Key Ways to Give a Mystery Room to Breathe – First Page Critique – The Good Neighbor

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased by Jordan Dane

I can’t think of a better way to settle in for Thanksgiving and the holidays than with a little murder among neighbors. For your reading enjoyment–and for your constructive criticism–we have the first 400 words of THE GOOD NEIGHBOR, submitted anonymously by a gutsy author and follower of TKZ. Read and enjoy. My feedback will be on the flip side.

***

The unusual heat wave which persisted over parts of New England, long after forecasters had predicted an early end to summer, gave many of the residents an irritable disposition.

The nights didn’t bring much in the way relief to the sweltering New Englanders, who looked forward to the cooler winds from the North by this time and the promise of fishing for those by Maine’s coastline.

Tonight at 12 Rillington Lane, Kennebunk, Kaitlyn O’Donnell struggled with the heat. She tossed, turned, rolled over, then repeated it all once more.

The blending of the weather, the cicadas and that infernal scraping noise—what the hell is that, anyway?—guaranteed sleep would not come tonight.

Frustrated, she threw the thin cotton sheet back and jumped out of bed.
A half-moon in the cloudless sky enabled Kaitlyn to see without the aid of electricity and she shuffled over to the window of her bedroom on the second floor.

The scraping, it sounded like it came from…

The neighbor’s backyard.

From her vantage point Kaitlyn spotted a light in the neighbor’s yard. She assumed a battery-powered lamp.

Silhouetted against the low-light, a male figure busied himself with a shovel.

Next to the hole he dug were two oblong objects encased in a light-colored fabric.

They were the length of —

Oh, my God. Bodies, he’s burying someone!

Kaitlyn’s eyelids flared as she stared with disbelief into her neighbors yard.
The neighbor stopped digging moments later and stood erect. In a deliberate motion, he turned to face the O’Donnell home.

He’s staring at me, oh my… he’s staring…

Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins.

Kaitlyn threw a cotton nightgown over her head and ran barefooted to the hallway. “Dad, Dad,” she called.

Bursting into her parents bedroom at the end of the hallway seconds later she called again. “Dad, wake up, there’s something’s—”

The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty, the top blankets thrown on the floor but the light colored sheets were missing.

She remembered the two object wrapped in light cloth in the neighbor’s yard.

A heavy banging on the front door echoed through the O’Donnell home.

“Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…”

FEEDBACK:
Aspects of this author’s style are vivid and have set the stage for the creepiness of this introduction. The voice here has promise, but there is a feeling that the story is being rushed toward the end and the author resorts to “telling” what is happening, which diminishes the tension and pulls the reader out from inside the head of Kaitlyn. I promise you, anonymous author, that if you truly stay in the head of this horrified kid, your readers will feel the tension and may suffer a rash of goosebumps if you take your time to set up this scene through Kaitlyn’s senses.

Also, it is not recommended to start stories with the weather. Plus, the Point of View (POV) in the first line (and in other spots) is omniscient and not from the main character. This is most evident with the weather description “gave many residents an irritable disposition,” rather than focusing on Kaitlyn’s perspective of HER being irritable with the pervasive heat.

The next line is clearly not in Kaitlyn’s POV either.

“The nights didn’t bring much in the way relief to the sweltering New Englanders, who looked forward to the cooler winds from the North by this time and the promise of fishing for those by Maine’s coastline.”

But without a major rewrite, let’s take a look at how we can use the bones of the author’s story and shuffle sentences to allow the focus to start and remain with Kaitlyn.

STORY SHUFFLE:
In this intro, the author states the physical address of the house where Kaitlyn lives, but doesn’t include the State of Maine until later, after a reference to New England (a region of six states). The reader could be oriented with a quick tag line at the top of the scene to list the town and the time of day. I like using tag lines to anchor the story and reader reviews have mentioned that they like this. In a book by Tami Hoag, she used the dropping temperatures in Minnesota during the hunt for a child exposed to a deadly winter. The added tension of knowing the weather could kill the child became an effective use of tag lines that made an impression on me. So this story could start with the tag lines:

REWRITE INTRO SUGGESTION

Kennebunk, Maine
After Midnight

A full moon cast an eerie shadow of an Eastern White Pine through Kaitlyn O’Donnell’s open bedroom window that stretched onto her walls. The swaying gloom played tricks on her mind and teased her fertile imagination. When the hot night air gusted, the spindly branches of evergreen bristles scraped the side of her house like clawing fingernails, grating on her frayed nerves.

The sixteen year old girl struggled with the unusual heat that smothered her skin like a thick, dank quilt. She tossed and turned and fought her bed sheets, struggling for any comfort that would allow her to sleep. Even if she could doze off, the annoying rasp of cicadas rose and fell to keep her on edge.

Sleep would not come–not tonight. Not when something else carried on the night air.

With sweat beading her arms and face, Kaitlyn tossed the sheet off her body and sat up in bed. Without thinking, she slid off her mattress and wandered toward the open window, drawn by an odd sound that caused the cicadas to stop their incessant noise.

In this new opener, the point of view is clearly in Kaitlyn’s head and her senses show the story of her restlessness and how her mind plays tricks on her. In her current state, she could’ve imagined what comes next.

TELLING – In the action that follows, the descriptions seemed rushed to me and the author resorts to “telling” what is happening, rather than showing. The following sentences are examples of “telling” or POV issues or rushing the story.

She assumed a battery-powered lamp. (It’s not important that the lamp is battery operated. No one spying on their neighbor at night will wonder about batteries. Keep it real and stay with the mystery and tension.)

Oh, my God. Bodies, he’s burying someone! (Give time for her to see shapes and describe them. She’s only watching from the light of one lamp and the neighbor is in silhouette. How well could she see the bodies? But in this case, the author gets impatient and has Kaitlyn “tell” the reader what’s happening.

He’s staring at me, oh my… he’s staring… (Same issue of “telling” the reader. In the dark and shadows, Kaitlyn might only see his body turn toward her. She can’t possibly know that he’s staring at her. But the author should consider giving the neighbor a reason to turn, like the sound of Kaitlyn calling for her dad. Her voice and an open window could allow the sound to carry. Kaitlyn’s sense of urgency could get her into trouble before she realizes she’s alone in the house. Much scarier.)

Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins. (Kaitlyn might have a rush of chilling goosebumps caused by an adrenaline rush in the sweltering heat, but the cliched “ice water through her veins” isn’t the best word choice.)

The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty, the top blankets thrown on the floor but the light colored sheets were missing. (Would Kaitlyn notice in the shadowy room that her parents light colored sheets were missing? A scared kid would notice her parents were gone, but never do an inventory of their bed sheets.)

She remembered the two object wrapped in light cloth in the neighbor’s yard. (Here, Kaitlyn even makes a big deal of tying the light colored sheets to what she saw in her parent’s bedroom. Not remotely realistic. By rushing the ending, the author has given up details and mystery elements, like whether there is blood spatter on the walls and bed or signs of a struggle. Two people being accosted in the middle of the night by a neighbor would surely leave signs of a struggle. And–how did the neighbor get into the house? Why didn’t Kaitlyn HEAR anything if she couldn’t sleep? This intro needs work to make it more plausible.)

