Real-Life Characters

Have you ever met a person who is so interesting that you had to incorporate him into a story?

We’ve just returned from a one week cruise on Allure of the Seas. My review and photos can be followed on my personal blog. It was a fabulous trip on the largest cruise ship in the world. But despite its size, we often ran into the same people.

We first saw the man at dinner. Although we had My Time Dining, we’d reserved a spot at 5:45 in the Adagio Dining Room, deck 5, each evening. My startled gaze landed on the guy as we passed him by seated at a table with a younger man.

His shoulder-length wiry black hair inevitably drew my attention. He had a black moustache to match that curved down to the edges of his mouth. His dark eyes and facial features were Asian. My imagination instantly pegged him as a karate master. Was that his young disciple with him? The younger guy had light brown hair in a short cut with sideburns and looked like some fellow you’d meet on the street in the States. A more unlikely couple couldn’t be found.

What were they doing on a cruise together? The long-haired man looked like he’d stepped out of a movie screen. He could have played an ancient conqueror, a great warrior who’d landed incognito into our time. Or perhaps he really was a foreign film star and the young man was his manager. Then again, maybe he was a secret agent or private investigator on a case and the younger guy was his sidekick, likely a computer expert. 
 
Oh, my. I could create so many stories just from this one person. This had happened to me once before on a cruise. I saw a lady with coiffed white hair and a perfectly made up face who wore elegant Parisian ensembles. She became a countess in my cruise mystery, Killer Knots. How could I use my karate master? Time will tell, but no doubt he’ll show up in one of my books. And his role will be a lot more glamorous than in real life, where he probably was on a pleasure cruise with his partner.

Have you ever met a character so compelling that you had to put him into a book?

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Cornered

Have you ever written yourself into a corner? Have you progressed at least midway through your story and then realized your hero is going down a black hole and you don’t know how to get him out?Recently, I found myself in this situation. In my synopsis, which acts as my writing guideline, I was up to the part where the hero, Lord Magnor, goes to the underworld to obtain a sacred book stolen by Hel, Queen of the Shades. To get there, he has to die. Circumstances with the heroine make him despair of their future together, and so he takes a poison pill that another character has given him.

Here is what my synopsis said:

He awakens underground in front of an iron gate. This leads to a gold-paved bridge that crosses the river Gjoll. Beyond is Helheim, where Hel resides. A giantess guards the gate and asks him for the password. If he fails to give the right answer, she’ll toss him in the river and it will carry him to the land of fire and eternal torment.


Magnor figures out a way past and meets Hel. She isn’t willing to give up the Book of Odin, not even for the mead he’s brought. So he creates a diversion and steals the sacred book.

Now this presented several problems. How does he get past the giantess when he fails to give the right password? How does he get into Hel’s palace? What kind of diversion does he create, and how does he steal the ancient relic?

I printed out these questions and sat on my “thinking couch” until the answers came to me. First of all, if he fails to give the right password, the giantess won’t throw him in the river. Instead, she’ll doom him to spend eternity in the company of other lost souls.
At that point, he has to find another way past the gate. He doesn’t have any cutting tools or acid to break in at some point farther down the line. And even if he could do so, how would he cross the raging river? What he does have are his wits, so he eases into the shadows and cheats by climbing up the rocky wall lining the chamber and gaining access to the opposite bank that way. In other words, he goes up and over instead of across. It’s the Kobayashi Maru solution from Star Trek. If you’re in a no win situation, change the rules.

So what about confronting Hel? He decides upon a frontal approach, stating his business to the palace guards in such a confident manner that he convinces them to allow him an audience with the queen. I’m glossing over the details but suffice it to say he states his case to her and she refuses to comply. Now we need a distraction so he can steal the book that rests in a glass case.

In the story, I’ve already planted the seeds for this solution. He’s been given a magic horn that is supposed to sound a warning when the demon, Loki, is near. But what will happen if Magnor blows the horn within Hel’s palace? He does so, and glass shatters throughout the hall, including the case protecting the sacred book. He snatches the artifact as Hel’s minions surround him.

