Daniel Hadley is Down in Somerville

This submission for critique has no title, but I think it shows promise. The central character has appeal. Catch my comments on the flip side.

Excerpt
“Daniel’s in stable condition, but he’s been shot.”

I lay in bed, propped up on one elbow, the cell phone digging into my ear. I didn’t even remember it ringing. Had I passed out drunk while talking to someone? But every light in my bedroom was off, save for the pale green LCD of the alarm clock: 1:45 AM. Then the part of my brain that makes sense of words – the part that I normally can’t shut up when I’m trying to go to sleep – kicked in. “Shit,” I said, sitting upright.

“He’s stable, like I said. They’re monitoring him at Mass General.”

“Right,” I answered. “How long?” But the phone went dead.

“Fuck,” I repeated. Then I hung up and got out of bed. I padded across to the closet to pull some jeans off a hanger and yesterday’s bra out of the hamper. A tanktop and a ratty Redskins sweatshirt completed the ensemble. Ninety seconds after getting off the phone I was out the door.

Somerville’s a dense town, so I had to walk a block to where I’d parked my car. The autumn air sobered me up enough to realize I didn’t have a plan just yet. There was one detail I could check, of course. Fishing my phone back out of my pocket, I called Daniel. “Hey, this is Daniel Hadley. I’m either on the phone or -” Damn it. Is there anything longer than a voice mail greeting when you’re trying to reach someone live?

“Daniel, hey, it’s Mara,” I began. “It’s 1:50 A.M. on, uh, Tuesday. Listen, I just got this really strange call that said you were … um. Please call me as soon as you get this, if you’re okay. If you’re not, well …”

I cut myself off there, shutting the phone and fumbling for my keys. I hadn’t fully processed the news yet (Daniel had been shot; holy hell; fatigue and shock kept shoving that detail to the back of my mind, like a rookie hockey player hitting the boards).

Comment Summary on “No-title” Story:

Generally I like the voice of this woman character. She comes across as a no nonsense person who could sustain a reader’s interest with the uniqueness of her character’s attitude and her low key fashion sense. And her attachment to alcohol could prove to be interesting as baggage. But rather than starting out with the dialogue line (as I explain my objection below), I might start out with how this woman feels getting the shock of the cell phone ringing her out of her drunken stupor. No one likes getting calls in the middle of the night. It’s a relatable moment most readers will understand. These calls are NEVER good news. And establishing this character from that moment might also help in creating her “voice” and her attitude more fully from the get go.

This is a personal preference, but I wouldn’t begin a novel with a dialogue line because it feels too much like the start of any other scene. An intro dialogue line into a scene can be effective and I’ve done it, just not for the start of a book. And whoever is speaking needs to be identified in some fashion, even if it’s just someone generic, like “dispatch.” Try to ID the person as soon as you can after the dialogue.

And speaking of identification, when you write in first person, you need to ID the speaker’s gender in some way as soon as you can. The reader will get an idea in their head—like I did that the narrator is a man—who is a cross dresser, when he reaches for yesterday’s bra from the hamper. I’ve done this before too. (The name of my character was a gender neutral name and was supposed to be a teen girl. But when my beta reader read the passage, she thought it was a teen boy who was checking out another guy’s wranglers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it wasn’t my intention.) Once you write a first person POV story, you notice things to watch for. And gender at the start of a book is one of them.

I’m writing a YA book now where I have two teens speaking in first person. I identify them by using their names at the top of each scene and try to have one character per chapter where possible. It makes sense for this book and I like writing challenges.

I also wasn’t sure I understood Mara’s question – “How long?” Is this her entire question? If this was intended to be a question cut short, then add punctuation like a dash to indicate this. “How long—?” or “How long…?”

And if the line goes dead, it takes a while before anyone to notice, but in this scene, the character knows immediately. If the line goes dead, make it more realistic by her rambling until she hears dial tone and gets frustrated.

Also, if you have only one character in the scene, I would try to minimize the use of tag lines identifying her. You should ID the person on the phone, but after that, there isn’t a need to clutter the scene with unnecessary tag lines like ‘I answered, I repeated, I began.’ There are four tag lines in a short segment of a scene with only one character in it after the phone goes dead.

