Advice to Traditionally Published Authors

alice-in-wonderland-29904_1280I have a number of writing friends who are in one phase or another of a traditional career––still in it, sometimes hanging by a thread, a few dropped by their publishers. These friends all started in the “old system.” You wrote a book, got an agent, signed with a publishing company. Getting invited inside the walls of the Forbidden City was the only game in town.

Of course, that’s all changed. The indie revolution that began in earnest in 2008 has grown from healthy baby to active toddler to good-looking adolescent. It’s driving the family car now. It has some acne, sure, but the teeth are good and the body sound.

From time to time I’ll hear from one of my friends, asking for advice about which way to go. They may be near the end of a contract, or in new talks offering them lower advances and tighter terms. Here is some of what I tell them.

  1. Traditional publishing is still a viable option 

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of traditional publishing are greatly exaggerated. Yes, trad pub is in the throes of reinvention due to digital disruption. That process is slow, as it is for any large industry facing a shifting infrastructure. Rapid innovation has never been the strength of large industry. But they’re trying.

Traditional companies are also the only way to distribute print books widely into physical stores, including big boxes and airports. If that’s where you want your books to be then traditional publishing is your best shot.

Just understand that your shot is getting increasingly long. Because big bookstores are closing. There is tighter shelf space within those stores. Big boxes and airports are ordering fewer books, and therefore sticking with the big names like Lee Child and Janet Evanovich. While there has been a nice resurgence in independent bookstores, they can’t replace what’s being lost when a major chain store closes.

  1. I understand your anxiety

Being with a traditional house provides a level of security. When you’ve been working with the same people for a long time, there’s a comfort level. When you’re used to the system—editorial, design, distribution, marketing—the thought of switching to a place where you have ultimate responsibility for these things can be nervous time.

Many writers just “want to write,” and not worry about all that other jazz.

My advice is: don’t let anxiety be the tail that wags you. Think back to when you wanted to break in the first time. How nervous were you pitching to an agent? Getting rejected? Wondering if you had what it takes? Eventually, you broke through. You can do it if you go indie, too, because you have the added benefit of a track record. You know what you’re doing as a writer. You have readers who will follow you.

Writers always operate with a certain degree of fear. The trick is to translate anxiety into action, with a rational plan for where you truly want to be.

  1. Don’t think of traditional publishing as your nanny

Trad pub is about the bottom line, because it has to be. You can’t stay in business unless you make a profit. Publishers have to stay in business, and they will treat you with that in mind.

I tell my writing colleagues that a publishing company is not your nanny. If you don’t make them money they are not going to coddle you, make you breakfast, or tuck you in at night. There will continue to be very nice (albeit overworked) people within the company, who like you and want you to succeed. But it is the counter of beans who will determine your future at said company.

Now, if you’re making midlist money and your publisher continues to offer it, you may want to stay right where you are. One successful indie author misses several things about traditional publishing. Have a look here.

Fight for a fair non-compete clause.  Your business partner owes you that.

But you should also learn to sing “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” like the orphans in Annie. I have several writing friends who have been “orphaned” over the years when their editor-advocate within a company moved on or was let go.

  1. Traditional contracts are tight

Traditional publishers are taking fewer risks these days. This is reflected in contracts many writers and agents find particularly onerous. Which is why the Authors Guild is calling for fairer terms. It’s a lovely thought. But it is slamming up against harsh reality. Big publishing simply cannot afford to be overly generous or induced to easily revert assets (i.e., books) back to authors.

It’s business. I hold no animus for a corporation that is trying to stay in business.

But you are in business, too. So be educated about contracts. Work with your agent on the terms you can live with, and those you can’t.

In a lengthy piece on this topic, Kristine Kathryn Rusch wrote:

[W]riters need to know what they’re up against.

They’re not signing up for a partnership with a production and distribution company like they had in the past. Mostly, these days, writers are signing with an international entertainment conglomerate that wants to exploit its assets for as long as possible…

When writers do business with an international entertainment conglomerate, they should be prepared to walk away from what initially looks like a good deal. Because, in most cases, the writers will lose the right to exploit that property themselves for the life of the copyright.