Now what? The heroine has been told she must obtain a golden apple from the Fae to revive him. But fairies aren’t part of Norse mythology, which my story is based on. Here is what my synopsis says:
Erika must return him to the land of the living. She realizes how much he means to her and won’t risk losing him. However, reviving him isn’t easy. Aware that she only has a certain window in which to resuscitate the warrior, she saves him just in time.

Okay, how does she save him? Anytime you leave things vague like this in your synopsis or writing outline, eventually you have to come up with the details. Again, I’d already sowed the seeds within the story. Erika, a descendant of Odin, has inherited some of his shapeshifter powers. She cannot change her own form, but she possesses the power to manipulate the earth.

Odin also had the “breath of inspiration”, and this reminded me of the breath of life possessed by the Mord Sith in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. What if, instead of going to the Fae, Erika is inspired by the figurines of fairies she’s designed in her pottery studio? Fairies might not be real, but what about fairy dust? And so she uses her innate power to revitalize the hero with the magical dust she breathes into his mouth.

As you can see, whatever corner you back your hero into, if you’ve laid the proper groundwork for your story, the solution will arise from material you’ve already planted. So go ahead and gloss over these details in your selling synopsis, but be assured when you come to them in the story, the muse will help you fill in those plot holes. You can rewrite your synopsis accordingly.

So who else has backed a character into a corner, and how did you get him out?

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Truth and Consequences

by Simon Wood

I put myself in a tricky position with my latest book, DID NOT FINISH. With most of my books, it’s inspired by something that happened in the real life. But whereas there’s usually a little distance between myself and incident, this time there wasn’t. I was there at the time of the incident.

In the 90’s, I was a competitive racecar driver. At the end of my third season, one of the drivers threatened to kill another driver unless he let him winning the championship deciding race. Word of this threat spread through the paddock like wildfire. No one took the threat seriously. It was just talk. That went out of the window when those two driver touched wheels during the race and the threatened driver died. Some odd things happened in the aftermath of the crash, such as edited TV coverage and a seemingly nonexistent police investigation. It was all very puzzling to a number of us who’d heard and seen things.

I’d always said I would write about the incident, but writing the book proved much harder than I’d ever expected. The problem was that I was too close to the source material. When I wrote about viatical settlements for ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN and a series of suicides for WE ALL FALL DOWN, I spun a story around some very bare facts to construct a book that had very little in common with the facts. The problem with the early drafts of DNF was that it was autobiographical which made the novel very dull as it was way too personal and to be frank, not that entertaining. My problems were compounded by my thinly veiled attempts to hide the identities of actual people. I had hoped that in the 20 years since the actual incident went down that many of the characters were still very much involved with the sport. Then there was the victim and his family to consider. I’m sure they wouldn’t appreciate me raking up old memories. At the end of the day, as much I think I know what happened, I only had my perspective on events and not a complete picture and to make any insinuation was reckless. The upshot was the book ground to a halt

After a long chat with my wife, we got to the heart of the matter—stop trying to rewrite history and write a novel. I had to do what I always do when I use something real to write a work a fiction. Incorporate the essence and leave the rest. Once I unshackled myself of any responsibility to tell the truth, the book became easier to write. I developed characters with some real depth and history. The plot went off in a direction that real life never went. And all in all, I have a book I’m very proud of.

The tough thing about writing, even with fiction, is that it’s a role that comes with responsibilities. You can’t just say anything and say it’s okay because it’s made up. Words are as powerful as bullets and you need to be careful where you aim before firing. And that’s the truth.

Simon Wood is an ex-racecar driver, a licensed pilot and an occasional private investigator. Simon has had over 150 stories and articles published. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and has garnered him an Anthony Award and a CWA Dagger Award nomination, as well as several readers’ choice awards. He’s a frequent contributor to Writer’s Digest. He’s the author of WORKING STIFFS, ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN, PAYING THE PIPER, WE ALL FALL DOWN, TERMINATED and ASKING FOR TROUBLE. As Simon Janus, he’s the author of THE SCRUBS and ROAD RASH. His latest book is DID NOT FINISH.

