Kindle Scout – A Two Year Performance Review

By Debbie Burke

Kindle Scout has been called American Idol for authors or a Slush Pile Popularity Contest. Amazon defines it as “reader-powered publishing.” Scout has now been around for a couple of years, with nearly 250 books published so far, making it a good time to review its performance.

How Scout works:

Authors submit a 50,000+ word book to Scout, with cover copy, logline, bio, etc. Submissions can be made year round, but only one book at a time per author. Amazon posts an excerpt online for 30 days for readers to peruse and, if they like it, they nominate it for publication. During that time, authors drum up votes through social media, email, and personal contacts, urging their book toward the coveted “Hot and Trending” classification.

When Scout accepts a book, the author receives a $1500 advance, 50% eBook royalties, and a 5-year renewable contract with Kindle Press. While the quantity of nominations carries weight, the number of votes is not the only determining factor. Scout’s editorial board makes the final decision to publish or not and they ain’t talkin’ about why they choose one book over another.

Comparison between Scout Kindle Press and Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP):

Since I’m researching which route to go for my suspense novel Instrument of the Devil, I ran a quick and dirty comparison between Scout and KDP. This by no means covers all differences between the programs. Of course, authors should carefully read both contracts before making a decision.

An interesting aside: when I printed out the contracts, Scout’s came in at four pages, while KDP’s was 21 pages (albeit in a slightly larger font).

SCOUT

  • $1500 advance
  • 50% royalties on eBooks
  • Amazon marketing
  • Amazon sets pricing
  • Rights exclusive to Amazon
  • 5 year renewable contract*

KDP 

  • No advance
  • 70% royalty on eBooks $2.99+
  • Do it yourself marketing
  • You set pricing
  • After 90 days Amazon exclusive, you may sell in other venues
  • No time limit

*If your book doesn’t earn out $25,000 during the 5 year period, you may request reversion of your rights.

The time from submission to acceptance/rejection is about 45 days under Scout, lightning speed compared to traditional publishing, but slower than KDP where your book can be available for sale as fast as you can upload. The book launch time varies, but according to several sources, runs about four months. Scout is experiencing growing pains, a victim of its own success. A number of authors mentioned understaffing and slow response times to questions. Still, in comparison with trad pubbing, it’s a relatively quick process. If you require faster publication, go KDP.

Who Uses Scout?

When I looked into winning Scout entries, I found surprisingly few first-time authors. Many winners already had multiple books in print, both self-published and traditional. The added promotion by Amazon for a Scout winner should result in significant bumps in sales of backlists.

What Authors Think of Scout:

I reached out to several winning authors who graciously shared their experiences.

Eric T. Knight, author of Ace Lone Wolf and the Lost Temple of Totec, already has multiple books published through KDP and chose Scout “more or less on a whim.” Overall, he grades the experience a B or B+. “The contact person I’ve worked with has been helpful and friendly. It didn’t feel like I was dealing with a machine. I also thought the feedback from the editor was good.”

On the downside, Eric misses the control he has with his other books in KDP. “I wish I could choose when to run promos instead of waiting for them. I’m used to tweaking my blurb pretty regularly and with Scout you have to go through them. You don’t have access to sales figures as they happen, the way you do with KDP.”

V.B. Marlowe, author of Forever Snowhas self-published an impressive 30 books in the past four years. “Marketing isn’t my strong point. I figured having a book published by Kindle Press would give me the privilege of having Amazon’s super marketing powers behind my book.”

She is pleased with the responsiveness of Scout’s staff, but “I only wish I had been given a heads up about when my book would be available. It was kind of a guessing game. Books selected after me were being set up for preorder while my book was still in production status, so I was a little worried. They do send you a letter once your book is already on preorder, but not before.”

With the launch date of April 25, V.B. doesn’t yet have firsthand experience with Scout’s marketing, but other  authors she’s communicated with say Kindle Press runs special promotions 90 days after publication. “I do know that KP regularly submits our books to Bookbub. Just this month they had a special anniversary sale and promoted all KP books.”

She adds, “I think the best way to increase sales is to publish regularly so I already have Book Two of this series ready to go.”

Max Eastern is a New York attorney and The Gods Who Walk Among Us is his first published novel. His impression: “What few problems there have been were very minor,

and I’m actually quite happy with the Kindle Scout program as an alternative to traditional publishing.” He adds, “It’s fun voting for a book. Human nature being what it is, readers are more apt to like your work if they see that someone else has already liked it before them.”

Currently Kindle Press only offers eBooks and audio. Max would like to see coordination between them and CreateSpace to make print versions available. Amazon, are you listening?