  1. Know your risk tolerance

Thus, what you really need to assess, right now, is your own risk tolerance. Are you willing to walk away from a sure, albeit smaller and more restrictive contract? Can you do without an advance? Do you have the patience it will take to build up an indie publishing stream?

You are taking a risk either way. Traditional publishing is a wheel of fortune. When you pay to play, you’re hoping your book will be the one on the wheel that comes up the big winner. If it does, it could be worth millions. It could be the next Harry Potter or The Fault in Our Stars or Gone Girl.

That’s what you’re playing for—a #1 bestseller slot, the movie deal, the airport placement, the Today Show appearance.

Of course, this sort of fortune happens to very, very few. Books that deserve to be there don’t ring the bell. Yes, your book could be the one, which is what lottery players say to themselves every time they walk into a liquor store or gas station mini-mart.

If you play and your books don’t make it, the cost may be several years of your writing life and possibly no reversion of rights. So be rational about your gambling. If you are you willing to risk all that for a spin of the wheel, then get the best terms you can and good luck to you.

  1. Know your freedom and creativity valuation

But here’s another thing to consider: how much do you value the freedom to write what you want to write and to publish when you are ready to publish? To try a different genre and not worry about branding restrictions and non-compete clauses?

Do you want to be creative more than you want to be secure?

Another thing: if you decide to stay traditional, you at least need a footprint in the indie world. Work with your agent and publisher about non-competing, short-form work to grow your readership.

It all comes down to making the decision YOU want to make, without letting a thousand anxious thoughts hack away at your dreams. So listen to counsel and advice. Talk things over with your agent, your spouse, your talking cat. Pray, if you believe there is divine benevolence.

How Make Living Writer-online coverJust don’t wait for certainty, because the only constant is change.

Traditional publishing will stick around and try to find its way forward. Indie publishing will continue to grow and diversify, and new options for writers who own their rights will appear. This requires constant vigilance and business savvy, which some writers don’t like. Don’t be afraid. The principles of success are not difficult to understand and implement. I wrote a whole book about that.

Whatever you decide, keep writing. I love what one of my favorite Hollywood writer-directors, Preston Sturges, once said. He was riding high in the early 1940s with a string of hits that still shine today. But he knew Hollywood careers are transient. “When the last dime is gone,” he said, “I’ll sit on the curb with a pencil and a ten-cent notebook, and start the whole thing all over again.”

As long as you write, you’re never out of the game.

When Titles Go Bad

By P.J. Parrish

Okay, we’re starting out today with a quiz. No Google-cheating for the answers either. Here are the original titles for some books. I guarantee you’ve read at least one. (I’ve read them all which is why I picked them) Can you guess what they wound up being called?

The Last Man in Europe
They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen
At This Point in Time
Wacking Off

Now let’s talk about what you’re going to call your book. Because this is the most important marketing decision you will make and frankly, given the quality of some titles out there, we all need some help on this front.

The naming of books is a difficult matter. 
It isn’t just one of your holiday games. 
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter 
when I tell you, a book must have three different names.

Apologies to T.S. Eliot but I’ve found that his rhyme about naming cats works for books. In my life I’ve had sixteen cats and published sixteen books. Weird stat, huh? Got me thinking  about how important a name is when it comes to your book.

How important? I found a marketing survey that asked readers what was the element that most influenced why they bought a book. Excluding Gigantoid Author Name (ie James Patterson can put his name on an Altoid can and it would sell) here is the order:

1. Title
2. Cover
3. Back copy
4. Opening paragraphs
5. Price

This is why when Carson McCullers submitted her first novel The Mute to Houghton-Mifflin they bought it and renamed the book The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. This is why after William Golding’s first novel Strangers from Within was plucked from Faber and Faber’s slush pile, it was retitled Lord of the Flies.

First impressions count. And your title is like a business card, a quick but well-calculated introduction you offer your reader in the hopes it will entice her to want to know more. It doesn’t matter if you’re traditionally published or doing it yourself, the wrong title can make or break your book – and you.

Going traditional? In your average publishing house, there will be many people with their hands on your book: editors, sales reps, marketing managers, publicists, even book buyers at the major booksellers will weigh in on the consumer appeal of your title. (Walmart threatened to not stock our book South of Hell because of the title; they backed off) Chances are your title will be challenged or even changed.

Going self-published? What you call your book will be entirely up to you so it’s really important to understand what a title needs to do. More on that in a moment.

