First-page critique of LISTEN TO ME

By Joe Moore

Today we kick off our annual first-page critiques marathon. This is where we invite you guys to submit the first page (350 words max) of your WIP. We’ll take turns featuring a submission on our blog posting day and offer comments. In general, this is not meant to be a line editing exercise although suggestions on misspelling, improper punctuation, and other obvious errors are sometimes included. Instead, what we try to determine is our personal first impressions on story content, hooking the reader, establishing voice, creating a setting, developing characters, and any other advice that we hope will help the anonymous author move forward toward attracting the attention of an agent or editor.

Today, the first page is from a story called LISTEN TO ME. Join me at the end of the sample for my reaction and notes.

As he sinks slowly into the chair across from me, he looks just like a doctor should — greying hair, a well-trimmed beard with badger stripes framing his lips, and wire-rimmed glasses his wife must have chosen. They’re far too tasteful compared to the terrible shirt he’s wearing. On the plus side, his smile seems genuine.

"How are you feeling about today, Stacy?" His voice is too loud for the muted tones of the room – – all earthy browns and soft corners. It’s his office, but he’s tried to make it look like a living room. There’s a broad coffee table between us, and lamps on the tables at our sides. Too bad the external door has a combination lock. Kind of kills the good-time vibe.

He’s waiting for an answer. I start shrug, then freeze in place until the razors of pain ease. My stitches are all out now, but the hard pink lines spider webbing across most of my upper body are just the flag of truce for healing. Underneath I am still many layers of mangled nerve endings and fractured flesh.

Doctor hears me catch my breath and his eyes snap to mine. All that beguiling distinterest is an act. He is measuring me.

"Pain?" he says, softly this time.

"Yes. But it’s not so bad. I just moved wrong." It burns and crackles under my skin until I want to scream. But I won’t tell him that. He may measure me as wanting.

I will get out of here today.

His lips press together, barely visible under the curtain of heavy mustache. But after a second he smiles again. Planting his hands on his knees, he creaks to his feet, speaking as he turns to reach behind his chair.

Overall, this is pretty good storytelling. There’s a lot of mystery and unanswered questions already forming in my head. I immediately wanted to know more about Stacy, what brought her into what looks like an exit interview with the doctor, what kind of place is she being released from, why is there a combination lock on the door, and most of all, what caused her extensive and dramatic injuries. The setting is developed well as is the uneasy relationship between Stacy and the doctor. Tension is present right from the start.

Now lets take a look at the text again and I’ll include some specific impressions:

As he sinks slowly into the chair across from me, he looks just like a doctor should —

How should a doctor look? Instead, just describe him as having greying hair, a well-trimmed beard with badger stripes framing his lips, and wire-rimmed glasses his wife must have chosen. They’re far too tasteful compared to the terrible shirt he’s wearing.

I’m not sure what a “terrible” shirt is.  Florescent, day-glow, Hawaiian, animal skin, camouflage? Tell us why it’s “terrible”.

On the plus side, his smile seems genuine.

"How are you feeling about today, Stacy?" His voice is too loud for the muted tones of the room – – all earthy browns and soft corners. It’s his office, but he’s tried to make it look like a living room. There’s a broad coffee table between us, and lamps on the tables at our sides. Too bad the external door has a combination lock. Kind of kills the good-time vibe.

You didn’t describe a place that has a “good-time vibe”. Unless you’re being sarcastic, in which case we don’t know yet what Stacy’s personality is, so good-time vibe doesn’t really work here.

He’s waiting for an answer. I start to shrug, then freeze in place until the razors of pain ease. My stitches are all out now, but the hard pink lines spider webbing across most of my upper body are just the flag of truce for healing. Underneath I am still many layers of mangled nerve endings and fractured flesh.

Flesh is soft. I’m not sure if you can fracture soft flesh. Perhaps torn would be better?

The Doctor hears me catch my breath and his eyes snap to mine. All that beguiling distinterest is an act. He is measuring me.

"Pain?" he says, softly this time.

"Yes. But it’s not so bad. I just moved wrong." It burns and crackles under my skin until I want to scream.

Is “crackles” really the best word choice here?

But I won’t tell him that. He may measure me as wanting.

I will get out of here today.

His lips press together, barely visible under the curtain of heavy mustache.

I don’t think “a well-trimmed beard with badger stripes framing his lips” works visually with “barely visible under the curtain of a heavy mustache”.