Kindle subcontracts editing to Kirkus and, according to Max, “it was strictly a one way street,” unlike the give and take in the trad pub editing process. “I was given a document…with his editorial suggestions, and allowed to accept or reject them. I had no means of communicating with him.”

Max raised an interesting question: if your first book is published through Kindle Press, what about future books? “Your readers are going to assume that, once published the first time, you will be published a second time automatically, and they might think there has been some failure on your part if they have to go through the process of voting for you again on Kindle Scout.”

The marketing advantage of a Scout win to authors with backlists is obvious. But how does that work for a first book with more books to follow? Has anyone in the TKZ blogosphere had experience with subsequent releases after a Scout win? Please chime in and let us know how you handle it.

What if You Don’t Win?

Even if you don’t secure a contract, there’s a nice consolation prize.

When you submit, Amazon has you write a thank-you note to readers who nominated your book. If your book is chosen, everyone who nominated it receives your thank-you note, along with a free eBook, immediately building your fan base

If your book isn’t chosen, you can still take the KDP route. Amazon still sends the thank-you note to everyone who nominated it, giving you the opportunity to sell your book to readers who already liked your excerpt—an instant leg up in readership.

Scout – Go or No Go?

Scout is another of Amazon’s many fresh, imaginative innovations. Yes, there are growing pains, but from my research, most participating authors range from satisfied to delighted with the program.

As both Eric Knight and V.B. Marlowe say, “It’s worth a shot.”

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First Page Critique: Strangled by a Cloud

Welcome to this week’s first page critique – today we have the first page of a historical mystery/thriller entitled ‘Strangled by a Cloud’. As always, my comments follow.

Strangled by a Cloud

My part in the Tenant’s Harbor affair began on the last day of January in 1878. That morning I was at my usual station: peddling hand-penned calling cards in the lobby of one of Boston’s many hotels; this time it was Young’s, in the financial district. A dozen cards for a Harvard toff had already bought me a hearty breakfast; a dozen more – perhaps with some flourish – for a Court Street banker would carry me through the rest of the day.

As the clock and the thermometer waned and the clouds began to spit sleet, my mood soured:  I take days like this personally, as have the thousands with my surname since the days of Noah. To lighten my mood, I left the outer crust of the lobby and strode towards the warmth of the core – the front desk – where I was greeted with the welcome smile of my friend, Adam.

“Cold is it, Mr. Merryweather?” he asked

“As colde as eny froste,” I replied, in an ersatz Middle English tongue.

“Ah, Chaucer – very good, very good,” he said (Adam was also the hotel’s unofficial man of letters and always appreciated a well-placed quote from the Tales).

I pulled the hotel register at his hands my way.  Now and then I made a sport of guessing at the age, nationality, personality, or occupation of guests based on their handwriting. I traced my finger down the list of guests until I reached the name “Charles Goodword.”

“Now here’s a bad character, Adam,” I began. “I’m guessing a gambler by profession, maybe something worse…he’s about forty years old, broad-shouldered, perhaps five feet ten or eleven…stout…and mean.  You’ll want to be rid of him, and soon.”

“Mr. Merryweather, it’s remarkable!” Adam said, truly surprised.  “As to age and height and build, you are quite correct, sir, quite correct. But as to his character, you are very mistaken: he’s a clergyman, you know – here to preach for several weeks – the Benevolent Society for something-or-t’other is paying his board.”

“A clergyman, is he?” I asked, adding, “Well, he’s a thief to boot.  Humor me and send for him,” I said, handing him one of my cards.

Adam obliged and sent a valet to call on Mr. Goodword.  The valet returned swiftly, confirming that he had successfully delivered the card and invitation, with my compliments.

“You think he’ll come?” I asked Adam. He nodded in assent.  “We shall see,” I said, shaking my head. “We shall see.”

Overall Comments:

Overall this first page was cleanly executed with an initial voice and style emerging that I think is pretty engaging. It appears to be emulating a Sherlock Holmes detachment and narration which I think could work well. What it initially lacks, however, is a bit of ‘oomph’ to set our story in motion and build intrigue. It also teeters, I think, in terms of credibility (see my specific comments below), but overall with some editing this first page could be an effective one.

Here are my specific comments:

Credibility

I think in this first page we need more background regarding the main character, Mr. Merryweather, as I’m initially skeptical that a man who makes his living penning calling cards in hotel lobbies would be educated enough to quote Chaucer and have even peudo-expertise in handwriting analysis. I’m also a little doubtful that a front desk clerk would be even an unofficial ‘man of letters’ without a bit more background. I’d be more willing to believe all of this if we got a sense that either Merryweather is an educated man that has fallen on hard times or that he is deliberately masquerading as someone he isn’t. Likewise I need a little more to buy into the fact that Merryweather has uncanny, Holmesian powers of deduction based on viewing Mr. Goodword’s handwriting.