THE RUSHED ENDING – The ending is especially rushed. A vital part of suspense is the element of anticipation (something Hitchcock knew well). As an example of this – picture a teen babysitter creeping toward the front door with every movie goer screaming at the big screen “DON’T OPEN THE DOOR!” Once the door is open, the tension is deflated and everything becomes known. To keep the tension building, add some level of detail to build suspense.

A heavy banging on the front door echoed through the O’Donnell home. (The neighbor presumably invaded Kaitlyn’s house to attack her parents or take them to bury in his yard. Why is he knocking this time?)

“Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…” (I don’t believe it’s necessary to have the neighbor say “It’s your neighbor.” He doesn’t need to give his name, because she would know it. So the dialogue here is a bit cheesy and definitely “telling.” Another question – if the neighbor killed her parents, why stop at them? Why not take Kaitlyn too?)

KEY WAYS TO GIVE THIS MYSTERY ROOM TO BREATHE

There’s not enough plausible motivation for this rushed story. If this is a mystery, the details that are not addressed deflates the suspense in a big distracting way. How did the man take her parents from their bed? Why didn’t she hear any struggle? Are their signs of a struggle in the bedroom?

The author has a good deal of fixing that needs to occur to make this intro believable. Key ways to give this mystery room to breathe – suggestions for improving this introduction (besides the ones I wrote about above):

1.) Have Kaitlyn awaken from a drugged stupor – was she drugged or did she take cold medicine to help her sleep that could’ve distorted her take on reality or stopped her from being aware of a struggle?

2.) Had Kaitlyn’s parents been next door at a party with the neighbor and never returned home? Maybe the intro could take place the next morning when she realizes her parents never came home. Their bed is unmade. No breakfast. She rushes to the neighbor’s house and he’s not home or lies to her about when her folks left. “They went straight home, honey.”

3.) Have her file a police report with no clues on how her parents disappeared and the cops are skeptical. She begins spying on the neighbor – as in REAR WINDOW. This plot has been done before, but the idea is to create a compelling mystery that readers care about. A teen alone to deal with her missing parents.

4.) Give the girl a handicap where she is wheelchair bound and reliant on her parents for care. Who would she go to for help?

5.) Make Kaitlyn a suspect in the eyes of the police. Maybe she is a rebellious kid who’s been suspended from high school for fighting. What has given her a big chip on her shoulder?

6.) Grow the Suspect List – After this rushed intro, where would the rest of the book go? If the author made a bigger mystery of whether the neighbor is involved at all, there could be others who had motive to eliminating her parents. A fun way to create and sustain a mystery is to reveal others with motives as the story unfolds. Make a list of 4-5 individuals who are equally guilty looking. Maybe even the author doesn’t know who the real killer is until the last minute. I did this in my debut book NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM. I literally could’ve flipped a coin on which one of my 5 suspects could be guilty and I loved not knowing myself. But most importantly, having more than a crazy neighbor (who admits to guilt on the first page) allows the story plot to breathe and twist and build to a climax.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?

2.) Can you suggest other plot twists than the ones I listed in my summary?

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Valet de Poulet – Some Thoughts on Self-Care (Guest: Bill Cameron)

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

A man and his chicken

It’s my pleasure to have my friend, Bill Cameron, join us today. I’m a big fan of his writing ever since I read his debut book LOST DOG. Bill was in my debut authors group for the International Thriller Writers (ITW) in 2008. That book featured an unlikely kleptomaniac anti-hero smart ass, Peter McKrall, with his unique voice that has always stuck with me. It launched Bill’s detective series that features Detective Skin Kardash.

I also follow/harass Bill on Instagram (@bcmystery) where he posts pics of his urban chickens. His daily videos and pics of his chicken drama are tons of fun and addictive, like his writing. Thanks for being our guest, Bill. Shake a tail feather and take it away.

***

Much of my day was spent chasing chickens around my yard—an act of pure slapstick if there ever was one. Usually the ladies will come right up to me (probably because I often have treats), but today they sensed I had something else in mind. So they fled, making comical “bock-bock-bock” sounds as they went. I was no doubt equally comical, trying to both run and scoop up indignant chickens simultaneously. The result was a kind of bow-legged lurch with my hands flapping around near ground level. I may have fallen, but if you don’t have video you can’t prove anything.

My problem, or rather the chickens’ problem, was a possible infestation of scale mites. These awful little bugs burrow under the skin of a chicken’s legs, drink blood, and can wreak havoc on the well-being of a flock. (Do not image search for “chicken scale mites” unless you want to see true horror.)

Now, I say possible infestation because until the the situation gets really bad, the vermin are difficult to see. Some discoloration on the legs of our oldest hen, Hinie, was the only indication something might be amiss. That discoloration could also mean nothing at all, but since we don’t want the mites to get a leg-hold, I decided to address the problem proactively.

The treatment is basically Chicken Spa Day, which probably sounds nice to you and me. And in fact some chickens enjoy a soak in a warm bath and maybe a massage. (Do image search for “chicken taking a bath” for some entertaining pics.) Not so much our ladies. But I was not deterred.

In advance, I’d prepared a warm Epsom salts bath with a little mild soap. As I caught them, the girls each got a soak and a mild scrub to clean off any mite eggs or mites that hadn’t yet burrowed. Then, after they were dried off, I coated each hen’s legs with Bag Balm to suffocate the pestilent buggers who remained.

The good news is all went relatively as planned, though it took me more than an hour to get all four into the tub. (Farm Fact: chickens are fast.) The girls had a lot to say about it, probably in the form of chicken swearing. But the endeavor was a success—though I got wetter than the girls did.

So what does this shenanigan have to do with self-care?

Well, for me, taking care of chickens is a lot like writing. It can be rewarding, fun, challenging—and also a source of heartbreak. Right now we have four girls: the aforementioned Hinie, plus Cheeks, Tuchus, and Buns. (Do you detect a theme? Guess what!) Earlier this summer, one of our first hens, Fanny, died unexpectedly. And last year, two others (Moon and Patootie) turned out to be roosters, which are verboten within city limits. That’s the heartbreak side of things. But the rest of the time there’s the slapstick comedy and the reward of eggs and affection from smart, engaged birds who each have their own personality.

When I’m away from the keyboard, I find chicken care is a good way for me to get my “I’m not an incompetent buffoon” fix—something that can be rare in my writing life. On days when things seem especially dire (“wait, did you say there’s no market for that manuscript I spent five years on?”), time with the chickens can give me a sense of worth. They need me—for food and water and spa days, and for a lap or shoulder to cluck on. And I’m up to the task.

The day Hinie pooped on Bill’s head

But as with writing, there’s no guarantee of success. They might get scale mites, and while I’m confident I have that problem in hand, the next problem might cost me a beloved pet. In the morning, I might get a manuscript rejection, but in the afternoon I might get a fresh egg and a nuzzle from a bird named after a butt.

Chicken Tending (think about it) isn’t the only thing I do for self-care. But the ways it’s like writing helps me deal with the tribulations of my writing life. Sometimes we just need a little success. For me, chasing birds around the yard goes a long way toward keeping me grounded and believing I can make a difference—on the page as much as in the coop.

Fanny (RIP) & Hinie by Bill’s daughter, Jessica

FOR DISCUSSION:

What do you do to take care of yourself?