And finally the last paragraph. The punctuation seemed odd to me and pulled me from the story. I’ve never liked the use of semi-colons. Break apart the sentence into fragments if you have to, but resist the semi-colon, especially when the character has the informal attitude this one has. (What do the rest of you think about semi-colons—readers and authors? Copy editors try to put them in and I take them out, making other changes that are more my preference.) See James Scott Bell’s post on semi-colons HERE.

I also rarely use parenthesis, except in my YA books where it can be fun to use sparingly. I prefer em-dashes for emphasis, as shown below.

And the use of the metaphor on hockey—“…fatigue and shock kept shoving that detail to the back of my mind, like a rookie hockey player hitting the boards”—didn’t seem to fit when she was referring to such a serious event as someone getting shot. It makes her sound flip about something that should be more important to her. Also, she’s a Redskins fan AND a hockey fan? I’m sure this is possible, but in one short scene, it seems excessive. You may get more mileage if you made her a super fan of one sport when it comes to her metaphors, rather than spreading her enthusiasm over many.

Even though this scene could be written better, it shows promise with a compelling character voice. I would also consider starting the novel with something else that happens prior to this scene—like maybe Daniel’s shooting. If this is crime fiction, I like to start with a crime. And I’ve also found that you can always go back to write that action scene after you’ve started the book to get a feel for the story and its characters. It might help to know Daniel before you shoot him, for example. (Wow, that sounded awful.)

Any other helpful comments for this author?

First-page critique: THE LATERAL LINE

By Joe Moore

As we continue with our annual springtime first-page critiques, here’s an anonymous submission called THE LATERAL LINE. My comments follow.

Gabriel knew this day would come. It had taken fourteen years and more warnings than he thought necessary but fate had caught up to them. The danger he saw years ago had come to meet them head on. The alarms sounded shrilly over head and the sprinkler system made it rain indoors. An eerie red glow from the emergency generators made navigating tricky, but Gabriel knew where he was going. All he had to do was follow the trail of bodies.

His feet slapped the puddles on the floor as he ran, his breath come in gulps. He had one chance to finish this, to do what should have been done years ago. Fear made his hands shake but he knew he couldn’t fail this time. A side hallway brought him out ahead of the boys he followed and as he rounded the corner he saw he judged correctly. Gabriel stood at one end of the long hallway and watched as his sons walked toward him.

They were silhouetted against the flashing emergency lights and dripped with water, but they walked confidently forward obviously not concerned that their father waited. Half-way up the hallway, they stopped. It was close enough for Gabriel to see the cocky grin on Cross’s face. That only served to convince Gabriel this needed to be done. He brought the gun up and leveled it with Cross’s head. His brother stepped forward, concern etched into his features.

“Just let us walk out of here, Dad. No one else has to get hurt,” Kale said. Cross just glared and kept quiet. Gabriel never took his eyes off the boy.

“I can’t let that happen, Kale. You know that.” Gabriel’s head buzzed with the intrusion he felt from Kale. The psychic push he understood his son was capable of. Gabriel knew if he wavered now, he would end up like the men and women he passed in the hallway. He was the only thing that stood between a terrible mistake and a messy death.

“This ends now,” Gabriel said and pulled the trigger.

I think this is a terrific first draft. It has all the right stuff: conflict, tension, suspense, action, mystery, and more. There’s no doubt that something really bad happened here as Gabriel navigates a “trail of bodies”. And the fact that a father is faced with possibly having to kill his sons is about as tragic as it gets. I assume the two boys are responsible for the multiple deaths, and judging from Gabriel’s determination to stop them, this is not the first time they have killed.

I get the feeling from the statement “The psychic push he understood his son was capable of”, that we’re dealing with the supernatural or horror genre. Just need to get rid of the dangling preposition.

Thankfully, there’s no backstory or flashbacks to slow us down. The author tosses us right into the “middle of things”. Within a few paragraphs, he/she has cut to the chase and we’re whisked along for the ride. There’s a strong sense of place and a threat of immediate danger.

