YA Scavenger Hunt!


Hi folks! In my new role as a YA author, I’m participating in a very cool online scavenger hunt today. The winners receive a whole stack of free books–and as an added incentive for participating, I’m posting a deleted scene from my novel DON’T TURN AROUND on the page where I’m being hosted! (This was the only scene in the book told from the POV of an adult, which apparently is a YA no-no. But this scene gives insight into what really happened to a fan favorite character in the book, Cody).
It’s a lot of fun, so dive in if you have the time and inclination…
Welcome to YA Scavenger Hunt! This tri-annual event was first organized by author Colleen Houck as a way to give readers a chance to gain access to exclusive bonus material from their favorite authors…and a chance to win some awesome prizes! At this hunt, you not only get access to exclusive content from each author, you also get a clue for the hunt. Add up the clues, and you can enter for our prize–one lucky winner will receive one signed book from each author on the hunt in my team! But play fast: this contest (and all the exclusive bonus material) will only be online for 72 hours!

Go to the YA Scavenger Hunt page to find out all about the hunt. There are TWO contests going on simultaneously, and you can enter one or all! I am a part of the RED TEAM–but there is also a blue team for a chance to win a whole different set of twenty-five signed books!

If you’d like to find out more about the hunt, see links to all the authors participating, and see the full list of prizes up for grabs, go to the YA Scavenger Hunt homepage.


SCAVENGER HUNT PUZZLE

Directions: Below, you’ll notice that I’ve listed my favorite number. Collect the favorite numbers of all the authors on the red team, and then add them up (don’t worry, you can use a calculator!). 

Entry Form: Once you’ve added up all the numbers, make sure you fill out the form here to officially qualify for the grand prize. Only entries that have the correct number will qualify.

Rules: Open internationally, anyone below the age of 18 should have a parent or guardian’s permission to enter. To be eligible for the grand prize, you must submit the completed entry form by DEC 2nd, at noon Pacific Time. Entries sent without the correct number or without contact information will not be considered.

SCAVENGER HUNT POST
Today, I am hosting Ednah Walters on my website for the YA Scavenger Hunt! 

She’s the author of The Guardian Legacy series, and her latest novel is BETRAYED:

Lil isn’t just an average teenager. She’s one of the Nephilim–the descendants of humans and angels–which gives her some serious psi skills and a mission for redemption. Just when Lil thinks she’s found a balance between her normal life with human friends and her training to become a Guardian, someone starts to manipulate the people she loves… and won’t stop until she’s been lured to the dark side.

Ednah’s Bio:

I grew up reading Nancy Drew and Hardy boys mysteries and fell in love with books. I’ve written picture books (unpublished), contemporary and romantic suspense (under the pen name E. B. Walters), and finally YA fantasy under Ednah Walters. AWAKENED (2010) is the prequel to the YA series about the Nephilim, The Guardian Legacy series. BETRAYED(book # 1) is now available wherever books are sold, HUNTED (book # 2) will be released in April 2013. I’m working on FORGOTTEN, the next book in the series. My adult contemporary, the Fitzgerald books, includes SLOW BURN, MINE UNTIL DAWN, KISS ME CRAZY, DANGEROUS LOVE and FOREVER HERS. When I’m not writing, I do things with my family, five children and my darling husband of 20 years. I live in a picturesque valley in northern Utah, the setting for my YA series.

Find out more information about Ednah and her awesome books by checking out the author website or find out more about BETRAYED here!


And don’t forget to enter the contest for a chance to win a ton of signed books by me, hosted author’s name, and more! To enter, you need to know that my favorite number is 6. Add up all the favorite numbers of the authors on the blue team and you’ll have all the secret code to enter for the grand prize!

CONTINUE THE HUNT

To keep going on your quest for the hunt, you need to check out the next author, VICTORIA SCHWAB!

PS…I’ll also be giving away EXCLUSIVE add on content–sections of DON’T TURN AROUND that were deleted from the completed manuscript! So be sure to check it out on Myra Mcentire’s blog!

Enough already.

by Michelle Gagnon

I feel like there’s been an increasingly acrimonious discourse lately on traditional vs. self-publishing, and frankly, I’m tired of it. I’m seeing it at conferences, online, and everywhere in between. Both camps are equally guilty here, in terms of snide comments and blatant put-downs. Those who are under contract with traditional publishing houses sniff at the fact that self-published authors skipped over hurdles to publish what they suspect (but rarely say publicly) must be drivel, or what one writer friend of mine referred to as a “tsunami of swill.”

