First Page Critique – The Trouble with Vivian

Happy snowy Monday!

Today’s first page critique is for a submission entitled The Trouble with Vivian and it’s a hard boiled mystery – a quick disclaimer, I am by no means a hard-boiled mystery aficionado, so I will be looking to my TKZ colleagues and community to provide more input in terms of the genre. As with any first page, however, there are a number of key factors that contribute to its success (irrespective of genre) so I hope my comments prove useful to our brave submitter. My feedback follows the submission – enjoy!

The Trouble with Vivian

I stab the red icon on my smart phone.

“Miserly witch.” This month’s rent is only five days late and already she’s talking eviction. I resist the urge to throw the phone across the room, instead slamming it on a pile of unfiled dead case folders. Of course, I still owe her for last month and she has little tolerance for the rain or drought nature of a private investigator’s business. She threatens eviction with more regularity than pigeons shitting on park benches. This time, though, the old biddy claims to have someone interested in my office—as if anyone would want to climb six flights of stairs every day for this rat-hole.

A sigh escapes me. Five days or fifty, what difference does it make? I haven’t landed so much as a missing tabby in months and my bank account is more shriveled than a year-old prune.

I pace.

Wind rattles the only window and I use two nail-bitten, decidedly unladylike fingers to separate a pair of horizontal blinds. Typical Buffalo—leaves swirling on heavy gusts offer the only color on an otherwise dreary grey fall morning.

Five floors below a uniformed man, dark hat obscuring his features, closes the back door of a black Lincoln parked in front of the building’s main entrance. Even alley cats avoid this neighborhood, so I can’t imagine what a chauffer-driven car is doing here.

Surely nothing to do with me.

I return to pacing.

Until the click of heels catches my attention. Frosted glass offers the silhouette of a woman standing right outside my door. She hesitates. A delicate hand lifts and pauses, dangling like the proverbial participle.

While she fights with herself, dollar signs and desperation kick me into gear. I quickly straighten my desk, assembling scattered files into one neat stack atop my in-basket, and then drop into my chair. A spring poking through cracked leather digs into my ass and I bite back a curse. I grab my cell and press its dead, black face to my ear.

“Yeah, yeah. Sure. No worries.” I hope the woman hears—anticipation has my heart pounding and stomach doing the Superman coaster. At last the shadowy hand hesitantly taps on the glass “It’s open.” The knob rattles and hinges squeak. Without looking, I hold up one finger toward whoever enters.

“Hey, Eddie. Gotta run. Don’t worry. I got this.”

Overall Comments

I enjoyed this first page and felt it had the requisite cynical voice and tone that fits the hard-boiled genre. There were some great one-liners that definitely helped reel me in. I particularly liked: “She threatens eviction with more regularity than pigeons shitting on park benches” and “A delicate hand lifts and pauses, dangling like the proverbial participle.”Overall, I think the author did a good job setting the scene for the case to come and demonstrating how desperately the protagonist needs it to make ends meet. I also liked that this hard-boiled PI is a woman:)

That being said, I did feel there was an element of predicability to this first page and some repetition in terms of the protagonist’s financial predicament. I think the ‘less is more’ adage applies here and some judicious editing in the first few paragraphs could help streamline this first page and make it stronger. In terms of the scene, I guess I was just a little concerned (and this is where I’ll need TKZers to help weigh in) that it sounded very much like the start of any number of hard boiled mysteries – a deadbeat PI desperate for a break receives a mysterious client who will change everything…so I wonder if the author is starting the story in the right place (?) as this beginning could seem a bit cliched.

One nit pick – what is the red icon on the phone? I kept looking at mine and wasn’t quite sure what this meant (I have red ‘bubbles’ indicating  when I have a new email or text message but none of those icons themselves are red). For me (and it might be that I’m just a bit dense!) this diminished the strength of the first line as I was puzzling what it meant.

Overall, this first page displayed some good writing chops and I liked the crisp and observant way the scene was laid out. For me, this page definitely has the ‘noirish’ feel of the genre and the protagonist is already compelling. I would definitely keep turning the page to read more!

So TKZers what feedback would you give our brave submitter?

+7

Are a Ghost’s Feelings Dead? A First Page Critique

Critiqued by Elaine Viets

 

Gather ’round, readers, and make sure the lights are on. Today, we’re critiquing a “murder ghost story,” a first page critique by a brave anonymous author. Read it first, and then I’ll discuss it. Here goes:

Continuing Adventures of Laurel Palmer: Murder Ghost Story

When I was a child I was afraid of ghosts.
As I grew up I realized people are more scary.

When I woke up, I was dead. It took a minute to sink in.
When it did, I sat up abruptly, immediately shooting up to the ceiling twenty feet above the first-floor landing. In a cloud of confusion, I looked down and saw myself, or what used to be myself, sprawled at the foot of the stairs. I waved my arms, wondering if that’s how I would need to propel myself in my current insubstantial form.
Actually, it only took thinking to be able to float down, where I hovered a few feet above the empty shell that used to be me. I examined the form critically. I had been beautiful, hadn’t I?
I was lying there picturesquely, almost gracefully, face up, large brown eyes wide in shock, long sable hair spread around my head like a dark halo. Or I could have pulled that off if my arms and legs weren’t bent at strange angles, and a crimson liquid wasn’t pooling on the hardwood floor, with strands of that sable hair soaking in it, and my normal olive complexion wasn’t unusually pasty, with maybe a little gray creeping in.
Nice legs, I thought, noticing that the filmy silk dress I had been wearing was halfway up my thigh, fortunately not exposing anything I…she…might be embarrassed to have on display when the appropriate authorities arrived on the scene. I tried to pull the dress lower to cover more of her exposed legs, but my hand passed right through.
Floating, both physically and emotionally, I felt only mild curiosity as I scrutinized the body on the floor. Having no lingering connection to it, I could watch it dispassionately, waiting to see if it did anything. Like breathe. I gave a soft laugh. Not likely, since I was here, and I would have been there if any life remained in the corpse.
I settled onto a step a few up from the recently deceased person, rested my elbows on my knees, and pondered the meaning of life. Or what it all means. Being dead and still here, I mean.