I think the only thing needed is a surgical pass through this sample with a sharp editor’s knife. Despite a need to tighten and clean up, this submission shows great promise and I would definitely read on.

How about you? Would you keep turning the pages to find out what happened?

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THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8. Preorder now at Amazon or B&N.

DEAD GIRL Visits TKZ (It could happen…)

DEAD GIRL – Chapter 1

The Shadow Lands

Dahlia felt rough cotton beneath her fingertips. She clenched her fist, wadding the sheet in her hand. Took a deep breath of cold air and caught the scent of ammonia.
And the smell of something else. Something thick and coppery.


Dahlia opened her eyes and stared up at a gray rectangle of pebbled plastic–a fluorescent ceiling panel. Unlit. She brushed her hair out of her eyes. Her face felt greasy.

She sat up, but a wave of dizziness hit her. She put out her hands to steady herself and felt a tug. A clear tube was taped to one wrist.
Dahlia heard a low smacking sound. Smelled salt and copper. She looked up. A wide metal door stood shut on her right. To the left, a gauzy curtain hung from a track on the ceiling. Beyond the fabric, gray light seeped through a window on the far wall.
Something moved on the other side of the curtain, but it wasn’t close enough to make a silhouette.
Dahlia shifted and a fat cockroach ran from under the blanket. She jerked. The bed creaked.
The smacking sound paused. Dahlia held her breath. The sound resumed, wet and crunchy, like someone eating celery.
Dahlia swung her legs off the bed. The cold tile floor shocked her bare feet. Still sitting, she grabbed a handful of curtain and yanked.
Eight feet away a thin, bald man lay in a bed identical to hers. A hunchbacked monster the color of pus straddled the old man, its head buried in his open stomach. Pink-tipped ribs and quivering organs lay revealed. Blood dripped from the bed frame to the floor.
Dahlia tried to scream but only hissed.
The old man’s head turned. His eyes found Dahlia’s. His lips moved. “Help me.”
The monster drew its bloody head out of the man’s ribcage. Its head rotated on a boney, elongated neck. Small, hard eyes glared at her. A ribbon of intestines hung from its teeth. The monster’s mouth widened in a red smile.
This time Dahlia screamed.
* * *

In the next scene, I’m really expecting Woody Harrelson to burst through the door with his shotgun blasting, Zombieland revisited. And before you ask – YES, I did see the movie. Bill Murray was the best part.

What I liked from this excerpt:
The author does a fine job of using all the reader’s senses and “shows” some of Dahlia’s feelings through her actions and reactions, rather than “telling” the reader. And by keeping the sentences relatively short, the focus is on the suspenseful build up. Also, the metaphoric description of celery really grossed me out, but it also described the scene in a way that brought it home for me, without more graphic wording.

Areas for possible improvement:
This is a great framework to start, but in my opinion and my personal reading taste, I would like to see more “meat on the bones,” pun intended. I want to know what is really in her head as the scene unfolds. The author does a fine job of describing the setting, almost like doing an inventory, but until Dahlia is really made human for the reader by giving her an opinion and “voice,” the reader doesn’t feel as connected as they could be to her plight. More of her needs to be layered into this scene to make her more human. And here are a few ways to do that.

Questions for Dahlia – Rather than me saying what I would do, I like to ask questions for the author to answer for Dahlia if they choose. And by infusing these answers into the story, you can see how this might add the layering of other emotions or senses into this section of the book. This is not an invitation for backstory. Stick with the action of the scene, but choose your words carefully and frugally to keep the pacing.

