apartment. She’d finished her dinner of canned ravioli that she’d heated in a microwaveable container in the microwave oven, and was now sipping from a half full glass of red wine.

The trim figured woman, with expensively coiffured black hair, remained dressed in the stylish white outfit that she’d worn to work that day. She’d turned on the TV and sat watching CNN.

I’m having wine with Wolf Blitzer again. She thought, I’ve got to get a life!

After the News, she switched to the Demonic Entertainment Network on Channel 666. That was recommended viewing for demon fighters, like herself and everyone else who worked for Demon Investigations. Tonight, something she saw might give her a clue as to the whereabouts of the missing Potential Stakers.

She now sat watching this week’s episode of that Network’s highly rated Travel Series: “Bloodthirsty Traveler”. The show was a documentary. Everything she was about to see actually occurred.

____________________

Brave writer, I can tell from this small sample that you’ve got a fully imagined world for us to enter. And I get a picture of Loretta as a positive, yet overworked Demon Investigator. These are real plusses, but let’s explore some changes that could help convince the reader that the story you’re telling is compelling and interesting.

In medias res. This is a narrative concept that puts the reader in the story’s action from the very first scene. You’re telling a story about a demon investigator, so show us immediately how dangerous and interesting that life might be. It’s okay to give your character genuine rest and reflection time, but we don’t need to see her at home, recalling her day right off the bat. Put us in her day, wrapping up a case, or even returning home to find a demon in her rose bushes that she has to deal with before she can have her glass of wine.

Thoughts. As it stands, we are only bystanders for Loretta’s thoughts as she tells us what happened that day. The old standard advice to “show” rather than “tell,” is still sound.

Many folks will tell you it’s wrong to open with dialogue. Personally, I do it all the time, though opinions differ. If you open with any kind of dialogue–especially internal–make sure it grabs us. You can also lose the she thoughts by simply writing internal dialogue in italics.

i.e.:

Where in the world are you, Sylvia? Where does a rogue Vampire Staker hide? 

Loretta Carolton poured herself another glass of Burgundy, and returned to the chair in front of her laptop. The bowl of canned ravioli she’d heated up two minutes after she’d walked through the front door sat beside her, the sickly-sweet sauce congealing into an unappealing mess. She no longer had an appetite. Sylvia DeMarco was loose, and she had to find her before she killed again.

Note: Save your few allowed exclamation points for action dialogue. Even at our most anxious, we don’t really think in exclamation points.

Keep the action in an easy-to-follow order. You have so much information here that’s filtered through Loretta, that you’ll want us to understand it. Lay out the events for yourself, line by line, in chronological order, to take a look at all you’re trying to convey on the first page. Then pare down to one solid event that motivates her to get to work, and illustrate that fully.

There are two flashbacks that occur within moments of the beginning. You do a great job with the writing in the flashbacks, but they act to slow down the story.

Point of view. This excerpt is written primarily in limited 3rd person. We see nearly everything through Loretta’s eyes, and so we will get no additional information that she doesn’t get or have.

Be careful to adhere to this single POV. There are a couple places where you use the word “we.” This is okay if it’s in her thoughts, as in the first instance. But here’s the second: “There’d also been another annoying call from the Feds; routinely asking again if we’d heard anything about the whereabouts of Sylvia Demarco.” You’ve slipped into first person with that “we’d.” With third person, it would be “they’d.”

“This evening, 23 year old Loretta Carolton sat alone on the sofa in the living room of her apartment. She’d finished her dinner of canned ravioli that she’d heated in a microwaveable container in the microwave oven, and was now sipping from a half full glass of red wine.

The trim figured woman, with expensively coiffured black hair, remained dressed in the stylish white outfit that she’d worn to work that day. She’d turned on the TV and sat watching CNN.

I’m having wine with Wolf Blitzer again. She thought, I’ve got to get a life!” [Again, you can use italics and drop the “She thought.”]

I’m wondering why, dear writer, you would have the above section in the middle of the first couple pages. It works as an introduction, which is odd that given that we already have some sense of her. If you’re going to go the contemplative route, this is a better start than what you have now (minus the “This evening”).

Forecasting. It seems evident to me that Loretta will see something useful on “Bloodthirsty Traveler.” If not, you can lose much of the explanation about the show/network. Also, “documentary” already implies that the story is true. No need to reiterate.

In all, I think this is a fun, interesting story. Good job, brave writer!

Zoners: What did I miss? What are your thoughts?

 

8+

What Did That Sign Say?

Today’s post is short. I promise I’m not lazy. I’m really, truly not. This past week, I was on the road (I’m looking at you, Alabama!) and when I returned, I immediately resumed Mom’s Taxi Service for my eighteen year-old son who’s still on crutches.