Oomph

I wanted a little more intrigue from this first page when it came to the set up re: Mr. Goodword. I was expecting the valet to discover his dead body! The pay off on the initial page wasn’t really there and I was also skeptical as to why a clergyman would be interested in meeting a man who penned calling cards (or why the main character thought if he sent the valet up with his card the clergyman would respond – to be honest I’m not sure I even believe a man who makes his living hand to mouth by making calling cards would present his own card to anyone).  I feel that on this initial page, more intrigue would set the story on a stronger footing and would entice readers to keep turning the page.

Minor editorial issues

There were a few moments where I was taken out of the story. The first was when the main character said ‘I take days like this personally, as have the thousands with my surname since the days of Noah’. I didn’t feel this reference worked, mainly because the name ‘Merryweather’ doesn’t exactly sound like a surname from biblical times. Perhaps a middle ages reference would be more appropriate but at the moment it sounds awkward. Likewise the reference to the ‘outer crust’ of the lobby sounds strange – even though I understand what the writer was trying to get at and how the main character moved to the ‘core’ of the lobby – It didn’t work for me in the context of this story. In addition, the clock and thermometer ‘waned’ didn’t seem quite the right expression either – as the clock ‘waning’ would surely mean going backwards if the numbers got smaller (?).

I also found it odd that Mr Merryweather would call Adam by his first name but Adam didn’t reciprocate, but called him the more formal ‘Mr Merryweather’ in return. I’m assuming they are on the same social level and know each other well enough (as Merryweather calls him a friend) so the formality of Adam’s response doesn’t seem to ring true.

Also when Adam says: ‘ But as to his character, you are very mistaken’,  I feel that this should be either ‘very much mistaken’ or just ‘mistaken’ (‘very mistaken’ sounds weird to me).

So TKZers, what comments do you have for our brave submitter today?

 

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Key Ways to “Show” Your Character & Not “Tell” on Him – First Page Critique: Palm Beach Nasty

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

This photo makes me want to go on vacation. Let’s take a ride with Crawford, our character in Palm Beach Nasty, a 1st Page Anonymous Submission. Read and enjoy. My feedback follows:

ONE

It turned out Crawford really missed the murder and mayhem up in New York. Which was weird, since the whole reason he’d gone south was to get away from it all.

At age thirty-six, with a bad case of acid reflux, chronic cynicism, and acute burnout, Charlie Crawford had packed up his Upper West Side apartment and headed down to the Sunshine State. He decided on the Keys, the plan being to take up surfing, give the Jimmy Buffett thing a shot. But after three long months of listening to stoned-out beach bums in lame Hawaiian shirts oohing and aahing pretty average sunsets and duding each other to death, Crawford was ready to move on.

So he’d reached out to a handful of Florida law enforcement agencies, and when the Palm Beach Police Department made him an offer, he grabbed it. But almost a year into the job, no one had come close to getting knifed, shot, garroted, or even banged up a little. Christ, what he’d give for a nice facedown stiff, a little rigor setting in. Crawford was drawing a bunch of nowhere cases, which could best be summed up by the one he was writing up now.

It was late afternoon on Halloween, and a call had come in about a possible trespass up on the north end. The north end of Palm Beach was really two places, depending on the exact location. Obscenely rich or doing just fine, thanks. Spectacular houses on the ocean and Intracoastal that started at ten million dollars and went up from there. Or fixer-uppers, on postage-stamp lots at around a million. Recently a Russian fertilizer billionaire had plunked down a shade under a hundred mill for Trump’s monumentally ugly, but colossally huge, ocean spec house.

But despite that, the real estate market had been hit hard when Wall Street collapsed three years before and was still wobbly. Somewhere between anemic and soft, desperately trying to claw its way back to pre crash levels. One of the top brokers in town was whining about having a lousy year—4.8 million in commissions as opposed to over 7 million in ’07. And real estate lawyers quietly grumbled about fewer closings, but even more about a troubling new phenomenon: clients hondling them on their fees. And pity the poor builders, who had traded down from tricked-up ninety-five-thousand-dollar Escalades to basic Ford 150s.

FEEDBACK
Overview – There is an ease to this writer’s voice that I liked. This intro is written in a deep POV that is close to first person. I almost wish it was full blown 1st, to give the character more room to breathe. This character has opinions about everything, which would work for the intimacy of 1st person if the author can tighten the narrative (without too much meandering). Because of the mental meanderings, the pace is significantly slower with a lack of focus for the action or world building.

