First Page Critique: Where to Start the Story – Secrets of the Home Wood

Jordan Dane

twilight forest moon

Below if the first 400 words of an anonymous submission from a follower here at The Kill Zone. My feedback is on the flip side, but please share your constructive criticism. Let’s discuss this submission.

Secrets of the Home Wood: The Escape
Why didn’t he just stay by the creek? It was quiet and peaceful there. The trees that hung their heads together over the creek, were enormous in girth and mossed with age. He used to like sitting with his back against a willow on the creekside, but lately that just led to staring through the swaying branches to the path on the other side of the creek. And then his thoughts would turn bitter as they circled for the hundredth time. How could they go back without me? Dang summer cold. He was better now. Maybe he could just go through and surprise them. Yeah, that would go over well.

Why didn’t he just stay by the creek? He had flung a stone into the creek and as he watched it ricochet off the rocks and sink beneath the water, he was reminded of the battle. He had looked forward to going back with his parents to help set up the King’s library and the school. He earned the right. Tugg told him he had become a warrior…well, a furless warrior were the exact words, but that didn’t change what he’d done. He felt different over there. He felt he could do things and be what he couldn’t at home. He had saved his friend Pugg’s life and then held his head while he died. He had fought in a battle to save a kingdom and on this side of the portal he had to go back to being ordinary Jon. A kid with responsibilities on the family farm and a best friend he could no longer share everything with. And now look where that had gotten him!

“Jon! What is the matter with you?”

Marly stood with one hand on his arm and the other fisted on her hip. They each stood astride their bikes on the gravelled shoulder of the Concession Two road. Her green eyes sparked with hurt. A cool, late summer breeze trickled between the mature trees that lined the road and lifted the red curls on her forehead. Something boiled in his gut when her next words were borrowed straight from his mother. “Have you lost your marbles?”

Jonathon jerked his arm out of his best friend’s grasp.

“What’s it to you?” He said rudely. He regretted his unfair words immediately when her bow-shaped mouth dropped into an “O”. Too late to take it back. He rode it out. “Look. I’ve got to go. Gramp’s waiting for me.”

Before he could say something else he’d be sorry for, Jonathon leaped onto the seat of his bike and pedalled furiously away. He gave himself a mental boot. How could he talk to his best friend like that? What was the matter with him? He should turn right around and apologize. No. He couldn’t. If he did that, he might break down and tell her the secret. He had thought that coming to see her would distract him from the misery of his thoughts but he didn’t take into account how well she knew him. She knew something was up with him. Marly had been bugging him more and more lately saying he had changed in the last couple of months, was different, holding something back. He couldn’t go back to her just yet.  He’d call her later after he had gathered his thoughts as his Mom would say.

The thought of his mother made him pedal even faster. They were all supposed to go back together. How could they go back without him? She and Dad had been gone two weeks. The burn of resentment flicked around his heart, again. He was supposed to go, too, dang it. And to make it worse, he couldn’t even let off steam to Marly about it. “Let off steam.” Worst. Now he was channelling his grandfather. 

The start of any story can be challenging for any author. We focus on the first 400 words in our TKZ review process, because industry professionals, who are inundated with countless submissions, can usually determine whether they will want to read more or reject the work that quickly.

In an excellent TKZ post, The Great Backstory Debate, by our own James Scott Bell, Jim talks about starting with a character in motion or a disturbance happening in the character’s world that jumpstarts the story at a key spot that should intrigue a reader. New writers may begin a story that way, but they often add back story dumps or too much introspection that “tells” the reader what is happening, to catch them up with events that have already happened. That’s what is taking place in this story.

The first two paragraphs are back story, until a voice calls out to Jon (a disturbance), saying, “Jon! What is the matter with you?” The author might have a better beginning at that point, but there is also “the secret” mentioned in the second to last paragraph. Depending on what the author has in mind, I could see Jon and Marly having a tense talk to lessen his internal monologue, where Jon is obviously holding back before he pedals away, with more of a hint as to the secret. 

NO EXPLANATION OR BACKSTORY. The author should have patience to reveal whatever the secret is in due time. The main thing is to STICK WITH THE ACTION and get the reader caught up in the MYSTERY ELEMENTS of what Jon is keeping from Marly and why his family might have left him behind because of it.

DIALOGUE can lessen the introspection and minimize the author’s tendency to add what Jon knows from his past. Force Jon to stay in the moment with Marley and only allow the reader to glimpse his reticence to talk, so the reader might wonder why. Or have him wanting to race off to stop his family from leaving him behind, if that is part of the story. SHOW DON’T TELL what is truly happening and wait to reveal the mystery later.

ADVERBS –  During my edit process, I look for adverbs, generally words that end in LY. If a sentence is worded correctly, to convey the author’s intent, an adverb is redundant and unnecessary. Here’s an example from the submission: “What’s it to you?” He said rudely. He regretted his unfair words immediately… In this example, the word ‘rudely’ is redundant because the snappy remark from Jon is indeed rude, plus he regrets saying it immediately. Overuse of adverbs can be seen as weak writing in the eyes of industry professionals.