 

Bill Cameron BIO

Bill Cameron is the critically-acclaimed author of gritty, adult mysteries featuring Skin Kadash. His short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery MagazineKiller YearPortland NoirFirst ThrillsDeadly Treats, and West Coast Crime Wave. In 2012, his novel County Line received the Spotted Owl for Best Northwest Mystery. His latest book, the young adult mystery Property of the State, was named one of Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2016: Teen.

Bill is currently at work on a mystery set in the Oregon High Desert.

Bill’s Books

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25 Ways To Avoid Writer’s Butt*

 

Credit: Go Daddy Stock Photo

A handy list for your writing day:

  1. Don’t write.
  2. If you choose to write, don’t eat while you’re writing.
  3. Chain yourself to your desk to keep from going to the kitchen.
  4. If your desk is in the kitchen, you need to move your desk.
  5. Don’t write about food unless you’ve just eaten. It will make you hungry.
  6. A candy treat is a fine reward for a potty-training toddler, not grown-up writers who’ve squeaked out 100 words in three hours.
  7. A single glass (not bottle!) of wine, spirits or beer is a fine reward for finishing your work for the day.
  8. Take your dog or cat for a walk. Bonus points if you’re not staring at your phone.
  9. Exercise before you write. Let writing be your reward. (Hey! Stop laughing!)
  10. When you get stuck while writing and find yourself headed for the kitchen, scream DON’T DO IT at the top of your lungs and do 10 push-ups. Knee push-ups count.
  11. If you’re on the phone kvetching with another writer about the sad state of publishing, your life, your advance, or your Writer’s Butt, wear a headset and walk around and around your office, living room, front yard. Bonus points for each 1K steps you take.
  12. Keep your fridge and cabinets stocked with food you hate, or food that takes preparation.
  13. Get a standing desk and a good mat on which to stand.
  14. Nap, at your desk, or napping place of your choice.
  15. Take your dog or cat for another walk.
  16. When you temporarily forget how to write, listen to an audiobook by a writer who inspires you as you walk, jog, etc.
  17. Don’t write when you’re exhausted. Exhausted writers are hungry writers.
  18. When you’re not writing, make your diet as carb-loaded and awful as possible. Then you’ll have acid-reflux the whole time and won’t be tempted to eat.
  19. Take a dance break.
  20. Write stomach-churning prose.
  21. Wear pants that are already uncomfortably tight instead of yoga pants.
  22. Use the Pomodoro method. This one is online, but you can get yourself an actual timer for your desk.
  23. Write at the library and leave your money in the car so you can’t use the vending machines. Bonus points for parking far away.
  24. When you’re reading, walk around the house. You know you did it as a kid. Watch out for the dog.
  25. During your writing time, turn off the Internet, have a tall glass of water on hand, and write like a demon. You’ll feel so good and accomplished when you look at those pages that you’ll either not care if you have Writer’s Butt (always an option!), or you’ll feel so virtuous that you’ll make yourself a healthy dinner, have a glass of wine (or not), take the dog for a walk, get a good night’s sleep, and do it again tomorrow.

*Disclaimer: I have used all 25 methods at various times, and my Writer’s Butt comes and goes. As to number 3, I have gotten so tangled up in the huge number of power cords around my desk that I may as well have been chained because it was a real pain to try to get away from my chair and go to the kitchen.

Okay TKZ-ers! Please share your Avoiding-Writer’s-Butt strategies. We’re listening…

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Heil Safari – First Page Critique

Today let’s welcome another Brave Anonymous Author who offers the first page of Heil Safari.

Title:  Heil Safari

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot. He had stepped to the caution line and put one foot on the other side. The caution line, marked with wooden stakes and a strand of wire across the top, warned the prisoners of war from getting too close to the wire fence fifteen feet beyond. On the fence going around the entire prison camp there were signs in English and German that read:

ATTENTION!

Forbidden to Move Inside

Restricted Area

Violators Will be Shot

The American guard in the corner watchtower shouted, “You there! On the deadline! Git back!” The guard raised a rifle to his shoulder. “I said git back!”

But Fritz didn’t move.

“You damn Nazi,” the guard yelled at Fritz. “Git back or I shoot!”

Fritz still didn’t move, apparently not taking the threat seriously. Or caring. But Beyer took it seriously. He cared.

Returning to his barracks after doing his morning toilet, Beyer now stood still, uneasy. Then he heard the click of a breech bolt coming from the guard tower at the other corner of the compound. In horror he saw a guard hunkered behind a machine gun. He was covering the south end of the compound as if at any moment there might be a general uprising. The nearby prisoners, however, remained still and only stared.

But Beyer had to do something other than stare to see how the crisis would turn out. He couldn’t afford to lose Fritz. The only mining engineer in the Officers Compound, Fritz was essential to the success of Hermes. Beyer was desperate for Hermes to succeed. Being too long cooped in the densely packed prisoners and buildings of the enclosure, Beyer, much like Fritz, was becoming unnerved. Beyer frequently broke out in night sweats, his breathing rapid and shallow, and sigh a low, agonizing moan.

Considering that Fritz might be shot, a shiver of fear raced through Beyer at the prospect of a catastrophe. Without Fritz there may not be a tunnel completion, no one would get out, all the hard work done up to now remaining unfulfilled.

“Damn you! Stop!” the guard with the rifle shouted.

The shout startled Beyer, then he noticed Fritz beginning to take mincing steps, his short height straddling the wire in his crotch.

 

Okay, let’s get to work.

Usually first pages arrive naked and unadorned at TKZ, without genre or background information. Page One must stand entirely on its own. That’s good because a strong first page is critical to whether or not a reader buys your book.

However, this submission included a synopsis. And the synopsis was intriguing. For that reason, I’m going to handle this critique a little differently than normal.

Most writers would rather endure an IRS audit than write a synopsis because it’s damn hard to do well.

In the summary, Anon explained the novel was based on a true but largely-unknown incident during World War II at Camp Trinidad in Colorado. I Googled it and found this article. Essentially, The Great Escape got turned on its head with German prisoners of war trying to escape American captors.

Show, don’t tell is oft-repeated advice for fiction. However in a synopsis, telling is permissible because it’s the most efficient way to introduce characters, lay out the story problem/conflict, and set up what’s at stake.

Anon handled that summary very well. German prisoners plot to escape a POW camp in Colorado because they are going mad from wire enclosure fever. A main character, Beyer, would rather die than endure another day in captivity. But there is dissent among prisoners, some of whom are die-hard Nazis while others are not. There are additional complications because Beyer’s friend Fritz, the chief engineer in charge of building the escape tunnel, is teetering on the brink of insanity. Anon sets up external conflict between German prisoners and American captors and among the POWs themselves, internal conflict with severe psychological stress, and a ticking clock with a race to see if the tunnel can be finished before the engineer completely loses it.

Lots of great potential for a historical thriller. Congratulations on a clear, competent synopsis, Anon.

Unfortunately, on this first page, Anon is mostly telling when s/he should be showing.

The POV character Beyer observes the events unfolding not only from a physical distance but also an emotional distance. Anon tells us he’s concerned but the reader doesn’t feel his apprehension, his helplessness, his panic that Fritz’s actions may not only lead to his death but also ruin the escape plan that can’t proceed without him.

