Next on the TBR Pile

by Michelle Gagnon

This post is going to be brief and entirely gratuitous.
As you might have heard, The Kill Zone is taking next week off to relax, indulge, and (at least in my case) catch up on our reading. I just tore through two fantastic books: PILLARS OF THE EARTH and WORLD WITHOUT END by Ken Follett. After immersing myself in the Middle Ages for the past few days, I’m about to tackle my TBR pile again (ideally, focusing on books with more contemporary settings). I’ll be spending a week at the beach, and would love some recommendations.

So…what have you read recently that you absolutely loved? (Or hated, so that I can take it off the pile). I’ve already tackled the summer releases of all my favorites: Lee Child, Karin Slaughter, Douglas Preston, John Sandford (and yes, I made my way through Larsson’s trilogy). Are there some hidden gems out there that I’ve missed?
Fire away…

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Buy now, and get a free Billys Pan Pizza…

by Michelle Gagnon

So I stumbled across an interesting piece in the LA Times the other day about an editor-turned-agent-turned-entrepeneur who has hooked up with the site “OpenSky” to help authors market more than just books to their audience. She listed one intriguing example: fellow crime fiction writer Michael Koryta has a book set in an old hotel in Central Indiana known for its “Pluto Water,” which apparently has health benefits. If Koryta hooked up with Open Sky, the novel could be tied to both the promotion of the hotel and of the water (OpenSky would find a supplier to bottle and ship it).

Another example: A cookbook author not only sells books through OpenSky, but also hawks a favorite barbecue sauce and grill. The author pockets 50% of the profit, with the rest going to OpenSky and others involved in the transaction.

It’s an interesting model. While the author of the piece jokes about whether or not Steig Larsson would have considered peddling the coffee his protagonist drinks, one of the things that struck me while reading THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO was the name dropping. Salander never had a mere generic pizza, she always ate “Billys Pan Pizza” (and lots of them). Likewise, the computer she used (a Mac), the cigarettes everyone smoked (Lucky Strikes), the cell phones they placed calls from (Sony-Ericssons)…all were named repeatedly, to the point where I wondered if Larsson had been secretly hoping for product placement tie-in deals.

Television has already started experimenting with this possibility. Some of the next generation cable boxes will enable consumers to click on the screen if they like, say, the dress that a character is wearing, which will immediately place an order to their account. And voila, a few days later they’re sporting Eva Longoria’s maxi dress.

So should authors consider going to same route?

There are certainly arguments against it (as I read the article, I could almost feel the collective shudder of horror emanating from traditional publishing houses). Books are seen by many as more than a mere commodity. A friend of mine compared it to offering happy meal trinkets when buying an oil painting. But in this age of dwindling marketing budgets, can books afford not to think outside the box? Film and television studios have both incorporated significant product placement in their offerings to offset revenue reductions. And with more books being consumed electronically, does it make sense to integrate links for people who develop a hankering for “Billys Pan Pizza” while reading the novel? Wouldn’t a cross-marketing campaign like the one pitched for Koryta’s book benefit everyone involved?

As I read it, I tried to think about what OpenSky would be willing to sell from my books. I suspect that night vision goggles and Glocks wouldn’t be their first choice, although both figure prominently in my last book (and in retrospect, I probably should have incorporated more specific brand names). But it is set in Mexico City- a link to a tourist agency, perhaps? Or an airline? Better yet, the best security company to call should you get kidnapped?

Is OpenSky offering just another opportunity to sell out, or could it provide a much needed boost to authors struggling to market and make money off their work?

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CSI vs. The Reality

by Michelle Gagnon

I had lunch recently with a friend in the DA’s office, who was bemoaning the “CSI Effect” on a case she was prosecuting. For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to how the popularity of shows like CSI have caused jurors to expect high tech evidence to be presented in every case. And absent that evidence, there’s a tendency to assume that the police didn’t do their job.

Which, of course, isn’t necessarily the case. DNA evidence, even when it is collected, faces a huge processing backlog. Plus, there’s the simple cost/benefit analysis. All of those fancy tests are expensive, so law enforcement needs to pick and choose which cases merit that kind of expense. And sadly, with most, they just can’t afford to put that fancy equipment (most of which is several generations behind what you see on TV) to use.

Here’s a personal example. A few years ago, my father’s car was stolen. The police came, took the report…and somewhat miraculously, found the car (an old Volvo station wagon, on its last legs) abandoned in a bad section of town. When my dad picked the car up, he noticed a discarded cigarette box in the rear passenger footwell. Being an aficionado of crime shows, he knew exactly what to do. Carefully using a pair of tweezers, he picked up the box, placed it in a baggie, and trotted down to the station with his evidence.