(As an exercise, it might be helpful for the author to switch this scene into first person point of view for Dahlia, just to get into her head more. I’m not suggesting this story should be in first person, but rewriting a short scene into 1st person POV is a good way to look at one scene in a different way.)
• What makes Dahlia wake up? Does she wonder that? Do buzzing flies awaken her? Does a steady dripping (of blood coming from behind the curtain) awaken her? What does she think of the reason that forces her to open her eyes?
• Does she struggle with the memory of what she was doing before this? Does she remember being taken or attacked? Who is Dahlia? And besides the big bad flesh eating monster about to have seconds, why should the reader care about her? Is she a continuing character or just a second helping? (She may be the DEAD GIRL or a secondary character, but either way, this scene could be enhanced if the reader knows more about her, even if it’s a quick glimpse.)
• Once she gets her first look around, does she wonder where she is? It’s human nature to react to what she sees. Given her past experiences, what is she thinking as she sees where she is?
• Is she completely alert when she first opens her eyes or is she fuzzy? When she stands, is she nauseous? Does she wonder why?
• Does she wonder what is going into her veins? Did she wake up because the drugs used to sedate her had run out?
• Does Dahlia like cockroaches? Does she want to cuss? (By giving more of a reaction that readers can relate to, this humanizes her.)
• Before she sees the monster, she’s scared about what is behind the curtain or door number 2. Does she look for a weapon…or even pull out the tube attached to her wrist? How would she defend herself?
• I would imagine someone being eviscerated would really stink. Does Dahlia want to gag or puke? How does she see the scene, given she’s in shock? Does she see it in one narration with lots of details, or does she see it in horrific snapshots, one more grotesque than the last?

I once wrote a scene where the reader was in the head of a guy getting his throat cut. He was an assassin and deserved his fate, but he was hunted in the dark by men more cruel. At the beginning of that scene, I had him thinking one more job would allow him to retire to a beach. He was smelling coconut oil as he entered the warehouse to meet a new client, when he should have been more guarded. He wasn’t used to being prey. But instead of graphically describing the scene as if I was a third party looking on, I wondered if he would go into shock like a rabbit does in the jaws of a wolf. So after his throat was cut, his mind drifted to the beach. And as he drowned in his own blood, he was under the waves trying to swim for the surface and just misses it. I chose that way to describe it so the reader was spared the graphic violence and I also tied in the assassin’s ego being his downfall.

In a similar manner, Dahlia could sense or hear something that the author continues to the end reveal, tying the scene together a little more too. The reader needs to see this scene from inside Dahlia’s head. And wrapped in her brain are all her life’s experiences that her opinions filter through. The reader needs to get a glimpse of this in order for her to be more real for them. As the scene is written, she is only a prop to the monster. Nothing is really known about her.

Overuse of name – Dahlia’s name is overused, in my opinion. It makes the writing sound stilted and formal. She is the only woman in the scene. The name of Dahlia is stated NINE times in this short intro, when “she” would suffice for most of them. Consider using her name at the beginning and end of this scene, with “she” used in between. And why not use her full name at the beginning? Does she have a last name? Even a throw away character can benefit from a last name. That can humanize her for the reader.

Words that Threw Me Out – Also, the door “stood shut” and “quivering organs lay revealed” took me out of the story. A door is shut or closed, but we assume it is standing and is not on the floor. And the “lay revealed” is too stilted and formal and passive, compared to the other vivid descriptions. I’m not sure the old guy who is serving as an appetizer would be awake and asking for help the way he is, with his ribs cracked open like a smorgasbord, but I’d still like to see what Dahlia thinks of what she sees.

Conclusion – In order for an author to completely get into the head of a character, even a secondary one or a victim, the writing should be layered with the inner emotions, life experiences, and opinions of that character. This is their motivation. Editors often use the term TSTL, which means a character is “too stupid to live” like the babysitter who answers the door in the middle of the night in a slasher flick. Even if Dahlia is a victim, she needs some history to make the reader care more about her and she needs enough smarts to do everything she can to defend herself. By adding the right depth to this scene, the reader will care whether she gets away, and be less grossed out by the graphic violence. Editors will be looking for this. Writing is about stirring all the emotions, not just fear.