A good thing to note is that this author can hear the character and is willing to channel him. That’s not an easy thing to get and execute. Kudos.

But how can this author retain the good parts of the character voice, yet not slow the pace? A big part of this resolution is how to introduce a key character by SHOWING rather than TELLING about him.

HOUSEKEEPING:

Where to Start? – The author started with a back story dump, sharing where Crawford had lived in NYC with a subsequent stay in the Keys, then on to police work in Palm Beach. These are all things that can come out later with patience. At the start, it’s too much misdirection without a point. That puts us down to paragraph 4 to search for a place to start–at the body or crime scene and any interesting lead up to that moment–but we get a lesson in real estate and the Wall Street crash. Bottom line, we need a better place to start that can showcase Crawford and his personality, through his actions and his cynical dialogue or banter with his colleagues.

Passive Voice – There were too many uses of ‘was’ and ‘had’ to indicate a past time period, or hint of backstory. ‘Was’ is used 8 times and ‘had’ is used 9 times in 400 words of this introduction. These are words I try to minimize and correct in an edit. It indicates this story should start with the present action and minimize the backstory.

Missing words typos – These are hard to catch. As authors, we are too familiar with our own work and miss words that should be there if we don’t read more carefully or read aloud. Last sentence in 2nd paragraph – “…oohing and aahing AT pretty average sunsets…” (‘At’ is left out.)

But how can this author retain the good parts of the character voice, yet not slow the pace? A big part of this resolution is how to introduce a character.

Key Ways to SHOW your Character rather than TELL On Him:

Try introducing your character like some films do, with big character stars like Capt Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. Johnny Depp doesn’t merely walk onto the scene and speak his first line, he makes a big intro to SHOW who he is. In mere seconds, we know him and who he’ll be. It takes practice to do this for an author of fiction. I call this “The Defining Scene.”

So imagine who Crawford is when he’s first introduced to this story. Since I like the author’s instincts on voice, I wanted to ask open ended questions for a rewrite of this intro. I didn’t want to influence the author by rewriting it myself. Think of it as a homework assignment, a short exercise.

1.) He’s a transplanted New Yorker with a side trip to the Keys. I can see his NY accent coming through. Are there remnants to his Keys stay? What does he wear in Palm Beach as a former New Yorker?

2.) Crawford is cynical and opinionated. How does this affect his co-workers, the other cops. Is he liked? Does he like them? Is he a loner?

3.) What hobbies does Crawford have? Are these apparent? Does he let other people know about them? What does he dream about? Is he saving for a beach house or a boat? Maybe he works more than one job to save up for something he doesn’t want to share with anyone else. Why did he choose the beach again? Does he miss NYC?

4.) He seems to thrive on crime scenes, being in his element. How does that manifest? Is he overly detailed in his approach or almost too relaxed? Does he communicate on the scene or keep to himself? Does he have a partner? If so, is his partner the same or opposite? Do they get along or not? How does that work for them?

To make Crawford memorable, the author gets a ‘first shot’ at a reader’s first impression. How would the author set the stage?

Below are some things to keep in mind.

  • Devise this crime scene for Crawford to shine or standout. Is it particularly morbid? Has he seen cases like this before? Does he bring NYC bagels and coffee? How does he react versus how others do? Set the stage for Crawford.
  • Give him something to do that will show the reader who he is. When others are turning away, he’s unusually attentive to details of the corpse. Does he have any idiosyncrasies at the scene, like how he treats the victim? Does he notice a stray cat in an alley with a possible clue when no one else does?
  • Make this scene about Crawford and focus on him. Let the reader know how he ticks, his values, his likes and dislikes. Carry these things through the book to take the reader on a journey.
  • Focus on Crawford’s character, more than plot, to give the reader a sense of him in this intro. If the author can devise a way to jump-start the plot (as in the murder scene), then you’ll get two birds with one stone.
  • Build on the energy from the Defining Scene. The reader will make an investment into Crawford going forward.

DISCUSSION:

What feedback would you give this author, TKZers? Is the engaging voice enough to keep you turning the pages?

Mr. January Available NOW! $2.99 Ebook

Zoey Meager risks her life to search for her best friend Kaity in a burning warehouse, only to cross paths in the inferno with Mr January, a mysterious man with a large black dog, completely devoted to its master.