Let’s go back to T.S. Eliot for a sec. He says that cats have three names: the first is the one the family uses in every day life. For us this was UNTITLED LOUIS KINCAID THRILLER NO. 1. That’s how it appeared on our contract. Lots of writers call their book WIP or The Book. Or in some sad cases, That Thing That Has Eaten Up My Life For Ten Years.

Eliot’s second name for cats is “fancier names that sound sweeter.” For us, it was The Last Rose of Summer, the title we submitted. We loved this title. We thought it spoke volumes about our thriller which was about the vestiges of Old South racism, forbidden love and death. But it wasn’t dark enough. It sounded like a romance.

Eliot’s third cat name is one that’s “particular, peculiar and more dignified.” This is the title your book really needs. For us, it was Dark of the Moon. We came upon that title after weeks of gnashing our teeth. I pulled my volume of Langston Hughes poems from the shelf and there was his poem “Silhouette” and our final title.

Southern gentle lady,
Do not swoon.
They’ve just hung a black man
In the dark of the moon.

They’ve hung a black man
To the roadside tree
In the dark of the moon
For the world to see
How Dixie protects
Its white womanhood.

Southern gentle lady,
          Be good!
          Be good!

I think some authors have “the title gene” and come up with the perfect names. Others lock onto signposts like Sue Grafton’s alphabet, John Sandford’s “Prey” or Evanovich’s numbers. Although I have to say I’m not crazy about this approach especially since it has spawned some lazy imitation gimmicks. (Hey, I’m going to write an erotic-suspense series! I just Googled condom names! Want to buy my book Vibrating Johnny?)

We’ve been lucky and have had to change only two of our titles. Maybe it’s because I used to write newspaper headlines so my brain is trained to take a story and smash it down into ten words or less that you can read from a passing car. I do know that authors struggle mightily with their titles. There’s even a award for the worst title -– and of course it’s awarded by the British.

Bookseller Magazine gave their prize this year to Reginald Bakeley for his book Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop – and Other Practical advice In Our Campaign Against the Fairy Kingdom. The runners-up were:

How Tea Cosies Changed the World.
God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis.
How to Sharpen Pencils.
Was Hitler Ill?

In twelve years of teaching workshops and doing critiques I’ve have seen maybe one title that I thought really captured the book’s tone. (It was our own Kathryn Lilly’s Dying To Be Thin.) So I know how hard this is. Here is my advice on titles, for what it’s worth:

  1. Capture your tone and genre. Go on Amazon and look up books similar to yours (cruise the genre bestseller lists). Words have inflection, mood and color. Choose them carefully.
  2. Grab the reader emotionally. Two titles that do it for me: The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold 
  3. Don’t settle for clichés. Yes, it’s hard to come up with fresh permutations on old standby words (especially in genre fiction where we rely on “dark” “blood” “death” etc.) But you have to find words that are unique about your story and draw upon them. Here’s a great title that twists a cliché word: Something Wicked This Way Comes.
  4. Don’t use empty arcane words that you think sound cool. Examples of bad titles: The Cambistry Conspiracy. (about world trade) The Hedonic Dilemma (about psychology ethics).  Penultimate to Die. (the second-to-the-last victim).  Don’t worry…I made these up. 
  5. Create an expectation about the story. You know why I love this title: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius? It makes me say, “Oh yeah, buddy? Show me!” and he does.
  6. Be brief and punchy. Okay, I know I just gave you a bunch of long titles I love but there is something wonderful about short titles and studies show most bestsellers have short titles: Gone Girl works. So does Tell No One, Lolita and Jaws (original title A Stillness in the Water).
  7. Make the title work on other levels. This is hard but worth the brain-sweat if you can do it. Consider what these titles come to mean once you get deep into the stories: Catch 22, Silence of the Lambs. But don’t get too clever. I love Louise Ure’s book Forcing Amaryllis and the title is brilliant because it is about a rape and murder. But do most understand that the title is from a gardening term about forcing a plant to bloom early? Not so sure.
  8. Make a list of key words that appear in your book. Is there something you can build on? For our book A Killing Rain, the title came when I heard a Florida farmer describe that drenching downpour that can kill off the tomato crop and we used it in the book. The title was there all the time and we didn’t see it at first.
  9. Search existing works — the Bible, poetry, Shakespeare. I found our title An Unquiet Grave in an 17th century English poem.
  10. Write 20 titles and let them sit for a week or so. Go back and read them and something will jump out. Find some beta-readers you can test with. Titles usually evoke visceral immediate responses. You will know immediately if they connect.