HOUSEKEEPING – There are typos in this short intro. I’ve highlighted the misspellings in yellow. My Word software caught the errors and underlined them in red. Authors should use the benefits of this type of software application. Submissions to industry professional should be error free. Don’t give them an easy reason to say no. I also wasn’t sure if the names TUGG and PUGG were the same character, yet with a misspelling. Reading the work aloud could help catch errors like this.

That’s my overview of the submission from this brave author. Please share your thoughts to help with ideas on how to improve this introduction.


First Page Critique – FORBIDDEN

Jordan Dane

Our first 1st page anonymous submission for 2015 is FORBIDDEN. I’ll have my feedback on the flipside. Enjoy.


Voices of excited Middle Eastern travelers echoed throughout Samarra’s crowded airport. A large man bumped into Eliza and muttered, “Laanah aleiky.” (damn you). She cringed and turned her back to the frenzy. 

Her knowledge of the Arabic language and Islamic culture drove home the risk she was taking – travelling alone in a country with a history of treating women harshly.

Habitat For Humanity has requested Eliza meet fifteen American volunteers at Samarra’s International Airport. United Air was now overdue. After another hour, she again checked the airport’s arrivals digital board. ‘United Air 719 – DELAYEDFriggin hell, they’re almost two hours late. Eliza fidgeted with her hijab (head scarf).

As she gazed at ‘DELAYED’, a vision overshadowed the surrounding clamor. Bloodied bodies, flames in a dark void and screams impaled her with waves of horror. She barely contained a shriek. Stop it, just friggin stop it! A sense of foreboding urged her to run. Find the next plane out of RIPT and get the hell back to Dubai.

“Breathe,” she whispered. She inhaled and exhaled slowly. “Again.” She shivered as the vision faded. Thank God I can easily control those damn visions.

Certain her odd behavior glowed like a neon sign, she scanned the long concourse for a dark and quiet alcove, or a bathroom. Nothing close. She turned her back to the perceived prying gazes and walked to a bank of floor to ceiling windows.


Lights of the tarmac and runways glowed. She listened to a jet’s engines roar as it reached takeoff speed. The last departing flight to leave the Republic of Islamic States and Provinces (RIPT) disappeared in the night sky like a homesick angel.

Trapped. She gasped. Her anxiety soared out of control. One of her strongest triggers erupted. Wild eyed, she watched as a void swallowed a family standing beside her. Her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) psychosis began its torment. A horrific memory surfaced, seized her body and mind.

Instantly, her mind switched to the horror of four years ago. She fought against a seatbelt. It pinned her to the driver’s seat of her van. Screams of desperation. Her sons, Nathan and Noah engulfed in flames, still alive. Oh my God, my boys ….

She restrained a shout for help. No, no, no. I’m at the airport. I’m waiting for American friends. The floor swayed. She grabbed a window’s pillar, closed her eyes.

1.) The first paragraph is too brief to fully set up the imagery of a crowded airport before a large man bumps into Eliza. I didn’t feel the need for the language translation in parenthesis. If the description had been better, Eliza would get a good picture that the man was in a rush and disgruntled as he dismisses his rudeness with an over the shoulder slight. Anyone who travels has “been there, done that” and Eliza wouldn’t have to speak the language to know the gist of what he’s saying, so no need to translate for the benefit of the reader in parenthesis, which draws the reader from the story.

2.) The second paragraph is more “telling” than “showing” of the risk she is taking. The author could have shown Eliza’s body language as she, a woman traveling alone in a male dominated country, navigates through a crowded airport trying to keep a low profile. Does she look anyone in the eye? How does it feel to wear the traditional dress when she’s clearly not used to it?

3.) I would have appreciated knowing what country this takes place in at the top of this submission, as in a possible tag line, to orient me as a reader as to location and time of day. I had to look up that Samarra is in Iran.

4.) The first line of paragraph three has a tense error. ‘Habitat for Humanity has requested…” is present tense when everything else is in past tense. It should read, ‘Habitat for Humanity had requested…’  

5.) The translation of hijab in parenthesis, ie (head scarf), pulled me from the story. It reads as if the author is proud of his or her research and is trying to be authentic by using the correct word, yet adds an awkward translation that detracts from the story. Whenever I have a crime scene forensics procedure or a technical word, I find a way to explain in context as soon after I use the word, so the reader can surmise the meaning without having to resort to a footnote or parenthesized meanings. In this case, the author might have used: As a woman traveling in public, she had to wear a head scarf that covered most of her face. The hijab had grown hot and her scalp prickled with sweat.

6.) With very little world building or description, the reader is thrust into a confusing vision experienced by Eliza. And again, the action is more “telling” than “showing.” As a reader, I was pulled from the story with the sudden switch that read as a contrivance to create an air of suspense or mystery. It confused me and I had to reread to figure out if I missed something. The transition didn’t flow and seemed forced. The author might have given hints of foreshadowing to lead to this vision, like having Eliza grow more agitated with a mounting headache, with her desperate to control the onslaught of something familiar that she can foresee coming.