When I was on the road, I couldn’t help but notice bad signage. Mostly it was hanging in bathrooms, as though it were trying to hide. And, frankly, I don’t blame it. While I’m all for the evolution of the English language, I despair. I toyed with the idea of correcting them, but I’m not an enthusiastic defacer of any printed words. Here are the three appalling signs I was able to snap without drawing too much attention.

It’s hard to know where to start.

I suppose the two ** represent the phrase “if there are no paper towels.” And that must be a majestic Hair Dryer to warrant initial caps.

This one never gets old. Fish in a barrel, folks.

It’s show and tell time!

I’ll repost the first five you all send to me at laura@laurabenedict.com.

—Thanks, Sue Coletta! I like that they finish this masterpiece off with three !!!

–From George Smith, “Trespassing during normal  hours is okay, though.”

George Smith: “Somewhere there’s a empty sign frame…”

I can’t believe how long it too me to get this one. Too funny!

George Smith: “For those approaching from the edge of the building.”

–From our own beloved Kris Montee!

5+

Fear, the Ultimate Motivation

(Photo by author)

I love it when a reader tells me one of my books gave them a good scare. Oddly enough, despite having written many dark suspense and gothic novels and stories, I’ve rarely actually set out to frighten readers. The scares in my stories are incidental to their unfolding.

Though, now that I think about it, there was one time I tried my hand at a truly creepy passage, but my editor shot it down. In my first novel, Isabella Moon, I thought it would be very cool for the villain to roll the decapitated head of my heroine’s erstwhile love interest into the kitchen to scare the hell out of her. The image seemed dramatic and seriously creepy to me, but my editor said it went too far. And I knew he was right. So I took it out. (Also, take note. DON’T kill off the love interest unless you’re writing a tragic love story, or you reveal that the love interest was a bad, bad person, and probably deserved to die. It’s almost, but not quite, as bad as killing a fictional dog or cat or rabbit or bird or mouse or even a particularly memorable flea. Kill all the humans you like, but leave the critters alone unless your story’s about the life of a very lovable dog that dies peacefully in its sleep.)

You don’t have to be writing a horror or suspense story to make good use of fear. Fear is a remarkable motivator in both life and fiction. I’m convinced that I write crime stories because I’m the most paranoid person I know.

When we write about things that frighten us, chances are there will be lots of readers who share our fears. We can exploit (terrible word, but I mean it in the nicest way) those fears and redeem ourselves through characters that may suffer for a while, but journey to overcome their fears or terrifying situations.

As humans we all have fears. They don’t have to be big, bloody fears, or deeply felt emotional fears to propel or inspire a story. They can be as small as a spider or as microscopic as damaged chromosomes. Resonance is the important thing.

Here’s a list of fears that immediately spark stories of all sorts for me:

Fear of death.

Fear of being submerged in water.

Fear of my embarrassing secrets being revealed in public.

Fear of losing a child.

Fear of being blackmailed.

Fear of being taken advantage of.

Fear of success.

Fear of being a failure.

Fear of a bug crawling in one’s ear or nose.

Fear of being watched in a lighted house from the darkness outside.

Fear of being pulled over by a fake cop on a lonesome road.

Fear of being mistaken for a criminal.

Fear of home invasion.

Fear of the apocalypse.

Fear of snakes in the house.

Fear of roaming packs of dogs.

Fear of being watched through a computer’s camera.

Fear of being kidnapped.

Fear of a child being hurt or being killed by one’s carelessness.

Fear of being judged and found wanting.

Fear of being too happy, because it can’t last.

Fear of one’s eye(s) being gouged out.

Fear of the supernatural.

Fear of random violence.

Fear of cancer.

Fear of loving too much.

Fear of poverty.

Fear of seeing open, bleeding wounds.

Fear of corpses.

Fear of being wrong.

Fear of betrayal.

Fear of snarky groups of teenage girls.

Fear of being vulnerable.

Fear of losing a lover.

Fear of losing a friendship.

As you can see from the list, many of these fears are close to being universal for humans. Readers always want to discover things in stories that they can identify with. It’s all about the resonance, and not so much about the shock value.

I’d love for you to add to this list!

 

 

 

3+

First Page Critique: The Mask

Greeting, TKZers!

Welcome to another installment of First Page Critiques. Today our brave submitter offers us the prologue to a monster story. I love monster stories, so let’s get to it.

This piece came in untitled, but had a chapter title of The Mask. We’ll use that.

THE MASK (Prologue)

A hand twitched on the steel floor, its reflection mirroring its movement in pool of black and red liquid. A few meters away lay the rest of the arm. And strewn about it were the remnants of its other parts. A splintered leg, a collapsed torso. All was still, bathed in the red liquid that once pumped through them. The pool rippled, disturbed by a frantic pair of feet that were very much alive. “Open the door!” a voice shrieked, cracking with desperation.