First Page Critique: DISSONANT CHORDS

By Joe Moore

Looks like I’m first up with our first-page critiquing fun. Before I take on today’s submission, I wanted to pass on some good news for e-book publishing and local bookstores. A recent Authors Guild bulletin stated that Random House, the largest trade book publisher in the U.S., announced last week that it is adopting the agency model for selling e-books. For readers and authors concerned about a diverse literary marketplace, this is welcome news, a chance for online bookselling to avoid the winner-take-all trap. Random House’s move gives brick-and-mortar bookstores, many of which are now selling e-books but cannot afford to lose money on those sales, a fighting chance in the new print + digital landscape. To read the entire bulletin, click here.

And now for today’s first page.

Dissonant Chords

Professor Bridget Sutton heard the screams.

Light seeped in beneath the door, a faint glow visible in fragments between the huddled bodies around her. Parts of her bare legs were numb where the marble floor wicked away her body heat. Her open toed shoes offered no protection from the unheated air, as pins formed in her feet. She needed a bathroom. She wanted to stretch. She would shift her weight, remove the shelf knifing her back, but the trembling girl latched around her neck prevented her from moving.

The girl gasped for air, breaking the silence.

“Shh, shh, shhhhh,” she pressed her lips into sweaty hair, taking in the smell of unwashed scalp. Hot breathe buffeted her chest. When the trembling intensified, and it seemed the girl was going to jump out of her skin and run through the door, she pressed her cheek against the girls head and held her tight, overpowering the kicking and clawing. When it was over, the girl put her head back under Bridget’s chin, and her body went limp. Bridget worried that others would panic from the darkness, lose it from being restricted, feeling like easy targets and attempt freedom, and try their luck on the run. Afraid to speak, to betray their location, she kept her reassurances to herself, running down a mental list of why they were safer locked behind a door in a storage closet down a side hall at the back of the admissions office. The fact that only one guard was on duty, unarmed, left her discouraged.

Sand scraped her skin, adding to the discomfort she felt everywhere else. Even in the dark, she was aware that her skirt was off center, riding higher that was comfortable. Pulled to one side and unbuttoned by the outburst, her blouse stuck to her skin, the silk soaked through by the girls steady leaking. She adjusted nothing, even as her bladder succumbed to the pressure, her pain threshold breached, nothing any amount of kegels could have prepared her for. The relief was temporary. The disgust lingered.

One of the things we preach here at TKZ is the importance of conflict—drop us into the conflict right off the bat, whether it’s physical or mental, or both, and make us keep turning the pages to find out how it resolves. This sample contains plenty of conflict. A woman is hiding inside a dark storage room with what I think is a group of kids. There is obvious danger on the other side of the door and little protection from that danger. The discomfort for the woman and the kids is extreme. The child she is holding in her arms is either reacting violently to the danger or experiences some sort of seizure. There seems to be nothing good going on here, and the situation calls for the woman to give in to her lack of access to a bathroom. The last two sentences sum up the situation well.

Overall, I found the sample intriguing but a bit over-written. Since I don’t know what type of danger the woman and the others face, maybe it’s appropriate. But there is a great deal of mixed visuals coming at me here, some of which are strong on their own but as a whole, seem to work against each other. But again, I don’t know the whole picture.

For instance, I get the impression that she is in the storeroom with children and yet we are in an admissions office with a professor. So are these college students or kids?

The woman smells sweaty hair and an unwashed scalp. I think that should be the other way around—hair doesn’t sweat, scalps do. Most people wash their hair, not their scalps. Does that mean that the girl is dirty and unkempt? That’s another reason I’m picturing children, not college students.

I’m not sure what “as pins formed in her feet” means.

Why is sand scraping her skin? Is there sand scattered across the cold marble floor?

The woman’s blouse became unbuttoned by the outburst. Could that be said better, such as the blouse was yanked open rather than the slower, more calculated action of unbuttoning?

Word choice is vital.

I’m sure that all my questions would be addressed if I had the opportunity to read the next few pages. And I’d definitely keep reading if I had the chance. All the elements of tension, suspense, conflict, danger and mystery are present. I think this first page reads like a first draft with great potential but in need of a rewrite. I don’t think it’s ready to be submitted to an agent or editor yet, but it’s a good start. What do you think? Would you keep reading?