7.) As Eliza fights for control over her breathing, an italicized inner thought “tells” the reader what the author wants them to know, that she is easily in control, yet that doesn’t appear to be the case as her struggles intensify. So the ‘thank God I can easily control…’ phrase seems to be false or too quickly contradicted.

8.) I can’t be sure of this, but it appears there is a typo in the sentence, ‘Lights of the tarmac and runways glowed.’ The typo is the word ‘of’ should be ‘off.’ Is that how you read it, TKZers?

9.) While Eliza is stressing over her visions, I was distracted with two more parenthesis: RIPT and PTSD. In my opinion, if the full name is given for these, then it is unnecessary to add them in parenthesis right after. I’ve seen this done in corporate memos to allow the writer of the memo to use the acronym later, but that isn’t generally done in fiction. Just as I suggested in point #5, a way to bring in the acronym can be added in context later if needed.

10.) Lastly, the flashback at the end, from four years earlier, is too brief to fully make the horror read as real. A mother watching her sons burn to death would be catastrophic and the wording distances me from what should have been a painful scene to imagine. Then on the last line she cries out, “no, no, no, I’m at the airport.” That sudden reference, because it was italicized, read as part of her flashback and not her trying to regain control. The author might fix this perception problem by simply removing the italicized section where she is back in present day, but the memory is too sterile to be believed. It lacks believable emotion for me.

In summary, the author should have patience to set the stage for the world building in this foreign country and give Eliza more time to show how her visions work and how tormented she is. Other than the quick setting at the airport and the sudden jolt into an odd vision, there is no real action in this opener. The scene is confined to Eliza’s mind and her tortured past without a good enough anchor into the present to ground the reader. I want to care about Eliza and what happened (or will happen to her), but this introduction has too many quick snippets of something difficult for the reader to follow.

What do you think, TKZers? Share your thoughts and give your constructive feedback to this courageous author.


Seasons Greetings

AWREATH3It’s Winter break here at the Kill Zone. During our 2-week hiatus, we’ll be spending time with our families and friends, and celebrating all the traditions that make this time of year so wonderful. We sincerely thank you for visiting our blog and commenting on our rants and raves. We wish you a truly blessed Holiday Season and a prosperous 2015. From Clare, Jodie, Kathryn, Kris, Joe M., Nancy, Jordan, Elaine, Joe H., Mark, and James to all our friends and visitors, Seasons Greeting from the Kill Zone. See you back here on Monday, January 5. Until then, check out our TKZ Resource Library partway down the sidebar, for listings of posts on The Kill Zone, categorized by topics.


Key Tips for Creating a Genderless Character for Villain Options

Jordan Dane

In my critique of Cruel Sacrifices, an anonymous submission, I brought up the topic of creating scenes with a genderless character and TKZ follower Paul Duffau asked for a post on the subject. You asked, Paul. Here it is. 

The technique of writing a genderless character can be effective to allow an author more options for suspects so the reader can’t easily determine the gender of a villain. One of my favorite ways to create a mystery/suspense “whodunnit” is to build a case against a slew of suspects. By the end of the book, I can flip a coin and make the final decision on who is guilty. By making a killer neutral and without gender, that expands my choices. More fun for me.

I’ve seen many books written with scenes where a villain is described as “the man” or “the killer.” As an author, that pulls me from the story, because I see the craft behind the use of the generic term. It’s obvious the author is trying to build suspense by letting the reader see a glimpse of the diabolical bad guy without fully disclosing who it is. I’m sure I’ve done this too, but in my last two thriller novels (Blood Score and The Last Victim), I challenged myself by creating a genderless character to broaden my suspect list and make it harder for readers to figure out who the guilty are. 

Scenes with my genderless character were difficult to write. It’s easy to slip and add a pronoun of he or she, so edits must be thorough. And it’s hard to come up with different ways to describe this person. It’s also a challenge where to place these scenes throughout a book to add tension and mystery, but try it. It adds complexity to your writing and can make for a better “whodunnit.”

1.) Omniscient POV – In select spots during the scene, I write in omniscient Point of View (POV). I try not to carry this on for too long. I want the reader to clearly know this is my bad guy and I add a generic descriptor later to ground the reader into the head of my character, but the shock value of seeing the bodies through the eyes of the killer (the artistic elements to the brutal crime) seemed to create a more macabre effect and give insight into my serial killer.

Excerpt: The Last Victim (Jordan Dane)

Moonlight cast its slate glow onto a lifted hand, fingers gracefully posed toward the dark heavens. They would point to the worthy pinnacle of the masterpiece. The bare skin of a sculpted leg made a beautiful silhouette against the full moon, toes perfectly poised to catch the glimmer of the night. Frozen flesh glittered under the stars in the right light. The crystalline webbing of ice turned blanched skin into an intricate texture with a shine that reflected the dark sacred night.

Too bad the meat had to thaw. To rot.

2.) Generic Character Description – Without gender, I used a description of “the driver” to describe my bad guy. This type of generic description can be used for anyone, men or women.