“What do you expect us to do with this?” The duty cop asked.

“Dust it for prints,” my dad said.

“But you got the car back, right?”

“Sure, but don’t you think maybe it might have been used in a another crime? It’s not an expensive car, they probably used it to haul something…from a burglary, maybe.” (On a side note, clearly the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. When he told me this story, I immediately envisaged all sorts of terrible crimes being committed with the help of Bessie the Volvo).

“Yeah, maybe,” the cop said. “Hand it over.”

On his way out the door, my dad turned back and saw the cop toss it in the trash can.

Now, I’m not bashing law enforcement here. It’s likely that the local department simply didn’t have the resources to pursue the case. I watched a show last week where an entire unit spent weeks trying to solve the disappearance of a prostitute in a major city, using all sorts of high tech toys to assist them in their search. And that rarely happens. While researching BONEYARD, I stumbled across the term, “the Missing Missing.” When certain people- prostitutes, runaways, illegal immigrants- fall off the grid, the cases are rarely pursued. But if a twenty year-old honors student vanishes, chances are it will be a constant news loop for at least a few days. In reality law enforcement resources aren’t always applied equally or fairly- there isn’t enough money invested for it to be. So if you’re serving on a jury for a burglary, chances are you won’t see 3-D renditions of the crime scene and a slew of DNA evidence entered against the defendant. Luckily, as my cops friends always say, most criminals are stupid. They’re caught literally holding a smoking gun in their hands.

My favorite example from the local crime blotter this week. Mind you, I didn’t insert the “duh,” that was a nice touch by the SFPD:

On July 15th at 5:20 pm, The Plainclothes Team was patrolling in the
area of 3rd and Quesada when they came upon a group of subjects walking
down the street. The cops recognized some of the members of the group as
active members of a local violent street gang. One of the subjects
recognized the officers as well and alerted his associates. They
immediately split up into smaller clusters. One of the groups ducked
down behind the parked cars at the curb and continued to walk in this
crouched manner to avoid detection. Duh, they were unable to avoid
detection and were stopped. There was a good reason for all the
crouching and hiding nonsense. The officers located a loaded .9mm
handgun, along with a full box of ammunition, that was tossed by one of
the subjects into a driveway. This incident resulted in the arrest of
three individuals on gun and gang charges.

Chalk up another win, thanks to good old fashioned police work, no high tech toys required.

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Co-Writing Dreams and Nightmares

by Michelle Gagnon

On our Open Tuesday discussion this week, someone asked about co-writing. Joe Moore is our resident expert on the subject, so he can elaborate on the positive aspects of that type of collaboration. Today I’ll outline the alternate scenario, when it doesn’t go particularly well.

I have a close friend who has always wanted to be a writer. Over drinks one night, she proposed that we work on a project together. I’d had a screenplay idea milling around the back of my mind for awhile, and it seemed like an ideal project to tackle together. After all, screenplays are shorter than novels, primarily dialogue, and can be easily divided up into individual scenes. We sat down and hashed out the plot over the course of a few days, decided which scenes each of us would tackle, and set to work.

Within a week I had most of my scenes written. My friend stalled: stuff to do around the house, she hadn’t been able to find time…understandable. A few weeks later, after I pressed again, she came back with a single scene.

And it was terrible. Really, truly, awful. All the characters sounded alike- in fact, they all sounded like her. The dialogue was clunky and forced, the jokes fell flat. It was a mess. Not unsalvagable, mind you, but rough.

Now, I don’t claim to be the best writer out there–far from it. But I suddenly realized that while I’d spent the past decade writing nearly every day, learning what worked and what didn’t, and being heavily edited by pros, she had not. The scene felt like something handed in for a freshman writing class–which, essentially, it was. It threw me, because I didn’t know how to handle it. I realized that this project wasn’t going to be a few weeks of work that I could sneak in between book deadlines, but would require months of tough conversations and editing.

In the end, we abandoned the idea.

And here’s what I came away with. If you are going to work with a collaborator, ideally it should be someone as dedicated to the craft and on roughly the same writing level as you are. At nearly every cocktail party I’ve attended in the past decade, someone declares that someday, they’re going to write a book. Most people think they’re capable of such a thing, if only they could find the time. The truth is, there are people who have worked demanding full time jobs, raised small children, and found the time. Heather Graham used to type one-handed while she cradled a baby in her other arm. Allison Brennan worked late at night after her kids had gone to bed. Khaled Hosseini worked at 5AM before his family woke up and he had to head to the hospital for work.