*****************************************************

Death is the ultimate mystery, and we all wonder what will happen when we meet our end. Our Brave Author gave us an imaginative look at the other side. This first page is readable and well-written, but I’d like to suggest some changes.

(1) Drop the italics line.
When I was a child I was afraid of ghosts.
As I grew up I realized people are more scary.

Consider using it elsewhere as an observation in your story. It takes away from the impact of your first two lines: “When I woke up, I was dead. It took a minute to sink in.”
Those lines are grabbers, and so is the next one. “When it did, I sat up abruptly, immediately shooting up to the ceiling twenty feet above the first-floor landing.”
So far, so good. This beginning shows imagination. But now the tone changes. It becomes distant.
(2) The woman is dead, and we need to know how she feels about it. At first, she seems confused, which might be the expected response – I hope I won’t know for sure for a long time.
“In a cloud of confusion, I looked down and saw myself, or what used to be myself, sprawled at the foot of the stairs.”
That “in a cloud of confusion” is a bit confusing. Consider making it something like: “Confused, I looked down and saw myself, or what used to be myself, sprawled at the foot of the stairs.”
Confusion is to be expected, especially since our new ghost is learning that she is incorporeal and has to navigate in a new world. “I waved my arms, wondering if that’s how I would need to propel myself in my current insubstantial form. Actually, it only took thinking to be able to float down, where I hovered a few feet above the empty shell that used to be me.”
That’s good.
(3) But by now, she should be feeling something – or wondering why she feels so numb.
Instead, she admires her dead body, as if it were a work of art. We need some emotion here.
Is she upset that she’s lost this beautiful body? Is she unhappy? Did she like her life? Will she be sorry to leave it? Are there any relatives, friends or lovers she will miss?
(4) Also, this is billed as a “murder ghost story.”
Was our ghost murdered? Tell us. Does she know who pushed her down the stairs to her untimely death? Let us know. Is she angry? Frightened? Vengeful?
(5) And last, but not least, our ghost is suffering from Ectoplasmic Anonymity.
Tell us her name. Right away. Maybe here in this sentence would be a good place: “Actually, it only took thinking to be able to float down, where I hovered a few feet above the empty shell that used to be me, Laurel Palmer.” Or whoever the ghost is.
Don’t let these criticisms scare you, Brave Author. If you want another good critique of a paranormal story, check out PJ Parrish’s paranormal critique: https://tinyurl.com/8f5jmbut
Your ghost story is off to a good start. Your ghost is just a little . . . insubstantial.
******************************************************************************************


Save the Date! Wednesday, March 17 at 6 PM ET
Charlaine Harris and Elaine Viets: A Zoom Event at Murder on the Beach
You know Charlaine from her Southern Vampire “True Blood” mysteries. Now she has a new series, featuring Gunnie Rose. The gunslinger for hire lives in a fractured US. I’ll have a new book, too: “Death Grip,” my fifth Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery.
Admission? Just buy either book. For reservations, call Murder on the Beach Bookstore at 561-279-7790 or email murdermb@gate.net.

+9

Navigating Rough Waters

Photo courtesy of Jim Coffey, Esprit Whitewater

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

What does whitewater rafting have to do with writing?

For one thing, rafters and writers often endure blasts of icy water in the face. For authors, the cold, wet shock is metaphoric—a stinging rejection, a hideous review, a kiss-off from a publisher.

Today’s story begins when my pal, former river ranger Susan Purvis recently sent me a link to a podcast about whitewater rafting. Susan often leads me into adventures that always pay off in unexpected rewards so when she recommends something, I listen.

That day, with a crammed to-do list, I didn’t have a spare hour for a podcast. Yet once I started to listen, I couldn’t stop.

The interviewer is Barry Kruse, entrepreneurial coach of Leading Steep, and his subject is Jim Coffey, founder and owner of Esprit Whitewater, a Canadian rafting company.

Jim’s rafting business began in 1992 and survives nearly three decades later, a rarity in the field. A seasonal operation is especially tough because he has to earn enough income in four, maybe five, months to last the entire year. Plus, recreation-oriented businesses are hit hard during recessions when people can’t afford vacation trips.

Jim believes entrepreneurs who succeed have “a high tolerance for adversity and uncertainty.” He proves his point when he relates the setbacks he’s experienced that would tank most businesses— a fire that destroyed part of his facilities, a couple of floods, the Covid shutdown, and, last summer, his own diagnosis of throat cancer.

His attitudes and coping tools struck me as helpful advice for authors. The following are a few gold nuggets from his podcast.

Jim: “You never know where that first step is going to lead.”

When you’re stuck in your writing, take a step.

Inertia is not healthy for writers, in body, mind, or word production. If you’re bogged down, take a step in a new direction.

Write a public service announcement for a charity you admire. Write ad copy for a fundraiser for a worthwhile cause.

If your own ads don’t pan out, analyze what authors with similar books do for promotion. Try new avenues.

Learn a new skill—make a video, add fresh features to your website, try a different software writing tool, create an audiobook.

First steps sometimes lead to dead ends. But they can also lead to new universes.

 

Jim: “You never know who that [most] important customer is going to be. Treat every customer as if they are that person.”

Readers are the author’s customers. Building their loyalty and trust is key to selling books.

A major breakthrough opportunity for Jim’s company occurred when a particular customer was impressed with the fledgling operation. That man turned out to be an influencer who booked more trips for large groups and retreats, as well as recommending Esprit Whitewater to colleagues. A single customer hugely expanded Jim’s business.

For authors, treat every reader as your most important customer. They might place your book in Stephen King’s hands for a blurb. Or convince Oprah to feature it in her book club. Or catch Reese Witherspoon’s attention for a new movie production.

Not likely? Okay, but how about these possibilities?

A reader invites you to speak to their book club. That results in more sales and more readers.

A reader from that book club works for a major media outlet and wants to interview you.

The leader of a civic or professional organization hears/reads your interview and invites you to talk to their 500 members.

And so it can go.

When you treat each reader as that most important customer, their reach and recommendations carry you and your books into markets you never imagined.

 

Jim: “We manufacture our own luck. Preparation collides with opportunity.”

The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Preparation can mean: take a class; read a new craft book; attend a conference; research new marketing angles.