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Raising Social Issues in the Cozy

Please welcome Judith Newton to the TKZ. Today, her guest post is about raising social issues in cozies, based on her experiences writing Oink: A Food for Thought Mystery. I look forward to reading your comments and feedback!  Clare

Raising Social Issues in the Cozy

by  Judith Newton

I became interested in mystery sometime in the 1990s when I began reading Tony Hillerman, whose sleuths are two Navajo policemen. What I liked about Hillerman’s books was that they dealt with social issues—the ongoing colonization of Native peoples—and that they presented stories from the points of view of people on the margins. I was especially drawn to Hillerman in the 1990s because I saw myself as living on a different sort of margin at my university. I was director of women’s studies, the faculty of which I had worked to make half women of color, and I and my program had formed deep personal connections with faculty in the four ethnic studies programs.

This community building took place, however, just as a newly prominent national development (often referred to as “the corporatization of the university”) had begun to make our already marginal positions less secure. With its ever greater focus on profit, my university administration was threatening to defund our programs. In the end, I am happy to say, the administrations’ very efforts to do away with women’s and ethnic studies prompted the faculty in these programs to form an even more tightly-knit community and to fight successfully for our survival.

When I began to write Oink, I followed Hillerman in making my main characters people on the margins of the university, faculty in women’s and ethnic studies, but the biggest issue I faced in outlining the novel was how to write about their issues so that a general audience would want to read about them.. I was aware that puzzles and unsolved crimes keep people turning pages and that within different mystery genres there were additional inducements to reader engagement. Hillerman, of course, uses elements of the thriller. Guns booming in the dark always kept me reading. But I wanted a different feel for my novel, which would have a lot to say about the value of caring community both for our lives and for political resistance, so I turned to another genre, that of the cozy.

Cozies are characteristically set in a small and valued community. By making one of the most valued communities in Oink that of a political coalition I gave this convention a political twist. Many cozies also involve food and come with recipes. The presence of food usually affirms pleasurable connection among the characters, a connection that is then extended outward to the reader through the inclusion of recipes. In Oink the same is true, although there the major connections being affirmed are among those resisting the university’s turn toward competition, self-interest, and profit. The inclusion of recipes pleasurably invites the reader into this alliance.

In Oink, moreover, as in the history on which it was based, gathering around food is one manifestation of a larger organizing impulse based upon “working on the relationship” through multiple acts of friendship, love, and support. This is a strategy which black women had already employed to organize grassroots communities during the Civil Rights Movement and it reappears in Oink among the women characters in particular.

The cozy’s quirky, often, female sleuth and its characteristic humor are also present in Oink and serve a related purpose. According to J. K. Gibson-Graham, our repertory of tactics for getting people together should include playfulness and humor, which can toss us on to the terrain of new possibilities. By fusing playfulness and humor with a story of struggle, I aimed to attach a sense of optimism and possibility to political resistance.

By merging Hillerman’s focus on social issues and marginal points of view with the conventions of the cozy I could write about some of the difficulties for people on the margins in the university and in the nation while also immersing the reader in experiences of connectedness, love, humor, and pleasure, experiences which I hope will keep the reader reading and which I identify both as ways to live a more fully human life and as crucial to effective struggles for social change. In a way I hadn’t anticipated, the continuation of these values seems ever more critical to our time.

  • What do you see as the advantages of or the difficulties in using cozies or other kinds of mystery to address social issues?
  • Are there particular cozies with a social issue or political theme you have read and enjoyed?
  • Does exploring social issues even belong in a cozy?
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Characters Need Redemption – First Page Critique – Angie’s Ruin

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

http://flickr.com/photos/60058591@N00/2369412952

I have a first-page critique for your consideration today. Please read and comment. My feedback is on the flip side.

***

“I can’t do this anymore I hate you. Listen to me, I really do hate you. You prick”

Angie screamed those words and cried them at the same time, it was a horrible indescribable sound but Danny didn’t seem to care.

“Well if you hate me so much then pack your bags and leave, but I’m keeping the kids, do you hear that THEY ARE MINE NOT YOURS, MINE, so go on sod off. No one likes you anyway, you waste of space”

She started to cry, uncontrollably a solemn weep that seemed to come from a place, no, a pit so very deep inside and below it could have been hell. Sitting in her new kitchen, with her beautiful babies upstairs, this man, if he actually qualified as a man was trying to finish her off altogether. He acted and spoke like a child but he was 37 and the love of her life.

They had been childhood sweethearts, next door neighbours and nobody had ever understood her like Danny. The crack the prostitution, the gambling, the shoplifting even the trafficking. All those years ago…It was another life.

Look, she new she wasn’t perfect. But Danny understood why, Danny understood her and now he was gone or he may as well have been.

