When Verbs Go Rogue: First Page Critique

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments will follow.

Monstruo Cubano

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your first page. A public critique takes guts, and I admire your courage.

From this small sample I assume s/he is just beginning their writing journey. So, TKZers, please be gentle and kind in your comments and suggestions (I know you will).

With that in mind, I offer the following critique.

Using a foreign language on the first page is a huge risk. As someone who doesn’t speak Spanish, my eyes glazed over when I read the title of the library. It wasn’t until the second read-through that I stopped long enough to figure out “La Libreria” meant “The Library.” That’s a problem. Most readers won’t bother to read the scene a second, third, or fourth time.

For more on using foreign languages, see this 1st Page Critique.

I want to point something out that you might not be aware of, Brave Writer. Note all the words in blue…

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Look at all those strong verbs! You didn’t take the easy road, like “walked” for example. Strong verbs create a more vivid mental image. Problem is there’s way too many. In this short sample I counted at least 43 verbs. The second thing that jumped out at me was all the chaos in this first page. Don’t get me wrong, conflict is a good thing. It’s how we use it that matters. If the conflict doesn’t drive the plot in some way, then we need to rethink our opener. I’m not saying that’s what occurred here, but I want you to ask yourself…

Does the library or shopkeeper play a pivotal role in this story? What are you trying to accomplish with this scene? Does this opener set up a future scene? The answer should be yes. Otherwise, you’re wasting precious real estate.

For more on the best place to start a novel, see this post.

I love how you took advantage of smell, rather than relying only on sight. When I finished reading this submission, I felt like I needed a shower to get rid of the cat stench. Good job! We want our reader’s emotions to match our point-of-view character.

Now, take a deep breath, Brave Writer. This next part might be a bumpy road for you, but I’m hoping you’ll find value in my demonstration of how to write tighter and more concise.

Monstruo Cubano (Consider changing the title to English. Don’t limit your target audience. Back in 2014, Joe Moore wrote an excellent post on the subject.)

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. Brook Harper squeaked in horror when she stepped inside La Libreria de Juan Carolos, the closest library to her new apartment in Miami. (reworded to ground the reader) She gaped at the Rows of mildewed shelves housed lined not with books, but broken dishes and food-encrusted utensils instead of books. Did she have the right address? (added to show her confusion; for more on Show vs. Tell, see this post, which also dips a toe into distant vs. intimate/deep POV.) When she’d arrived at the airport several weeks ago, colorful displays advertised tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books, but this place didn’t even resemble those brochures.

Venturing several steps farther inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into littered the front window, the outside world obscured by a thick layer of grime.

Stay in active voice, not passive. An easy way to spot passive voice is to add “by zombies” at the end. If the sentence still makes sense, it’s passive. Example: Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window by zombies. Since the sentence still makes sense, it’s a passive construction.

Where did they keep the Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginners Spanish books? Brook hurried down an aisle, but leaped (leapt is archaic, use leaped) leapt wildly (adverbs and too many verbs and/or adjectives muddy the writing. For more on “writing tight,” see this post) into the air when a . A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches. I think “swarming” here creates a good visual, so I’m leaving it alone. Be sure to read JSB’s post, though. Too much description detracts from the action.

Brook skittered backwards (“backwards” is the British spelling of “backward.” Also, “skittered” might not be the best word choice. I’d rather you show us the action. Example: Brook’s boots shuffled backward), knocking into a shelf. Dishes crashed to the floor. (added for sentence variation; for more, see this first page critique) and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted (If Brook doesn’t even know beginners’ Spanish, how does she know SALIDA means EXIT? Something to think about).

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot wedged under peeling linoleum and she sailed through the air, landed face-first she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Cat urine coated her palms and one cheek. Vomit lurched up her throat. Why did she ever come to this hellhole? Maybe her new boss wouldn’t notice her bilingual inadequacies. Good looks had gotten her this far (or whatever fits the character).

If you’re not using dialogue between two characters, inner dialogue allows the reader to get to know Brook. Who is she? Why is she in Miami? Where is she from? Is she shy or extroverted? We don’t necessarily need to know these things, but you do. For more on building a character, see this post and this post).

Okay, I’ll stop there.

TKZers, how might you improve this first page? Please add the advice I skipped. Together we can help this brave writer up his/her game.