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Show Me The Body

This question came up on one of my writer loops: how long do you wait for the body to appear in a mystery? Assume we’re talking about a traditional whodunit. Does it make a difference to you as a reader when the murder occurs? How about when plotting your own books?

Based on my experience, if you’re a new author, it’s best to get the body up front and center. Once you’re established, you have a bit more leeway with the characters. But even if your setting is quaint and the story is more of a crime novel than a whodunit, action engages the reader.

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I’ve had several rejections over the years to mystery proposals wherein the criticism essentially said to move up the dead body. In my latest project, the initial first chapter had the heroine enter the scene, play mah jong with her friends, go to lunch, and then the person dies. I’ve changed it so that she meets her friends for lunch first, and in the midst of their meal, the murder occurs. Later, they gather to talk about it and automatically play out the motions of their mah jong game. As this is the first book in a proposed new series, I have to get the action moving as quickly as possible.
I should have seen this when writing the first draft, but often we need some distance from our work before we can see it clearly. Or we need someone else to point out what is blind to us in our closeness to the material. Also keep in mind that readers can download the beginning of your book nowadays and so you want it to be an attention grabber.

Yes, there are books I read where the characters and setting are so appealing that I just read on for pleasure, and it may be 100 pages or so before someone is killed. But I do find myself saying, “All right, where’s the dead body already? This is supposed to be a mystery.” So genre conventions come into play as well.
What’s your take on the subject: murder them now, or introduce your characters gradually and slide into the crime after the story is in motion?
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY to The Kill Zone Blog! I am proud to be part of this illustrious group!

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Your First Mystery

How did you get started writing mysteries or thrillers? Assuming you were an avid reader of the genre, did you outline the plots of your favorite stories? Study structure and pacing? Attend writing workshops by seasoned authors? Or did you use a how-to book?
Keeper of the Rings, my fourth sci fi romance now available in digital format, is the story wherein I learned how to plot a murder mystery. It has all the elements for a cozy: a limited number of suspects, most of whom know each other and who have a motive for the crime, a confined setting, and an amateur sleuth.
Here’s the story blurb:

Taurin is shrouded in black when Leena first meets him, his face shaded like the night. At first she believes him to be a simple farmer, but the man exhibits skills worthy of a warrior. With his commanding presence, he’s an obvious choice to be the lovely archaeologist’s protector on her quest for a stolen sacred artifact. Curious about his mysterious background, and increasingly tempted by his tantalizing touch, Leena prays their perilous journey will be a success. She must find the missing relic, or dangerous secrets will be revealed that may forever change her world.

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Who stole the sacred horn that must be blown to reset the annual cycles of Lothar, the god worshipped by the people of Xan? Only the members of the ruling priesthood, the Synod, had access to the holy artifact. Was it Zeroun, the ambitious Minister of Religion? Perhaps Karayan, a friend of Leena’s family and the Minister of Justice, is involved. Or maybe Sirvat is guilty. As Minister of Finance, she has something to hide. So does everyone on this twelve person council, including the Arch Nome himself.

While Leena’s brother is assigned the task of investigating the Synod members, her mission is to retrieve the artifact. Here the story becomes Indiana Jones meets Star Wars. Leena and Taurin survive one peril after another on a desperate quest that takes them around the globe and deep underground beneath the ruins of a holy temple. Do they find the horn before disaster ensues? Is the thief unmasked? Was he responsible for the accident that killed Leena’s mother?

Here’s an excerpt where Leena and Taurin discuss the suspects with her brother, Bendyk, and his assistant, Swill.