The stakes couldn’t be higher–life or death–which is a great way to kick off a first page.

But the problem is: the reader doesn’t care.

Because we’re not inside Beyer’s skin. We don’t feel his guts churning, smell the nervous sweat under his armpits, taste the bile rising in his throat. We don’t see what he sees—the madness in the wild eyes of his friend Fritz who’s trying to commit suicide. We don’t hear the angry bark of the guard with his twitchy finger on the trigger.

We don’t feel the urgency driving both men to risk death because they can’t endure another day in captivity.

Showing is more than visual—it must be visceral and emotional.

The synopsis used the term “wire enclosure fever.” Unfortunately there is no sense of  fever in this first page.

A few suggestions to consider as you rewrite:

Lead off with a simple dateline that immediately sets the date and location. The reader right away understands this is historical fiction set in a military environment. For example:

Camp Trinity, Colorado, 1943

Next, climb inside Beyer’s skin and stay there. Use sensory detail to bring action to life. Actions trigger Beyer’s thoughts and feelings.

As Jim Bell often recommends, “Act first, explain later.” Give the reader just enough information to set the scene and prevent confusion.

A lot of repetition can be cut and condensed. Consider the first two sentences:

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot.

These two sentences essentially repeat the same information that could be combined into a single sentence with much more punch. Again, it’s telling rather than showing. Instead of having Beyer “wonder” how to save Fritz, he should act. His action may help the situation or it may make it worse. But either way, it moves the story forward.

Every scene needs to accomplish at least five tasks:

  1. Set the scene;
  2. Reveal character;
  3. Introduce a problem or goal;
  4. Demonstrate the stakes if the problem is not solved or the goal is not met;
  5. Propel the action forward.

How do you build a compelling scene? By stringing together groups of sentences that accomplish these tasks.

How do you build a compelling book? By stringing together compelling scenes.

In a fast-paced thriller, each sentence must build on the previous one to push the plot forward. Treat each sentence as a springboard that induces the reader to jump to the next sentence to learn what’s going to happen.

Below is one possible way to rewrite this first page, using additional details gleaned from the linked article.

Captain Martin Beyer fastened the last button of the drab uniform shirt that shamed him every day with its PW insignia: “prisoner of war.” He stomped his feet on the wood steps of the officers barracks to knock the fine silt off his once-shiny Luftwaffe boots. Barbed wire surrounded this desolate, barren patch of dirt named Camp Trinity. On the fence, signs in German and English warned that anyone would be shot if they crossed the caution line, the restricted buffer zone that was fifteen feet inside the compound fence.

“Hey, Nazi, git back!”

The shout from the watchtower caught Beyer’s attention. He turned to see an American guard aiming a rifle at Beyer’s closest friend in the camp, Hans Fritz. The young second lieutenant had stepped beyond a wire stretched taut between wooden posts.

One foot over the caution line into the restricted zone.

Beyer’s gut cramped as he prayed his friend would heed the guard’s warning. Lately, he never knew if Fritz taunted the Americans for sport or if he truly sought death rather than endure another day inside the prison.

There was a wild gleam in Fritz’s wide blue eyes as he teetered on the line, one boot in life, the other in hell.

The metallic click of a breech bolt sounded from the opposite watchtower where another guard hunkered behind a machine gun. “Git back or I’ll shoot!”

“Don’t do it, Fritz,” Beyer muttered. If Fritz died, the escape tunnel plan died with him.

 

The above is about 230 words and conveys most of the same information more concisely plus gives a deeper glimpse into the POV character.

Work on sensory detail that draws the reader in. Let the reader see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the story world you’ve built.

Work on showing emotion and feelings in the POV character. It’s not enough to say he felt alarmed—show his alarm with his sensory reactions.

Examine each sentence. Ask yourself if it repeats information previously stated. If so, choose the strongest version and delete the weaker. Or combine two sentences into one.

Count how many of the five elements listed above are included in each sentence. I try to pack sentences with at least two elements, preferably more. When you compose a sentence, choose an action that reveals character as well as demonstrates the stakes. The consequences of that action either solve the problem or make it worse.

One last point: the title Heil Safari is vague and doesn’t hint at the meat of the story. “Heil” made me think of the Nazi salute so I deduced it took place during World War II. But how does that connect to “Safari”? Maybe refer to the escape tunnel to freedom. Or perhaps the perils that lie beyond the tunnel if they escape successfully. You can find a better title to convince a potential reader to click the “buy now” button.

Don’t be discouraged, Brave Author. You have a compelling storyline based on historical events that are not widely known. World War II history buffs will find this interesting. A strong foundation in fact serves as a solid platform on which to build your fictionalized version. Work on your craft and you should have a good book.

Over to you, TKZers. Suggestions and comments for our Brave Anonymous Author?

 

If you’re a member of Amazon Prime, you can read Debbie Burke’s bestselling thriller Instrument of the Devil for free. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

 

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What Writing Advice Would You Give to Your Younger Writing Self?

Many of you have been writing for a long while, been traditionally published through big and/or boutique houses, or self-published. All of these struggles have brought knowledge gained through experience.

For discussion – What advice would you give your younger writing self when you were first starting out? Knowing what you do now, please give your top 3 tips.

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5 Key Ways to Balance Internal Monologue with Pitfalls to Avoid

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Attribution – Niki K (Wikimedia Commons)

John Gilstrap had an excellent post yesterday on Internal Monologue that resonated with me. He gave great examples of what works and what may not, with explanations on his sage reasoning. He certainly gave me things to think about in my own writing.

I tend to write in deep POV and very tight, with sparse narratives. This is especially true when I write my novella length stories for Kindle World, which is a great exercise in writing a tight plot and keeping the pace up.

In my full novels, I reign in my internal monologue and make it focused, with the character having a journey from beginning to end of the book, as well as a journey even within each scene, so I don’t repeat the deep POV thoughts.

On the FOR WRITERS resource on my website, I have a post titled – START WITH A BANG. If you scroll down to the “Ever thought about building an onion from the inside out?” sub-heading, you’ll find a section on how I let dialogue be the starting framework and how I layer in elements to fill out a scene. Internal monologue is vital to establishing my character’s journey and emotional growth and it’s something I focus on a great deal – even when I do my final draft read – but it’s the last thing I add to any scene, because I want to control it and isolate the journey to avoid pitfalls.

Despite my own methods, I greatly admire writers like Michael Connelly (particularly his Bosch series) where his mastery of his character’s internal views feel so authentic of an experienced war weary cop. He effortlessly brings in Bosch’s personal relationships and his workload to give a 360 view of this man’s life. That’s not an easy thing to do. It requires an intense knowledge of his character Bosch.

No matter how a writer learns how to craft internal monologue, it is easily one of the areas an author can veer off course and overuse…or under use, for that matter. Have you ever read a book that is all action, devoid of emotion or insight into the character’s internal battle and conflict? This is definitely a balancing game to get internal monologue to enhance your writing and make your stories memorable for readers.