Given time and effort, my friend might turn out to be a great writer. The ideas she came up with during our brainstorming sessions were fantastic, things I never would have thought of. The problem was that she lacked the experience to translate those ideas, and, worse yet, didn’t have the drive to work on it every day. And without that drive, and the understanding that what we do is not easy but requires a serious dedication of time and effort (and a thick skin), it simply won’t happen.

I’m about to undertake another co-writing project on a screenplay. This time, I’ll be working with a friend who has written several scripts, and had one produced. I’ll admit to some trepidation regardless–after all, she is a friend, and nothing can strain a friendship like working together in any field. But I’m hoping that this time things will go more smoothly.

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Constructive Criticism & Incandescent Rage

by Michelle Gagnon

The first time I heard Lee Child speak, he discussed how he reacts to his editor’s comments on each manuscript. Lee claims to initially go “incandescent with rage.” He closes the email, fumes for a bit, then goes back and reads it again a day or so later. And the second time, he sees some of what the editor is talking about.

I think this is a common reaction of writers everywhere. How dare someone criticize your baby? Clearly they just didn’t get it. But I’ll tell you what- the difference between an author who gets published, and one who doesn’t ever sell that manuscript, frequently correlates directly to how that author processes and responds to constructive criticism.

Which is not to say that the editor is always right. I generally retool the manuscript based on approximately three-quarters of my editor’s comments. It’s one of the reasons I use up to ten beta readers for each book. If one person says something, and it doesn’t strike a chord with you, it might be just their impression (one example: for my upcoming novel KIDNAP AND RANSOM, my editor noted that the book, “doesn’t depict Mexico in a very favorable light.” And she’s right- it doesn’t, mainly because the bulk of it is set in the poorest slums in Mexico City. So that one I dismissed outright).

But if more than one beta reader reacts to something, that usually means it necessitates a change. For the same book, the majority of my readers (among them, my esteemed fellow bloggers) thought that there was a coincidence in the book that was just too darn convenient. And going back through it, I realized they were right. There had to be a better way to move the plot forward. In the end, I rewrote over two-thirds of the book based on feedback. And the end product was a stronger, more believable storyline (I hope).

This came up recently when I reviewed a manuscript for a friend from a local writing group who is struggling to get their first book published. I sent a detailed assessment of what I thought the strengths and weaknesses of the story were, bearing in mind what I know from experience editors respond negatively to. The writer’s reaction surprised me (particularly since I had more positive than negative comments). I received detailed responses to each negative note, arguments for why this scene and that character had to be in there.

Now, it’s this author’s choice to keep or discard whatever they like- after all, it is their book, and their name on the cover if it ever gets published. Sadly, unless at least a few of those changes are made, I suspect it will continue to garner rejections.

What I realized early on was that when an agent responded to a submission with a rejection, but also provided a response detailing why they rejected it, it was important to take note. A form letter rejection is one thing. If they bother to let you know what in particular prevented them from signing you, it means that you’re actually very close. I see the same thing in my critique group. When someone writes something that is a hot mess, few people say anything. The author invariably (and wrongly) takes this as proof that what they’re holding in their hands is perfect. The truth is, people say less when something is unsalvageable. When a heated debate begins, or everyone agrees on the salient strengths and weaknesses, the author has come close to hitting their mark.

So, going back to Jim’s “before you submit” post…before you send out that first stream of submissions, pass the manuscript along to people you trust. Aim for folks who you know will be hard on it (sometimes that means avoiding friends and family). Listen to what they say. Feel free to go incandescent with rage for a few days, then sit back down and read their responses more closely. And make those changes: kill those darlings, cut that exposition, come up with better ways for events to transpire. No manuscript ever suffered from revision-the more you change it, in general, the better it will become.

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The Virtual Water Cooler

by Michelle Gagnon

The other night I found myself debating the merits and pitfalls of social networking with a group of friends. As always, people seem to fall into one of two camps: there’s the group that thinks Facebook and its ilk are slowly destroying the social fabric, ensnaring people into shadow lives that are only experienced virtually. On the other side are people who think that social networking sites have made it much easier to connect and stay in touch with people, improving their daily existence.

The subject initially came up because of an event I attended recently. “Pop up Magazine” is a one-night only live magazine produced in San Francisco. Like a print mag, it’s divided into “Shorts,” “Features,” etc. For me the most fascinating “feature” of the night was an interview with a former Guantanamo Bay prison guard. Apparently after he was discharged, his stance on things that had happened during his stationing there shifted. The soldier made it a mission to seek out former prisoners and apologize to them- and to find them, he used Facebook. The woman interviewing him asked, “Why Facebook?” And he looked at her as thought she’d asked why he considered using the telephone to call home. Apparently there are numerous FB groups subscribed to by both former guards and prisoners where they interact, swap stories, and try to find common ground.