Swill tugged at the long sleeves of her burgundy blouse, tucked into a black skirt that hugged her hips. “Magar makes regular unexplained entries in his receipts, which Sirvat deposits into the Treasury. Magar refuses to elaborate on the source. Sirvat’s financial records are impeccable, but the odd thing about her is these trips she takes every so often, returning with a new piece of jewelry each time. The items are created with rare gemstones. Usually, she’s not one to adorn herself.”

“I’ll bet I know where she gets them.” Taurin related what he and Leena had learned about Grotus and Sirvat’s relationship.

“I don’t believe it.” Bendyk shook his head. “She seems so strait-laced.”

Leena gave a small smile. “Perhaps she hides a passionate nature. She certainly has a peculiar bent to fall for a man like Grotus.” Her face grimaced in disgust at the memory of the smuggler. “You know, some of those items I saw in Grotus’s mansion are similar to pieces in Karayan’s house.” She pursed her lips in thought. “Karayan has quite an extensive art collection.”

“Are you implying that he buys his art works from Grotus?” Bendyk asked with a horrified expression.

“Not really. They just share the same kind of artistic taste, although Karayan is a much better dresser.”

Beside her, Taurin snorted. “We’re not here to discuss anyone’s preference in art or clothes. Did you investigate Zeroun? As Minister of Religion, his department is responsible for administering the Black Lands. Someone there has granted the Chocola Company illegal rights.”

“We’ll check into it,” Swill assured him. “We’ve cleared most of the other Synod members but weren’t sure about Sirvat’s trips and Magar’s secretive dealings in his trade commissions. I still feel he’s withholding information from us.”

“You’re wasting your time with Magar,” Taurin snapped. “I suggest you check out Zeroun. The Minister of Religion would also be responsible for—” He held his tongue; he’d nearly said for excising any records of the Temple of Light. “—for the Black Lands,” he finished.

*****
They could easily be discussing suspects in a murder. This was the last romance I wrote before switching to mysteries, but it taught me everything I need to know about plotting a whodunit. How did you learn the craft?

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The Self-Pub Adventure

I am about to dive in where others have gone before. I’ve finished revising my last backlist title. It took me quite a while, as the doc file is over 500 pages and I made lots of changes. Now comes the next stage, which is to hire a cover designer.
Wait, not so fast. First, I need to determine the back cover copy. That’s not so hard. I can use the same one that’s on the original paperback with a few heading changes. But inside the book are more challenges. There are several introductory pages containing an excerpt, review quotes, and a dedication. I ditched the latter, as those people no longer apply to my current career. The excerpt and quote are reusable with some slight modifications. But what now? Do I add them to the front of my doc file? Should I include a title page? Maybe on Smashwords, these things are delineated, but I haven’t gone there yet to read the requirements. First I have to get a cover.
Getting a cover will probably necessitate filling out a description of the hero/heroine and a suggested background scene. I already have a list of cover artists garnered from other authors’ online posts. But now I must prepare these materials for when I contact one of them. Hopefully the artist will determine the proper fonts and where to put my name and book title. And I have to remember to state somewhere that this book was previously published and written under a pseudonym.
This whole process seems daunting, but I’d like to use this book as an experiment. Because who knows, if my current works on the market fail to sell, I may choose to go this route. Or I may just get tired of waiting for a response and then waiting another year or two for the book to be published.

It’s a scary thought for an author who has only sought traditional publishers or legit e-book pubs before. Plus, self-published works are still not accepted by many reviewers or booksellers for signing events, so there is a certain loss of prestige.
I know some of you have already cast off the shackles of print publishers and ventured into this new territory. Are you happy with your choice? How many of you have done it for original works?

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The Void Between Books

I’m in between books, and normally, this makes me anxious. I feel lost, adrift without a goal. But this time I am enjoying the freedom. Maybe it’s because I’ve set other goals. I am revising my last backlist book so I can get it into e-book format. Now that I’m off my regular writing schedule, I can devote myself full-time to finishing the revision. It’s a long story, over 500 manuscript pages, so it’s been tedious. I have to compare the printed book to my Word file, which does not include the edited version. Besides making these editorial changes, I’m also tightening up the work. It’s amazing the difference a few years of experience makes. I’ll feel a sense of relief when I’m done, but then begins the confusing array of choices re book cover design, formatting, etc. One step at a time. 