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THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8, 2011.
(The Phoenix Apostles has) “so many twists and turns that you won’t have time to catch your breath!" — Tess Gerritsen, New York Times bestselling author of ICE COLD

Taking it on the Chin

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Today I return to our first page critiques and tackle an issue that is always a thorny one for writers – how to deal with feedback (or as it is all too often, criticism in disguise!) In my writing group I have witnessed at least one member halt writing her memoir completely – she was simply so overwhelmed by all the conflicting comments and feedback she had received that she couldn’t progress any further with the book. While this may be an extreme example, there’s no doubt that taking in feedback can be a daunting task – and taking criticism can be even harder.

By now I cope with criticism pretty well – my agent and editors have dished it out often enough and almost always their feedback has been spot on. In those instances I am merely thankful for their feedback and the opportunity to fix the manuscript! I do, however, worry about giving negative feedback to a new writer. All too often the issue is one of stylistic taste – and a new writer can so easily be put-off or overwhelmed by the range of comments received. One person loves the prologue – the next person hates it. One person loves the complex imagery – another finds it bogs down the book. The list of issues can be endless. So how is a new writer to respond to criticism? You hear of many established writers disagreeing with their editor or their agent over a manuscript – sometimes even parting the ways over it all…I have never faced that (as yet) thankfully, but still when I read our first page critiques, I am aware of the over-arching issue.

So how should a writer ‘take it on the chin’?? How do you respond to criticism? How do you deal with conflicting feedback (I always think it’s pretty easy when there are consistent issues coming up – then I know I need to address them – but what if no one agrees on what is right or wrong about your piece?!)

Anyway I’d be interested in finding out how people cope with feedback…and now it’s on with today’s first page critique. It’s a piece entitled DOUBT. My comments follow as bullet points.

DOUBT

“We had a deal,” Tom said as he turned his attention back to the blonde across the table. Without waiting for an answer, he lifted the cold bottle of Heineken to his lips. The bitter liquid flowed down his throat, but couldn’t wash away the distaste of doing business with Alessandra LaFave.
Alessandra tapped her long red fingernails, one by one, on the table as she silently stared at him.

Clack…clack…clack.
The impact of acrylic against Formica echoed like deliberate shots of distant gunfire. She took a long drag off the slim cigarette, tilted her head back and blew gray smoke toward the yellow stained ceiling.
“Deals are made to be broken. Aren’t they?” she asked.
“What are you talking about?” He could see the gears turning behind those icy blues. It was now a waiting game. Tom glanced out of the large glass window behind her as he waited for her reply.
The small Italian seaport was busy. Fishing trawlers docked alongside freighters from around the world in Gaeta Harbor. From where he sat, Tom could just make out the NATO base in the distance.
It was getting late and hurried workers anxious to get home for dinner yelled to each other as they offloaded boxes and fish. The salty air merged with the acrid taste of burning tobacco as diners left the small cafe with their arms full of boxes stuffed with a local specialty, Tiella, a combination of a pizza and calzone.
Tom’s dinner sat untouched on his plate.
His gaze went back to Alessandra still sitting silent in front of him. Her black pantsuit cinched at the waist, curving tight around her ample hips as she moved in her chair. A very pampered Yorkshire terrier puppy snored on her lap, its nose tucked under its tiny paws.
Yes, Alessandra portrayed the softness of a woman. But he knew better. Charming one minute; chilly the next. After having done numerous transactions with her over a number of years, he was immune to her machinations.
In return, she no longer bothered with him. It was strictly business.
“Well? Deal? No deal?” asked Tom. “I have a plane to catch.”
“In a hurry are we?” She lifted a fork and pushed the now cold chicken picatta around her plate. “This isn’t cooked properly. It’s such a shame when things don’t work out the way we hope. Isn’t it, Tom?”
“Quit whatever game you’re running. This was a done deal.” He jabbed his finger down on the table hard. “If you don’t want my future business just say so and we can part company now.”