I found that absolutely fascinating.

Now, I understand the argument against these networking sites. There’s something terribly depressing about seeing a couple tapping away at their various electronic devices in complete silence during dinner- as I witnessed the other night at a restaurant. But for some of us, the social networking tools have filled a void. Could we live without them? Absolutely. But I would miss my virtual water cooler.

Of course, I’m a bit of a rare case. I spend most of my day alone, in total silence. I work best under those circumstances-and I’m not someone who minds being alone. But aside from the UPS guy, without Facebook, my day would be devoid of most social contact.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing (although it does lend itself to bouncing a ball against a wall for hours on end, or typing the same sentence over and over…)

I love the little breaks spent chatting with people online. I get a kick out of what people post up there (within limits- I have no interest in knowing about your pet’s digestive problems, for example, or what you just scratched). The day after the final episode of LOST aired, I spent a almost embarrassingly significant chunk of my day discussing it with people. Maybe if I worked in an office, I wouldn’t need that. But having contact with the outside world, even if it’s only virtual, is a good thing for me.

I’ve always been terrible about staying in touch. But through these sites, I’ve been able to reconnect with friends from elementary school, high school, college, and my time in New York. (And one of those people volunteered to be a beta reader, providing some of the best insights into my latest manuscript).
My mother just set up a reunion with her college roommates, people she hadn’t seen in decades, via Facebook.

And of course, what would I do without my daily Kill Zone fix? I’ve made acquaintances across the world. Engaged in debate with people I probably would never have met otherwise. I’ve spent my entire adult life living in cities where chatting with strangers is a rare occurrence. But the online networking sites remove that wall, and suddenly I find myself discussing Nora Ephron’s send-up of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO with people in Tulsa, Akron, and Tokyo.

So…virtual water coolers: yea or nay?

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Distressing Damsels

by Michelle Gagnon

First of all, if you haven’t taken advantage of the free download of John Gilstrap’s Thriller nominated book NO MERCY yet, it can be found here. You won’t regret it.

Apparently we’re in the middle of a movie-themed week, ranging from Jaws to Predator.
So here’s my contribution.
I made the mistake of watching the film New Moon the other night (I know, believe me, I know. It wasn’t by choice. I lost a bet.)

Fresh off my post on the incomprehensible hype surrounding The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, I figured there was so much hoopla surrounding Stephanie Meyers and the films based on her books, there must be some fire to that smoke.
Right?

Apparently not. Now, I haven’t read Ms. Meyer’s books (and I’m unlikely to, since watching the films was less enjoyable than a double root canal). I can see where they might appeal to teenage girls-all those strapping young men, barely clothed- and hey, apparently they can’t even indulge in carnal relations with you, since that would result in death- likely yours. It’s all terribly romantic.

But good Lord, the dialogue- stilted to the point where someone says something, someone else responds, yet there’s no evident correlation between the two statements. I liken it to conversations between four year-olds, where one says, “The sky is green,” and his friend answers, “I like cake,” and we’re supposed to believe they’re having a conversation. I kid you not, the repartee in the film is that abyssmal and stilted. If they’d pushed the envelope a bit further, it could have qualified as a Dada masterpiece. (Another example: check out the tagline on the movie poster above. “Love. Life. Meaning. Over.” Huh?)

But that’s not what I found most disturbing. No, apparently the bill of goods that millions of teenage girls (and their mothers) are currently subscribing to is that Bella, the female heroine, is, in fact completely weak and needy. Without male assistance, she can barely get through the day. Forget saving herself- whenever danger strikes, she pretty much curls into a ball and waits for one of those strapping men to show up (which they continue to do, with annoying frequency, for no apparent reason).

Now, I understand that the damsel in distress holds a hallowed place in our lore. But this was impotency and weakness to an extent that I found extremely unsettling. Maybe it’s because I personally am a fan of strong female protagonists. In a pinch, I’ll even settle for moderately capable ones. But this image of the female as a creature constantly putting herself in danger (stupidly: think naked girl wandering into the woods in a slasher film-that stupid), and wallowing if there wasn’t a man around, was disconcerting. At one point, a woman who had been the victim of abuse by her werewolf fiance was lauded for sticking by him because “he couldn’t help it.”
All of this struck me as a giant step backward.
Am I the only one who felt that way?