Meanwhile, I’ve done a list of suspects for my next mystery. I have already turned in the first completed book in this series. I’m only dabbling at the synopsis for book two because the next couple of weeks will be a washout for creativity. Window installers are here this morning and they’ll be making noise and havoc for two days straight. Plus, we have other events going on that might prove to be too distracting. So it’s a good time for a break. Eventually I’ll just sit down and write the whole synopsis.

And then what? I’ll probably write the first three chapters of this next mystery and then move on to book three in my proposed paranormal romance trilogy. Or I could tackle Smashwords for the backlist book. Or…you see, there’s always something to do.

How do you feel about the void between books? Are you relieved to have reached the finish line and to be mentally free of your project, or does the freedom cause you anxiety until you plunge into the next story?
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Visual Tools for Writers

Talking about the state of the publishing industry can be depressing these days, so let’s go back to why we write in the first place: We love storytelling. Many of us use visual tools when we write: collages about the main character or setting, plotting diagrams, charts, timelines, and photos. I’m just as guilty as the next writer in this regard. So here are some of the favorite ones I use, and I hope you’ll share what works for you.
PHOTOS
This is the most fun. I keep a file with pictures of people I cut out from TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, and other magazines. Then when I’m planning a novel and doing my character development, I’ll search through the pages to find the one person who looks just like my character. I used to staple these onto my character development sheets, but now I scan them into the computer and add them to my file on that person. Looking for the villain is even more fun. I’m especially fond of sneaky looking people. Perfect models won’t do. You want these profiles to be interesting and tell you something about the character. For a mystery, I’ll do the sleuth for the first book in the series, some of the continuing characters, and the suspects for each installment.
PLOTTING BOARDS
In the planning stages of a story, I’ll divide a poster board into the number of chapters I plan to fill my book and then I’ll stick Post-It notes on the poster scribbled with different plot points. This helps me see the story flow before I write the synopsis. Later, I’ll fill in the squares with ink after I’ve written the chapter. Thanks to Barbara Parker who taught me this trick, I use different colored inks for the main plotline, loose ends, clues leading to the killer, and new characters on stage.
TIMELINES
It often becomes necessary to draw a family tree. I haven’t found an easy way to do this on the computer and manage with Word. Also, when I have to calculate characters’ ages, this is where they go.
LIFE SPACE
This helps you get into the head of your character. Draw a head on a blank sheet of white paper and put your person’s name in it. Then draw cartoon-like balloons all around the head. Inside these spaces, write in what’s on your character’s mind at any given point in time. Solving a murder? Taking mother to lunch? Picking up laundry? Calling boyfriend? How many concerns are on your mind right now? Ask your character what she’s thinking about. Here’s an example from my current WIP (an artist, I am not!).
These are some of the visual aids I build when writing a story. Now let’s hear what you do.
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Cassandra’s Curse Critique