  • There were a number of things I thought worked well in this first page – I liked the way the dialogue interspersed with the description and I thought there was a good balance between dialogue and backstory exposition – although the description of the Italian seaport seemed to lack specificity for me – the NATO base was a teaser but still I was left wanting a little bit more local colour (beyond the menu variety).
  • What I did feel was lacking was sufficient tension. We already know by the opening line that the ‘deal’ whatever it is, is in jeopardy but by the end of this first page the tension really hasn’t mounted all that much. We get a glimpse of Alessandra but while at first she appears cold and calculating the pampered pooch in her lap seems to detract from her initial ‘sang froid’. The threat at the end of the page ‘if you don’t want my future business…” doesn’t really seem the raise the stakes enough for me. I think perhaps the issue is one of repetition – I would perhaps just speed up the first page – delete some of the to-ing and fro-ing over the deal and cut to the chase: what’s going to happen if the deal goes south.
What do you all think?

First Page Critique

By Joe Moore

ITW_Award_black_72dpi Yesterday, the nominees for the 2010 ITW Thriller Awards were announced. Congratulations to our Kill Zone blogmate, John Gilstrap! His thriller NO MERCY was nominated for Best Paperback Original. This is a great honor and we all wish John the best of luck in taking home that award next July.

This past Sunday, Jim posted a blog about the importance of the opening pages of a manuscript submitted to an agent or editor. He pointed out some common pitfalls that new authors make, and which ultimately can result in rejection. Clare continued the theme on Monday by listing additional sins committed by first-time writers. And yesterday, Kathryn invited our visitors to submit the first page of their manuscript for a free critique. Unless otherwise requested, the authors will remain anonymous. So to start things off, here’s our first submission and my critique, page one of the manuscript THE CASSIOPEIA EFFECT

Marcus had never seen a dead body before. No, that’s misleading. He had seen a dead body—two of them in fact. That came with burying his wife and daughter eight years earlier. What he’d never seen before was a dead body lying in the streets. It was common enough in the part of the city he found himself living, where the homeless turned up dead from time to time, but up until a few moments ago, he’d been lucky.

It seemed his luck had changed. Whatever streak he’d been riding was coming to an end at an alarmingly fast rate. In the last twenty-four hours he’d lost a small fortune to his bookie, been given a notice of eviction from his apartment, and crashed his computer. Now there was a dead guy leaning against his car. It really didn’t surprise him, though.

For him, Good Luck came and went like a five dollar whore giving head while parked next to the curb. Bad luck, on the other hand, was like a bad love affair he couldn’t put an end to. No matter how many times it left, it always showed back up knocking at his door. All the other stuff had been Bad Luck knocking; finding the dead guy next to his car was it breaking down the door and rushing back into his life.

Marcus stepped off the curb and walked to his car and the waiting dead man. The filthy trench coat, ripped pants, and mismatched shoes left little doubt that the guy was one of the many homeless who wandered the streets. The amount of blood splattered across the car door made it pretty apparent the homeless guy was dead. But Marcus was still going to check. There was no way he was going to let a man die if there was still a chance to save him. He already had to live with too many things he wasn’t proud of and wasn’t about to add another.

Careful to avoid the blood pooled on the oil stained pavement, he knelt down next to the body, pulled back the collar of the coat with one hand, and with the other, checked for a pulse. Nothing. Whoever he had been, he was nothing but dead now. Marcus’ eyes played over the strange pattern of blood spray on the car door as he tried to decide what to do next.

There wouldn’t be any calls to 911 or the police. Moving him off the car and leaving him in front of his building for someone else to find wasn’t an option either. He didn’t need a dead guy connected to him in any way. What he could do, Marcus decided, was take him a few blocks where he’d be found and, hopefully, get the burial he deserved.

One of the main issues raised in Jim’s post on Sunday was what he called “Exposition Dump”. Unfortunately, that’s what we have in this example—the first 3 paragraphs contain a great deal of backstory with little “here and now”. This information should be saved and revealed later.

The best method for a reader to get to know a character is through their actions and reactions. Telling me about the bad luck Marcus has had does not engage me emotionally or spark my interest.

But all is not lost. In addition to cutting back on the “telling”, the writer might want to consider shifting the story into first person. Doing so could cause the reader to be pulled up close to the character and perhaps have a bit more feelings for Marcus. Here’s an example.