 

 

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What Should I Expect From My First Novel?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I got an email the other day from a young writer seeking advice about his foray into self-publishing. Here’s a clip:

As for my career this is going to be my debut work and as an author I currently have no following. My goal with the book is to establish myself professionally and get a small following going as well as bring in a good amount of money for a first book. My question is what are some steps I can take to build publicity about the book and myself without having any real following or platform?

Here is my answer.

  1. A small following does not bring in “a good amount of money”

Of course, what qualifies as a “good amount” varies, but I’m assuming this writer means more than Starbucks money. To get there, you’ll need a large following and more than one book. When it comes to anything in the creative industry, if you are only focused on money, then you’re passion won’t shine through as much as you’d like to think. A lot of people can get caught up in this, especially just starting out. I know a few elderly people who were writers and did it becuase they loved it. After a while, they started publishing their stories and made a lot of money from it. A number of years after, they decided to retire. But because they had been writing for so long, they didn’t know where to begin on the retirement journey. So, they were advised to look into specialist companies like KeyAdvice for financial advice. I still speak to them sometimes and they tell me about all their stories about the holidays they have been on and how they are still writing. Not for profit, but just because they love it that much. Being an author can be rewarding. Everything will eventually fall into place for us creative individuals. We all need money to get by, but this shouldn’t just be your main focus.

So here’s what you should do to start off as an author…

  1. Attract a following with really good books

And what qualifies as a good book? Any book that follows all the advice on Kill Zone.

Ahem.

Only halfway kidding. It’s a book that is crafted in a way to connect with readers. It’s a book by an author serious about that craft. Which means …

  1. Get serious about your craft

Because this is what you want to do. But there’s a big difference between wanting to do something and actually doing it well. Get feedback from a critique group or beta readers or professional editors. And…

  1. Plan ahead

Even as you’re finishing your novel, be developing two or three or four more, because …

  1. Your first novel will probably not be ready for prime time

They say everybody has a novel inside them, and that’s usually the best place to keep it. Really. First novels are almost always best seen as a learning experience. Rarely does an author hit it out of the park on the first pitch. In the “old days” of traditional publishing (roughly 1450 – 2007) the vast majority of authors went through many rounds of rejection, and it was that third or fourth or fifth novel that finally sold.

There were some notable exceptions, like Brother Gilstrap’s debut effort, Nathan’s Run. An exception which, you guessed it, proves the rule.

Today, of course, you can easily self-publish, but that ease is a lure, because …

  1. Self-publishing is not a get-rich-quick scheme

The explosion of content out there now demands not only that books be of good quality, but that the author understand and implement some basic fundamentals about running a small business.

Self-publishing can be a profitable enterprise if you …

  1. Produce and market at a steady clip

The only real formula for making bank as an indie is quality production over time, sprinkled with a modicum of marketing knowledge. Keep in mind that the single greatest factor in selling books is word-of-mouth. Hands down. Glitzy marketing efforts only get you so far. Your books have to do the heavy lifting, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking the only thing that matters is how vigorously and breathlessly you check all the marketing boxes.

Keep writing and learning on parallel tracks, and …

  1. Don’t go shopping for a yacht

At least not until you can pay cash for it, and have enough in the bank for docking fees, upkeep and a crew. Which reminds me …

  1. Learn to handle money like a Scottish shopkeeper

That’s good advice for anybody, no matter what they do. But what you do is write, so follow the above advice and…

  1. Repeat over and over the rest of your life

A real writer writes and does not stop, even if it means managing only 250 words a day between family or work obligations. Even if it means you’ve got a broken leg and you’re in a cast that’s hanging on a chain from a rack over your hospital bed. You can still talk 250 words into Google Docs through your phone.

That is what you can expect from your first novel.

So, Zoners, what did you all learn by finishing your first novel? Where is it now?

 

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The First Conundrum

Nancy J. Cohen

Often people will start reading a series with book number one. “You can begin with any story,” I’ll tell folks interested in reading my Bad Hair Day series. But they insist on starting at the beginning. “That’s fine,” I’ll say, but is it really?

coverPTD

I am thinking how that first book is not the best example of my writing skills today. How long ago was it published? In 1999. And the book had probably been in production for a year before. So that means I wrote it sixteen or more years ago. Don’t you think my writing has improved since then? Yet here is this potential fan evaluating my entire series based on that one book. You’d hope she would cut me some slack.

At least I got the rights back to my early futuristics. I revised those stories before making them available in ebook formats. No problems there.