CASSANDRA’S CURSE: First Page Critique
Cassandra picked her way across the roof and crouched beside the knee wall. She’d already mapped her escape route. The nylon bag slid off her shoulder and kissed the concrete with only a whisper. Salt water and car exhaust permeated the cool autumn air around her.
            Two blocks north, the KNWF news van pulled up to the curb beside the decrepit church. As the reporter climbed from the passenger seat, Cassie unzipped her bag and extracted the Henry rifle. Assembly took seconds.
            Her watch said 5:11 a.m. Perfect timing.
            Saint Beatrice’s Catholic Monstrosity cast a shadow over half the neighborhood, but the cameraman set up to the southeast, taking advantage of the sunbeams just now clearing the mountains. Meredith Leighton, the blonde newswoman everyone trusted, patted her hair, smoothed her red dress, and glanced up at the building behind her.
            Stained-glass windows pocked with holes gave the building a toothless look. Sloughed paint and misspelled obscenities decorated the entire facade.
            And Meredith Leighton positioned herself so that all her faithful viewers would see the horrific site and jump on her “save this building” bandwagon.
            Cassie wanted to puke. She planted her elbow on the knee wall, slid her finger off the trigger guard, and peered through the scope. The crosshairs settled between Meredith’s brilliant green eyes.
*****
Now for my comments. This excerpt has some unique images and great sensory details.  I like how the nylon bag “kisses” the pavement in the first paragraph. The “windows pocked with holes gave the building a toothless look.” Nice! And the use of five senses is done well: “salt water and car exhaust permeated the air”; “sloughed paint and misspelled obscenities decorated the entire façade”. Nice imagery.
However… The first paragraph, while interesting, leaves me wondering who Cassandra is, what she’s doing there, and where “here” is. I have no idea what city we’re in. So I need a sense of place.
It’s autumn and 5:11 am. Does that mean it’s light out? How else can she see her target?
How does she feel about the impending assassination, if that’s what this is? I get no vibes about Cassie’s emotions whatsoever, except that Meredith’s pet cause disgusts her (i.e. “Cassie wanted to puke). Why does she feel this way? Does she have a  personal vendetta against the victim? Or is she a professional on assignment for someone else?
You could show her emotions when she’s assembling her weapon. Does she slide the parts together with a snap that shows her fury? Or do her hands tremble? Has she done this before? In other words, I can SEE this scene, but I can’t FEEL it.
It just so happens that my latest sci fi romance, Silver Serenade, starts with an assassination attempt, too.  Here it is, and while it may not be perfect, this excerpt does answer the five basic questions. We know Who (Silver Malloy), What (her first kill), Why (revenge), Where (on Al’ron), and How (rifle). We also know how she got there (a lucky tip). More importantly, we see how much this kill matters to Silver and that revenge is her motive. She’s also inexperienced, this being her first kill. She’s afraid she’ll lose her chance to get Bluth if she relaxes even for a second.

Despite the coolness of the woods, sweat dribbled down the back of Silver Malloy’s neck. Her muscles ached from hours spent in a crouched position, but stealth mattered more than comfort.  She’d waited for this opportunity for months–no, make that years–and wasn’t about to lose it due to a lapse in technique.  This first kill might be her last, but at least she’d complete her revenge.
Using her rifle scope, she scanned the dusty street that stretched below her hillside vantage point. The few scruffy inhabitants who trudged between the ramshackle buildings didn’t interest her. A lucky tip had brought her to Al’ron, a watering hole for space travelers. Those who visited here were not often welcome elsewhere. They came to buy arms, men, and equipment to carry out lawless raids against innocent victims, and Tyrone Bluth had earned the reputation as the cruelest bandit of all. 
Silver couldn’t wait to end his reign of terror.
Regarding your piece, I like your descriptions; they set the scene well. But I want to know why Cassie is aiming to kill this woman. I want to get inside her head and feel her pain.

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Murder, Manure, ET, & Karaoke

Poor Matt is in trouble and it’s already day 9. Catch you guys on the flip side of this critique entry with comments. And I hope you will join in the discussion to share your insights for the author of SKIN-DEEP MOTIVES.

Day 9
Matt Grudge
As my vision focused out of unconsciousness, I felt in my aching bones that my life’s work as an investigator and the murder of a tattoo artist were worth more than the taste of copper pennies in my mouth. My abductors must’ve believed it too, because they ripped the duct tape from my cracked, bleeding lips so I’d be able to speak. The warm mouthful of blood dribbled down my chin to spatter the concrete floor beneath my naked, suspended feet.

My wrists were bound in the cold stainless steel of a pair of handcuffs, while the burning throb in my taut biceps and pulled shoulders indicated my captors had hung me from a ceiling. The blinding light from a hand held florescent beam struck me square in the face and lingered long enough for its heat to singe my scruffy, nine-day growth of whiskers.