When you’re doing the work, opportunities pop up in unexpected ways in unexpected places.

 

Jim: “Be unselfish and generous with your skills and pass them on.”

Help other writers.

The writing community is a continuum of authors at different levels of accomplishment, from beginners to multi-published bestsellers. We have all been helped by authors more experienced than ourselves and, in turn, we can help others less experienced than ourselves.

Freely share what you’ve learned. Teach a workshop. Write a guest blog post. Produce a newsletter for a charitable organization. Mentor a struggling writer.

You might think you’re too new at the craft to offer anything. Not so. You can beta-read. Judge a writing contest. Offer to talk to schoolchildren—most teachers are delighted to host writers and kids are eager to learn.

 

Jim: “It’s easier to train a great person to be a great whitewater guide than to take a great whitewater guide and turn them into a great person.”

For authors, attitude is more important than skill. Approach learning as a humble student.

I’ve known many talented authors who were positive they were destined to knock Michael Connelly off bestseller lists. They were usually so busy talking about how much they knew and how great they were that, not surprisingly, I haven’t noticed any of their names in USA Today.

C.S. Lewis said: “Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears.”

That advice spans to entrepreneurs, military, industry, and, of course, writing. Nobody knows everything.

Before you become a great writer, you must first be a great student.

 

Jim: “You never know when people you’ve contributed to will come back and contribute to you.”

At the beginning of the podcast, interviewer Barry said Jim had recently undergone chemotherapy and radiation for throat cancer. While Jim was laid low during the busy summer season, his team kept the business going and took care of hundreds of happy whitewater rafting customers. He’d earned the loyalty of his staff who came through when he needed them the most.

At the very end of the podcast, Jim mentions he gave the interview while lying in bed… with a feeding tube.

Wow. Just wow.

That left no doubt Jim Coffey is off the scale in his tolerance of adversity and uncertainty.

 Perhaps the most important lesson can be found in Jim’s actions:

Help others and never give up.

Works for authors, too.

~~~

Many thanks to Jim Coffey and Barry Kruse for their permission to quote and reference the interview which can be heard here: https://www.leadingsteep.com/podcast