In the other camp, the self-published authors extol the fantastic revenue returns they’re receiving, a far greater percentage than what they would have gotten from a standard publishing contract. They make lots of references to an archaic business model, implying that anyone who still partakes in it is a fool.

Enough already.

I don’t really care how someone is published, or how many books they sell, or how much money they’re making. But the overall nastiness that’s becoming commonplace is off-putting. The prevailing attitude used to be, “we’re all in this together” among writers, whereas now there’s a schism. And that’s a shame, because both models have their merits.

To those (like me) who are still publishing with the major houses: I’ve read wonderful novels in the past few years that failed to find a home. Sometimes the reason for that was clear–the book was aimed at a very niche market, one where publishers couldn’t envision making a profit. Other times, I was at a loss to know why a particular book didn’t sell. One was an amazing YA novel written by a friend of mine, who ended up self-pubbing on Wattpad. After reaching an extraordinary amount of downloads, she moved it to Amazon and started charging for it. And it’s doing well- IMHO, the publishers lost out on this one. 

To self-published authors: The traditional houses aren’t going anywhere. People frequently point to the music industry, which is a fantastic example. What they fail to take into account is that musicians still aren’t, by and large, self-producing music. Eighty-five percent of the music sold worldwide is still produced by the same music companies that were producing it a decade ago. Many of those companies have merged and/or consolidated, sure. But they’re still around, for the same reason that the big 6 will still be around in a decade. Like it or not (and I’m not, personally, a huge fan of this, but so be it), most of the houses are part of much larger conglomerates. And News Corp and CBS aren’t going anywhere; they’re also unlikely to shed an industry that still feeds into their film and TV franchises. So, no, people who still follow the old model aren’t going to be shoved out, by and large. The midlist might diminish further, but books will continue to be released by those companies well into the future.

There are pros and cons to each model. Self-published authors don’t have the benefit and protection of a contract, so if Amazon decides tomorrow to change those royalty rates, they’re well within their rights to do so. It’s also far more difficult to secure foreign and film/tv rights when you self-pub, and that tends to be the bread and butter of traditional authors.

Traditional authors, meanwhile, do lose out on some royalties that they could potentially be getting. They also have to wait months, and occasionally years, for a book to finally appear on shelves. And advances are not what they once were.


But there’s no right way and no wrong way. Write your book. Publish your book, however you prefer. But please, stop with the mud slinging. At the end of the day, we’re all still pursuing the same dream.

Et Tu, Amazon?

by Michelle Gagnon

So I just emerged from my editing cave (my second draft of book 2 for the PERSEF0NE trilogy is done- whew) to some disturbing news. Digging through a backlog of emails, I came across a few from fans that were extremely troubling. Apparently these fans tried to submit reviews of my book on Amazon, and their reviews either a) never appeared, or b) were abruptly taken down.

Two of the fans send transcripts of the reviews, and they were standard (and positive, thankfully): nothing offensive at all in terms of content.

One of the fans took the time and trouble to write to Amazon, asking why his review was removed. He received this form letter reply:

I’m sorry for any previous concerns regarding your reviews on our site. We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product.

We have removed your reviews as they are in violation of our guidelines.  We will not be able to go into further detail about our research.

I understand that you are upset, and I regret that we have not been able to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on this matter.

Now, I’ve known this fan for years–he’s read (and reviewed!) all of my other books. And he has no financial stake in my work. He also doesn’t sell anything on Amazon, ever–never mind competing products (which would be what, exactly? Other books? Does this mean that I’m no longer allowed to review thrillers by my contemporaries?)

From there, it became even more disturbing. When the fan wrote back and pointed out that he’s never sold anything on Amazon, and doesn’t have any financial interest in my books, they sent another letter–and in this one, the powers that be declared that if he tried to contact them again about reposting, they would REMOVE MY BOOK FROM THE SITE.

That’s right, remove my book. Even though, had he not written, I wouldn’t have a clue that any of this was transpiring.

Hello, Big Brother.

Needless to say, I found this very disturbing, particularly since it doesn’t appear to be an isolated case. After all, two other fans sent similar messages; and I can only wonder how many others had the same experience, but didn’t write to let me know.