Metallic clicks and clangs echoed all around, and a steady leak dripped; it could’ve been water or my blood. Labored breaths came out through the nostrils of my broken nose in a wheeze. I re-opened my left eye slowly to discern images in the wall of white, my right too swollen shut from being beaten to operate. A cloud of flies buzzed around, reveling in the perspiration of my body that set off an indigenous stench of manure.

Two gray shadows materialized in the light. They seemed extraterrestrial to me in that I couldn’t tell what sex they were. The chemicals I’d somehow been slipped back at the nightclub had such a bending effect on my senses, the two people constantly morphed between being one person, sometimes three. The knockout drug also screwed with the pitches of their voices.

“You’re on your own now. That Pocahontas bitch you run with is gone. Time to pay your dues, punk.”

I began to karaoke a verse of “Come As You Are.”

Comments:
Under the guise of being in the head of Matt, the author also is in omniscient POV to give every detail of Matt’s situation like an out-of-body experience, right down to his drops of blood hitting the floor UNDER him. With Matt suffering extensive beatings and just coming to, he might not even know his name much less see everything around him with such clarity. An author has to see through the eyes of the character only that which the character would truly see, or feel or know.

NINE DAYS hanging by handcuffs? With no food or water…suspended? With this being the start of the novel, I don’t see a need to have the 9 Days tagline. It only raises questions like I have. And if a guy is being tortured, how would he know it’s been 9 days? The days would meld into a never-ending nightmare as he drifted in and out of consciousness.

And the first thing he’s thinking about when he comes to is his life’s work? He sure is coherent—and philosophical—right off the bat. Many authors try for that gripping first line to catch the interest of the reader, but this line doesn’t make sense to me. His PI work and a murder are worth more than the taste of blood in his mouth?

What is he being tortured for? If someone has to beat the guy senseless for 9 days, a bullet would make more sense to someone who has presumably already committed murder. (Since this is only 300 words, I’ll admit I’m expecting a lot for such a short word count, but an explanation to make things clearer would make more sense than what’s offered in this intro.)

Matt’s captors take off the duct tape on his mouth, but don’t really ask him questions. Nothing happens right after that, when I had expected dialogue to explain what’s going on. And one guy at the end makes a statement that Matt could have heard without the duct tape coming off. The action in this scene needs to be clarified with better motivation. And dialogue is really needed to give life to Matt and explanation for why this is happening to him.

One of the biggest issues I see is the overwritten prose. It reads as forced with plenty of author intrusion to “tell” the reader what’s going on. Below are a few lines that really pulled me out of the story, but can TKZers find more?

“As my vision focused out of unconsciousness…” (Vision can’t be unconscious.)

“…my taut biceps and pulled shoulders indicated my captors had hung me from a ceiling.” (After 9 days of beating, he might forget some details, but wouldn’t Matt already know how they had him strung up on that first day? It’s like Matt is trying to catch the reader up on what’s been happening, too.)

“The blinding light from a hand held florescent beam struck me square in the face and lingered long enough for its heat to singe my scruffy, nine-day growth of whiskers.” (If he’s blinded, how does he know the light is hand held? And with all that is going on with this poor guy, why would he bother being aware of his grooming? NINE days of whiskers?)

“A cloud of flies buzzed around, reveling in the perspiration of my body that set off an indigenous stench of manure.” (His perspiration sets off an indigenous stench of manure? The overly complex sentence has too much in it to make the author’s intent clear. And where does he live that manure is indigenous…a stock yard, farm country, my backyard where my dog poops like a goose?)

“…the two people constantly morphed between being one person, sometimes three.” (If he is truly drugged and the images are wavering, how does he really know how many people there are? Matt seems to be certain there’s two people from the start. And after 9 days, why is he still drugged…especially if they’re beating him?)