The first couple of sentences read:

Marcus had never seen a dead body before. No, that’s misleading. He had seen a dead body—two of them in fact. That came with burying his wife and daughter eight years earlier.

Now, here it is in first person:

I’d never seen a dead body before. No, that’s not true. Eight years ago, I had to bury my wife and daughter. But this was different.

Suddenly, the scene questions that pop into the readers mind—questions that were weak before—are now personal and tantalizing. The most intriguing: What happened to his wife and daughter? The straight exposition didn’t cause me to consider the questions in the same manner.

The second point I need to make is that if Marcos is the main character (and I have no idea if he is or not), I don’t like him very much. Why? He shows bad judgment. He’s into $5 whores, illegal gambling, and not willing to at least call the police—even anonymously—to report what he’s found. He quickly comes to the decision that for his own best interests, he should gather up the dead man and dump the body in another location. Granted, we don’t know why he would react this way, but having a number of negatives with little positive doesn’t make for a very likeable character. The reader needs to feel something for the character pretty much from the start. All I feel about Marcus is negative.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing objectionable about a character with those attributes as long as there’s a reason for the reader to sympathize with him and respect or at least understand his judgment. Right now, there’s nothing here I was able to latch on to.

I like to use my “Dirty Harry” example of how to establish a reader/viewer and character relationship fast. The first scene of the movie, Harry helps a little old lady cross the street. Then he goes into a coffee shop that’s being robbed and blows the bad guy away. I like Harry right from the start even though I know he’s rough around the edges, dangerous, cocky, and kind-hearted.

The truth is that most manuscripts get rejected by the end of the first page—or at least the first couple of pages. This is reality. No agent is going to persevere for fifty or a hundred pages in hopes that things might get better. And no reader will either.

What I’ve expressed is my personal opinion. If I were an agent or acquisition editor, I would probably reject this manuscript and move on to the next one in line.

So what do you think? After reading the first page, are you compelled to read the second page?

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Doom! Gloom! and Critique Groups

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’ve been in the same critique group for over five years now and although it’s been reconstituted in various forms there has been a constant core group of people who have provided me with considerable and (often) much needed support…But as 2008 draws to a close my writing group has started to feel decidedly disenchanted, jaded and (dare I say it) depressed…and I’m starting to fear it’s partly due to me.


As the only published writer in the group I used to at least provide a bit of hope and some inspiration but now, given all the doom and gloom in the publishing industry, the group is starting to view the road to becoming and staying a published author as an insurmountable obstacle course. Sure I may have cleared the first few hurdles but now, as they watch me continue to traverse the mine field they are starting to ask – when does it ever get to be easy? I confess that I suspect it never does…that the obstacle race is never over, the hurdles just change…and then the group sinks back into despair once more.

Some members have said jokingly it’s time we started writing erotica (okay, I confess I was one of them!) because hey, maybe we’d actually make money if we did…but then we all give ourselves a reality check and realize we cannot change what we write. As for most writers we tell the stories that need to be told – that well up from within and pour on to the page. We can’t write to the market or try and pretend to be a different kind of writer (damn, damn, damn!).

My writing group meets every second Friday and, up until June this year, people were battling on but upbeat and determined. Now the group is teetering on the edge of despondency. While ruminating on this week’s blog I visited despair.com, thinking there might be some funny one-liners from their spoof on the inspirational posters we’ve all seen gracing corporate America’s walls. But while lines such as “Limitations – until you spread your wings, you’ll have no idea how far you can walk“, raised a smile I realized that the LAST thing we needed was more ‘demotivation’ for our work!

I keep thinking of that hilarious sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest and I feel like I’ve turned into the Tim Allen character who cries “Never Give Up; Never Surrender!” from the bridge of his ridiculous spacecraft just as he faces probable annihilation…
So I’m turning to you all for advice. How can a writing and critique group support one another in these challenging times? What is the single best thing you have come away from this year, in terms of your writing, that might buoy the hopes of both the published and the unpublished writer?