 Hands pounded on the steel door. “Please!”

The door didn’t budge.

 The man backed away, his breathing frantic. They wouldn’t let him out. Not if they wanted to risk the entire facility. But this wasn’t how he had planned to die at all. He should have expected it, working in a place like this, doing so little for so much money. He should have known better. He could see his mother’s face, scolding him for being so lazy all the time. Now he’d never see her again. I told you so, she would have said angrily, even from her hospital bed. Now she truly was alone. After his father left–

 The thoughts stopped when everything became quiet. Before he could react, he felt a hand brush his arm. It was almost reassuring with the gentle way it traveled up to his shoulder. That thought stopped as well when the hand continued to his throat. It wrapped around his neck, joined with its twin, and squeezed. The man felt the tears that had been building in his eyes spill down his cheeks. The tears travelled more slowly than he thought they would. From the corners of his vision, he saw that the liquid streaming down his cheeks wasn’t clear. It was black. The pain blooming in his neck crept into his skull. He tried to scream. The only thing that came out was the pitch-like substance. It bubbled from his throat, rolled over his tongue, covered his teeth. It poured over his lips, burning all the way down, burning his grasping hands, his heaving chest.

The man’s feet thrashed as he was lifted off the floor. The sounds of his kicking boots bounced off of the steel walls. The hands around his throat twitched like the severed fingers littered on the floor. The men monitoring the cameras couldn’t help but involuntarily flinch when the hands twisted with a sickening crunch. The kicking came to an abrupt stop. After a moment, the body flopped onto the floor, a rag doll. The owner of the murderous hands stepped forward into the vision of the camera.

Let me summarize this opening as I understand it:

A man is locked in a steel-lined room with the remains of a dismembered corpse. He’s terrified, and reflects that he should never have taken the job that brought him there, and reveals that his mother thinks he’s lazy. Someone/something that is extremely strong strangles him, slowly and painfully, and he erupts in a burning black liquid and finally dies. Men operating cameras trained on the room see the murderer step into view.

This opening is described as a prologue, and I think it functions as a good illustration of how to set a mood. It’s dark and violent and spare. The scene is a fairly common science-fiction trope: a low-level employee/character is killed by (or sacrificed to) a monster. Tropes can be very useful, but can border on the cliché and should be used carefully.

I’m struggling with the voice. It feels…disembodied. (No pun intended.) It’s not that the voice is exactly passive, but it floats between omniscient (the opening and closing paragraphs) and a relatively close third (the victim). It lacks cohesion. Pick a POV. I would argue for using a close third so we see everything through the eyes of the victim during the prologue. Then jump to the POV of someone in the control room. Hopefully that will be a character critical to the telling of the story.

“A hand twitched on the steel floor, its reflection mirroring its movement in pool of black and red liquid. A few meters away lay the rest of the arm. And strewn about it were the remnants of its other parts. A splintered leg, a collapsed torso. All was still, bathed in the red liquid that once pumped through them. The pool rippled, disturbed by a frantic pair of feet that were very much alive. “Open the door!” a voice shrieked, cracking with desperation.

            Hands pounded on the steel door. “Please!”

This first bit feels like screenplay talk. It’s all scene-setting. A hand twitches. Parts are strewn. A pool of (blood?) is disturbed by a frantic pair of feet(!). All I could think was that the feet of the dismembered corpse were still alive! That was a very weird moment. Then a disembodied voice shrieks, and hands pound on the door. Can you see where I’m going here? Because we started out with random body parts, when we read about other body parts it’s hard to think of them as being attached to a human.

We finally discover that the hands and feet belong to a man who is trapped inside the room with a corpse.

Let’s reimagine the scene as seen through the eyes of the man.

Bill “Red Shirt”* MacNeil stared at the pale hand lying on the blood-soaked steel floor. The corpse’s crushed torso and one twisted leg lay within sight, but it was the hand that struck him dumb. When its fingers arched and twitched, the spell was broken and he ran for the door. Panicked, he stumbled on the slickened floors as he ran, and each time he had to catch himself, his hands were smeared with more of the warm offal.

“Let me out! Open up!” he screamed. He pounded the door with his fists. Breathing heavily, he stepped back, waiting for the familiar sound of bolts thumping into place and the electronic hiss of the door’s seal.

Nothing.

“Dear God, please let me out of here. You can’t do this!”

But hadn’t he known he’d never get out again when he saw the blood everywhere? They couldn’t let him out. They weren’t going to put the entire facility at risk.

If we have some growing sense of the man, even if he is a red shirt, then the trip into his head is less of a surprise.