~~~

TKZers: What is your favorite advice, touchstone, or belief that helps you over treacherous rapids and shoals encountered in your writing career?

~~~

 

In Debbie Burke’s new thriller Flight to Forever, her main character persists in spite of lots of cold water thrown in her face. Please check it out here.

+10

First Page Critique: Jane Unknown

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a dystopian YA novel entitled JANE UNKNOWN. This page provides a very atmospheric start to a novel that I’m hoping contains lots of witchcraft! My comments follow. Enjoy!

February 24, 1692

On top of the hill was the stake, not yet aflame. An upright log dark against the grey sky. Beams of light cut through the clouds, slanting down onto the fields, turning some of the tall grass golden. And so how, in this heavenly light, did the stake still look so foreboding? Send a chill to the bone?

The Bachelors of Divinities walked me up the hill. One on each side: Ely and Jonas. I’d known them since I arrived in Salem Village, orphaned, eleven years ago, but they did not act as if they knew me now. I suppose they felt as if they didn’t. They held my elbows roughly—my wrists were already secured with rope behind my back—although they did not need to. There was nowhere to go. We’d all been taught the witches had the woods. Not the other way around: Not the woods had witches. Perhaps that’s why they suspected me? As an orphan, I came from those woods.

My ankle wobbled on a clump of grass, causing me to near fall. Ely sighed loudly and yanked me up by the elbow. Pain shot through my shoulder. It felt as if the muscle had been ripped in half. He muttered under his breath, lip twitching.

The stake loomed taller and taller. We were close, only a few wagon-lengths away. Sweat crept along my cold skin, and I found it hard to take a deep breath.

As we reached the top of the hill, the wind whipped against us, pushing my grey dress against my legs. I wore no apron today. The wind caused hope to blossom within, especially as Ely and Jonas exchanged expressions. It had rained the night before, but this could only prolong my agony—but the wind, the wind it might help me yet. But hope could be dangerous. Disappointment fell all the further when hope lifted one high.

The stake was now in clean sight. A stool, where I would stand, against the log, where they would tie me. They’d arrange the branches and twigs at my feet, and perhaps, if I was lucky, I’d die by smoke first.

I tried to prepare myself: This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. Over and over.

It did help, I suppose. The grass blowing, as if in slow motion. Our walk forward inevitable.

Overall Comments:

I love how the author has woven together the sense of foreboding with the landscape and the weather in the moments leading up to what appears to be a witch burning outside Salem. The author definitely draws the reader in and creates a sense of empathy as well as fear for the main protagonist. Initially, I wasn’t too sure whether this was historical or dystopian YA (as this had been described) but I’d be happy to keep reading whatever direction the novel ultimately takes. I thought the stream of consciousness writing style also worked really well, helping keep the POV close to the protagonist while also feeling very much YA. At times the sentence structure did get a little confusing, but I thought it did feel like we were directly hearing the protagonist’s thoughts as they unfolded.

My only real comment would be that ‘less is more’ – while there’s plenty of atmosphere, there’s less in terms of action, and I think paring down some of this scene could help it flow a little easier. Sometimes the protagonist’s thoughts slowed down the dramatic tension. I’ve copied this first page below to highlight the areas which I think could be edited/cut and yet still retain the terrific atmosphere of this first page. The words in bold are the ones I think should be deleted and I have placed some extra notes in bold and italic. These are obviously just my thoughts (and TKZers may have other advice!). Overall though, tightening up a first page is always a good idea:)

Specific Edit/Cut Options:

February 24, 1692

On top of the hill was the stake, not yet aflame. An upright log dark against the grey sky. Beams of light cut through the clouds, slanting down onto the fields, turning some of the tall grass golden. And so how, in this heavenly light, did the stake still look so foreboding? Send a chill to the bone?

The Bachelors of Divinities walked me up the hill. One on each side: Ely and Jonas. I’d known them since I arrived in Salem Village, orphaned, eleven years ago, but they did not act as if they knew me now. I suppose they felt as if they didn’t. They held my elbows roughly—my wrists were already secured with rope behind my back—although they did not need to. There was nowhere to go. We’d all been taught the witches had the woods. Not the other way around: Not the woods had witches. Perhaps that’s why they suspected me? As an orphan (already said she’s an orphan so delete one of the references), I came from those woods.(note – I actually think these thoughts on the woods and witches could probably be moved to a later scene as it slows down the action)

My ankle wobbled on a clump of grass, causing me to near (do you mean nearly?) fall. Ely sighed loudly and yanked me up by the elbow. Pain shot through my shoulder. It felt as if the muscle had been ripped in half. He muttered under his breath, lip twitching. (Note: this whole paragraph could actually be deleted unless the injury to her shoulder is relevant later)

The stake loomed taller and taller. We were close, only a few wagon-lengths away. Sweat crept along my cold skin, and I found it hard to take a deep breath.

As we reached the top of the hill, the wind whipped against us, pushing my grey dress against my legs. I wore no apron today. The wind caused hope to blossom within, especially as Ely and Jonas exchanged expressions. It had rained the night before, but this could only prolong my agony—but the wind, the wind it might help me yet. But hope could be dangerous. Disappointment fell all the further when hope lifted one high.

The stake was now in clean sight. A stool, where I would stand, against the log, where they would tie me. They’d arrange the branches and twigs at my feet, and perhaps, if I was lucky, I’d die by smoke first.

I tried to prepare myself: This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. (maybe only need to state once?) Over and over.

It did help, I suppose. The grass blowing, as if in slow motion. Our walk forward inevitable.

Final Comment:

Bravo to our brave submitter!  I hope my comments are helpful. TKZers, what advice or feedback do you have? Looking forward to seeing your comments.

+6

When Characters Talk – Interview with Author Assaph Mehr

 

Felix the Fox business card

By Debbie Burke

@burke_twitter

 

Recently a writer friend turned me onto a site called The Protagonist Speaks, created by author Assaph Mehr, who was born in Israel and now lives in Australia. He writes a series described as Stories of Togas, Daggers, and Magic for lovers of urban fantasy, detective mysteries, and ancient Rome.

His main character is Felix the Fox, part sleuth, part magician, part fixer who handles occult trouble for Rome’s upstanding citizens who don’t want to dirty their hands.

Felix’s first interview appeared in 2016. The idea of an author interviewing the characters in his book intrigued readers. Soon, Assaph expanded the site to include other authors interviewing their characters.

The concept struck me as a fun, quirky marketing tool. I reached out to Assaph and requested an interview. That is today’s post, although I’m not quite sure who will show up—Assaph or Felix!

In Numina by Assaph Mehr

Debbie Burke: Please share a little about yourself and your background.

Assaph: I grew up on the shores of the Mediterranean, where every stone has a history – and the stone under it too, going back millennia. One of my favourite spots was an Ottoman citadel (we used to play LARP [live-action role-playing game] there), which is built on Mameluk foundation, laid on top of Roman village, which displaced older settlements to Egyptian times. Can’t grow up like that and not love history. Fantasy I discovered early on when introduced to The Hobbit, and thereafter I’ve been reading it voraciously. I now live in Oz (aka Australia), with various cats, kids, spiders, and water dragons.

Felix: I come from the city of Egretia, which Assaph assures me is very like your own ancient Rome. My father was in the antiquities trade, though I was fortunate enough to be accepted to the Collegium Incantatorum. My father died, the family fortune was lost, and I could no longer pay tuition so never graduated. So, after a brief stint in the legions, I came back and by a stroke of luck apprenticed with a couple of the city’s most renowned investigators. When they didn’t want to take a case that had occult elements, I seized my chance. I combined whatever education in the magical arts I gathered in the collegium with the investigative skills I learnt, and set out to solve paranormal problems for the proletariat.

Assaph: In Ancient Rome tradespeople often advertised by chalking messages on public walls. That’s how I met Felix, and got him to tell me his stories so I could write them down. For our world we couldn’t quite spray graffiti everywhere, so we made Felix some business cards. Please, pass them on to your readers.

DB: Your books sound like an interesting mashup of hard-boiled detective stories, fantasy, and history. How did you come up with that combination?

Assaph: Quite simply, that’s what I always liked to read. I grew up on classic detectives and thrillers, loved ancient Rome, and often escaped into fantasy and Sci-Fi. I always wanted to see my name in print, so when it was time to write I combined my favourite elements into the stories I wanted to read. (sotto voce) Don’t tell Felix he’s a figment of my imagination – he gets offended, and besides I’d rather he not ask uncomfortable questions about some of the misery I put him through.

Felix: For me it was a stroke of luck – my name, Felix, means lucky, so I attribute everything to my patron goddess Fortuna. As everyone will tell you – or, rather, whisper so she can’t hear – she can be a fickle and capricious goddess. I was accepted to the collegium, but had to terminate my studies; with no prospects I joined the legions, but escaped honorably without injury; the two investigators took me in, and I managed to carve out a unique niche for my business. So those stories are just the cases I handle for my customers, which Assaph publishes here. I’m still waiting on those royalties he promised.

Assaph: Skinflint. I told you, I had to pay the editor and the cover designer. We’re waiting on that movie deal for the big payout.

DB: What inspired the seed for The Protagonist Speaks?

Assaph: It was one of those 3 a.m. ideas that stuck. Every reader talks about favourite characters, I thought it would be an interesting idea to let them meet those characters in person, as it were. A bit like a celebrity talk show, but centered about the characters rather than the authors.

DB: How do readers respond to interviews with characters?

Assaph: The responses I get are overwhelmingly positive. Both authors and readers enjoy the quirky experience of letting the character sit on a guest couch and be interviewed. Both authors and readers also tell me that they are sometimes surprised by the answers they get.

Felix: For my part, I can say that it was a bit weird at the start. I didn’t quite get what it was all about, and I was reluctant to share secrets. Now I do have a better understanding of what’s involved, and I can say it can be a phenomenal experience for the character as well.

Assaph: Right, so that’s you agreeing to do another one – proper one – for the next book launch.

DB: What is the site’s primary purpose? Promote author name recognition? A way to increase book sales? Fun and entertainment?

Assaph: Yes – pretty much all of that. Authors and readers get to have a bit of fun, it helps increase exposure of the books to potential readers, and authors end up with long-life marketing collateral, something that can be shared to help increase buzz. Running the site is my way of giving back and helping fellow authors.

DB: Have you experienced an uptick in sales from The Protagonist Speaks?

Assaph: Modest, but yes. As with most marketing, it’s about repeatedly putting good content in front of potential buyers, till they make the decision to buy. Having these quirky interviews helps do just that – it’s a way to come across new authors, it’s a reason to share the books again, it gives more view-points into the author’s style that may help convince a reader that this is a book for them. There is definitely more engagement from authors who understand that, and I see more engagement when authors share it on social media and newsletters (beyond what I normally see when only I share the interviews).

DB: What is the process for an author to submit an interview with a character? Is there any cost?

Assaph: No costs. As said above, it’s my way of helping fellow authors. Heck, I half do it for myself – besides having an excuse to chat up authors I enjoy, I also discovered a few new favourites.

For anyone interested in joining, just fill out the Contact form on TheProtagonistSpeaks.com/Contact.

DB: Anything else you’d like to share with Kill Zone readers?

Assaph Mehr

Assaph: Thanks much for hosting us, Debbie! I promise I’m not as crazy as I sound, despite the voices in my head. Should any of your readers like to meet Felix more, there are a few free short stories and a free novella on my website here: egretia.com/short-stories. Those will give you an idea of the trials and tribulations of a private investigator during antiquity, dealing with the supernatural world (and why he wants to get paid, and I don’t want him to think I’m the cause of all his troubles).

Website: http://egretia.com

Facebook: http://facebook.com/AssaphMehrAuthor

Twitter: @assaphmehr