He didn’t love her, he didn’t want her anymore and she felt done with love, with life with everything, it was all too much. So, she pulled herself up from the manky chair she was slumped in, her favourite velour chair that was once red, ready to go upstairs and pack up her life.

“I never loved you, you stupid, pathetic cow” Danny laughed the words in her face as if she was nothing, as if they had never had anything together, as if she was dirt under their wheelybin. PIG, she shouted in her head, because she didn’t have the energy to say it out loud, he had drained her that much, HE WAS WORSE THAN THE DIRTIEST MOST DISGUSTING FILTHY SHIT INFESTED PIG.

“You had better go right now” he said “Sharon’s coming round.” She’s been desperate for me to tell you and now I’ve done it. Why did it take me so long, he laughed, laying on the floor watching telly, to kick someone as ugly, stupid and pathetic as you out?”

FEEDBACK

I had a tough time with this submission. The lack of punctuation, the overabundance of run on sentences, typos, and writing craft issues made it a hard read. My biggest concern was for the main character of Angie. I found her overly aggressive without vulnerability. I didn’t find her redeemable in this first peek. It’s a fine line to portray real emotion in a scene, like fighting, if a writer doesn’t connect the reader with the character’s redemption and a humanity the reader can relate to. I’ll have suggestions on this below, but let’s look at basics first.

In order to submit to an editor or agent, or even self-publish, an author must know basic grammar and punctuation rules to submit a clean copy. Otherwise it would be too easy for the industry professional to reject it before they get a paragraph into it. Below are my more detailed thoughts.

Run On Sentences – Examples:

First sentence is a run on with poor punctuation.

Example 1: “I can’t do this anymore I hate you. Listen to me, I really do hate you. You prick”

Rewrite 1: “I can’t do this anymore. I hate you. Listen to me. I really do hate you. You, prick!”

Use of Internal Thought:

Example 2PIG, she shouted in her head, because she didn’t have the energy to say it out loud, he had drained her that much, HE WAS WORSE THAN THE DIRTIEST MOST DISGUSTING FILTHY SHIT INFESTED PIG.

An author should follow rules on punctuation to make the work easier for readers, who are quite knowledgeable on basic grammar. In the above example, it is one LONG run on without any punctuation. The overuse of CAPS isn’t necessary to indicate screaming. If the author picks words that ‘show’ the action, the reader will get it.

Rewrite 2:

‘Pig!’ she shouted in her head. Angie had lost the energy to say it out loud. Her husband had drained her that much. ‘He’s worse than the…’ (Break apart the run on sentence and single quote the internal monologue or italicize it. Personally, I find Angie too harsh and unlikeable. Anytime there is name calling, even if it’s in a character’s head, it makes them unsympathetic for me, as a reader.)

Typo:

Example: Look, she new she wasn’t perfect. (Knew, not new.)

No Setting:
Setting can be a big help to add color and depth to this scene of domestic abuse. What is the setting in this story? Has she been cooking all day and he shows up late and drunk? Does she keep a neat house or a sloppy one? Depression can enter into this and her house could be indicative of her emotional state.

Focus on Angie’s Vulnerability:
Unless the author envisions Angie as vulnerable and shows it, the character’s yelling and cursing in her head doesn’t make her sympathetic. If she starts out this way and the whole story is centered on an unlikeable character, a reader will not keep turning the pages. I’m not suggesting a back story dump, but at least in a solid intro, the author must show Angie as vulnerable and scared of her husband’s anger or vulnerable to his betrayal.

1.) Show her cower when he gets in her face, yelling. She physically shakes and reacts to his abuse that the reader knows has been happening over a long time.
2.) Have her concerned over kids hearing or neighbors.
3.) Have Angie show emotions of hurt and betrayal when he finally admits he’s having an affair.
4.) What does she looks like? Her appearance? Does he make her feel worse by pointing out her looks?
5.) Has he ever hit her? A victim of physical abuse acts differently than Angie does in this scene.

A more vulnerable Angie would have me turning the pages, even if the fighting gets ugly. I would root for her to get out of the house or find a way to get out from under an abusive husband.

DISCUSSION:
What do you think, TKZers? What would you add? Would you keep turning the pages?

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Where History Comes Alive

It’s Spring Break so I will be visiting Teothihuacan outside Mexico City when this blog posts, so my apologies, I probably won’t be able to respond to your comments until later in the day/Monday evening. I’ll be showing my boys these amazing pyramids as they have been studying Mexico’s history in their social studies class. We will also visit the  Anthropology museum in Mexico City as well – when traveling with me no one gets to avoid history!