I do not have the same opportunity with my mysteries. But even if I did, would it be a good use of my time to revise all of my earlier stories? Or is it best to leave them in their pristine state, an example of my earlier writing style? If so, let’s hope that the readers out there coming to my series for the first time will approve and understand.

Sometimes the opposite is true. A writer’s early works are his best efforts, before he gets rushed to meet deadlines or to quicken production. In such cases, the later writing might suffer. I’ve seen this happen with some favorite authors.

So what do you think? If you want to read a new series, do you begin with book one or with the latest title?
 
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Now for some BSP. My new book, Warrior Lord (Drift Lords Series #3) is being released on Friday, August 1.
http://www.wildrosepublishing.com/maincatalog_v151/index.php?main_page=index&manufacturers_id=831
August 1, Friday, Book Launch Party for Warrior Lord, 10 am – 4 pm EDT. Join the fun. Giveaways all day! https://www.facebook.com/NewReleaseParty
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Boyd Morrison Interview

James Scott Bell


Boyd Morrison does not know what he wants to be when he grows up. So along the way in his life’s trek he got himself a PhD in industrial engineering, worked on the Space Station Freedom project at Johnson Space Center, got some really tough duty managing an Xbox games group at Microsoft, was and still is a professional actor . . . and, oh yeah, made a little stop on TV to became a Jeopardy champion.

One other little item: he’s got a hot new novel that just came out from Simon & Schuster. It’s called The Ark.

Boyd’s journey to publication covers about 13 years, and I wanted to interview him for TKZ because I saw someone who approached this whole business wisely and systematically. In this interview, along with everything else, you’ll find Boyd’s tips about getting the most from a conference. Pure gold. Be sure to learn more about Boyd at his website, BoydMorrison.com.

JSB: Publication of your novel, The Ark, is a success story with a unique background. How did you get the idea?

BM: Engineers usually get a raw deal in thriller fiction, which is something I pay attention to because I’m an engineer myself. When the strapping hero needs some critical piece of technology to save the world, he turns to an engineer for said object or solution and then proceeds to kick butt (think James Bond getting his gadgets from Q or Captain Kirk demanding more power from Scotty). And I got sick of that, so I decided to cut out the middleman and create an action hero named Tyler Locke who IS an engineer. Nerds rule!

While I was looking for an adventure for Tyler to swashbuckle through, I saw a documentary on the search for Noah’s Ark. I’m a skeptic by nature, so my first thought was, “Yeah right. They’re going to find a 6,000-year-old ship intact on a snowy mountaintop.” But then I got the inkling of an idea: maybe the reason we’ve never found Noah’s Ark was because we had been deceived all these years as to its true location. And maybe the Ark held such a terrible secret that it could very well mean the end of mankind if it were ever found again. Noah was the first engineer (who else but an engineer could build the Ark?), so it was the perfect object for Tyler to search for.

JSB: How did you get an agent to represent The Ark?

BM: The Ark was the third book I wrote, so I had already gone through two rounds of rejections from agents (both of those books have since been acquired by Simon & Schuster). But I had gotten pretty good at pitching my novels, and I’m a big believer in meeting agents in person. It’s so much easier to get your first three chapters read by an agent when you can put “Requested Materials” on the envelope. So I attended the very first Agentfest at the Thrillerfest conference in 2007.

Today Agentfest is done speed-dating style, but the first Agentfest was more leisurely paced, with an agent sitting at each of the tables during the luncheon session. I was late to the luncheon, so I snagged a seat at the very last table. Irene Goodman, who is a highly regarded agent, was attending because she was looking at extending her client list to include thriller authors. She asked every aspiring author at the table to give her their pitch. I had practiced mine so that I could rattle it off. It went like this:

“A relic from Noah’s Ark gives a religious fanatic and his followers a weapon that will let them recreate the effects of the biblical flood, and former combat engineer Tyler Locke has seven days to find the Ark and the secret hidden inside before it’s used to wipe out civilization again.”

I could have stopped at the words “Noah’s Ark” because once she heard them she asked to read the first three chapters. I was still working on my own revisions, so it took a couple of months before it was ready to send to her. She told me later that she started to wonder if I’d forgotten about her, but she was one of the first agents I sent it to (I sent it to my five highest agent choices as a simultaneous submission).

She got the chapters on a Monday, read them right away, and then called me when she was done. That day. I practically keeled over in my chair when I got the phone call because no agent had ever called me before. She said she loved the beginning and asked me if I would mind overnighting the rest of the manuscript (note to aspiring authors: it’s a good sign when the agent is that eager to get the manuscript). I told her I’d have to think about…oh, who am I kidding? I was already in the car on the way to the post office before she had finished her question.