~~~

As a side note, after chatting with Assaph, I dragged the male lead in my thriller series, Tillman Rosenbaum, kicking and screaming, to Assaph’s interview couch. Please check out Tillman’s reluctant answers on March 5 at The Protagonist Speaks

~~~

TKZers: Do you ever interview your characters? Do their answers surprise you?

~~~

 

 

Debbie Burke’s characters really startled her in her new thriller Flight to Forever.  Discover the surprises here. 

 

Cover design by Brian Hoffman

+11

Does Anyone Read Poetry Anymore?

Back when my book group could still meet in person we had a fun month where everyone chose a piece of poetry to share. We had funny poems, romantic poems, some pithy pun filled poems, and then there was me dredging up the angst with Sylvia Plath:)

I’m sure it will come as no surprise to anyone that I was a definite poetry nerd as a teenager. I was into all the angst, all the pain, and definitely all the darkness associated with poets like Plath, Dickinson, Lowell, and Eliot. I still have shelves of poetry books, including an inordinately morbid number of First World War poets, as well as a surprising number of romantics! I have to confess though in recent years I’ve bought very few new volumes of any kind of poetry and, apart from this particular book group project, have rarely taken down a book of poetry to peruse for fun. So what happened? (you know apart from life, motherhood, etc…) Why had poetry dropped off my reading list so precipitously?

A few years ago I remember hearing the poet Jane Hirschfield being interviewed on Fresh Air and being mesmerized by her poetry reading (I had to pull the car over so I could listen to the whole broadcast). More recently I was inspired by Amanda Gorman’s amazing poem at the inauguration and I do hope this elevation of poetry and performance will reignite popular interest (not that I think publishers ever viewed poetry as a great money maker!). For me, though, the desire to reconnect with poetry came a few months ago (pretty much after my book group project which made me realize what I’ve been missing). Since then I’ve been trying to start off my writing day with reading at least one poem. It’s been, at best, a sporadic success, but I am so glad that I’m finding the time to reincorporate poetry back into my life…but still I have to wonder, does anyone actually read poetry anymore??

What about you TKZers? Are you a poetry fan or was poetry just something cruel English Literature teachers forced you to study? Do you, as writers, ever use poetry as a creative or inspirational tool? What do you think are the chances that poetry is now back in vogue (if it ever was!)?

 

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Want to Talk to a Kill Zone Author?

Photo credit: Chris Montgomery – unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Have you ever wanted to chat with the Crime Dogs at The Kill Zone?

Now, your book club, reading or writing group can meet with TKZ authors via Zoom, Facetime, Google Meeting, or Splash.

To give you hints what they might talk about at a virtual meeting, I posed two questions to each member.

Joe Hartlaub:

#1 – When you’re invited to speak, what do you plan to say?

I accept!

Actually, I would discuss the steps that a writer goes through after finishing their manuscript and before being published. 

 

 

#2 – What would you like listeners to learn from you?

That they probably should have asked someone else! Seriously, I would hope they would come away encouraged, rather than discouraged. While the process of publishing seems overwhelming, people still do it. 

(BTW, we’ve asked Joe to leave his big knife at home when he zooms.)

~~~

Sue Coletta:

Most readers ask about the story behind the story, my characters or subjects (if nonfiction), research, and male vs. female serial killers. I also touch on forensic science (i.e. blood spatter analysis, decomposition, handwriting analysis, forensic psychology, the difference between a psychopath, sociopath, spree killer, etc. The seven stages of serial killing is a big hit, as it allows readers to peek into a killer’s mind. The psychology behind these monsters is a fascinating topic.

For writers: how to create believable characters, show vs. tell, understanding deep point of view, story structure, how to use research without slowing the pace. Also, my experience working with publishers.

Most of all, I want attendees to have fun. Laughter is good for the soul.

~~~

John Gilstrap:

I have several “canned” presentations that are fully described here, but I tailor every presentation to the individual audience. I’ve been doing this for over a quarter of a century, so I can discuss everything from character development to finding an agent to adapting stories for the screen. I’ve done full day seminars and I’ve done 20-minute chats.

I start every presentation by asking attendees what they want to take away from the seminar/meeting. In my experience, people who attend these kinds of presentations have one or two very specific itches that they’d like to have scratched, and my job is to scratch them.

~~~

Clare Langley-Hawthorne:

Most often my presentations start off with the history that inspired my stories and, depending on the audience, delve into my own personal connection to the events or characters in the book. Rarely do I go into the actual writing process but this is often a question I get asked so that’s when it comes up. I want listeners to come away inspired – either by history, reading, or to write their own stories.