One of my favorite parts of research is visiting places and immersing myself in a sense of history. Some places are able to evoke the past easily – as if the past remains stored in the stone walls, cobble stones or timbers of the houses. Other places, however, feel more inaccessible. I find Teothihuacan, with its vast avenue and towering pyramids, is a place that evokes awe but is also so alien in many ways that it is hard to picture what life must have been like way back then. It’s more challenging to imagine the past here but nonetheless the echoes are still there, if you listen hard enough. Likewise, I used to find the Australian landscape much harder to ‘read’ – the aboriginal past seeming to be more elusive and the colonial overtones a little too blunt. By comparison, somewhere like London the past really is omnipresent. For me, the voices of the past are all around and it is easy to imagine the sights, smells and sounds of history.

So TKZers where has history come alive for you? What places have you visited (for research or pleasure) that have evoked the greatest sense of history?

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Ways to Add Humor into Suspense – First Page Critique: WOW

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

I have another first page critique. An anonymous author has submitted their first 400 words for critique at TKZ. It takes guts, folks. My feedback is below and please comment with your observations.

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I levered the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay and a bullet slammed into my back. Below the right shoulder blade. More to the center. That difficult spot where if you’ve got a rash or insect bite it’s impossible to scratch and not look like you’re having a spastic seizure. If I knew this was the night someone was out to kill me I would have brought something up from the cellar that was more unique than a domestic Chardonnay, even though it had a pleasant balance of oak to it. There was that Nieto Senetiner Malbec from Argentina, I was holding for a special occasion, for example.

Anyway, the chard went flying, the bottle hit my hardwood floor, didn’t break, the amber liquid flowed out. As for me, the impact of the slug jolted me forward. I tripped over my feet and did a full body slam on the deck.

There I was, face down, flat on a hard wood floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps crunch their way over to me. We’re talking serious, heavy duty, outdoorsman leather soles here. All I was grateful for at this point is that I still wore my bullet proof vest from work. No, I’m not a cop, not a private dick sort of guy, no security guard, ex-military or something like that. I worked in a dentist’s officer. Name’s
Wowjewodizic, by the way.

I stayed still, bit the inside of my cheek to distract me from the pain in my back and waited. Waited for the, what’s it called, the ‘coup de – something or other,’ where the bullet enters the back of the skull and you don’t care where it goes next because you’re dead.

Then it occurred to me, this guy, or gal, probably not likely due to the heavy feet, didn’t use a silencer. This was a full on, make-a-lot-of-noise, gunshot. He wasn’t concerned about the blast drawing attention from the neighbors. Then again, my nearest neighbor was three miles away. And it was raining. It does that a lot in Portland, Oregon.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW: This story feels like a cozy mystery with liberal use of humor through the first person voice of the protagonist. in this scene, someone is shot and yet I don’t feel any danger. In the first few lines, the reader learns the protagonist is shot and yet there is far more importance placed on the awkwardness of an insect bite.

I levered the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay and a bullet slammed into my back. Below the right shoulder blade. More to the center. That difficult spot where if you’ve got a rash or insect bite it’s impossible to scratch and not look like you’re having a spastic seizure.

The author voice detracts from any suspense. If the point is the humor, I would think a whole book would make it a challenge to get through, at least for me. I want a plot to follow and characters I care about when they’re in real danger. In suspense/mystery/thrillers, I prefer a more subtle use of humor. At the foundation of every story needs to be a solid plot with escalating stakes and conflict.

STICK WITH THE ACTION – The action of the protagonist getting shot is completely masked by the mental meanderings of the voice, making leaps between wines, insect bites, the gender of the shooter by how weighty the footsteps are, and Portland weather.

In this intro, there’s a seesaw effect of telling a bit of the story, then wading into a distraction of backstory or awkward asides told through the voice of the character. It gave me the feeling of constantly treading water until I’m exhausted, trying to figure out what the story is about. When distractions outweigh the plot, a reader can lose track of the plot and not finish a book.

SETTING – There’s very little setting written into this excerpt and it takes awhile for the reader to piece together where the protag is. A wine cellar is mentioned, but it’s not until the protag mentions “my hardwood floors” that the reader sees he could be at his home. There are subtle ways to add setting without hindering the pace if the descriptions are part of the action. As a reader, I like to get a feeling for setting in books I enjoy.

LINES BEST USED IN DIALOGUE – The line below is an example of how the author could have stuck to the action of the shooting, yet gotten the humor across through dialogue with another character. Witty repartee with a detective, for example, would allow the author to pepper in humor without overdoing it.

If I knew this was the night someone was out to kill me I would have brought something up from the cellar that was more unique than a domestic Chardonnay, even though it had a pleasant balance of oak to it.