And last: Never get emotionally attached to a title. It’s the worst thing you can do because it probably will be changed. Or needs to be. Because your first title is usually, as T.S. Eliot said, a prosaic every-day thing. You can do better. It’s there. You just have to dig deep. Sweat out that great title that Eliot called the “ineffable, effable, effanineffable deep and inscrutable singular name.”

Answers to the quiz:
The Last Man in Europe (1984)
They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen (Valley of the Dolls)
Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises)
At This Point in Time (All the President’s Men)
Wacking Off (Portnoy’s Complaint)

The Funny Thing About Thrillers

By Boyd Morrison

My friend Brad Parks has graciously agreed to stop by today to discuss a topic that has been kept quiet for too long, a topic we all acknowledge exists but don’t have the guts to address. Brad, however, has taken the brave step forward and is putting his reputation on the line to take on a subject many may consider taboo. Brad, take it away.


       May mother wash my mouth out with soap, but I’d like to talk about the F-word. Or, at least, what some in the crime fiction community consider the F-word:


       This, believe it or not, is a (rare) serious missive from a guy who appeared on the cover of Crimespree dressed in a Tom-Wolfe-meets-pimp white suit. And the question I’d like everyone to ponder – and not in the grubbing-for-comments way that some guest bloggers do, but in a genuine I’m-really-curious-for-your-thoughts way – is this:

       Is it a blessing to write funny mysteries or a curse?

       In this space a few weeks back, P.J. Parrish had a post about how hard it is to write funny. My question is more: do you even want to?

       I ask this because Boyd, my host today, and the other Kill Zone authors are, on average, much smarter than me and I know they’ll have interesting things to say; because I was just nominated for a Lefty Award, given at Left Coast Crime to “the best humorous mystery,” and therefore need to steal the your comments so I can sound clever on panels about this subject later this month; and because I have a new book to hawk (it’s titled THE GOOD COP and Booklist called it “a tautly written page-turner with charm and humor,” so please buy it or Michelle Gagnon will kick a puppy).

       Anyhow, back on topic, I’m now on my fourth book, and I’ve learned that while some people really seem to enjoy a helping of humor in their mysteries, others think the phrase “funny mystery” is the world’s biggest paradox – on the order of “jumbo shrimp” or “compassionate conservative.”

       It’s a curious thing, because in person – or even online – thriller writers tend to be a joyful, often hysterical lot. I often come home from a conference feeling all I’ve done is laugh. And yet while in most aspects of life, this kind of funny is good – human beings are wired to enjoy laughter, after all – the conventional wisdom in the publishing world says funny can taste a little strange when it’s served next to murder.

       “Humor and suspense are contradictory emotions,” said one well-known book critic when I asked him the blessing-or-curse question. “If you’re feeling one, you’re not feeling the other.”

       You’re not supposed to laugh at crime, the thinking goes. Violence and its impact on survivors, which is the substance of most mysteries, are not humorous subjects. When you look at the thrillers that fill the high reaches of the bestseller list, almost none – other than Janet Evanovich – are laughers.

       What’s more, even writers who started off with humor in their work eventually ditch the yucks in favor of more somber stuff. Harlan Coben is a great example of this. His early Myron Bolitar books are often madcap romps. But he didn’t “make it” commercially until he started writing what are essentially humorless standalones. Even now, when he writes a Myron Bolitar, it’s mostly without the comedy that mark his earlier books.

       So does that mean it’s bad to write funny? Some folks seem to think so. I actually got an e-mail from a friend saying she hoped I didn’t win the Lefty, because then no one would take me seriously.

        (“No one takes me seriously anyway,” I wanted to say. Oh, and, incidentally, I also told her she was out of her flippin’ mind. When it comes to awards, I have tried both winning and not winning, and I have found the former to be infinitely more satisfying).