Excerpt: The Last Victim (Jordan Dane)

Cutting a scream loose, the warmth of a blood shower, the thrill of seeing the soul leave the body and knowing God’s hand played no part in it—those were rare and powerful addictions—but none of those things matched the final moment when hope left their eyes and they accepted their fate. Sated and drunk on memories, the driver tossed sturdy work gloves aside and climbed into a truck when it was time to go, started the engine, and turned on the music.

The voice of Ray Charles sang. ‘What a Wonderful World’ brought a fitting end as the truck jostled along the gravel service road toward the busted gate few people knew about—heading through the trees into the dark sacred night.

3.) Deep POV – Focus on the action and see it through the eyes of the character. My killer is suffering from withdrawals and the need to kill is escalating. So rather than focusing on HIM or HER, I distract the reader by concentrating on the action or what he or she is obsessed with. In deep POV (in our heads), we wouldn’t define ourselves because we already know who we are. We would simply let random thoughts race through our minds, driven by what we see or think. Deep POV, coupled with omniscient view, can give the illusion to the reader that they are in the head of a killer, yet not give away the gender of a bad guy.

Excerpt: The Last Victim (Jordan Dane)

One final glance in the rear view mirror made it hard to leave, but the stunning silhouette of the Totem against the moon stirred the question that remained. Who would top the next creation? There would definitely be a next time and it had to be someone worthy. It wasn’t enough to kill perfection once.

Hitting stride, the Totem Killer had only gotten started and had cross-hairs on the next one. A name. Another perfect one. Everything had been planned with each detail thought out. Nothing would be rushed.

The driver had a pick up to make and wouldn’t go home empty handed.

4.) Unreliable Narrators – Detectives or sleuths can assume a gender based on a criminal profile or perhaps the strength it would take to perpetrate a crime or the statistically expected Modus Operandi (MO) for one gender over another. FBI profiles can project a male killer simply by MO if the crime is heinous enough NOT to indicate a female assailant, for example. So your main heroic character can be the unreliable narrator, or witnesses can lie or tell their version of the truth as they see it. A big reveal can come later to turn things around, but that’s what is so fun about peeling back the layers of an investigation.

5.) Red Herrings – A mystery craft technique, called a red herring, is used to create a clue that leads down a false path in the investigation. This can contribute to the illusion that the killer is one gender, when it can easily be discovered later that the clue was misinterpreted or someone lied to mislead the police. If you couple this method with your generic character POV, it can keep the reader guessing. And news flash: killers lie to throw cops off their scent or they plant evidence or pretend to be a victim to mislead investigators. That makes the chase more fun. A good killer is a chameleon who could conceivably get away with murder. The more diabolically clever the killer, the more brilliant your sleuth would have to be. Make your hero earn his status by giving him or her a worthy adversary.

6.) Scene Timing – If a scene is written through the eyes of the dastardly genderless villain (at a distance, for example), followed by a subsequent scene where the character walks unassumingly on the page with a name, that could influence the reader into thinking “it can’t be him/her. He/she can’t be in two places at once.” If the scene is written well enough, it can appear there is distance and the reader assumes there are two people, when the character could be one and the same.

I used all of these methods to build upon the mystery of my killer’s identity and push off “the reveal” as late as possible in the book. Leave twists in the plot, even toward the end, and make your readers sweat it out.

Has anyone else used a technique not mentioned here, to create a genderless/faceless villain? Or what books have you read where an author kept you guessing on gender? Please share.

Wishing you happy holidays, TKZers! Hope 2015 is special for all of you.


First Page Critique of Cruel Sacrifices

Jordan Dane
Happy holiday season, TKZers! What better way to spend the season than partaking in a little murder and mayhem. For your reading pleasure, we have an anonymous first page critique entry entitled: Cruel Sacrifices. My comments will be on the flip side. Enjoy. And to work off those holiday calories, join in with your comments.

July 4, 2011/Baton Rouge, Louisiana
“Please don’t do it! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to!” the girl cried.

“Oh really, now?” the killer calmly stated.
“Yes, I am so sorry! Please don’t kill me!”

The killer looks into the girl’s eyes. The killer saw only fear and misery there. Then the killer glanced down at the girl in disgust. The killer never thought that they will see the day that this whining creature will be on her knees, begging anyone for anything. The killer remembered when this girl used to hold her head up high, played guys and then throw them away like trash. Party like it was the end of the world. This girl cared for absolutely no one but herself. The girl’s whimpers brought the killer back to the present.

“I’m sorry, okay, I didn’t mean to hurt him!” her tears fell onto the ground. She tried to get up but slipped again on the hard concrete. The killer cocks the pistol, aiming it with perfection on the girl’s face.

“Get up!”

The girl gradually got up. She shook all over. A violent tremor went through her. She glances around at the fireworks in the distance. She yearns to scream for help. She knew what would happen if she did. She didn’t bother to test it. She glanced quickly back at the killer, at the nose of the pistol aimed at her.

What kind of gun is that? She thought. Is that a Glock or a Magnum? She didn’t know the first thing about guns. She sniffled.

“You broke his heart; you do know that, don’t you? He cried that night in my arms. He never went to sleep that night,” the killer told her.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. It was just a joke! You have got to believe me!” the girl broke down again.