A couple notes on the murder bit. As you can imagine, I don’t mind seeing a character’s death close up.

Before he could react, he felt a hand brush his arm. It was almost reassuring with the gentle way it traveled up to his shoulder.”

This is a terrific image. But I’m still kind of stuck on the disembodied hand thing. And this hand has a twin! Suddenly I’m thinking that this room is full of body parts that act independently (or in pairs). It’s not until the end of this piece that we learn that the hands are attached to a whole murderer.

Please give us a sense much earlier that there’s an actual person or creature behind him.

Important: It’s physically impossible for humans to see what’s coming out of their eyes and running down their cheeks. He might be blinded by the stuff, but he couldn’t really see it unless he looks in a mirror.

You could easily do our red shirt’s death in his POV. It’s awkward that we’re suddenly outside of his head again. He could be struggling to continue kicking against the walls, then realize he can’t do it anymore. He could black out with his last thought being of his sled, Rosebud. You might even add just a single out-of-POV line about what his blank eyes can’t see. For example, the monster stepping over his body to stare into the eye of the camera.

It’s a good start. With some attention and cohesion, I think it could be a wonderful opening.

*”Red Shirt” is the name given to a stock character in a story who dies at the beginning. It comes from the original Star Trek series, in which the low level characters wore red shirts and were usually the first to die.

What say you, TKZers? Do you agree about the close third POV? Would you do it differently? What further advice do you have for our brave submitter?

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A little personal BSP: I have a new book out this week! SMALL TOWN TROUBLE is a cozy mystery. (I love any kind of mystery.) And it’s not just a cozy, it’s a cat detective book! Light and fun. Plus, there are four other books in the series, all written by different authors, with more to come. Read all about it.

 

 

 

 

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Let’s Murder Some Darlings, Darling

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We all have precious darlings. Sometimes those beloved phrases or oh-so-eloquent descriptions that we’re absolutely certain make a story fabulous, really just need to be cut out with a  scalpel. While an editor or good friend may mention them before they get to the printing point of no return, there’s no guarantee that we’ll listen. After all, they’re called “darlings” for a reason.

Right now I’m editing two novels–not quite simultaneously, but at least sequentially, with only a few days in between. (I’m no role model for workflow, obviously.) So I have more than one editor on the line talking to me about how to make the respective novels sharper. But the brutal truth is that I’m good at sniffing out the darn things myself. I bet you are, too.

Are you feeling brave? Because I want you to share a discarded darling or two of your own. But I’ll go first.

“There were no mysteries to be solved in New Belford. The last disturbance was when two drunk brothers got in a fight about which of them should inherit their mother’s small cottage on the lake. The younger brother had shot the older brother, but when he was convicted he cried, saying that his brother being dead was a worse punishment than prison. It turned out there was a second mortgage on the house and neither one of them would’ve owned anything. No mystery there. Just Darwinism at work.”

Reasons to cut:

Unnecessary action, all is exposition, and it has little to do with the story. Plus, we never meet these characters again. The focus should stay on the story.

Now, it’s your turn.

Find a darling from something you’re working on (or have recently finished) and share it with us. Be sure to tell us why you think it’s a good idea to get rid of it–or not!

 

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Work Day, Sick Day

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Stock photo via GoDaddy

The Thanksgiving Plague finally got me. I hadn’t had so much as a sniffle for six months. Several of my family members were sick in the days surrounding Thanksgiving–my daughter’s fiancé only came out from his room to give the 17 assembled guests a wave at the end of the feast. Fortunately, I didn’t get sick until Monday, after everyone was gone.

I don’t always work when I’m sick, but I always work when I have a deadline. In some ways, I like to write or edit when I’m ill because the illness keeps me in one place–bed, if I can manage it. As an HDW (Highly Distractible Writer, which I just made up), anything that keeps me seated for long periods of time is A Good Thing. I don’t care if it’s the kind of thing that demands two boxes of tissues and a box of Sucrets. (Do they even make Sucrets anymore? I loved those things.)

I edited for eleven hours today. I know that because I tracked it on Office Time which even keeps track of the time you’re away from your keyboard for your counting convenience. On a normal editing day, I get in about six or seven hours, with a bit of web surfing, dog walking, and errand-running at their edges. It’s amazing what a person can get done when they just toss the dogs outside and remind them to do their business, and fling ten bucks at their son so he can bring home pizza for those who can eat.

Today my protag opined about how much she likes to spend the occasional day reading in bed. Doesn’t that sound lovely? Maybe it was transferred wishful thinking on my part because, you know, deadline.

Do you write through the flu or migraines or colds or even broken body parts? Or are you sensible and take good care of yourself by putting all your mental and physical energy into getting better?

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