“They seemed extraterrestrial to me in that I couldn’t tell what sex they were.” (Matt has obviously never been to the French Quarter in New Orleans. But that aside, he is beaten for nine days, sees shapes eclipsing the light, and he thinks of ET and gender? Wouldn’t he already know who is beating him from day one? Even if they wore masks, he’d have a pretty good idea of their gender, if that’s even important to his situation. I think the author is grasping for film imagery from Close Encounters to help the reader picture what he sees, but it would be best to stay in the moment and truly describe what Matt is going through from a more realistic point of view.)

“The knockout drug also screwed with the pitches of their voices.” (Maybe Matt has discovered what had been wrong with American Idol’s Paula Abdul all along, but a knock out drug doesn’t affect anyone else’s voice pitch. It would only affect the hearing of the person drugged.)

“You’re on your own now. That Pocahontas bitch you run with is gone. Time to pay your dues, punk.” (I’d say that nine days of getting beat to a pulp constitutes “dues paid.” Short of killing him, what else do they have planned? This dialogue reads as cliché to me, too. And any guy who retaliates by singing a Nirvana song [sans karaoke machine] should have plenty of interesting things to say, yet in this scene, he doesn’t speak a word.)

“I began to karaoke a verse of “Come as You Are.” (Beside the fact that “began to” is passive voice and the word “karaoke” isn’t synonymous with singing—EVER—I’m not sure why this guy would launch into a Nirvana song. Try hanging from handcuffs for nine days and see if you can breathe, much less have the lungs to sing.)

Recommendations:
There’s nothing wrong with simpler lines. Short fragments can also establish Matt’s disoriented state. And the disjointed thoughts can add tension for the reader too.

I also recommend new authors read their work aloud. This process can pinpoint things that don’t make sense. And it can also help establish good cadence in the sentence structure. When I do my edits, I still read my work aloud. Anything I stumble over gets changed.

Understanding “Point of View” is vital. I usually pick one character per scene and stay in that character’s head, using the senses that he or she can reasonably see or feel. Resist the urge to purely describe the scene as if you are looking down onto it. Only write what the character can see through their eyes or feel through their body. (Don’t describe his chin stubble when his hands are bound over his head with handcuffs. If you want the reader to fear for Matt, stick to those things that would frighten him. Chin stubble shouldn’t even be on his radar.)

The following sentences also are either too stilted and formal sounding (“indicated”, “in that”) or they are structured such that the author distances Matt from his own pain, as if he’s observing his body from the outside. Generally, the main focus isn’t Matt. It’s the knockout drug or chemicals, rather than how these things make him feel. If I had a broken nose, I wouldn’t be thinking of my “labored breaths.” Wouldn’t that hurt like hell…or maybe the swelling would throb?

my vision focused out of unconsciousness

pulled shoulders indicated my captors had hung me from a ceiling

Labored breaths came out through the nostrils of my broken nose

The knockout drug also screwed with the pitches

The chemicals I’d somehow been slipped

seemed extraterrestrial to me in that I couldn’t tell

To add depth to the “voice” of this character, I would recommend giving Matt an opinion about his predicament. That opinion will reflect on him—giving the reader insight into who he is—but it will also describe the setting to place the reader there with all their senses. A sentence like “metallic clicks and clangs echoed all around, and a steady leak dripped…” sounds rushed and reads like an inventory of the setting, rather than Matt’s experience. These are good sounds to describe, but think of different ways to say them that trigger something for Matt.

Version 1 (from a more serious and poetic dude) – I couldn’t tell what was real. A haunting clang of metal nudged an old memory of a playground swing until pain reminded me where I was. And coming out of my fog, I heard an incessant dripping. Those drops became my lifeline. I focused on them and counted each one, clinging to any fragment of reality that kept me on the right side of oblivion.

Version 2 (from my kind of tough guy) – The clang of metal was driving me nuts. Damn it! Make it stop. That torture pulsed in my head like a fierce hangover. I wasn’t exactly a stranger to the self-inflicted wound of a tequila bullet to the brain. And a never-ending dripping grated on my nerves, reminding me how much I needed to piss.

(I’m sure you guys could do better, but I hope you get my point about making each description count.

Any other recommendations? Please chime in.

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