“It was just a joke to you! My brother’s heart was only a game to you, you wench!” the killer screamed at her, eyes full of rage.

“Please! Don’t shoot! I really did like him, ya know.” The girl wrapped her arms around herself. “It was only a game! We were only joking, please!”

“That was no game! No joke! You humiliated him in front of everybody! You broke his spirit, lost his trust, his outlook on life,” the killer quietly told her, with a pang of sadness.

1.) This is obviously a flash back with a clear tag line as to time, date and location. A reader can clearly see what is happening when. I like the use of tag lines to orient the reader in a quick fashion. Also the scene starts with a dialogue line and pulls the reader into the scene right from the first line without too much back story or explanation to slow the pace.

2.) The description “the killer” is used before the killer kills. That begs the question – in whose POV are we? A killer would not usually refer to themselves as a killer, especially if they haven’t killed yet. It implies the killer is something coming from the girl facing the gun. Picky I know, but it drew me out of the intro.

3.) The overuse of the reference “the killer’’ is distracting to me. (It’s used 11+ times in this short intro.) I think this is because the author does not want to identify the gender of the killer, but there are more subtle ways of avoiding gender in the narratives by establishing the POV as the person with the gun, then focusing on what he or she sees (ie the girl).

The killer looked into the girl’s eyes and saw only fear and misery. Perfect. Whiny little bitch probably never imagined the day would come when she’d be on her knees, begging for her pathetic life. This girl used to hold her head up high, played guys and then threw them away like trash. She cared for absolutely no one but herself. Her whimpers meant nothing. After what she’d done, how could she expect mercy?

4.) Nearly the whole short paragraph before this line, starting with ‘the girl gradually got up…’ is in the girl’s POV. I would recommend picking one point of view and sticking with it. I generally select the person with the most to lose. In this case, it may be the girl with the gun pointing in her face. She’s scared out of her mind, maybe only seeing a shadow with a dim light reflecting off the gun. Perhaps the killer doesn’t say much, to not giveaway the gender. But if the author stayed in the killer’s point of view, it’s easier to hide gender. Whatever the reason, pick a character to place the POV and stick with it during the scene, rather than weakening the introduction by ‘head hopping’ between characters.

5.) There is a tense problem throughout. Lines like – the girl cried & the killer stated – are past tense, yet there are examples of present tense, ie ‘the killer looks into the girl’s eyes’ and ‘the killer cocks the pistol’.

6.) There is also a point of view problem. The start of the story appears to be in the killer’s POV, yet later it switches to the girl’s, ie ‘What kind of gun is that? she thought.’ And even in the killer’s POV, the perspective is muddled (ie ‘the killer screamed at her, eyes full of rage’ – How can the killer see his/her own eyes filled with rage?).

7.) In addition, if I had a gun in my face, the last thing I’d be thinking of is ‘what kind of gun is that,’ especially if I didn’t know guns. If the scene is written in the girl’s POV, the author could focus on the physical manifestations of fear, which in turn would ramp up the suspense.

I sense the killer might have more justification than revenge for his/her brother’s embarrassment – maybe the brother committed suicide and there is no going back. Whatever the premise, I have a sense that this author understands pace and tension. There’s a natural storytelling skill here. We have all had to relearn grammar and author craft issues, like point of view. Hang in there, author.

What say you, TKZers? Any constructive criticism for our brave author?


I Am a Recovering Plot Pantser–There, I Said it

Jordan Dane


On Monday, guest Steven James had an excellent post on “Fiction Writing Keys for Non-Outliners.” I loved reading his thoughts on trusting the fluidity of the process and chasing after rabbit trails. I can relate to this as a writer. On Tues, our esteemed TKZ contributor, P. J. Parrish, expressed an argument in favor of more structure in her subtle post, “Sometimes You Gotta Suck It Up & Write The Darn Outline” in which she wrote about her love/hate relationship with outlining. These arguments got me thinking about my own process that has evolved over the years.

I started out as a total “pantser,” meaning I came up with a vague notion of characters or a story idea, then started writing to see where it would go. In general, I found this to be liberating and it unleashed my inner story teller, but I found (over time) that I ran out of gas about half way through and hit a wall. I always finished the project. I believe it’s important to finish what you start, if for no other reason than to learn how to get out of tight corners. There’s a true feeling of accomplishment to salvage a story that seemed to be headed for a dead end, and through practice, I learned what pitfalls to avoid. But as a writer under contract, I realized it would be a better use of my time to do some advance thinking on structure, rather than hoisting a shovel to shore up plot holes.

So I found a hybrid method that satisfied my “pantser” free spirit yet provided enough structure to serve as a guidepost – my lighthouse in the fog. I posted a more detailed presentation on TKZ HERE, but I wanted to highlight what this method does for me now.

SAWG YA Presentation - 3-Act Screenplay Structure Diagram 091612

NOTE: A word of caution on any detailed plotting method: A plot structure can become rigid and restrictive if it inhibits the author’s exploration into a new plot twist or character motivation. As Steven James said, some rabbit trails should be explored. For me, this is the fun of storytelling – to uncover a hidden gem of creativity.