All I can think is that this is some sort of misguided attempt by Amazon to try and remedy some of the abuses that came to light in the recent sock puppet debacle (and if you missed all that drama, here’s a link to catch you up). But if so, it’s overkill. These days, with fewer review outlets available to writers, those Amazon reviews can be worth their weight in gold. And on what basis is Amazon is deciding that some posts should be barred? It’s very disturbing.

Thoughts?

Cleveland, City of Lights

When we last met  two weeks ago I was in New Orleans. In the interim I returned home for a couple of days, put out some fires, and then travelled up I-71 North for two hours to attend  Bouchercon 2012 in Cleveland. Bouchercon is an assembly of mystery writers and fans of same, so, like, how could I not go, with it being so close and all?
I was glad I did. If I had stayed home for three days, I would have done nothing but work. I worked at Bouchercon, too, but also 1) reconnected with friends I had not seen for a few years; 2) made some new friends; 3) became better friends with some folks; 4) reconnected with a guy that I worked with some forty years ago; 5) took award-winning author Kelli Stanley and British crime journalists Ali Karim and Mike Stotter — three of the finest folks you will find on this earth —to Mike the Hatter in Broadview Heights, where they each and all found lids that looked wonderful on them; 5) visited the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame; 6) had breakfast with my editor and BFF Carol Fitzgerald, and three members of the original Bookachino internet chat room from way back when the internet was in its cradle; and 7) was the target of  an attack by a drunken troll in the men’s room of a theme restaurant near the host hotel. And how was your weekend?

I have to tell you though that one of the best parts of Bouchercon was beginning it and ending it with fellow Killzoner Jordan Dane. If Jordan ever raffles off a dinner with herself, buy up the tickets. She is wonderful company. We had dinner with author Bev Irwin Wednesday night, before the conference really got rolling, and Jordan is unbelievably funny. She was even funnier after dinner, when I was back in my hotel room, and she began texting observations about this, that and the other to me. Hilarious. And yes, Jordan, you can borrow my gun any time you want; just leave me a bullet so that I can take a shot as well.

Saturday night I was blessed by joining Jordan for dinner once again. I found myself seated with about ten million dollars’ worth of talent in the form of Jordan, Rick Mofina, Linda Castillo, and Julie Kramer. It was a celebration of wonderful news for Rick and Linda: they announced their engagement that evening. Just kidding. What was their news, really? Rick that morning had just received the news that his wonderful new novel, THEY DISAPPEARED, entered the Canadian book lists at Number Two. He learned of this from Linwood Barclay, whose own book, TRUST YOUR EYES, remains at Number One on Canada’s list. There is excellent taste up north, all the way around. As for Linda, her Kate Buckholder series, set in the Ohio Amish country about an hour’s drive from me, is on track to be a television series. Linda, if you hear that the producers are looking about for someone to play a rotund English, please tell them that Sweet Joseph is available.

Seeing Wonderful Jordan, however, was not my only encounter with Kill Zone participants. San Francisco’s Michelle Gagnon was in the house for the William Morrow party. Michelle, besides being an incredible wordsmith, has a fashion sense that any and all would envy. I don’t know anything about such matters, but she somehow always seems dressed to the nines without even trying. Everyone gravitates toward her, and rightfully so. It was wonderful to see her again and to get to spend a little time with her. And what conference would be a conference without Kill Zone alumnus John Gilstrap? John, who is always worth being seeing with and listening to, was in the “Cool Kids Corner,” outside of the hotel with the smokers, even though he doesn’t smoke. I was privileged to spend some quality time with him and Matthew Clemens and get several updates and down dates on the state of the industry. I also hear that Kill Zoner Boyd Morrison was in the House, but somehow failed to meet up with him. Boyd, you evaded me this time, but your luck will not last forever.
There’s more, of course, but that should be more than enough to persuade you to attend Bouchercon the next time it’s in your area. It will be in Albany, NY in 2013; Long Beach, CA in 2014; and Raleigh, NC in 2015. You gotta go. And if you do, say hey.