~~~

James Scott Bell:

I speak on any of the 7 critical success factors of fiction: plot, structure, character, scenes, dialogue, voice, meaning.

Fiction writing can be learned, if one studies diligently and keeps practicing.

 

~~~

Terry Odell:

I’m flexible with what I’ll talk about. If it’s a writer’s group, I can talk about craft, including dialogue, point of view, voice, writing romantic suspense, or just the writing process. I can also share my experiences with small presses, digital presses, and independent publishing.

Book clubs are usually a whole different game, with them wanting to talk about specific books or series, or just general Q&A.

~~~


Garry Rodgers:

From my experience it’d be “talk about what you know.” Mine is crime, forensics, and death investigation and the worlds around them. My schtick would be about Joseph Wambaugh’s saying, “The best stories aren’t about how cops (and coroners) work on cases – it’s how the cases work on cops (and coroners).”

I see it from the reality human angle rather than the non-reality TV CSI stuff.

~~~

Steve Hooley:

My subject would be “Heritage, Writing, and Leaving a Legacy.” The discussion would center on the importance of passing on (in writing) to our descendants what we have learned from our ancestors – history, service, and values.

I would like to convince listeners that “passing the torch” is important, and maybe inspire some young people to become interested in writing.

I added a category: Who is my desired audience? Middle Grade Schools, High Schools, Parochial Schools, Christian Schools, Home School Groups, Senior Citizen Groups, and Writers’ Groups.

~~~

Elaine Viets:

My talks are tailored for the audience. If you want to be entertained, I talk about my light-hearted Dead-End Job mysteries. If the audience likes darker mysteries, I discuss my Angela Richman, Death Investigator mysteries. Death investigators are like paralegals for the medical examiner. They are in charge of the body and work for the ME.

I’ve also taught workshops and seminars for Sisters in Crime, MWA, and the Florida Writers Academy and other groups. Topics include: “Forensics for Mystery Writers.” “How to Murder Your Darlings — editing for writers.” “Who’s Talking? What voice is best for your novel?” and “Mystery Writing for Beginners.” All workshops come with handouts.

I’d like all my audiences to come away entertained, and if they’re taking a workshop, to leave it energized and ready to write.

~~~

P.J. Parrish (Kris Montee): 

The need to learn your craft and have patience, especially if you self-publish. A book that’s put out in public before it’s professionally ready will fail.

Perseverance. I’ve run the full gamut of publishing with huge NY legacy publishers, paperback imprints, foreign publishers, and Amazon’s Thomas and Mercer. I changed genres from romance to mysteries, reinventing a stalled career. I regained backlist rights and self-published them, also self-published an original series. Lots of success (bestseller lists and awards) and plenty of failure, but you keep going! You have to have a hard shell, lots of drive, and you can’t let the suckers get you down!

Topics I like to talk about: The difference being showing and telling. Making your settings/locations come alive. Series vs standalones.

~~~

 

Debbie Burke:

For writing groups—how to edit your own writing, how to survive rejections and keep writing, traditional publication vs. self-publication, tapping the subconscious for stories, confessions of a pantser.