Key Points to Finding the Right Balance for Internal Monologue:

1.) DIALOGUE – If you see your narrative paragraphs stretching out onto the page in weighty clumps, look for ways to make your internal monologue lean and mean by use of dialogue. This is something I have to pay attention to, even with my sparse style. Clever dialogue is a challenge, but it can be so much fun to write.

Plus, effective dialogue can help you pace your novel and tease the reader with red herrings or mystery elements, and not a plot dump of internal thoughts.

2.) LESS IS MORE – It’s easy to get carried away with every aspect of a character’s POV. The reader doesn’t need to know every logical argument for their action or inaction. People don’t think like this, especially in the heat of the moment in an action scene.

Have patience to let the story unfold. Too much internal thought can dry up pace and bore readers. The reader doesn’t need to know everything, especially all at once in a dump.

Also be careful NOT to repeat the same thought over and over. Repeating internal strife does not constitute a journey. It only reminds the reader that the author is searching for different ways to describe the same thing. Oy.

3.) TIMING – pick your spots when internal monologue makes the most sense. James Scott Bell wrote a great post on What’s the Deal on Dreams in Fiction where he talks about starting a novel with a character in thought, no action or disturbance. Resist the urge to bury your reader in internal monologue right out of the gate.

In addition, if your character is in the middle of a shoot out, that would not be the most opportune time to share his feelings on getting dumped by his girlfriend, not even if she is the one shooting at him. (Although I would love to read a scene like that.) To make the danger seem real, stick with the action and minimize the internal strife until it’s logical for the character to ponder what happened after.

Plus, if you spill the exposition too early, the reader won’t retain it as well as if you had waited for the right timing, when the reveal would be most effective.

4.) SHOW DON’T TELL – Once you get into the quagmire of telling a character’s POV, it’s too easy to get carried away with the rest of your book. If you can SHOW what a character is feeling, and let the reader take what they will from the scene, you will leave an image nugget that will stick with them. TELLING doesn’t have the same impact.

5.) ACTION & DIALOGUE DEFINE CHARACTER – These are the two areas where readers will most remember a book. Unless you’re into author craft and can appreciate the internal monologue finesse of John Gilstrap and Michael Connelly and many other author favorites, you probably may not remember how effectively the author used internal monologue. It’s like the color black. It goes with everything in such a subtle way that you may not notice it.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What tips do you have to share on how you handle internal monologue in your own writing?

2.) With the key points I listed above, do any of them pose a particular challenge for you?

3.) Name a recent book you read where you noticed the author’s deft handling of internal monologue. (I would love to expand my TBR pile.)

11+

WordPress, Script Writing, Memoirs – What does this have to do with fiction writing?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

It’s been a strange week. Whenever I get toward the end of a project, I sabotage my progress by finding distractions (or I let them take over “There, I said it.”). I honestly don’t want my story to be over. I’m madly in love with my latest protagonist, Braxton Valentine. Valentine: Steel Heart will be launched Oct 31 as part of a new Amazon Kindle World – Desiree Holt’s The Phoenix Agency. This will be book 1 of 2, with the second installment coming in Feb 2018. I don’t have to say good-bye to my brooding hero, but that doesn’t make it easy to finish book 1.

I wanted to have a free schedule for the holidays, not like last year where I wrote like a mad woman for a January release. Never, never, never again. That’s the goal, but in the midst of my mounting common sense comes my new website design.

Distraction #1 – I asked my designer, Maddee at Xuni, to create a WordPress site I can maintain by myself to keep the cost down on monthly tweaking and all the new releases. I’ll be launching it soon, but I had to teach myself much more than I ever thought I would know about WordPress (WP). Like a petulant child, I kicked and wailed against doing it NOW, but I eventually broke down WHILE I WAS FINISHING Valentine’s story. After I sunk my teeth into my learning curve, I found I really enjoyed getting to know more about WP & I’m thrilled that I will finally have control over my site. I still plan on using Xuni for some administrative functions. I can’t totally quit Maddee and need my fix, but it was satisfying to learn something new and gain control at the same time.

Distraction #2 – Since I saw the end of my project in sight (we’re talking final chapter, big finish, folks), I decided to make contact with a local writers group and attend one of their critique sessions. I enjoy giving back to the writing community, as other authors have done for me, and I also get a lot out of reviewing and giving feedback to others. The meeting was held at a good restaurant I like, double score, and I met new people, trifecta. But after lunch we began the critique process (which hasn’t changed in YEARS), which is to read 10 pages aloud (cold) and provide feedback. Instead of hearing submissions of fiction, I heard only one memoir and one screenplay/script before I had to cut out. In the past, this group has also had quite a number of poets. Not one fiction read. I have to say I was a little disappointed, except that I wanted to make the most of it and focus on how screenplays can still evoke emotion with good dialogue and setting.

The next day I researched script writing and read examples of famous scenes from well-known movies that were packed with very emotional content. It inspired me to double my efforts to put the right dialogue into every scene and fill it with emotion. The setting can still be sparse (especially when I am writing shorter Amazon Kindle Worlds these last few months), but the dialogue needs meat and heft. The film-goer or the reader MUST be gripped by your stripped down version of a story and their minds fill in the gaps to paint a picture in their minds that can be rich and satisfying.

Have any of you thought about script writing?

A rule of thumb – one page of a script is equivalent to one-minute of film/TV. So if you can write an approx. 50-70 pgs for episodic TV or 80-120 pgs for feature film—with good and effective story structure, packed with emotion and good dialogue—you have the bare bones to a solid novel. I’ve heard of some authors who start out by writing in a script fashion before they fill out their story into fiction. Could this be the new outline?

Here’s a page from CASA BLANCA – We’ve all seen this scene.

I’m not proposing that I divert all my attention to learning script-writing, but this method isn’t that far off from where I taught myself to write a tight scene with a focus on dialogue. To get a jump on my writing after work, I would take a notepad to lunch and write only dialogue lines that I heard in my head (yes, I had a lot of folks staring at me). With those lines as a framework, I would fill out the other elements later (setting, body language, action, introspection). The brain is an amazing team player. While you are doing other things, it is still working on your story or your research. If you’ve ever read a full script, you know how the brain fills in the gaps and makes you see a movie rolling in front of your mind’s eye.

So my “fiction group” diversion lit a fire under me. I suppose inspiration can come at you fast.

Even the Memoir writer in the critique group got me to shred through the words that readers will skim (as Elmore Leonard said) to realize that even your own memoir needs emotion and a point. Unless you are famous, who is your target market? If you’re a survivor of an ordeal, you can share your journey and be inspirational, but your average person who only wants to chronicle their life will have a “story” with no end (yet) and a ramble of back story and mental musings without a point. My dad’s memoir is a case in point. It shall never see light of day because he can’t stop editing it—which is a good thing because he’s still here to wordsmith it.

For Discussion:

1.) What diversions have paid off for you as a writer?

2.) Have you ever considered writing a script for your book – or started with a script and fleshed it out into a novel?

3.) How many of you maintain your own website? Do you enjoy WordPress?

VIGILANTE JUSTICE (Mercer’s War – Book 3) – $1.99 Ebook

In Montana, when a disturbing pattern of missing teens and college students falls under the FBI’s radar, former CIA operative Mercer Broderick fears the violent abductions are at the heart of a dark web of conspiracy that must be stopped and Brotherhood Protectors won’t be denied from the fight.