But after a second he smiles again. Planting his hands on his knees, he creaks to his feet, speaking as he turns to reach behind his chair.

————-

My advice about the typo (distinterest for disinterest) and a missing word (I start to shrug): Rule number one before submitting anything to anyone for review: Proof read it. Then get someone else to proof it. Finally, check and double check it again. A typo on the first page of a manuscript can be deadly.

Like I said, this is pretty good storytelling. A cleanup and edit would solve the minor issues I raised. I like the way the author is building suspense right out of the gate. I would not hesitate to read on and see what happens next. Thanks for submitting this, and good luck.

How about you guys? Do you agree with my critique? Any other comments? Would you keep reading this manuscript based on the first page?

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Writing is Rewriting

By Joe Moore

I just finished the first draft of my new thriller, THE BLADE, co-written with Lynn Sholes. This is our sixth novel written together; this one coming in at a crisp 92,500 words. Now that the first pass on the manuscript is finished, the rewrite begins. As E.B. White said in THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE, “The best writing is rewriting.”

Some might ask that if the manuscript is written, why do we need to rewrite it? Remember that the writing process is made up of many layers including outlining, research, first drafts, rewriting, line editing, proofing, more editing and more proofing. One of the functions that sometimes receives the least amount of attention in discussions on writing techniques is rewriting.

There are a number of stages in the rewriting process. Starting with the completion of the first draft, they involve reading and re-reading the entire manuscript many times over and making numerous changes during each pass. It’s in the rewrite that we need to make sure our plot is seamless, our story is on track, our character development is consistent, and we didn’t leave out some major point of importance that could confuse the reader. We have to pay close attention to content. Does the story have a beginning, middle and end? Does it make sense? Is the flow of the story smooth and liquid? Do our scene and chapter transitions work? Is everything resolved at the end?

Next we need to check for clarity. This is where beta readers come in handy. If it’s not clear to them, it won’t be clear to others. We can’t assume that everyone knows what we know or understands what we understand. We have to make it clear what’s going on in our story. Suspense can never be created by confusing the reader.

Once we’ve finished this first pass searching for global plotting problems, it’s time to move on to the nuts and bolts of rewriting. Here we must tighten up our work by deleting all the extra words that don’t add to the reading experience or contribute to the story. Remember that every word counts. If a word doesn’t move the plot forward or contribute to character development, it should be deleted.

Some of the words that can be edited out are superfluous qualifiers such as “very” and “really.” This is always an area where less is more. For instance, we might describe a woman as being beautiful or being very beautiful. But when you think about it, what’s the difference? If she’s already beautiful, a word that is considered a definitive description, how can she exceed beautiful to become very beautiful? She can’t. So we search for and delete instances of “very” or “really”. They add nothing to the writing.

Next, scrutinize any word that ends in “ly”. Chances are, most adverbs can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence or our thought. In most cases, cutting them clarifies and makes the writing cleaner.

Next, go hunting for clichés and overused phrases. There’s an old saying that if it comes easy, it’s probably a cliché. Avoiding clichés makes for fresher writing. There’s another saying that the only person allowed to use a cliché is the first one that use it.

Overused phrases are often found at the beginning of a sentence with words like “suddenly,” “so” and “now”. I find myself guilty of doing this, but those words don’t add anything of value to our writing or yours. Delete.

The next type of editing in the rewriting process is called line editing. Line editing covers grammar and punctuation. Watch for incorrect use of the apostrophe, hyphen, dash and semicolon. Did we end all our character’s dialogs with a closed quote? Did we forget to use a question mark at the end of a question?

This also covers making sure we used the right word. Relying on our word processor’s spell checker can be dangerous since it won’t alert us to wrong words when they are spelled correctly. It takes a sharp eye to catch these types of mistakes. Once we’ve gone through the manuscript and performed a line edit, I like to have someone else check it behind us. A fresh set of eyes never hurts.

On-the-fly cut and paste editing while we were working on the first draft can get us into trouble if we weren’t paying attention. Leftover words and phrases from a previous edit or version can still be lurking around, and because all the words might be spelled correctly or the punctuation might be correct, we’ll only catch the mistake by paying close attention during the line edit phase.