       And yet, for all the critical disdain funny stuff sometimes gets, readers love it. So, up to this point, my own take on the blessing-or-curse question has been that conventional publishing wisdom has it wrong, that it grossly underestimates the intelligence of its readership. I get out quite a bit and the readers I’ve met are, on average, far smarter than the average bear. They are perfectly capable of switching between lighter and heavier moments in a book.

       And so, perhaps as a result, my fourth book in the Carter Ross series has its serious stuff. It starts with the death of a police officer and deals with the issue of illegal gun trafficking. But it also has two elderly Jewish con artists, slinging Yiddish insults at Carter; an intern who is made to perform pregnancy tests on toilet water; and a student who is majoring in “death studies” and helps Carter break into the county morgue while drunk on absinthe.

       It’s all in good fun, of course. And I’d like to think it doesn’t get in the way of the plot or the pacing.

       But it is a mistake anyway? Discuss…

But I Want Success Now!

When I was a writer aspiring to be published, I went to a book signing here in Seattle where number one bestselling author Lee Child was making an appearance. As I stepped up to get his autograph, I mentioned that I had finished three books and was struggling to find a publisher. He told me, “Remember, it only takes ten years to become an overnight success.”

At the time I thought he was just being kind to a newbie, giving me encouragement that I would someday reach my goal. It wasn’t until a few years later when I was a published author and knew Lee a little better that I ran into him at Bouchercon and reminded him of what he’d said. I told him that I understood he hadn’t been pandering to me, and Lee nodded in agreement. Although he won awards early in his career, it took him eight books before he made an appearance on the NY Times list, and several more years before he became LEE CHILD, brand name author.

I think the Internet has only accelerated our skewed expectation that you should become a huge success as soon as you type “The End” on your first manuscript. Writers focus on promoting their first novel to a fault. I see that mistake frequently when I go to writers’ conferences and spot an author pitching agents the same book they’ve brought three years in a row. I see it with authors flogging their one and only book on social media over and over in the hope that it will take off.

Our excessive exposure to the one-in-a-million shots only exacerbates the problem. We see someone like E.L. James, Kathryn Stockett, or Stephenie Meyer reach a massive audience with their first novels and think that will happen for us. It does happen, about once a year out of the over 200,000 books published, but we don’t often read about the back stories behind other authors who toiled in relative obscurity for years before hitting the big time.

Everyone knows mega-selling author Dean Koontz. He’s been producing work for so long that it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t on the bestseller lists, but many don’t realize the dues he paid to get there. Before he published Whispers, his big breakout hit, he wrote thirty-eight novels in twelve years. During that time he was making a living, but he wasn’t a household name like he is now.

The ranks of the current bestseller lists are filled with similar stories. It took twelve years and eight novels for Steve Berry just to find a publisher. Dan Brown published his first three books to little fanfare, and then The DaVinci Code turned them into bestsellers.

Tess Gerritsen wrote nine novels over nine years before she released her first NY Times bestseller, Harvest. Lisa Gardner wrote twelve books over seven years before reaching the next level with The Perfect Husband. Janet Evanovich wrote at least twelve novels before hitting it big with Stephanie Plum in One for the Money. In the self-publishing realm, romance author Bella Andre wrote two series over seven years without much notice and then began self-publishing, after which she became a regular on the bestseller list.

These stories of determination and persistence are the rule, not the exception. While it’s possible to land on that one killer premise from the get-go, building an audience, working on the craft, and developing your voice seems to be the steadier path to ultimate writing success.

I often think of a story from Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. They write about a ceramics teacher who, on the first day of class, divided the students into two sections: one half would be graded on the perfection of a single pot, while the other half would be graded on the weight of their output—an A for fifty pounds, B for forty pounds, and so on. At the end of the semester, the results for the quality vs. quantity test were remarkable. The students being graded on poundage had thrown pots that were of significantly superior quality than the ones by the students who had studied and ached about how to create that one perfect pot. Practice ultimately made the “quantity” students produce better quality as well.

I believe being an author is the same. Thinking about writing doesn’t make you better, writing does. And if you have a large body of work, it’s much more likely a publisher or readers will discover your writing.

So don’t perseverate on perfecting that one novel. If you want to make writing a career, your publisher and readers are going to want many more books. Sit down at your computer and throw those pots. When you’re a success and looking in the rear-view mirror ten years from now, you’ll wonder how it went by so quickly.