For book clubs—A peek inside the warped mind of a writer. Behind the scenes anecdotes. How does a nice girl like me write such nasty villains? What does an author do when characters won’t behave?

~~~

How do you set up a virtual meeting with a TKZ author? It’s easy!

At the top of the screen on the left side of the menu banner, click on “Request a TKZ Speaker.” Fill out the form and hit submit. We’ll be in touch.

 We look forward to “seeing” you for a virtual chat!

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Tens(e)ion in a Novel

So I’ve been thinking (well, wondering…) a lot about the growing popularity in the use of present tense in novels – probably because we recently had this issue come up in a first page critique, but also because two members of my writing group are also using it in their historical novels (quite successfully I might add) – which has led to some puzzlement on my part. While there are certainly some benefits to using the present tense (see below), it isn’t something that flows naturally for many writers so I’ve been ruminating over its recent appeal.

On the plus side, present tense provides an immediacy to a scene that can ramp up dramatic tension. In many YA novels, it can also provide a deeper connection to the main character. Suzanne Colins did an amazing job of using the present tense to immerse readers in the world of Panem and Katniss Everdeen. However, it certainly can feel like an artifice in many other books – one that strains the flow and forces a writer to employ some pretty awkward sentences. In my writing group, I have questioned the use of present tense in some of my fellow writers’ work, not because it hasn’t been effective in the scenes I’ve reviewed, but because it seems like a difficult tense to sustain for a whole novel. In my own work, I’ve really only used the present tense for interior thoughts or flashbacks (maybe because I’m not skilled enough to use it full time!).  When used judiciously, the present tense can help signal to the reader a transition in terms of time or narrative focus and it can certainly be used to create compellingly tense scenes. As with anything with writing, when the present tense is employed well a book can soar. That being said, the apparent popularity of writing in the present tense does seem a little…weird…So I thought I’d reach out to you, our fabulous TKZ community to provide insight and input.

So what do you all think/feel in general about novels written in the present tense? As writers, have you considered using it and if so, why? What benefits do you see to writing in the present tense? Does it feel natural to you for a whole novel?

Please note, I’m asking these questions, not by way of judgement, but out of general curiosity since I’ve recently seen many novels employing the present tense that I would have typically expected to be written in the past tense. A well written novel succeeds irrespective of the tense (or any other literary device) used – but it is intriguing to me that so many more writers seem to be choosing it as an option!

What say you all, TKZers?

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In Praise of Experts

Photo credit: Luke Jones, Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

In fiction, you often walk into different worlds. Perhaps you speak a few words of the language but you’re not fluent. You have a general idea of the architecture and geographic layout. But there are secret passageways in which you can become lost and unseen chasms into which you can tumble.

But you’re committed. You must go forward on your story quest. So, you seek out natives from those worlds to guide you. 

Today, I’d like to introduce you to several insiders who shepherded me through unfamiliar terrain in my new thriller, Flight to Forever, which launches today. 

The story takes place in the rugged mountains of the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. I’ve hiked and explored the area but am far from a hardcore outdoorswoman. I needed to call upon experts in various fields to fill in the gritty details.

Here’s an overview of Flight to Forever:

Main characters: investigator Tawny Lindholm and her husband, criminal defense attorney Tillman Rosenbaum.

Inciting incident: When the pandemic prevents a Vietnam veteran from seeing his wife of 50 years in a memory care lock-down, he busts her out. Because an off-duty cop is injured during their escape, law enforcement is hellbent on capturing the aging fugitives.

The couple flees into the mountains where they’ve gone camping for years. Their daughter begs Tawny and Tillman to help her parents. The determined veteran won’t go down without a fight, increasing the urgency for Tawny to find them before the cops do.

Setting: The fugitives choose an abandoned fire tower as their hideout.

In bygone days, fire spotters spent summers in isolation living on mountain summits in small wooden cottages built on high stilts.

When lightning sparked forest fires, the spotters used a mechanical device called a fire finder to pin down the exact map coordinates. Then they called in the report and crews were dispatched to fight the fires.

Satellites and advanced technology have now rendered the towers obsolete. A handful are preserved and have been renovated into vacation rentals. For $50/night, adventurous campers pack in supplies and stay in a lookout with staggering views from on top of the planet. Most lookouts have fallen into disrepair or been destroyed by fire.

One of those abandoned towers becomes the hideout for my fugitives.

My guide into that remote world is retired Forest Service employee Kjell Petersen, a former fire spotter.  He now volunteers to maintain the few surviving lookouts. Kjell is also a gifted photographer who’s snapped thousands of gorgeous mountain shots with wild critters and wild weather, taken during his career. He not only told me fascinating stories, he graciously offered a selection of his photos for the cover.

For hours, Kjell shared anecdotes full of details only a true insider knows. As he described being in a tower when it was struck by lightning, the hair on my arms stood up.

Kjell Petersen and friends

After the first draft of Flight to Forever was finished, Kjell reviewed it and fixed my goofs. At one point, I wrote that avalanches had destroyed many old lookouts. With a kind smile, Kjell gently corrected me. “Lookouts are built on top of mountains. There’s nothing above them. Avalanches happen below them.”

Well, duh.

Thanks for the save, Kjell!

Sue Purvis in Central Park

To research the setting, I could have slogged through grizzly territory in mud up to my artificial titanium knees.

While authenticity is important, with age comes wisdom. I know my limitations. 

Instead, I tapped another expert, Susan Purvis. She’s a geologist, search dog handler, and former search-and-rescue volunteer with more than her share of risky escapades. She also wrote the bestselling memoir, Go Find.

Sue gave me a quickie course about sedimentary limestone and sandstone cliffs. Harsh weather shears the rock off in massive slabs that crash down mountain sides. When rock crumbles into loose, unstable rubble, it’s called talus or scree, which is treacherous to hike or drive on–turning Tawny’s search into a white-knuckle adventure.

In conversation, Sue happened to mention she’d once slid her truck off an icy bridge and wound up hanging over the edge.

That anecdote was too good to pass up. I appropriated Sue’s harrowing experience to inflict on poor Tawny.

Legal eagle Phyllis Quatman

Since the male lead, Tillman, is an attorney, legal conundrums happen often. For that, I consult attorney Phyllis Quatman, who writes suspense under the name P.A. Moore.

Sometimes dodgy actions are necessary to move the plot forward even when they push my characters into gray areas of what’s legal vs. what’s moral.

Phyllis is an author as well as a lawyer. She understands the need to achieve story goals while also keeping the heroes out of serious legal trouble.

If I’m ever arrested, I know who to call.

Dr. Betty Kuffel

 

The unlucky folks in my thrillers get hurt a lot—drugged, beat up, knifed, shot, etc. Retired ER doctor Betty Kuffel has seen every injury known to humans. She is an encyclopedia of mayhem and murder methods. She also writes medical thrillers.

Paging Dr. Betty.

A subplot involves Tillman and his teenage son. While Tawny is busy tracking the fugitives up a mountain, Tillman must travel to the other side of the state when his boy is injured in an accident.

Betty upped the story stakes by suggesting complications that turned the son’s broken leg into a life-threatening crisis. She also infused realism with her insider knowledge of pandemic restrictions that keep frantic Tillman away from the bedside of his critically-ill son.

Sue, Phyllis, and Betty are my longtime critique partners and cherished friends. So it’s expected that we help each other.

But I’m constantly amazed at the willingness of complete strangers to assist a curious writer.

When I contact experts and introduce myself as an author doing research, they are almost always generous and helpful.

They’re eager to talk to an interested listener about their specialties. Plus, they like to be part of the creative process of writing a book.

As long as a writer is polite, respectful, and mindful of the expert’s time constraints, most pros are happy to go the extra mile to assist you.

A small gesture of appreciation is a customary courtesy. The people who help me are listed on the acknowledgement page and I always give them an inscribed copy of the book.

Today, I raise my coffee mug in a toast to the experts who helped with Flight to Forever: Kjell, Sue, Phyllis, and Betty.

~~~

TKZers: Have you consulted experts in your research?