The many stages making up the rewrite are vital parts of the writing process. Editing our manuscript should not be rushed or taken for granted. Familiarity breeds mistakes—we’ve read that page or chapter so many times that our eyes skim over it. And yet, there could be a mistake hiding there that we’ve missed every time because we’re bored with the old stuff and anxious to review the new.

Spend the time needed to tighten and clarify the writing until there is not one ounce of fat or bloat. And once we’ve finished the entire editing process, put the manuscript away for a reasonable period of time. Let it rest for a week or even a month if the schedule permits while working on something else. Then bring it back out into the light of day and make one more pass. It’s always surprising at what was missed.

One more piece of advice. Edit on hardcopy, not on a computer monitor. There’s something about dots of ink on the printed page that’s much less forgiving than the glow of pixels. And never be afraid to delete. Remember, less is always more.

How do you go about tackling the rewriting process? Any tips to share?

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Playing Jenga with my book

By Joe Moore

There’s a great game called Jenga. It’s comprised of lots of wooden blocks from which you build a tower. Each player in turn removes one wooden block from anywhere within the tower. The object of the game is to game1not be the one to remove the block that tumbles the tower into a heap of rubble. After all, each block is connected, touches, or relies on the others. The tower must remain structurally stable and strong to keep from falling and breaking. It’s fun to play, but you know that if you pull the wrong block, you can cause a chain reaction that brings the tower down. Once it falls, the game is over.

This week, I’m deep into the editing of the galley proof for my upcoming thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES (June 8). It’s one of, if not the most critical stage of the novel writing process. Up until now, it’s been all fun and games: playing “what if”, outlining, researching, writing, discussing the plot with my agent/editor, sending out portions of the manuscript to my beta readers, rewriting, changing and shifting plot and characters, panicking that I won’t meet the deadline, turning in the manuscript on the deadline day, waiting for the initial feedback from my editor, strategizing with the publisher’s publicity department, seeing the cover art for the first time, worrying, and waiting. A treat arrives in the mail in the form of an ARC (advance reader copy) that my editor snagged for me. I get to see the mockup of the book and cover, and hold it in my hands, and show family and friends that there really will be another book, and I really am a writer, and the first four books weren’t just flukes. So up until now, it’s been tons of fun.

Suddenly, I get an email from the copy editor. The galley proof (the entire text printed as it will appear in the final version) will arrive on such and such a date, and she needs my corrections back on such and such a date to meet the “to-press” date. And she includes the statement that causes all warmth to drain from my body to be replaced with bone-crunching Arctic fear: this will be my final opportunity to make changes.

I’m about to play Jenga with my book.

OK, I can handle it. After all, everyone who read the manuscript loved it. Sure, there’s going to be a few typos that even the editor and proof reader missed. Hey, we’re all human, right? I’ll just whip through this baby, catch a few minor flaws, and get it back ahead of time.

Note: one big advantage here; I have a co-writer, and she’s got her own copy of the galley proof, and she’s going through the same exercise I am. So we figure it’ll be a quick read-through and we’re done. Then we can get back to the fun stuff, right?

So far, I have 5 pages of changes, mostly small items, but a couple of plot issues that need a great deal of thought before we commit to a change. The reason is, one small change, even a word, can break stuff all over the place. Pull the wrong block and the book comes tumbling down.

“This will be your final opportunity to make changes.”

Most of the changes going back to the copy editor are small stuff. But if I stumble across something that needs to be clarified and that clarification causes something else to be changed, and that change causes a major . . .

You get the idea. Editing the galley proof is like pulling blocks in the Jenga tower without it crumbling down around me. It’s not fun, and you don’t get a second chance. Who said writing a novel wasn’t dangerous?

How does this stage of the process go for the rest of the writers out there? Do you love it or hate it? Do you play Jenga with your book?

————————————
THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8, 2011.
”Leaves the reader breathless and wanting more.”
– James Rollins

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Circumstances Beyond Our Control

by Michelle Gagnon

I just handed in the final page proofs for my next thriller, which is always an exhilarating/terrifying moment for me. Exhilarating because I’m finally completely done with the book. And terrifying because from here on out, it’s beyond my control. I have to keep my fingers crossed that the myriad small changes I made are inserted into the final manuscript (since the final few drafts are actual paper copies that get mailed back and forth, sometimes things slip through the cracks. Sad but true, and the best argument I can see for switching to electronic editing across the board).