The Movie Deal

When I was asked to join this great group of writers to blog on a regular basis, I bet they didn’t think I’d kick things off by writing about movies. But I’d guess my Kill Zone colleagues would agree that one of the most commonly asked questions we get as writers is, “When is your book going to be made into a movie?”
This very question came up in my panel session at the Northwest Bookfest today. For better or worse, movies are more universal cultural touchstones than books. They’re easier to consume and many more people have seen them. When someone at a writers’ conference asks me what my books are like, I usually mention that they would appeal to readers of Clive Cussler or James Rollins. But at a party I say that they’re akin to an Indiana Jones or James Bond movie because I can always be confident that people will get the comparison.
When readers turn the tables and ask about my books becoming movies, I have a hard time formulating a pithy answer. Although I struggle to come up with a meaningful response, it’s flattering for readers to ask. It means that they thought my adventure novel was cinematic in its action, descriptions, and pacing and that they want to spend more time with the characters. It’s the ultimate expression of success for a book to be deemed worthy of the silver screen, but for a novelist the situation is complicated.
A good movie can help cement an author’s career, such as it did with John Grisham’s The Firm, which was bought by Hollywood before he even sold the literary rights. It could also faceplant along the lines of Clive Cussler’s Sahara or Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money. I’d risk the flop for a shot at a hit. The problem is that I don’t know when or if a film will ever happen. While I’m in full control of my writing, I’m a bystander when it comes to having the book made into a movie.
Hollywood has a well-deserved reputation for being a fickle town. The first time I got a call from my film rights agent that a production company was interested in one of my books, I was so pumped that I was already planning what to wear to the premiere before I’d even hung up the phone. Then came a whole bunch of nothin’. I have no idea what went on behind the scenes, but I never heard another peep. By the third time I got a nibble from a producer, I didn’t get excited because I understood that it was just the start of a long process, one which could get sidetracked at any point.
First comes the option. Although the rights can be bought outright, most books are purchased in two- or three-year options, during which the producer has the sole right to make the movie of your book. A novelist won’t get paid for the full amount of the contract until the day principal photography begins (because movies can be and have been canceled at any point up to that moment). However, if the movie isn’t made during that period, then the option rights revert back to the writer, who can sell them again. I know many writers who’ve optioned the same movie rights repeatedly for a decade or more, and the film still hasn’t been made.
That’s because the next step is finding a director, screenwriter, and actors to attach to the film.  If it’s got those, the movie is probably on the fast track to being filmed. If not, it’s likely to end up in “development hell,” the no-man’s land where projects can languish while a script is rewritten multiple times to fix story, budget, or casting problems. For example, the movie Salt was originally supposed to star Tom Cruise until he bowed out and the script had to be completely rewritten for Angelina Jolie in the same role.
When people ask me who I think would be cast as the main characters in my books, I usually tell them it’s somebody who is currently in high school. Katherine Heigl, who played Stephanie Plum in One for the Money, was sixteen years old when that book was written, and Matthew McConaughey from Saharawas four when the Dirk Pitt series was created. Besides, casting is notoriously difficult. Who can possibly see Mickey Rourke as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop, Will Smith as Neo in The Matrix, or Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones, even though they were all the first choices for those iconic roles?
My agent has another challenge in selling my books to Hollywood. When I write, I don’t have a budget. I can destroy hundreds of cars, blow up buildings with abandon, place scenes in exotic locations, and employ a cast of thousands, all of which cost me nothing but would translate into substantial outlays in a film for elaborate stunts, difficult location shoots, and expensive computer graphics. I’m sure one of the reasons that my books haven’t been made into movies yet is that they would cost two hundred million dollars to produce.
For me, the original question remains unanswerable. No film is on the foreseeable horizon, though it would be a blast to see my words come to life on the big screen. I will always be open to getting those nibbles from Hollywood. I do, however, have one condition: even if it’s as a henchman who dies in the first ten minutes, I want a speaking role in the movie. If it’s a flop, at least I’d get a Screen Actors Guild card out of it.