Crime Fiction Rocks at 2012 Bouchercon Mystery Conference!

by Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I’ll be attending one of my favorite conferences is coming up on Oct 4-7, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. Bouchercon is a world mystery convention that has been taking place annually since 1970. It’s open to anyone and is a place for fans, authors and publishing industry professionals to gather and celebrate their love of the mystery genre. It is named for a famed mystery critic Anthony Boucher. During the convention there are panels, discussions and interviews with authors and people from the mystery community covering all parts of the genre. There are signing events for people to meet their favorite authors face-to-face and get books signed. Bouchercon also has the Anthony Awards which are also named after Anthony Boucher. These are voted on by the attendees and given out during the convention. For more, click HERE. Guests of honor for 2012 include: Elizabeth George, Robin Cook, Mary Higgins Clark, Les Roberts, Librarian Doris Ann Norris, and toastmaster John Connolly.

Fellow TKZer Michelle Gagnon and I will be on a YA panel for the first time. I’m really looking forward to that. If you are attending, I’d love to meet you. Please confirm any of these times with the final program.

 
12:15 – 1:05 PM Thurs, Oct 4, 2012
Grand Ballroom B
The Popularity of YA Books panel – How do authors appeal to young readers and keep them interested in reading? Book signing will be held in the dealer room following the panel. Joining Jordan will be Michelle Gagnon, Joelle Charboneau, Bev Irwin, and moderated by Keir Graff.


I’ll be on another fun panel featuring romantic suspense with Heather Graham, Lori Armstrong, C. J. Lyons, with Monette Michaels as moderator. We may have a mystery guest to round out our group. We’re still waiting to hear. Stay tuned.
 

3:50-4:40 PM, Friday, Oct 5, 2012
Location: TBA
“I used to love her, but I had to kill her” Guns & Roses Panel – Moderated by author Monette Michaels, stellar panelists Heather Graham, Lori Armstrong, C. J. Lyons, and Jordan Dane will discuss romance in thrillers. Hallmark doesn’t make a card for “I’d take a bullet for you, honey” but our panel of bestselling authors share their titillating secrets on how they spice up their thrillers with Guns & Roses. (Door prizes and giveaways for those in attendance. Grand prize is a NOOK color e-reader for one lucky winner.)

Prior to this panel, Mike Bursaw will host a “Booze & Broads” signing event at the Mystery Mike’s booth in the dealer Book Room for the authors. Alcoholic libations will be served, a shot at a time.

HERE is the attendees list for 2012, but I understand TKZ’s Joe Hartlaub and Michelle Gagnon will be in attendance (as well as another TKZ veteran, John Gilstrap) so I hope to finally meet them all over a cool beverage.
 
Anyone else going to Bouchercon this year? TKZers—have you ever been? I’d love to hear from you.

Do Giveaways Work?

by Michelle Gagnon

Figment.com has just announced a contest to celebrate the release of my YA debut DON’T TURN AROUND. In keeping with the theme of the book, they’re asking for a story about teen rebels with a cause, in 1,200 words or less. The winner will receive a 13 inch MacBook Pro (a computer that features prominently in the storyline, since it’s sort of a “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for teens”), and a signed copy of the book.

I’m really excited about this (especially since, for a refreshing change, this time I won’t be the one paying for the grand prize!) However, I wonder…do giveaways really lead to more copies sold?

For my second book, BONEYARD, I held a Kindle contest. Anyone who signed up for my newsletter got their name thrown into the hat (mind you, this was for the Kindle 1, which as a brand spanking new device retailed for $450).
That was, to date, my bestselling novel.
But I was hesitant about repeating that particular contest-after all, signing up for my newsletter didn’t necessarily translate to purchasing the book; and many might simply unsubscribe as soon as the contest ended. (For the record, I didn’t experience an unusually high dip in subscribers in the aftermath). Plus, it was a lot of money to spend without a quantifiable return.

So for my third thriller, THE GATEKEEPER, I decided to take it up a notch. I offered a MacBook (paid for out of my own advance) to anyone who could answer two easy questions about the book.
I received a decent number of entries; certainly not as many as with the previous contest, but a respectable amount. To enter, a reader needed to provide the names of two specific characters, in response to a fairly simple question for anyone who had read the book.

But some people literally sent a full roster of every character in every single one of my novels. One woman emailed me directly twenty times over the course of a day, listing two characters at a time (a few of whom weren’t even from any of my books), asking repeatedly, “These two names? What about these two?”
When I gently pointed out that randomly throwing names at me wasn’t really keeping in the spirit of the contest, she got huffy and fired off a nasty email about how spoiled authors were, and how this was the only way she could get a new computer. Plus, she wasn’t a big reader in general, and found it unfair that she be asked to read something in order to enter a giveaway.