When I’m first developing an idea, I break it down into turning points (the 3-Act Screenplay Structure “W”) to get a general notion on structure. It helps me simplify the plotting/outline method into 5 turning points (the W). I can handle 5 things. I use this to write proposals and brainstorm with my crit group for their plots or mine. Rather than getting bogged down by character backstory or other details, I focus on “big ticket” plot movements to provide some substance.

The transition scenes between the turning points are still a mystery that can be explored, but in a synopsis, I can provide enough “meat to the bone” for an editor to get the idea and pair it up with a multi-chapter writing sample. Once I start writing the rest of the book, I can still explore rabbit holes and surprise character motivation twists to embellish the framework I’ve started with. I get my proposal out to my agent (with writing sample, synopsis and pitch) and keep working on current material. While I’m waiting to hear on a sale, I can set the material aside because I have a synopsis to act as a guidepost when I can get back to it. This method has also helped me plot out a whole series, to build onto the storylines (over a series of novels) and ramp up the stakes.

Focusing on turning points from the beginning (before I commit to the writing) has inspired me to spin major plot twists and “play with” the options I should consider. I can reach for complete 180 spins in a “what if” way. As an example of 180 degree turns, I’ve been inspired by the TV show CSI Vegas this season. Many of the episodes are so well written, they make a 180 turn at every commercial break and hit their marks with great twists. I’ve enjoyed this season so much that I record and go back over the plot by taking notes, to see how the writers developed the story. That’s what really good turning points can do for a book/TV show. They pull the reader/viewer into the story and challenge them to figure out where the plot is going. Who dunnit?

So I’m a reformed pantser who has found a way to keep a sense of free spirit, yet write with a framework when I’m ready to go. I feel more efficient, but I still have the flexibility to explore rabbit trails and trust my natural story telling ability.

I’d like to hear from you: How do you handle rabbit trails? Do you put all the work up front in the form of a detailed outline, or do you prefer a lighter touch to “discover” something as you write? Are you a hybrid plotter/outliner too?


Let’s Discuss the Latest on Self-Publishing Resources

Jordan Dane

Just a short blog post today from me, but I could really use your help. I’m interested in hearing from those who have good resources for self-publishing regarding formatting and sales ops. Since we have a wealth of experienced followers on this blog, I’d like to hear your thoughts to broaden my horizons. Self-publishing is a HUGE topic, but I’d like our chat to be focused on the questions below.

Here are some of the things I’m interested in getting updated on:

Format Questions

1.) Do you have format service companies or individuals you would recommend?
I’d like to find a one-stop company or individual who formats for all the major sales outlets: Amazon, B&N, ITunes, Kobo. Please share your experiences.

2.) What format add-ons do you recommend (as far as website links or features) that have worked for you? (ie website links, mailing list signups, retailer sales links, etc.) In other words, what marketing tools do you add to your formats that you would recommend?

3.) Within your format of text, are there navigational aspects or enhancements (bells & whistles) you would recommend to add to your content? (ie chapter list with links to easily navigate within your book, audio enhancements, etc. Some of these might be costly, but I’d love to hear any new ideas.)

4.) Does anyone have a special format service provider for Lightning Source? I hear the LS set up is expensive and corrected proofs must be reloaded. This could be cumbersome, but I hear the quality is good and LS does hardcovers with different distribution outlets. It’s something I’d like more information on.

Sales Enhancements

5.) Regarding sales outlets, are there any new players worth considering?
If you have a site, please post it and comment as to why you would recommend it. I’m thinking the sites mentioned above encompass the majority of sales, but if you’ve found other sites worth considering, I’d love to hear about them.

6.) Has anyone added sales/purchase capability onto their website where a reader could buy from the author directly? I’ve seen this done via a secured PayPal app, but had concerns on sales tax and shipping. I wondered how this worked (for anyone who has experience).

7.) I know promotion is a big topic, but for the purposes of discussion and brevity, what one promotional activity or service provider do you use without fail and would recommend to anyone?

Editing & Cover Design

I haven’t mentioned editing, because again that is a must have for any author and the cost can have a wide range, depending on services needed from line edits to book doctoring. I also haven’t asked about book cover designers. I work with Croco Designs and love Frauke Spanuth. But feel free to mention any other self-publishing services you’ve found helpful.

I bow to your infinite wisdom, TKZers. Please share your thoughts.


How to Successfully Put a New Spin to an Old Tale

Jordan Dane

JBashman_M9B_Predator_REV2_ Final Cover for web (2)

I’m excited to have Janice Gable Bashman as my guest today at TKZ. Her latest release (now available) is PREDATOR with Month9Books. Stunning cover. Janice is a Bram Stoker nominated author and editor of the prestigious International Thriller Writers (ITW) publication, The Big Thrill, and she serves on ITW’s board of directors as the Vice President of Technology. Today Janice will share her tips on how to put a new spin to an old tale and make it fresh. Take it away, Janice—and welcome.