Give Us the ‘Tude

We’re all about helping writers here at TKZ. We can do that on the blog, of course, but every now and again one of us will show up in person at a conference.
Or, we’ll throw one ourselves. That’s what I’ll be doing in Los Angeles, June 4th and 5th. Two solid days of getting your writing to the next level. Wall-to-wall instruction on what you can do to rise above the slush, get noticed, get sold. Click here if you’d like more information.
Of course, we’ll talk about openings and POV, which brings me to today’s first page entry:
The surveillance van stank. That wasn’t unusual. Put two or more people in a confined space for hours on end and the scent fallout will inevitably be a combination of stale sweat and funyuns with the desperate hint of pine from a cardboard tree hanging on the rearview mirror. 
 “…so I told her that’s how it would be irregardless of what she wanted,” Johnson said.
The words registered, but I hadn’t paid the slightest attention to the context. “Uh huh.”
“You’re a woman, what do you think the problem is?”
“I don’t know. Your use of the non-word irregardless?”
Surveillance work was the closest I’d been to the field since being shot three months earlier. I thought it would be better than desk duty. I was wrong.   
I popped the lid off a bottle of ibuprofen and dry swallowed three. Getting shot hurt. What was done to keep me alive hurt more. The company in the van and our location wasn’t helping. Ed Kowalczyk once wrote a song called “Shit Towne,” about York, Pennsylvania. I’ve been to York. Ed wrote a good song. He needs to write one about Reading.
“Do I have to go outside?” asked Johnson, changing topics. At least, I thought that’s what he was doing.
“When I’m on surveillance with a guy,” he put too much emphasis on that gender specific word, “I can just pee out the back door of the van.”
“If I see your penis, I will shoot it,” I said.
He grumbled, but left in search of a public restroom, or a bush. I didn’t care as long as the smell from the contents of his bladder didn’t reach my nose.
The voice of the narrator in this piece is strong. When writing in First Person, that’s the main goal. Give us an attitude. The narrator should sound like someone specific, and someone who might be worth listening to. 
This narrator has a good, irreverent, spunky style. We like protagonists who have a bit of the rebel in them. Why? Because that promises conflict, which is the engine of fiction. In that regard, the repartee is promising. We know this Lead is going to run afoul of those she has to work with.
I also like the crisp attention to detail. The desperate hint of pine from a cardboard tree is excellent. And it’s mixed with Funyuns (note: capitalize product names). That’s specific. It’s almost always better to use actual names than generic categories.
The main way I’d strengthen this opening is to root us in the POV right from the start. I see this kind of opening a lot—a sensory description, but from a voice we have not identified yet. Could this be the author’s omniscient voice? A third person “in the head” voice? Or is this First Person? If so, who is the person?
We don’t get clued in until the third paragraph.
Thus, I strongly urge writers to make that opening paragraph clear about the POV. My suggested reworking is below. It’s by no means the only way, but it’ll give you an idea of what I mean.
I popped the lid off a bottle of ibuprofen and dry swallowed three. Getting shot hurt. What was done to keep me alive hurt more.
“…so I told her that’s how it would be irregardless of what she wanted,” Johnson said.
The words registered, but I hadn’t paid the slightest attention to the context. “Uh huh.”
“You’re a woman, what do you think the problem is?”
“I don’t know. Your use of the non-word irregardless?”
The surveillance van stank. That wasn’t unusual. Put two or more people in a confined space for hours on end and the scent fallout will inevitably be a combination of stale sweat and Funyuns with the desperate hint of pine from a cardboard tree hanging on the rearview mirror. 
Surveillance work was the closest I’d been to the field since being shot three months earlier. I thought it would be better than desk duty. I was wrong . . . .
Now, I know the thinking is that the author wants to establish the setting first, the van, then get to the scene. But readers will wait for setting information if something is happening, like dialogue with a little spice (with all due respect to Brother Gilstrap.) So putting in description after action is often the better choice for the opening page.
Establishing POV and voice right away are:
Janet Evanovich in Two for the Dough:
I knew Ranger was beside me because I could see his earring gleaming in the moonlight.
James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice:
They threw me off the haytruck about  noon.
J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
And so on. I know immediately we are in First Person, and that lets me understand better the descriptions that follow, because it’s coming through a particular perspective. And there is an attitude apparent in each narration as they move along.
Main point: it’s the voice of the narrator that’s the number one thing I look for in First Person. This piece has a good voice, so I would keep reading.