5+

I Just Finished My First Novel And …

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

…I was hoping you could recommend an agent.

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

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

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

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

A few thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?

Yep.

This is the work ethic of the career writer.

Repeat over and over the rest of your life.

Thank you for your email.

Keep writing.

JSB

Any other advice for such a one as this?

13+

The Lessons for All Writers
Woven into ‘Charlotte’s Web’

“Remember that writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself.” – E.B. White

By PJ Parrish

Writers are often asked what their favorite book is. Or which one most influenced them as a writer. The first question has always been easy for me — my favorite book is E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.  But it has only been in the last couple years that I realized Charlotte’s Web might be one of the biggest influences in my writing life.

I fell in love with this book the first time I read it. I was maybe eight or nine, just around the age of the heroine Fern.  But a couple years back, on the 60th anniversary of its publication, I decided to read it again.

What a revelation. It is, of course, maybe the most famous kid book ever. It won the Newbery and remains the bestselling children’s paperback even today. But what I didn’t realize is that it is a terrific story for adults.  Like the Harry Potter books, it has a magic that transcends age and a theme that resonates deeper the older you become.

I pulled out my copy last week and read it yet again. Yes, it still holds up for me. But I also tried to look at it with different eyes and dissect how it works as a novel. It has lessons to teach any writer working in any genre.

First off, it teaches us to write from our inner selves, from the most shadowed places of our hearts.  I think this is what the adage “write what you know” really means. It does not mean write about your narrow everyday world.  It means write about what is essential to your unique soul.

E.B. White has said the story came from his childhood memory of being unable to save a piglet. But in his book The Story of Charlotte’s Web, Michael Sims explains that in 1949, White found an spider egg sac in his Maine barn and cut the sac out of the web with a razor blade. He put the sac in an empty candy box, punched some holes in it, and absent-mindedly put the box atop his bedroom bureau in New York.  Weeks later, hundreds of spiderlings began to escape through the holes and spun webs on his hair brush, nail scissors and mirror. Thus was hatched White’s magical meditation that teaches us about life, death and the beauty of friendship.

But the book has many other things to teach us as writers.

Let’s start with the opening. I talk here often about picking the right moment to inject your reader into your conjured up world. And James writes often here about how you need to build your opening chapter around a “moment of disturbance.” Something has to happen. And it has to happen early enough in your plot to engage the reader’s interest. So how does Charlotte’s Web begin?

It’s breakfast time at the Arable family farm. Fern comes in to the table to see her father heading out to the barn with an ax. Mom tells her that one of the piglets is a runt and father is going out to do away with it.

Yikes. Gets my attention! Notice White didn’t start his story with Fern waking up in her little bedroom and thinking about the cute piglets that were born yesterday. He didn’t start it with a beautiful description of the Arable family farm. He went right for the dramatic heart. And what a great contrast he set up in our imagination: The warmth of a morning kitchen and a man leaving it with an ax on his way to a “murder.”

And is there a more chilling opening line in all of fiction: “Where’s father going with that ax?” Fern asked.

THE LESSON: Don’t waste time with pages of gorgeous description. Find the right moment to parachute the reader into your story. Build tension as quickly as you can.

Fern runs outside and we learn in a quick brushstroke that “the grass was wet and the earth smelled like springtime.” The crying Fern confronts her father that killing the piglet isn’t fair. To which dad says “you have to learn to control yourself.” Which is backstory, right? We now know Fern has a history of impetuousness. Dad relents and tells her she can bottle-feed the runt so she’ll learn how hard life can be.

THE LESSON: White sets up the protagonist’s challenge and has begun Fern’s character arc. And he starts plumbing the first level of the most important question an author must answer about motivation: What does the character want? Well, level one: Fern wants to save the pig.

We then meet her brother Avery, who wants to know why he can’t have a pig, too. Dad says “I only distribute pigs to early risers. Fern was up at daylight trying to rid the world of injustice.” (Level two: Fern wants the world to be just)

White then slows things down with a nice narrative about how Wilbur the pig thrived under Fern’s care. But then Dad says that Wilbur is old enough to be sold to the Zuckermans. Fern cries but Wilbur is banished to a manure pile.

THE LESSON: Your plot must have a series of setbacks for the heroine to deal with and overcome.

Chapter 3 opens with a long and lovely description of the Zuckerman barn. Because the plot is chugging along now, readers will be willing to slow down.

THE LESSON: Good pacing isn’t just a matter of full speed ahead. You have to know when to slow down and let the reader catch his breath. A good plot is a roller coaster with a series of tense climbs, terrifying plunges, and areas where you coast along – “whew!” – while you anticipate the next dip.

We then switch to Wilbur’s point of view as he meets the barnyard animals, each one indelibly drawn, especially the goose who helps Wilbur escape and Templeton the rat who steals his food. Fern hasn’t been to see him and Wilbur feels lonely and friendless.

THE LESSON: Don’t neglect secondary characters. Make them vivid and useful to the main character, be it a sidekick, foil, confidante – or a nefarious rat. Good secondary characters are prisms through which reader “see” the main character.

Speaking of secondary characters…has there ever been a finer one then Charlotte the spider? From her first lines – “Do you want friend, Wilbur? I’ve watched you all day and I like you” – we can’t help but love her. She’s smart (“Salutations! It’s just my fancy way of saying hello!”) and pretty and good at catching flies.

Wilbur is appalled by the fact she traps and eats bugs. He thinks she’s cruel. But in a matter-of-fact monologue, Charlotte explains that is what her kind has always done, that flies would take over the world if not for spiders, and besides, she fends for herself while he depends on the farmer to bring a slop pail.

THE LESSON: Never be content to create cardboard characters. Make every character as rich as you can — they are lightness and darkness  — and find ways to make readers understand your characters’ complexities.

Next, the plot turns dark when the goose tells Wilbur he’s being fattened up to become Christmas ham dinner. Wilbur is distraught but Charlotte says, “Don’t worry, I’ll save you.”

THE LESSON: All good plots are a series of setbacks. Wilbur thickens and so does the plot.

In Chapter 9, in what feels like a digression with no relation to the plot, Charlotte explains to Wilbur and Fern why she has so many legs and how she makes a web.

THE LESSON: Readers like to learn things about how the world works, but you have to weave such narratives subtly into your plot or they are boring or worse, preachy. Don’t show off your research. Have it relate to your characters. White slips in this factoid: It took eight years to build the Queensborough Bridge but Charlotte says this only to comment that men “rush rush rush every minute…”

Then we come to the “The Miracle.” Charlotte conjures up a plan to save Wilbur by weaving the words SOME PIG into her web. The Zuckermans are gobsmacked and decide Wilbur is special. People flock to see the miracle pig.

THE LESSON: Give your characters setbacks to overcome, but a good plot also includes triumphs, which usually escalate as the climax nears.

Charlotte worries that people are getting bored with SOME PIG so she gets Templeton the rat to go fetch some words from magazines that she can copy into the web. She weaves TERRIFIC and then RADIANT. The excited Zuckermans think of ways to exploit their pig.

THE LESSON: Always look for ways to up the ante, increase the stakes.

