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.

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?

___________________________________________

 

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.

 

 

 

 

4+

Let’s Murder Some Darlings, Darling

Status

 

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!

 

8+

Work Day, Sick Day

sick day

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?

4+

First Page Critique: “Kimberley Creed”

 

Happy Wednesday!

It’s time to present another First Page critique of a Brave Writer’s work. (Updated to reflect title)

________

Kimberley Creed

“Are you listening to me?” his dad asked him. He nodded, but he hadn’t been. He had been watching in wonder at the group of chanting demonstrators marching down the main street and the half a dozen or so cops standing by. He’d never seen such a commotion.

His father glared at him, his fearsome black eyes striking terror into David. He knew his father could tell when he lied and cringed as the expected hand struck him hard. Whack! on the cheek, his head jolting, ear ringing as the side of his face throbbed. His eyes opened wide in pain as his throat tightened, stopping him from breathing.

“Don’t miss,” Tracker said. “If you do, you owe me fifty bucks. You got it?”

David nodded, still facing the ground. Finally his throat loosened and he was able to suck in a breath, keeping his mouth open to avoid whimpering.

“Focus! I’ll meet you back in the park soon,” Tracker said, and walked away.

David composed himself, wiped his face and looked up. His father lurked at the back of the crowd, looking for a suitable victim. But most of the people around him were locals, David could tell by the way they were dressed. Locals were too much trouble. Tracker wanted a tourist and wandered off the path onto the long stretch of lawn that separated the street from the beach. Dozens of people lingered there, watching the demonstration. Many wore fashionable beachwear, definitely tourists, and David looked over them, trying to guess which unlucky mug Tracker was going to choose.

An attractive couple was canoodling on a bench, oblivious to their surroundings. Easy, but too young. Not cashed up. Then there was the group of young surfers. Too fit; probably fast runners. There was a young father and two young kids seated around a table having lunch. Perfect, the father won’t leave his kids. But he doesn’t look like the kind of fella to have a thick wallet. Then there was the grey-haired couple enjoying a glass of wine and packed lunch at a portable picnic table. Probably retired. Grey nomads. They’ll be loaded for sure.

David looked at Tracker, who was looking back at him and had been waiting for eye contact. Tracker gave a furtive look to the grey nomads, having already picked them out. David nodded and headed towards them.

Tracker walked behind the couple, reached down to the grass and appeared to pick up a fifty-dollar bill.

“Excuse me,” he said. The couple turned and saw him holding up the note. “I think you dropped this,” Tracker said.

“Oh, goodness,” the woman said. The man pulled his wallet from his pocket.

David took a deep breath.

“Thank you, that’s very kind of you,” the man said and took the fifty. That was David’s cue, and he bolted. The old guy stuffed the fifty inside his wallet, and before he could slide it back into his pocket, it was gone – snatched out of his hand, as David shot through.

——-

Brave Author, you’ve got an interesting story here, and a very strong facility for clear, declarative prose. Let’s talk a few housekeeping details:

Don’t make your reader work too hard, especially at the beginning of your story. It’s okay and necessary to identify your characters by name.

So it could open: “Are you listening to me, son?” David’s father asked him.

Or: “Are you listening to me, son?” David’s father clamped a rough hand on his shoulder, jerking him away from the window.

(I had the sense David was looking out a window, but then I wasn’t sure when the father simply walked away. If they were in public, surely his father wouldn’t have whacked him on the head. Perhaps they were in an alley? Or in a copse in the park? Do establish the scene in a quick line or two.)

Though many writers discourage opening a story with dialogue, it’s a rule I break all the time, particularly at the beginning of a chapter. But you might consider another, non-dialogue opening for the beginning of a novel or story.

The sudden mention of the name, Tracker, jarred me out of the moment, and I had to read the beginning again to make sure there weren’t three people in the scene. You can correct that in the second paragraph with something like:

“His father–who was given the nickname Tracker by the uncle who’d started him in the pickpocketing game–glared at him, his black eyes filling David with terror.”

Since you’re telling this story from David’s close 3rd POV, “Tracker” should probably read as “his father” throughout the piece because he wouldn’t think about his father’s first name. It’s the safer approach. Others may disagree. But if you stick with Tracker, establish it quickly.

While “he said” and “she said” can disappear into the background, their overuse can be grating. The same with starting a long series of sentences with “He…” As you read (and you should be reading lots!) pay careful attention to the way writers use bits of action or description of the characters who are speaking to indicate that they are connected to the dialogue. (As above, with David’s father putting a hand on his shoulder, which connects the character and dialogue and also clues us in to his unpleasantness.)

I don’t understand how David could hear what his father and the old couple were saying. Surely he wasn’t standing just a few feet away. You can have him imagining the conversation or reading their lips or simply have him guess at it since he’s seen it happen before.

What are David’s feelings about what he’s seeing? Does it bother him that he’s ripping off old people?

Paragraphs 6 and 7 are outstanding. They beautifully illustrate the process the con men go through to choose their marks. Well done! The cool objectivity of the paragraphs does make David seem cynical and very involved in the game–and that’s not the impression I get from both the opening of the piece, and Tracker’s worry that David might screw up. David seems more sensitive and sheltered, i.e. he’s never seen a demonstration before and doesn’t think murderous thoughts about his father.