In line at FedEx, I started thinking about all of the things that are beyond our control as authors (many of which people assume we do control). Here’s my list:

Covers: I always fill out a lengthy form detailing characters, scenes, and plot points. I attach images that I think would look great on the cover, forward jpgs of covers that I loved from other people’s books, and pitch a few concepts. Now, so far I’ve been fortunate enough to receive covers that were vastly superior to anything I could have conceived. But still, there are always a few little things I’d prefer to change. This time, after some back and forth my publisher incorporated a few of the changes I requested into the final design. Here’s the original:

gatekeeper one

I felt the background color was too drab, and all of the text was at the bottom, so you barely noticed anything above the center of the page.

Now here’s the final version:

gatekeeper cover3

Better, right?

Typos: I’m not saying I’m perfect, but occasionally glaring typos appear in the text that were in no draft of the manuscript I submitted. My book club read The Tunnels, and when I walked in for our meeting three people shouted out, “Page 67! What happened there?” Half of the night was consumed by a discussion of some of the typos in the book. Somewhere between my final edits and the typesetting process, new typos appeared. Again, beyond my control (also the reason why I never crack the spine to read the final product. I have never once read one of my books after mailing off the line edits, because if I spot a typo it drives me nuts).

  • Missing Pages: I received emails from a few people who purchased Boneyard, only to discover that fifty pages were missing from the middle of the book. After talking to other authors, I learned that this is not that unusual. A glitch at the printing plant can ruin a whole batch of books. Fortunately, publishers are wonderful about shipping out a replacement copy, if it ever happens to you.
  • Print Runs: This can be make or break for an author. Say your initial print run was 20,000 books. Sell 15,000, and your book is a success story. But if the publisher printed 100,000 copies, and you sold 15,000, your book would be considered a dismal failure and you would be facing an uphill battle to get the next one published. Not fair, right? But as an author, you have no say in whether your print run is five thousand books or five million. You have to just keep your fingers crossed that your publisher’s sales projections are right.

I will say that in book publishing, I still have far more control than I ever did as a magazine writer. Back then, I’d hand in an article and six months later, something came out with my name on it that was virtually unrecognizable.Not always, but frequently enough to be depressing. In book publishing you are definitely allowed a firmer hold on the reins.

Off the top of my head, this is what I came up with (my brain is officially mush after spending the past week muttering sentences aloud over and over again). But I’d love to hear of more circumstances beyond our control, if they occur to you.

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Out Damn Block!

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

http://www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com/

We at TKZ had a mini writing school yesterday for our Sunday post and one of the questions posed was about how to deal with writer’s block. At the moment I’m on the final, final, final edits (that’s when even I am totally sick of the manuscript!) and what I am struggling with is what I call ‘final editor’s block’.

I’m not talking about the big stuff like plot or character – I’m talking about those small, yet irritating things that you start to notice when your on the homeward stretch. For me the things I particularly notice are:

  • Overuse of the em-dash: I used to overuse the ellipse…but now, I’ve gone and got married to the em-dash and – just to interject here – I’m seeing those damn dashes everywhere!
  • Repeated words: It drives me nuts that even after all these iterations I still find myself repeating the same words and images. In my current WIP my writing tics include too many ‘sharp’ or ‘brittle’ replies and dry mouths. I mean there’s only so many times people can swallow, lick their lips or have their mouths feel like glass-paper (the precursor to sand paper in case you were wondering).
  • Boring dialogue tags: I try (I really do!) not to use so many adjectives but ‘said’ and ‘asked’ get really boring and when in edit mode trying I try to balance the boring with the slightly more interesting repertoire of ‘replied’, ‘responded’ or ‘queried’ tags without becoming ridiculous (like having people ‘exploding’ or ‘exclaiming’ all over the place!)
  • Flat writing: When there are still tiny pockets of sagging, flabby writing…shit, why are they still there?!

The problem I find is that when in final edit mode I often experience ‘editor’s block’ – when I’ve lost the ability to know what should be changed and what should not, when I’m afraid I’ll start buggering up the good bits and when I’m down to the last persnickety edits and I can’t think of how to improve the manuscript without someone else’s ‘mouth going dry’.

It drives me a wee bit crazy but as much as I read Dickens (far more inspiring than the thesaurus); listen to tortured 80’s music; and brainstorm ideas, I still feel, well, ‘blocked’.