*Sigh. The entire experience ended up leaving a bad taste in my mouth (not to mention a dent in my wallet). So for my fourth book, I skipped contests entirely.

I had no idea that Figment was going to be running this contest until it posted; I love the idea behind it, though. Especially since Figment serves as a virtual writing community. And I’m terribly flattered that they’re offering such an amazing, generous prize.

But will it translate into sales? Hard to say. I know the old 50% marketing adage (half of what you do will work, but chances are you’ll never know which half). But it’s a source of perpetual frustration for every author–where do you concentrate your marketing time and money, especially now that there’s such a huge array of options? Hemingway never had to deal with Twitter (although I suspect he would have been fantastic at it, with his knack for sparse prose).

So what do you think? Has a giveaway ever persuaded you to purchase a novel you never would have picked up otherwise?


What Killed the Thriller Writer: Your Attention Span

by Matt Richtel

Today TKZ is delighted to host Pulitzer Prize winning NY Times reporter and thriller author Matt Richtel. His post today ties in nicely with a discussion Clare began on Monday: read her post here if you missed it, and let’s continue the debate…

Body counts are rising, blood spilling in buckets. It’s a conspiracy pandemic. Thriller writers entering an epic age of mayhem.

Credit the muse? Maybe.

For sure blame the Internet.

It is responsible for a fascinating new trend among, in particular, mystery and thriller writers. We are writing more than ever. No longer just a book ever year. In the last year, it has become au courant for us to also publish short stories at least once a year, between book releases.

Lee Child, Lisa Gardner, Steve Berry, go down the list of the heavyweights. They’ve all getting into the short-story game, creating a thriller wellspring, or, if you prefer, a bloodbath. I enter the fray myself this month with “Floodgate,” a political thriller, my first short story.

But as with any good plot twist, there is well more here than meets the eye, a backstory, and some troubling questions, including, chiefly: is this a good idea? Or are we at risk of murdering something truly dear: our craft?

First, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the facts:

It’s long been tradition for thriller writers to put out a book once a year to keep audiences attached to characters and authors and, bluntly, to their brands. This was not necessarily an easy schedule for writers, especially those who really invested in depth, but it was doable and simply understood as necessary.

I’ve had some big-name thriller-writer friends tell me that when they didn’t write a book one year – say, because of a divorce or contractual dispute – they’d see a material decline in their sales.

Then along came the Internet, with all its mixed blessings (see, duh: Amazon). More competition, less shelf space, less control for publishers on distribution (see: almost none). How did short stories become a response?

The publishers (and we writers, by extension), began to fear that we’d get lost in the white noise of competition. Make a reader wait a year for a new book? Heck, by then even loyal readers might’ve made for the nearest cat video. So part of this is an effort to keep our names in the LED lights.
       
There’s also a more direct marketing reason. The short stories are “e-pub,” electronic only. They are relatively cheap, 99 cents or so, so there’s little incentive for a reader not to at least give it a shot, particularly if written by a favorite author. At the back of the short story, there often is the first few chapters of the author’s next book, and a “click-to-buy” button.

If readers like the story, they pre-order the next book. Pre-orders are great because they build the so-called “first-week sales,” which, if those mount, can get the writer on the bestseller list. In short: the short story as loss leader.

Writers privately grumble: you mean I gotta write something else, for free, while I’m already on a breakneck cycle of write, edit, publicize, repeat? Oh, and did I mention blog, Facebook update, tweet, repeat?

How good can these stories be if we’re writing on a treadmill?

So it all sounds like marketing, and nothing more, right? Like: gag me with a spoon (and put police tape around my utensil-strangled body). Not so fast. There’s, potentially, a lot to like here.

First of all, short stories, when done well, can blow the mind. Swift movement, concision, detailed and fast character development, a flurry of clues. A short story can make every word count, the language itself pregnant with clues.

(One great short story making a lot of rounds is “Wool,” if you haven’t read it; I’m told it has been optioned by Ridley Scott).

The medium also is a chance to introduce or try on a new character, not your usual protagonist. In the case of Floodgate, my latest, I’d long been aching to write about Zach Coles, a bitter, hostile out-of-work journalist who once punched an editor for misplacing an adjective; he’s tall and awkward, moving like a drunken Ostrich but fighting like a Ninja.