Irene received the manuscript on a Tuesday, and I figured it would be at least a week before she got back to me. She called on Thursday. With an offer of representation. This time, I did keel over. But I pulled it together and told her I would have to contact the other agents who had it before I could give her an answer. After a few frantic phone calls to the other agents who had the submission, I called Irene back on Friday and said I would love for her to be my agent.

Again, all of this was in 2007. So for those of you who think getting an agent means a smooth path to publication, I’d like to remind you that it’s now 2010. The book that Irene snapped up in five days took three years to get published.

JSB: You have been very good not only about attending the top conferences, but getting the most out of them by meeting people, networking and so on. What tips can you give unpublished writers in this regard?

BM: Virtually every person I know in the writing and publishing industry I met at conferences, so I highly recommend that unpublished writers attend them. I could write twenty pages on writers conferences, but I’ll boil it down to a few key points.

Know why you’re going

Attending a conference is well worth the time and money when you know what you want to get out of it. If you want to meet agents, going to a conference like Bouchercon or Left Coast Crime will be a waste of time because few agents attend them, and then it’s usually to serve on a panel, not to search for prospective clients. But if you want to meet writers and readers, Bcon and LCC are perfect. There are plenty of conferences featuring agents looking for new clients. Check out the back of Writer’s Digest magazine for conferences near you.

Don’t be afraid

Everyone I’ve met at conferences was incredibly welcoming to me when I was unpublished. No one looks down on unpublished authors. In fact, they’re very encouraging. So go up to people and introduce yourself. You’ll probably make many friends, as I have. It doesn’t matter if they’re writers, agents, editors, or readers. Everybody there wants to meet other people. And one important tip: agents and writers hang out at the hotel bar at night; having a drink with them (or even buying a round) is a great way to hear the best industry stories.

Have your pitch ready

If you’re pitching a novel, it needs to be a completed manuscript. Nothing disappoints an agent more to hear the idea for a great novel and then find out it won’t be done for another year. Have your novel boiled down to a sentence or two that outlines the premise for the plot and the main character that the reader will be rooting for. Then you can elaborate if and when the agent asks follow-up questions. Memorize the pitch so that you can say it without thinking. If you ramble about your story for five minutes, you’re going to confuse agents and make them think your manuscript will be just as rambling.

Be nice

This last point should go without saying, but it needs to be emphasized. Be friendly and polite. Smile. You can introduce yourself to agents even if they’re not in a pitch session, but don’t follow them into a bathroom or slide your manuscript under a stall (believe or not, this happens). Don’t put writers on the spot by asking for blurbs in person. If you get to know them, follow-up later with an email asking if they have time to read your manuscript (don’t be offended or take it personally if they don’t; published writers are super busy as I’ve recently discovered first hand).

Have fun

Writing is a solitary business, so enjoy yourself in the supportive community of a conference. Every writer gets their batteries recharged by hearing from other writers who’ve been through exactly what they’re going through and made it as a published author. Those conference memories help keep you going when you’re sitting by yourself in front of that white screen.

JSB: Tell us a little about your acting self (that makes about three or four “selves” I count for you).

BM: My acting hobby is the exact opposite of my day job as a writer. Writing is rewarding and fun, but it is not interactive or, for that matter, active. Acting–well, it’s right there in the word–gets me up on my feet in a collaborative environment with a lot of other talented people. And it’s a blast–I mean, they are called “plays” after all. For some reason, I have a need to perform, usually at great peril of making an idiot of myself. I’ve done stand-up comedy, musicals, improv, stage productions, commercials, and films. I’ve even done some print ads, and I appeared on the packaging for an herbal tea while wearing a space helmet (you think I’m joking, but I’m not).

Plays are my favorite. There’s nothing better than getting that audience reaction when you make them laugh or cry or gasp in surprise. For me, comedies are the most fun. I’ve done some of the classics, including Noises Off, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Barefoot in the Park. Last year, I appeared in Leading Ladies, a Tootsie-style play featuring yours truly trying to pass himself off as a woman to get an inheritance. And I just finished a five-week run in Rumors by Neil Simon, a farce in which I played a politician who keeps putting his foot in his mouth.

JSB: Boyd, many thanks for giving us the time and benefit of your experience getting to publication.

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