Janice Gable Bashman
I love when an author takes science to its extreme. Often it goes horribly wrong. I devoured early works by Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park and Sphere) and James Rollins (Deep Fathom and Amazonia) during my youth. The books were popular and it’s easy to see why. The authors took old tales—dinosaurs roaming the earth, a 300 year-old space ship at the bottom of the ocean, an ancient power causing havoc in a modern-day world, and a mysterious disease threatening to wipe out the population with the cure hidden deep inside the jungle—and put new spins on them. The stories were fresh and exciting and loved by many. They still are.

So how do you put a new spin on an old tale when readers think they already know how it’s supposed to go and there isn’t anything they can possibly learn?

You have to think outside the box, as the saying goes.

In my novel Predator, I give the werewolf legend a couple of new spins by introducing the Benandanti (an actual folkloric belief that certain families of Italy and Livonia were werewolves who fought against evil) as well as a modern scientific approach to mutation and the science of transgenics. But I take these new spins a step further. The science is used to its extreme, in some cases it goes horribly wrong, and the Benandnati may not be what they seem. How did the Benandanti end up alive today and living in Ireland and the United States? What are they up to and why? Are they good or evil?

By raising new questions, upping the stakes, and using science in a new way, I was able to put a new twist on the werewolf tale. Writing about science or werewolves or super soldiers is nothing new. They are simply a premise. It’s the story elements that give these topics a new twist and makes them fresh and exciting. And it’s the characters that bring them alive.

So how can you do the same with your premise?

Can you combine elements of different genres to create a new idea?

Can your protagonist see things from a perspective different than you ever thought possible?

Can you use your novel’s physical world to put a fresh spin on things?

Can you mash together two concepts to create something new?

Think about it. It’s possible. It’s up to you and your imagination to wow the reader with a new take on an old tale. I know you can do it.

So TKZers—what novels do you love that put a new spin on an old tale, and why?

Janice Gable Bashman headshot-small-slide-246x300 (2)
Janice Gable Bashman is the Bram Stoker nominated author of PREDATOR (Month9Books 2014) and WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE (w/NEW YORK TIMES bestseller Jonathan Maberry) (Citadel Press 2010). She is editor of THE BIG THRILL (International Thriller Writers’ magazine). Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies and magazines. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, and the International Thriller Writers, where she serves on the board of directors as Vice President, Technology.


Book buy links for Janice: (Barnes & Noble)


Guest Author Stacy Green on Creating a Sociopathic Character

Jordan Dane

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Swiss psychologist Carl Yung believed our conscious minds possessed four major archetypes: the self, the shadow, the anima, and the persona. Naturally, as a thriller author, the shadow interests me the most.

The shadow holds our repressed ideas and desires, our weaknesses and the darker side of our psyche. Some people it is this shadow side that comes into play when seemingly good people go bad.

But what about the sociopath? I’m not talking about the serial killers we’ve all studied (I refer to those as psychopaths), but those individuals who walk among us every day with their own agenda, no remorse, and a frightening ability to manipulate everyone they come in contact with. Are these people simply more controlled by their shadow side? More importantly, what’s my shadow side like?

In creating my character, Lucy Kendall, I studied sociopaths. Lucy doesn’t believe she’s a bad person and she doesn’t even consider herself a killer. After all, her targets are repeat pedophiles who keep being turned out by the justice system. She’s in the right, and she’s doing society a favor.

Of course, anyone who believes that has to have some kind of sociopathic traits, right? In research for and creating Lucy, I started thinking about my own shadow side and exactly how close I was to the dark side of life.

According to the ICD 10, the following are considered sociopathic traits. Presence of three or more qualifies for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, aka as sociopathy.

1. Callous unconcern for the feelings of others.

2. Gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, and obligations.

3. Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, though having no difficulty in establishing them.

4. Very low tolerance to frustration, a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence.

5. Incapacity to experience guilt or to profit from experience, particularly punishment.

6. Markedly prone to blame others or to offer plausible rationalization for the behavior that has brought the person into conflict with society.

The DSM IV is another diagnostic tool and defines sociopathic traits as:

1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest

2. Deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure

3. Impulsiveness or failure to plan ahead

4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults

5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others

6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations

7. Lack of remorse as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another

A) The individual is at least age 18 years.

B) There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.

C) The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode. SOURCE

So here’s the thing: I don’t fit that list, thankfully. But I’ve certainly had my moments when I realize I’m incredibly callous and most people would consider me a terrible person if they knew what I was really thinking.

Example: my daughter is a competitive swimmer, and she is able to practice in a very new and nice facility our tax dollars paid for. And every practice, when I see swim lesson kids taking up lanes in the pool, I get angry. I see these kids as space fillers who crowd the pool for team kids who need room to move. And I have little compassion for the parents who equally crowd the window space and get excited when little Johnny splashes a few feet and doesn’t drown. It outright annoys me. And even worse, I’m sure most people within my vicinity know I’m irritated because I certainly don’t look friendly.

What a jerk, right? How could I be so unfeeling toward these people who are excited for their kids and have just as much of a right to be there as I do? Thankfully it’s a feeling that subsides as the hour goes on.