One friend with a string of bestsellers urged me to weave into Floodgate my regular protagonist, create a bridge, if you will, between short story and my other books. And creating, in turn, for my regular readers, a bit of an Easter Egg.

In the end, it was extra work I hadn’t contracted for. More bodies piling up. Another conspiracy I hadn’t expected to execute this year. An experience driven in the first instance by marketing, not the muse.

But she did take over, the muse, wrestling away what might’ve been a very cynical process.  I gave a damn (unlike Zach Coles, whose venom makes it very hard to save the world). No wonder. We, thriller writers, don’t kill because we have to. It’s because we need to.

Meantime, Harper Collins is doing its part, meeting me more than halfway, putting out some swanky videos, radio spots (Don Imus!) and banner ads they hope will make it viral (fat chance but not less-than-zero). So blame the Internet for mass murder. But hopefully we can rely on the muse to spare us and make the killings artful.

Matt Richtel is a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter and bestselling thriller writer. His latest, Floodgate, a political conspiracy that puts Watergate to shame, comes out this month. He can be reached at mattrichtel at gmail dot com.

Tag Line Haiku

by Michelle Gagnon

Ah, the tagline…how I love it. For those of you who don’t know, a tagline is that little nugget on a book cover (or movie poster) that serves as a branding slogan, that memorable phrase that persuades you to buy the book (or purchase a ticket to the movie). The following are a few of the most  famous cinematic taglines:

  • “In space, no one can hear you scream.” -Alien
  • “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.” Jaws 2
  • “There can be only be one. -Highlander
  • “One ring to rule them all.” -The Lord of the Rings 
  • “The truth is out there.” – The X-Files 

One thing most people don’t know is that authors rarely get to choose their own taglines. So far, my books have been graced with the taglines, “Anyone can end up in the…BONEYARD,” and “We are our greatest enemy.” (THE GATEKEEPER). My latest release, DON’T TURN AROUND, actually had the tagline changed once some of the top buyers weighed in on it; we ended up with, “Off the grid/On the run” (which I love).


It struck me, as I recently perused the vast array of titles at my favorite independent bookstore, that there’s a game in here somewhere. A way, if you will, to combine two of my favorite things: taglines and haikus. And you’re all invited to participate.


Just so we all understand the rules: a haiku is, according to the standard definition, “A Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five.”


For the sake of simplicity, feel free to combine book tag lines with film tag lines, if they seem to belong together. But make sure to attribute the tags to the appropriate sources.


I’ll be composing my haiku with a nod to some of my favorite titles (I excerpted the first part of the tagline when necessary; feel free to do the same).
Have fun, I can’t wait to see what you all come up with!

Past evil still lives.  
Beauty is only sin deep. 
Everything ends here.  

(Respectively, Heather Graham, THE UNHOLY; Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, SLIDE; and Patrick Lee, DEEP SKY.)

On a side note, if you’ll permit a digression: my publisher is currently giving away galleys of my upcoming release, DON’T TURN AROUND. There are a few different ways to enter, and each only takes a few minutes. 


On Twitter, just retweet this:
@EpicReads Off the grid. On the run. DON’T TURN AROUND by @michelle_gagnon http://vsb.li/zJ3A8c RT for a chance to win!

On Facebook, Like this page.

And/or on Goodreads, Click here to enter.

Feel free to forward to anyone who might want a free book!

Setting the Stage: A Writing Exercise

by Michelle Gagnon

For a change of pace today, I thought we could tackle a writing exercise. One of the things that’s struck me during our critiques lately is that I’m not alone in sometimes neglecting to include enough descriptive prose to set the stage for my stories. In fact it’s such a weakness of mine, I rarely add much detail in first drafts. I get the plot and dialogue in place, then go back during the editing process to flesh everything out. In all honesty, scenery description is my least favorite part of the craft of writing. 

For one, remembering to include all five senses is always a struggle; I have a terrible sense of smell, and have to remind myself that my characters might not. Also, describing anything from a basic room to a crowd scene is rife with pitfalls; there isn’t a writer alive who hasn’t caught themselves typing out a trite cliche about the shape of the moon, or something similar.