Chapter 14 is titled “The Crickets.” It’s a lovely descriptive dirge about the dying of summer. School would start soon. The goslings are growing up. The maple tree turns red with anxiety. “The crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.”

THE LESSON: A little foreshadowing and mood is good but don’t be heavy-handed. Let it flow naturally from your setting. This is also White telling us what the theme of his story is – that life is about the inevitability of sadness and change.

The Zuckermans take Wilbur to the county fair for display. Charlotte, who needs to lay her eggs, reluctantly agrees to come along. At the fair, Wilbur is worried about a rival pig taking top prize and tells Charlotte to spin a special word for him. Charlotte confides that she’s not feeling well – “I feel like the end of a very long day” — but she promises to try. The cool of the evening comes and everyone is bedding down. White give us this wonderful dialogue between two old friends.

“What are you doing up there, Charlotte?”
“Oh, making something,” she said.
“Is it something for me? ” asked Wilbur.
“No,” said Charlotte. “It’s something for me, for a change.”
“Please tell me what it is,” begged Wilbur.
“I’ll tell you in the morning,” she said. “When the first light comes into the sky and the sparrows stir and the cows rattle their chains, when the rooster crows and the stars fade, when early cars whisper along the highway, you look up here and I’ll show you something. I will show you my masterpiece.”

THE LESSON: Yes, you should tug on the heartstrings. But whatever emotion you are going for must be well-earned. We have come to know and love these characters and as White moves us toward his climax, we have a soft dread in our hearts. Every emotion he has invested in this scene has come organically. Nothing feels tacked-on or artificial. Everything has pointed toward this logical end.

The fair opens and Wilbur, standing under Charlotte’s latest spun-word HUMBLE, wins a special prize. At night, left alone, Wilbur listens to fading Charlotte deliver her poignant speech about death and renewal:

“Your success in the ring this morning was, to a small degree, my success. Your future is assured. You will live, secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world…Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur, this lovely world, these precious days…”

“Why did you do all this for me? ” he asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”

“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

THE LESSON: Don’t neglect your theme. It is the heart of your machine, purring beneath the grind of your plot. When you are asked, “What is your book about?” the answer is never about its plot. It is about its theme.

Then, of course, Charlotte dies. Here is how White ends this chapter:

“Good-bye!” she whispered. Then she summoned all her strength and waved one of her front legs at him. She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

THE LESSON: Sometimes you must kill off a sympathetic character. If it serves your plot and it is not gratuitous, the reader will accept it. But it must have a feeling of inevitability so that when the readers comes to this point they are sad but acknowledge there was no other way.

Chapter 22 is titled “A Warm Wind.” Life at the farm resumes its cycle. The snows melt, the sparrow chicks hatch. The last remnants of Charlotte’s tattered web float away. Wilbur misses Charlotte but one morning, her egg sac – which he had carefully brought back to the farm in his mouth – erupts and her babies emerge. Wilbur is happy to meet the new spiders but one day Zuckerman opens the barn and a soft wind carries the babies away. Wilbur is crushed, thinking he has lost his new friends. But three of Charlotte’s daughter stay and begin weaving webs above him.

THE LESSON: Don’t neglect the denouement.  A powerful story doesn’t end at the climax. There should be a tail to the tale wherein you wrap up some loose ends if needed, update readers on time passage and what has happens to some of the characters. In White’s story, of course, the denouement is also a coda of hope. Life goes on. Depending on the tone of your story, a happy ending might not be in your recipe.  But a hint of redemption or hope is never a bad thing.

Which goes to the point of theme. In the final chapter, the narrative recounts the passage of months and years. Fern, growing up, doesn’t come to the barn much. But every year, Wilbur has new spider friends – the offspring of his good friend Charlotte. Here’s the last graph of the book.

Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

THE LESSON: Bring it home. Your ending graphs are as important as your opening ones. A good story is circular in that it wraps back around itself, weaving a web of logic and emotion that captures your reader and  leaves them with a feeling of satisfaction.

 

16+

It’s Election Day! Choose Wisely
For the Sake of Your Novel

By PJ Parrish

Well, it’s time.  It’s Tuesday, Nov. 8 and you have to make a choice.

No…not that one. We here at The Kill Zone are fiercely apolitical, so what you do today in the privacy of your little curtain or cubbyhole is your business alone. I’m talking about more important choices today -– about your novel.

But first, let’s pause for a short break. I am PJ Parrish and I approve this message:

Shoot, I’d vote for this guy. He makes as much sense as anybody running today. Okay, back to regular programming.

When you sit down to write a novel, you may not realize it,  but you will be — for the next six months to six years it takes you to finish — constantly making choices. Some of these choices will be as big and strategic as picking your characters and plot. Others will be tactical choices like grammar, word choice, use of imagery, punctuation, chapter length, even book length. These latter choices are all really important and we’ve covered all of these topics here at TKZ. But today, let’s hone in on the big choices.

Yes, we’ve covered these a lot here, too. But on this, ahem, really yuge election day, I think it’s a good time for review.

The Ten Most Important Choices You Make About Your Novel

1. Who’s story is this? This sounds simplistic, but you must be clear about who you are going to focus on for your readers to follow. Now usually (but not always), you want to chose a single protagonist, one main person who will be challenged, who will triumph (heroic) or fail (tragic), and who will be the central figure in the story’s plot arc.

Can you have more than one protag? Well, yes. But in my humble opinion, a dual (or multiple protag) book is harder to pull off. Why? Because unless you are really good at weaving the threads of plot and motivation, you will probably understand or even favor one protag over another — and readers will really miss that person when they are “off stage.”

I recently critiqued a manuscript whose author couldn’t make this choice. She had created four equal main characters, but none really captured my interest. I asked the writer why she had done this and she said that her “real” protag was her setting.  I advised her to go read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

The “region of supernatural wonder” can be the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry or a bar in Cleveland, if you want. But we must have someone to care about, someone we are willing to follow for 300 pages.

2. Where am I? It surprises me how often writers neglect this. Yes, all fiction takes place somewhere, but unless you make that your setting come alive in your reader’s imagination, you are just moving characters against a cardboard backdrop. Do you need to “write what you know?” Not really. You needn’t have lived in Belle Epoque Paris to be convincing, but you need to do your homework and create not reality but verisimilitude (the appearance or being real and convincing). Do your homework (Guest poster Barbara Nickless had a good take on this yesterday.)

And establish your setting very early in your story. Readers need to know where they are from the get-go, and while you don’t want to slow things down in your opening chapter(s) with too much description, you need to begin setting your scene early. And no, hanging one of those pitiful little taglines on chapter one — QUANTICO, VIRGINIA — won’t cut it.

Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth.

That’s one of my favorite opening lines from Thomas Harris. He didn’t need a tagline, just those fabulous final five words.

3. What’s your point of view? So who is going to be your narrator? Sometimes, this can be a secondary character. Jay Gatsby is the protagonist of Fitzgerald’s classic, but the story is related by Nick Carraway. Most likely, your narrator will be your protagonist. So do you use first person or third person? Your choice. First-person is more immediately intimate because having your protag relate everything via “I saw”  “I did” or “I thought” you establish a tight bond with the reader. But this is also very limiting as everything must be filtered through one prism. I think first is harder to write than third.  Why? Because if you whiff on motivation, if you don’t grasp every nuance of your protag’s psyche, your narrator will feel flat. And if he’s boring, well, shoot…there goes the reason to turn the page.