FIRST PERSON/GENDER & RAMBLING NARRATIVE – It’s not until this line (toward the end of the 3rd paragraph) that the reader knows the protag is a man–only 3 words. As a practice, I like to get the gender straight at the start whenever I write first person. I love the intimacy of that voice, but there are challenges to it. In the case of this excerpt, I think the author absolutely listened to the protag and wrote down every word they heard in their head, but in first person, you have to direct the action and what you want revealed about your character. It’s too tempting to ramble away from the plot.

No, I’m not a cop, not a private dick sort of guy, no security guard, ex-military or something like that.

RUN ON SENTENCES – I found these sentences hard to follow and the punctuation bothered me. I understand the need to write quicker thoughts in an action scene, but I don’t consider this an action scene with all the asides and random thoughts that detract from the flow. The author might consider breaking these sentences apart. Rather than one long sentence, it could make the writing flow better and improve the natural cadence.

There I was, face down, flat on a hard wood floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps crunch their way over to me.

REALISM – I found it unbelievable that the protag would lay there and wait for the shooter to finish the job, while he’s trying to figure out ‘coup de – something or other,’ determine what gender has heavier footfalls, whether the shooter used a silencer, and the rainfall in Portland, Oregon.

TYPO – Unless this is an obscure job I’ve never heard of, ‘officer’ should be ‘office.’

I worked in a dentist’s officer.

USE OF HUMOR IN BOOKS

Many authors use humor in their suspense thrillers in various ways: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Janet Evanovich, Harlen Coben, Lawrence Block, Robert Crais, Elmore Leonard, John Sanford, to name a few. There are countless more who have found ways to add humor to their books. I’ve added an excerpt from one of Carl Hiaasen’s stories below. He and Janet Evanovich tip the scale more toward humor than suspense, but have developed a great balance and a loyal reader following.

Excerpt from Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl intro:

On the first day of February, sunny but cold as a frog’s balls, a man named Lane Coolman stepped off a flight at Miami International, rented a mainstream Buick and headed south to meet a man in Key West. He nearly made it.

Twenty-seven miles from Coolman’s destination, an old green Firebird bashed his car from behind. The impact failed to trigger the Buick’s airbags, but Coolman heard the rear bumper dragging. He steered off the highway and dialed 911. In the mirror he saw the Firebird, its grille crimped and steaming, pull onto the shoulder. Ahead stood a sign that said: “Ramrod Key.”

Coolman went to check on the other driver, a woman in her mid-thirties with red hair.

“Super-duper sorry,” she said.

What the hell happened?”

“Just a nick. Barely bleeding.”She held her phone in one hand and a disposable razor in the other.

“Are you out of your mind?” said Coolman.

The driver’s jeans and panties were bunched around her knees. She’d been shaving herself when she smashed Coolman’s rental car.

“I got a date,” she explained.

“You couldn’t take care of that at home?”

“No way! My husband would get so pissed.”

In this example, Hiaasen puts his serious minded characters in outlandish situations using his tongue in cheek humor to allow things to play out. He sticks with the action of a car crash (the disturbance) until the reader finds out what caused the wreck. The dialogue lines are funny, too. The humor is downplayed and yet very present and fluid. It’s how Hiaasen sees his story unfolding. His use of humor is subtle and becomes a thread that holds the story together and creates his author voice. The idea of placing very earnest characters into a complete farce, and yet allow them to confront things in a serious-minded way, it adds an element of the absurd that becomes funny.

WAYS TO ADD HUMOR

1.) Add a funny character, whether it’s the protag or a secondary character.

2.) Have your serious-minded characters confront absurd and escalating situations without seeing the humor themselves. They are facing life or death. Only the reader gets the joke.

3.) Know how to separate or add humor into a suspense/action scene. I recently wrote a scene where I didn’t expect there to be humor. My hero is in a shootout but he gets a cell phone call from a girl. What does he do? I wrote the scene all action, then came back to add in the moments where I thought he might realistically answer that call, without him looking silly or stupid. It gave insight into him and added unanticipated humor to a tense scene. I also underplayed the phone call and made it seem normal, until you see what he’s doing while he’s talking to her.

4.) Throw in the unexpected. Imagine your serious character getting jolted by something he or she never saw coming. How would they handle it?

5.) Develop witty banter between characters in conflict or dare to write characters with different kinds of humor. Pit an educated cynic up against someone with crude bathroom humor in a juxtaposition of character types. You’ll find these characters take on a life of their own in your head and it’s lots of fun to write. Making each voice distinctive in humor is key.

DISCUSSION

What do you think of the anonymous submission, TKZers? Any feedback?

 

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