For me writer’s block per se hardly ever happens and when it does I have lots of strategies (mostly driven by panic) that help me overcome the fear of the blank page. It’s another skill entirely, however, for me to overcome the inner ‘editor’s block’ I get when gazing at the page crowded with words – words that I have already combed and preened over many iterations…

So any ideas on how I can tackle the dreaded ‘editor’s block’? How do you manage the homeward stretch edits and, let’s face it, do you ever know when you are really, well and truly ‘done’?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.

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Slice and Dice your work

by Joe Moore

The writing process is made up of many layers including outlining, research, first drafts, rewriting, copy editing, proofing, more editing and more proofing. One of the functions that sometimes gets the least amount of attention in discussions on writing techniques is editing.

There are a number of stages in the  editing process. Starting with the completion of your first draft, they involve reading and re-reading the entire manuscript many times over and making numerous changes during the process. It’s in this phase that you need to make sure your plot is seamless, your story is on track, your character development is consistent, and you didn’t leave out some major point of importance that could confuse the reader. Pay close attention to content. Does the story have a beginning, middle and end? Does it make sense? Is the flow of the story smooth and liquid? Do your scene and chapter transitions work? Is everything resolved at the end?

Check for clarity. This is where beta readers come in handy. If it’s not clear to them, it won’t be clear to others. Don’t assume that everyone knows what you know or understands what you understand. Make it clear what’s going on in your story. Suspense cannot be created by confusing the reader.

Once you’ve finished this first pass searching for global plotting problems, it’s time to move on to the nuts and bolts of editing. Here you must tighten up your work by deleting all the extra words that don’t add to the reading experience or contribute to the story. Remember that every word counts. If a word doesn’t move the plot forward or help develop the characters, it should be considered for the slicer-dicer.

Some of the words that can be edited out are superfluous qualifiers such as “very” and “really.” This is always an area where less is more. For instance, you might describe a woman as being beautiful or being very beautiful. But when you think about it, what’s the difference? If she’s already beautiful, a word that is considered a definitive description, how can she exceed beautiful to become very beautiful? She can’t. So I suggest you search for and delete instances of “very” or “really”. They add nothing to the writing.

Next, scrutinize any word that ends in “ly”. Chances are, most adverbs can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence or your thought. In most cases, cutting them clarifies and makes your writing crisper.

Next, go hunting for clichés and overused phrases. There’s an old saying that if it comes easy, it’s probably a cliché. Avoiding clichés makes for fresher writing. There’s another saying that the only person allowed to use a cliché is the first one to use it.

Overused phrases are often found at the beginning of a sentence with words like “suddenly,” “so” and “now”. I find myself guilty of doing this, but they don’t add anything of value to my writing or yours. Slice and dice them.

The next type of editing is called line or copy editing. This covers making sure you used the right word. Relying on your word processor’s spell checker can be dangerous since it won’t alert you to wrong words when they are spelled correctly. It takes a sharp eye to catch these types of mistakes. Once you’ve gone through your manuscript and performed a line edit, have someone else check it behind you. A fresh set of eyes never hurts.

On-the-fly cut and paste editing while you were working on your first draft can get you into trouble if you weren’t paying attention. Leftover words and phrases from a previous edit or version can still be lurking around, and because all the words might be spelled correctly or the punctuation might be correct, you’ll only catch the mistake by paying close attention during the copy edit phase.

Line editing also covers grammar and punctuation. Watch for incorrect use of the apostrophe, hyphen, dash and semicolon. Did you end all your character’s dialogs with a closed quote? Did you forget to use a question mark at the end of a question?

The many stages of editing are a vital part of the writing process. Editing your manuscript should not be rushed or taken for granted. Familiarity breeds mistakes—you’ve read that page or chapter so many times that your eyes skim over it. And yet, there could be a mistake that you’ve missed every time because you’re bored with the old stuff and anxious to review the new.

Spend the time needed to tighten and clarify your writing until there is not one ounce of fat or bloat. And once you’ve finished the entire editing process, put the manuscript away for awhile. Let it rest for a week or even a month if your schedule permits while you work on something else. Then bring it back out into the light of day and make one more pass. You’ll be surprised at what you missed.

One more piece of advice. Edit on hardcopy, not on your monitor. There’s something about dots of ink on the printed page that is much less forgiving than the glow of pixels.

Any other editing tips or techniques out there? How do you approach editing; on the fly or after the first draft is complete?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, Alexandra Sokoloff, James Scott Bell, and more.

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