Having trouble with this? Switch from first to third or vice versa. You may discover the plot you are dealing with demands the richer variety and complexity of a third-person vantage point. Or you might need multiple third-person POVs. Your protag may be doing a Diana Ross but she might need Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard backing her up.

Time for another break. I’m PJ Parrish and I approve this message:

I’d vote for that guy, too. He’s crazy but at least he’s honest. Back to your book:

4. What’s the best entry point? Let’s start with a premise: A rich teenage girl disappears from in front of a nightclub in London, snatched by a man re-inacting Jack the Ripper murders. A disgraced female cop who’s trying to reconnect with her own estranged daughter gets the case. Where do you start this story?

Bad starts: From victim’s POV: She wakes up, eats breakfast, has testy phone call with mom and later that night goes to nightclub. Cop’s POV: She’s sitting at her desk, thinking about her bad job and her lost relationship with daughter.  From killer’s POV: he is watching girl exit the nightclub thinking about what he is going to do with her.

Why are these bad? The first is throat-clearing. Yes, you might want to establish sympathy for the victim but you can do this after she is gone or even in a few good tense ACTIVE moments in the nightclub. The second example is back story that should be dribbled in as the plot begins to unfold. The third example, while it sounds juicy, it has become a giant cliche.  If you open this way, it must really be original, and you will then need to go back to the killer’s POV at other times in the book or the opening scene feels tacked on and artificial.

When considering where to start:  Get in as late as possible but still be clear in what has already happened. Pick a moment where something is happening or about to happen, where a status quo is changing, where someone is about to be challenged.

Prologues? That’s a whole post in itself. I generally don’t like them because they are almost always mis-used. If you have one, cut it out and see if you can start your story in chapter 1. Betcha it works.

5. What does your hero want? Ray Bradbury said all you have to do is figure out what your hero wants then just follow him. Easy for him to say! Plumbing the depths of motivation is the key to creating characters who live on the page. I’ve written about this often because I think that once you, the writer, can answer this question, everything falls into place. It’s helpful to think of “want” as having many levels.  In Silence of the Lambs, what does Clarise Starling want? Easy — to catch Buffalo Bill.  But go deeper into her psychological basement:

  1. To catch Buffalo Bill
  2. To save Kathryn
  3. To prove she can make it among the boys of the FBI academy
  4. To impress her boss Bill Crawford
  5. To make her dead father proud
  6. To silence the lambs (her demons over being orphaned as an innocent girl)

Do this for your protag, then for your villain and everyone in your book if you can. Remember what Kurt Vonnegut said: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

6. What happened? This is simplistic, too, but needs to restated: Something has to go south fast. As you concentrate on character, don’t neglect story. Your hero needs an obstacle to overcome. As Stephen King says in On Writing: “In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”  You must create obstacles for your hero to overcome (Sheriff Brody in Jaws has not just a killer shark to hunt down but he has to deal with a dumb mayor, a rift in his team (Quint and Hooper) and he can’t swim. I love what sci-fi fantasy author Nancy Kress says about plot: “Fiction is about stuff that’s screwed up.”

Uh-oh…we gotta break again. I’m PJ Parrish and I approve this message:

I’d definitely vote for that guy, but I think Ted Cruz might gnaw him down to bones. Back to your choices:

7. What are you trying to say? Samuel Goldwyn famously said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Well, yeah, I sorta of agree with that. Especially since I just finished a mystery that was about meth addiction in Appalachia. It was good but after a while I just thinking, “enough with the drug thing. Who killed that old man?”  The writer was so enamored with his message, it let the story go flaccid.  However…

Great books are always about a theme. Herman Melville said, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” So Moby Dick is not just a fish tale. It is about man’s inability to know God. But merely good books also have something to say. You can hear the theme humming soft and steady beneath the clanging machinery of the plot.  At its best, a theme has some sort of meaning to your protagonist, even in genre fiction. Which brings to mind Joseph Wambaugh’s quote, “It’s not how the detective works the case but how the case works on the detective.”  This is a little facile, but here’s an interesting list of common fiction themes — everything from abuse of power to xenophobia.

8. What do I call this? Let’s talk about titles. I know, I know…you don’t want to because titles are hard. And if I know you, you’ve probably slapped something gawd- awful on your work in progress just so you can find it in your computer. But here’s the thing: A good title can make or break your chances out there. I’d go so far to say it’s the single biggest marketing decision you will make. A good title is a neon sign to your readers, not just luring them in but signaling in shorthand what your story is about. And maybe most important, a good title helps you, the writer, understand at a very basic level what your book is about. You need to think about this until your brain hurts. You need to wake up in a cold sweat at night over this.  Don’t settle.

What makes for a great title? It’s pithy, it has promise. It’s a tease and a tell. It’s memorable, original, and easy to say. It boils your entire story down its essence and conveys its heart. This topic needs its own post to do it justice, so for now, just Google and read up on the good advice out there. Good titles: Hunger Games. The Last of the Mohicans. To Kill a Mockingbird. Bad: I can’t print most of them here. Click here.

Another break? Geez. I’m PJ Parrish and I’m getting tired of approving messages.

It’s all a blur but I am pretty sure I voted for that guy. I like his wife. Maybe she’ll run someday…

Back to your own choices:

9. What is my tone? This is important but sort of slippery to grasp. It’s important, however, because if the tone of your book is off, you’re going to have trouble selling it to agents and editors or, if publishing it yourself, finding your target audience. The tone is your attitude or feelings toward your subject matter. You convey this through your style, word choice, and through the personalities of your characters.  If you’re writing for a genre audience, getting your tone right is important because readers have certain expectations. A reader looking for light romance suspense doesn’t want to open your book and discover halfway through that you’ve started out light and descended to a darker place. Likewise, if like me, you prefer darker fare, you don’t want to be misled in the opposite direction.

Your chosen tone can be whimsical, humorous, gloomy, ironic, hardboiled, neo-noir, …you pick it. But you must be honest and consistent.  Years ago, I wrote an amateur sleuth novel that I thought was peachy.  It was roundly rejected, despite the fact I had a good track record with my current series. What happened? My tone started out light and wacky but veered toward the dark about halfway through. Two editors even used the same words in their rejection letters: “Loved the writing but it’s neither fish nor fowl.”  I learned a lesson — I can’t maintain soprano when my true voice is contralto.

10. Do I finish this book or start over? No one can help you with this, but it’s something you have to ask yourself as you move along.  Not every book needs to be finished. Some are exercises of sorts to help you learn. Others might be short stories instead of novels. And then there is the question of stamina and confidence. If you do believe in your story, then yes, you need to finish it. Even if it never gets published, it won’t be wasted effort.  Every successful writer out there has unpublished manuscripts moldering in bottom desk drawers or lurking on old thumb drives. You need to finish something. Just for the knowledge that you can do it.

I’ll leave you with a telling quote from Erica Jong: “I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.”

Yes, you will. Don’t be afraid of it. It’s called being a professional writer.

And finally, one last break. I’m PJ Parrish, and I think this candidate speaks for all of us very weary voters out there:

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