Perhaps that’s my shadow side seeping through. The side that’s easily irritated with people and doesn’t have the patience to keep its mouth shut at certain times. The side that has no problem glaring daggers at a strange kid misbehaving in public. The side my husband affectionately refers to as Pissy Stacy. I don’t have the answer, but I bet if you take a moment to look deep inside, you can find something of yourself on this list.

Perhaps we should be afraid of our own shadows after all.

For discussion: Have you ever battled your darker shadow side?

ALL GOOD DEEDS (LUCY KENDALL #1) is now available at Amazon HERE or through more purchase links HERE.

All Good Deeds StacyFall1press (2)

About the author
Born in Indiana and raised in Iowa, Stacy Green earned degrees in journalism and sociology from Drake University. After a successful advertising career, Stacy became a proud stay-at-home mom to her miracle child. Now a full-time author, Stacy juggles her time between her demanding characters and supportive family. She loves reading, cooking, and the occasional gardening excursion. Stacy lives in Marion, Iowa with her husband Rob, their daughter Grace, and the family’s three obnoxious but lovable canine children.

Amazon Author Page
Facebook Stacy Green, Author
Twitter @StacyGreen26


First Page Critique for: Not Useless

Jordan Dane

For your enjoyment are the first 400 words of Not Useless, submitted anonymously for critique by a daring soul. My feedback will be on the flip side. Please join in the conversation with constructive comments. Thanks!

Quentin felt like a fly caught in a pitcher plant. The old woman had lured him with great promises, but they had been lies. If he didn’t escape, she would destroy his career, his dreams. That would kill him.

Dr. Windsor had her back to him now, kneeling in her space suit in the gray rubble of the crater’s ejecta. Boulders, some the size of New York taxis, made her look small against the planetoid’s monochrome landscape. She bent over a small box. Instead of a legendary scientist, famed for discovering exotic extremophiles, the old woman reminded Quentin of a retiree playing with her little insect hobby. Pitiful. He’d find nothing for his doctoral thesis while working with her.

Yet, many people still respected the exoentomologist for her past work. Quentin craved a recommendation from her.But he also wanted off this useless expedition. He sighed. How could he get both?

“Mr. Stone. If you plan to continue sighing, please disengage your helmet microphone.” Dr. Windsor’s voice crackled in his ears, but she did not look up from her work.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Doctor. I was just thinking of…um…Earth.”

“Important discoveries are not found on Earth, Mr. Stone. They are found out here at the edge of interstellar travel. I selected you because I thought you shared this vision. Was I mistaken?”

“No, definitely not, Dr. Windsor.”

“Good. Now, please bring me the rest of the light lures.”

Quentin winced.  “The rest? You said two packs were all we needed.”

Windsor stopped working and turned to Quentin. He was glad he couldn’t see her face behind her helmet visor.

“Do not be a buffoon, Mr. Stone. I distinctly said bring four packs of light lures. Did you forget some back at the ship?

“Ah, well, ah, when you said—”

“Mr. Stone, I have no time for idiocy. Return to the ship and retrieve them now.” Windsor resumed her work.

“Alone?” said Quentin. “But we’re supposed to travel with a partner.”

“I am aware of protocol, Mr. Stone,” Windsor said, as she continued working. “However, your incompetence has cost me valuable time. If I return, I cannot set enough live traps to make this stop worthwhile. We have a tight schedule and cannot ask the others to wait for us. Follow the guide cable and you will be fine. Do you think you can handle that simple task, Mr. Stone?”

The author teased me into this intro and I was first surprised by the fact this is on a planet or planetoid. My second surprise came when the doctor heard his sigh over the mic to bring the reader from Stone’s internal monologue and back into the scene. The tone is set for calamity. I liked the tension between these two. Stone’s internal thoughts are short and set the stage for what will come next. I would expect something to happen while Stone goes back to the ship, if the foreshadowing holds true.

It’s hard to tell if Stone is a main character, but the set up implies it. The way the author teases us deeper into this story and foreshadows something ahead for Stone, I would turn the page and keep reading. With Stone drawn into his worries about his thesis, it would appear he has done this procedure many times before and is not distracted by what he’s seeing on the planet, but I would like to know more about the setting. Below are some questions I have. The answers may add some depth to the scene.


What is his career? His doctoral thesis? Entomologist too?

Where are they? Which planetoid or galaxy? Any other colors besides a monochrome one? Number of moons? Can Earth be seen? Location, location, location.

What does it look like…feel like…to be encumbered by a space suit? Are they weighted or tethered? 

Staring through a visor, what does he truly see of the planet? I’m assuming there is zero gravity, yet she’s working with a box that’s not adrift or unsteady.

I’d like to see more mood or tone to this. I’m not sure if this will be a suspense story. The foreshadowing is all I have to go on. A suspenseful tone can be enhanced by simple word choices that give the narrative an edgy danger. Or perhaps a mishap of something small can remind Stone how dangerous things can be.

I’d like more setting and tone to fill this opener out. With only dialogue, the scene feels too sparse to create a world the reader will want to see in their mind’s eye. The bones are here, but in my opinion, this needs a bit of filler to broaden the world building.

What do you think, TKZers? Is there enough mood or tone to this? What would you add or change? Your feedback would be appreciated.