So when my book is set somewhere specific, I rely heavily on photographs. The corkboard behind my desk is always layered with photos representing nearly every scene in the manuscript. I find that looking at them triggers sense memories, especially if I’m writing about somewhere I’ve been. I remember how streets in Paris are always wet in the morning, having been freshly washed by maintenance crews just before dawn. Or how the light in Central Park shifts dramatically season by season, or how the air in South America just tastes different (maybe my sense of taste is stronger, to compensate for that lack of smell).


Below I’ve pasted three photos. Pick any one and describe it in a paragraph, or use it as the jumping off point for a scene. Take care to avoid overused metaphors: “The sea was dark as slate,” for example, or, “The sky was as blue as a robin’s egg.” 


Bonne chance!

First Page Critique: DON’T SAY A WORD

by Michelle Gagnon

Today’s first page critique submission is entitled, DON’T SAY A WORD. As Joe said yesterday, we’re accepting 350 words max of works in progress. We aim to provide an overall assessment of the work based on what we’ve learned through our own publishing experiences. We hope it will be helpful not just to the author of each work, but to all of our readers.

DON’T SAY A WORD

“All right, Marconni, see Valentino. There. Mickey’s the one in the red silk,” I said, pointing to the three gang members of the Valentino family gathered in the New York City Italian restaurant.

Assistant FBI Director John Marconni drew in a deep breath as we watched the surveillance feed. The lights inside glowed dim, and the closed sign appeared in the window with the red checkered curtains two hours ago. The last public patrons were long gone.

“They won’t be there long. Valentino doesn’t socialize well,” I said, running a hand over my neck, massaging the tight muscles.

Marconni nodded. “He’s not slipping out this time, Aiello.”

“You won’t take him alive,” I said, shaking my head, “he’ll never testify.”

I grimaced and felt adrenaline pumping into my system. At least at this hour, whatever went down, no more civilians would die at Valentino’s hands.

Marconni raised his hand and spoke into the mike. “Hold, Team one. Eyes open, Team two!”

I saw it.

Movement on the street caused Marconni’s hesitation.
A figure appeared out of the shadows and walked toward the restaurant. A woman, dressed to the nines, clingy red scrap-of-a-dress, four inch heels, body to die for. Long brown tresses cascaded to her waist. She fished in her purse for something.

“We got her, boss. She’s going in. Team two, hold position. We got a renegade on approach.”

My heart slammed into my chest.

She inserted keys into the lock and for a fraction of a second, as she opened the door to the Valentino hideout, the dim lights inside illuminated her face.

“You seeing this, Tony?” Marconni asked.

“I see it,” I growled, the recognition flooding into me, twisting my gut.

I watched as the woman walked over to Mickey Valentino. He pulled her into his arms and they embraced. Kissed. His hands roamed all over her, and I watched with revulsion as she responded to him.

“We gotta go in, Tony. I’m sorry,” Marconni whispered where only I could hear. Then he spoke into his mike, “Go, Team Two. Take ‘em alive. All of them.”

As an opening page, I really enjoyed this submission. The author does a good job of dropping the reader into the middle of a scene without an inordinate amount of exposition. The stage is set nicely for whatever is about to transpire.

I do wish that I was given a better sense of where the narrator is vis a vis the action; is he in a van? I assumed so, based on the surveillance feed line, but a single sentence of clarification would be helpful. What does it smell like inside the van? Maybe it reeks of take out, since they’ve been there for awhile. Perhaps our narrator is hungry, since he’s been stuck there for hours. Also a few lines about the restaurant, and/or the surrounding area. Is there anyone else outside? Is it summer, spring, fall? This is another opportunity to provide a few key details that really set the stage. I understand that it’s late; can he hear garbage trucks collecting trash from dumpsters? A few cabs sliding past on the nearly empty streets? Are homeless people dozing in nearby doorways?

And what does Marconni look like? Is he in a sharp or rumpled suit? Old, or young? Again, just adding in a sentence here or there to build a sense of what the characters look like and what they’re feeling would be helpful.

There’s a nice noir feel to this piece, and I think it would be great to expand on it a bit. But some of the phrasing is a bit trite: grimacing, heart slamming into my chest, adrenaline pumping into my system. These are all nice and descriptive, but a bit overused. I would aim for more subtlety, and coming up with a way to illustrate these sensations that is more original.

All in all, I would definitely keep reading. I’m curious to find out what the narrator’s relationship is to this woman, and to discover what’s about to happen in the restaurant. Well done.