Keep at it Brave Writer. You are doing great!

TKZers, what’s your advice for our Brave Writer?

2+

Audiobooks: Is Listening the Same as Reading?

“You cannot borrow any more titles this month” has become the saddest phrase of my small existence.

I may be an audiobook addict.

My gateway drug was the bargain-bin cd novel. Years ago I discovered many in odd places like Tuesday Morning stores, Big Lots, and very occasionally at Barnes and Noble. It took a lot of digging to find unabridged versions–I will not read or listen to abridged versions of books because they incite moral outrage in me. WHY are there such things? I can see perhaps that once upon a time people read Reader’s Digest abridged versions of classics so they could boast they’d read them with some measure of authority, or in case someone might burst into their house and made them take a pop quiz on Great Expectations or Anna Karenina. But, really, if that happens, you’ve got worse problems than being a slacker reader.

After CDs I moved on to iTunes books. I logged on frequently to look for specials, and rarely paid more than $5.99. They were much more portable than bulky CDs. But I got greedy and started buying pricey bestsellers and had to cut myself off. My husband subscribes to Audible. Several of my own books are available on there, but I bristle under the program: limits and specials and points. Mostly, I don’t like to belong to clubs that will have me–especially if I have to pay.

For a while, I listened exclusively to free podcast books. One of my favorite sites is the Classic Tales Podcast with B.J. Harrison. I believe all of the audiobooks he reads are in the public domain, making them truly classic. You can subscribe and get the free podcast, but he also has a great library of inexpensive classics.

I know the rest of the world began streaming library books years ago, but I only started last winter, when I re-joined a nearby library (we are in an unincorporated area) for $80. Now HOOPLA is my new best friend. I have yet to figure out the metrics for which books are available on HOOPLA and which aren’t. The pickings are occasionally spotty. For example, nearly all of  M.C. Beaton’s backlist Agatha Raisin books are available, but there are few books by Robert Stone. If anyone knows how the selections work, please do enlighten us…

As you can see from the photo above, my audiobook listening is fairly light. I’ve been bingeing on traditional and procedural mysteries. (Ignore the “resume” on the two Beaton books–I suspect I moved on to the next one before the last few seconds played.) HILLBILLY ELEGY has been a kind of in-between book. The first 90 minutes or so made me uncomfortable because 1) I found Vance’s broad statements about history and class attributes random and defensive, 2) he pronounces “Appalachia” with a long, Midwestern 3rd “A”, and it drives me nuts as someone who lived for years in WV and western VA, and 3) I have deep, recent roots in eastern Kentucky, and it felt achingly personal and aggravating at the same time–which is to be expected, of course, because my hillbilly ancestry makes me ornery and skeptical anyway. But somewhere around the 90 minute mark, Vance gets deep into his personal history and it becomes a compelling story.

Sorry, I digress.

I nearly always have an audiobook on in the car, whether I’m going on a long trip or to the post office. I have one on while I cook or garden or clean. In fact, I’ve been known to engineer solo driving errands just so I can listen to a book in peace.

Sometimes I wonder if listening to a book isn’t cheating. Is listening to a book too passive an act to be considered useful to a writer? I’m torn. It occasionally feels like that. I’ve let the first 4 Hamish MacBeth books pour into my ears like mineral oil used to float a bug out. (That’s a thing.) I started my heavy listening of traditional mysteries last spring, in preparation for writing my first cozy novel, and now can’t stop. Thank goodness there are a ridiculous number of mysteries out there. Unfortunately I’ve listened to so many that I’ve found there are some books that are marvelous in audio, but are barely readable on the page. (Not telling. Let’s just say I never tried paper with that author again.) It’s as though my listening brain is so focused on the story that it can ignore the weak writing–something I seriously have a hard time doing when I’m looking at a page.

Although magazine and Buzzfeed-type quiz testing tells me that I’m an equally visual and audio learner, I retain stories I hear in much more detail than I do when I read words on a page. Yet the story plays out in my head in much the same way for both–I get to visualize the characters, I get to make educated guesses, I get to participate in ways I don’t when watching a film.

And yet. One of the reasons I still read more paper books than I do ebooks is that I am better able to create a mental map of both the book and the story when I can actually touch and turn pages. It feels participatory in a way that swiping never does. Ebook pages are too uniform. They aren’t alive. Now, that’s just my mental eccentricity–I do read and publish ebooks. It’s just that the experience is different. Stories have a shape, and I like to feel the shape so I can create story shapes for myself. If that all sounds a little Montessori Method to you, sorry. It’s the only way I can think to describe it.

I do, to some extent, also see the shape of stories when I listen to them.

I know. This is starting to sound a little too theoretical. A little too woo-woo. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m betraying my writer self if I’m not reading words on a page. There are times when I realize I’ve been thinking about something else for a minute or two and have to click back to hear what I’ve missed. That’s not to say there haven’t been many times that’s happened as I looked at a paper book.

What say you, dear Zoners? Am I splitting hairs? As writers, do you think there’s a best way to experience a story?

 

7+

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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