What sort of assistance did they provide?

~~~

 

 

Today is launch day for Flight to Forever. 

Now that you know what happened behind the scenes, I invite you to check the book out at this link. 

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1st First Page Critique for 2021!

Despite 2021 starting off like a bad sequel to a disaster movie, I’m trying to get back on track with all my writing goals and I hope you are too (in between just a few news distractions!) Today is my 1st first page critique of the year, and this one, despite having no title, is described as romantic suspense.  My comments follow  – see you on the flip side.

First Page Submission

What do the bitches have planned for me today?”

Gasping, she looked around. Had she really said that out loud? The thought that ruled her life and had done so since she’d arrived on campus in August. What hell were her roommates going to subject her to this time? God damn it. How the hell did the trio manage to mess with her when they weren’t even around?

Sighing when it appeared no one was paying her any undue attention, she resumed trudging towards her dorm, absently wiping a tear from her eye. Having stayed away from the room as long as she could, there wasn’t anywhere else to go. The library and student union had closed so it was the room or her car. And sadly, if she wanted to try to sleep in her car, she’d need a blanket from the room anyway. To make things worse, the football team had won that day, so they’d be drinking and probably pretty wound up.

The key bounced all around the keyhole, her hand seemingly trying to protect her from the evil on the other side. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to relax so finally, on the tenth try, the key slid in and it was time. Bracing herself, she crept into the room. Madison and Morgan spun away from her desk, their faces turning red. Morgan hustled to the other side of the room, but Madison just stood and stared.

She walked to her bed and dropped her backpack, “Need something, Madison?”

“Your damn ass out of here.”

Right on cue, it was starting again. She tried to pretend she didn’t hear it, silently repeating to herself, don’t let them win, don’t let them see any weakness. Sitting on the bed, she pulled a fresh spiral notebook out of her backpack and grabbed a pen. All she wanted to do was ignore them and hope they might leave her alone, for once. She flipped to the first page, eager to document her initial thoughts for the latest English Lit project. It was her favorite class and the professor was the reason she was here. He was a friend of her junior college English teacher and had gotten her a scholarship. Today, he’d given her a special assignment, challenging her to dig deeper into herself after she’d confided that she had thoughts of writing for a living. ‘The ones who set themselves apart share a small part of themselves in each work’, he’d said, ‘Could she be a great one?’ Excited by the challenge, she started jotting notes. Ten seconds later, the notebook was ripped out of her hands.

Overall Comment
This page certainly has an attention getting first line, but after that I have to admit I was a little uncertain about the tone of the story, the voice of the protagonist, and whether this was the beginning of a younger adult novel dealing with bullying or (as it had been described) more of a romantic suspense novel. The tone of this first page definitely seems more suited to YA and I didn’t really get a suspense vibe…So my first major comment to our brave submitter, is what tone do you want to set for this novel? The first line “What do the bitches have planned for me today?” presents a very aggressive, in your face POV, which definitely drew me in, but after that the protagonist becomes much more passive and weak, and her actions seem to contradict an initial strong beginning. Likewise the descriptions and actions used in this first page are all over the place, presenting mixed signals about the protagonist’s character as well as the tone of the book. The final paragraph for example, seems very odd – after steeling herself for what her roommates will do to her, and fearing for the ‘evil’ they will unleash, the protagonist suddenly sits down and starts musing about her English Lit assignment…
Specific Comments
Given my overall comments focus on POV, character voice and tone, I thought the easiest way to illustrate these concerns was to go through this first page and embed my specific comments throughout. Here goes:

What do the bitches have planned for me today?” I love this attention getting first line. Wasn’t sure if intended to have as actual speech, if so need two quotation marks. Remember grammar and punctuation need to be perfect.

Gasping, she looked around. Now I’m deflated. Perhaps, the internal monologue should continue to give the protagonist a stronger voice Had she really said that out loud? The thought that ruled her life and had done so since she’d arrived on campus in August. What hell were her roommates going to subject her to this time? God damn it. How the hell did the trio manage to mess with her when they weren’t even around? Maybe move these questions up earlier so we continue to hear the protagonist’s inner monologue. Remember voice is critical to a first page so you want it ringing out loud and clear.

Sighing This seems passive, given the aggressive first line. when it appeared no one was paying her any undue attention does she secretly want attention?, she resumed trudging towards her dorm, absently why would it be absently if she’s so upset. Does she want people to see her pain and help? wiping a tear from her eye. Having stayed away from the room as long as she could, there wasn’t anywhere else to go. Explain why The library and student union had closed so it was the room or her car. And sadly, if she wanted to try to sleep in her car, she’d need a blanket from the room anyway. If she’s that afraid, why not go to a hotel? The reader needs to get a sense of why she had no one to turn to – especially as college campuses usually have counselors/RAs etc. To make things worse, the football team had won that day, so they’d be drinking and probably pretty wound up. In this paragraph the protagonist’s voice sounds far different to what we read in the first paragraph – much weaker, more passive and using different language..she says bitches and then only uses ‘wound up’?? It’s confusing for the reader and weakens the dramatic tension.

The key bounced all around the keyhole, her hand seemingly trying to protect her from the evil on the other side Very passive descriptionTaking a deep breath, she forced herself to relax so finally, on the tenth try, the key slid in and it was time. Bracing herself, she crept into the room. Again crept is a very weak description given how aggressive she sounded at the beginning of the page Madison and Morgan spun away from her desk, their faces turning red. Morgan hustled to the other side of the room, but Madison just stood and stared. So they’ve been looking through things on her desk – shouldn’t she have more reaction to this?

She protagonist should have a name as it’s unclear who this ‘she’ is walked to her bed and dropped her backpack, “Need something, Madison?”

“Your damn ass out of here.” Without more background their bullying starts to border on caricature – their actions need to feel very specific and real if we are to sympathize with the protagonist

Right on cue, it was starting again. She tried to pretend she didn’t hear it, silently repeating to herself, don’t let them win, don’t let them see any weakness. Why doesn’t she just grab the blanket and leave like she intimated in previous paragraph? Sitting on the bed, she pulled a fresh spiral notebook out of her backpack and grabbed a pen. Why do this? She’s been so afraid and upset, yet she calmly sits on the bed and pulls out the notebook?All she wanted to do was ignore them and hope they might leave her alone, for once. This seems inconsistent, given how much bullying we’ve been led to believe has happened She flipped to the first page, eager this verb seems oddly out of place given how fearful of their bullying she’s been to document her initial thoughts for the latest English Lit project. It was her favorite class and the professor was the reason she was here. These seem unnecessary details which drain the scene of dramatic tension He was a friend of her junior college English teacher and had gotten her a scholarship. Again, why is this detail here?Today, he’d given her a special assignment, challenging her to dig deeper into herself after she’d confided that she had thoughts of writing for a living. Suddenly, despite the threat from Madison and Morgan, she’s just thinking about an English Lit assignment?‘ The ones who set themselves apart share a small part of themselves in each work’, he’d said, ‘Could she be a great one?’ Excited by the challenge, she started jotting notes. Tone inconsistency – she was afraid of their evil a few minutes ago and now she’s excitedly jotting notes?Ten seconds later, the notebook was ripped out of her hands.

I hope these specific comments help highlight the issues I have with this first page. That being said, I think this brave submitter has the basis for a strong first page if the protagonist’s voice can really shine through and if the set up for the story is clearer, more consistent, and the bullying comes through as very real and dangerous.

So TKZers what constructive feedback do you have for our brave submitter?

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