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The Real Mystery Behind THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

by Michelle Gagnon

So I just got back from vacation. I finally had some free reading time, and decided to see what all the fuss was about Steig Larsson’s Millenium series. I’ll try to write this post without any spoilers.

I must confess, I remain perplexed.

This series has been the biggest crime fiction crossover, arguably, since THE DA VINCI CODE.

There, I could understand the hype. The writing wasn’t the best I’ve ever read, but Dan Brown is a heck of a storyteller, and the underlying religious conspiracy themes were compelling.

To be frank, I spent most of my time reading TGWTDT scratching my head. I honestly don’t get it. The dialogue was clunky throughout, the bulk of the story revolved around a financial scheme that was underwhelming, and the characters were fairly two-dimensional. And above all that, the resolution of one of the two primary plots was largely unsatisfying. Now, some of the fault here might lie with the translator. But then most of the copies sold have been translations into one language or another. So why did this, of all books, become a runaway bestseller?

I read the next two books, and they were decidedly better. There was actually action- hallelujah- and the themes outlined in the first installment came to fruition. The characters developed some depth (although based on Larsson’s portrayal, the men in Sweden either love women to death, or are misogynistic to the point of credulity, which I found annoying).

Still- all in all, I’d rank the books in the mid-range of works I’ve read in the past year. They weren’t bad, as a whole, but they weren’t fantastic either.

So what’s the big deal? Was it the tragic backstory of Larsson’s untimely demise that kicked the marketing machine into overdrive? I haven’t read many of his fellow countrymen, but from what I understand some of their works are superior. So why did these become the books that people who never read thrillers suddenly embraced with their book clubs? Especially since none of the books was particularly literary. And the characters weren’t what one would usually expect the mainstream to embrace. We had a couple that was involved in a extramarital affair that was accepted by all parties involved (including the cuckolded husband), and a main character who was a Goth/punk Aspergers hacker. Interesting, but not the type of main character I’d expect the world as a whole to cheer for.

If someone would care to enlighten me, I’d be much obliged.


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First Page Critique: Kerguelen

by Michelle Gagnon
We’re winding up our first page critiques this week. Thank you everyone for your patience, especially all of you brave folks who submitted pages. We apologize for any delays in posting them.
Today I thought I’d talk a little bit about formatting. As a savvy commenter pointed out last week, some of the first pages we’ve posted appear to be longer than others. Some of you sly dogs submitted a 10 pt font, single-spaced page. This isn’t something an agent or editor will let you get away with, however, so in the interest of keeping the process as fair and helpful as possible I re-formatted today’s submission (which ended up weighing in at TWO full pages, not one).
Here’s why: the point of this process is that we’re critiquing what most agents would read, and that’s one page. You have that much time to grab their (and our) attention. So fudging the formatting doesn’t really help. The main goal should be to make that first page compelling enough to keep a reader turning to the second, and then the third…and so on.
Here, then, is the true opening page of Kerguelen:

Prologue

My boots are slick with blood and guano. I push my feet through dead terns and petrels, their downy wings flopping, their necks lolling as though life never belonged there. I plow ahead, daring not lift my feet. In some places the litter of birds is half-a-foot deep across this flat headland overlooking the gunmetal ocean. Not a sound from the cliff-face rookery just beyond the edge, an odd braid of birds now and then falling off into dead space. I turn around and follow my plowed trail over the headland back toward my cottage.
Day without wind—a rarity. Fog creeps past the knobheads of grass and fennel, thinning, whispering above the flagstone steps of my cottage. It’s simple really. Fog is moisture, water laden with whatever is in the air: pollution, particulates, poisons. Give us our gales, thank you, from sea-borne air currents that daily carry more and more of the rest of the world to us. Even as far away as the southern Indian Ocean. No one lives isolated—even on a remote island like Kerguelen. Air circulation patterns being what they are in our little whirlpool pocket of climate, yes, in time, we will breathe the same air as everyone else.
There. My last breath was joined by some remainder of a cough from a 19th century Liverpool tubercular ward and a little something from a hacking terminal flu case in Coeur-d’Alene and, of course, the tick-tick-ticking of some isotope, Strontium 90, perhaps, Lawrencium, Polonium.
Some of us thought of going underground, but now it’s surely too late for that. We hope that each day will bring a topping out, and then we will begin the downhill slide, nursing our inevitable lesions, losing hair, pressing on despite frail appetites. We’ve all read and reread the survival manual. We know how it will go. We just hope it won’t turn out as badly as all that.
The good news here is that I would definitely keep reading. I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic novels anyway (ORYX AND CRAKE, anyone?) I do think the language could use a merciless edit, however. Some of the metaphors didn’t really work for me, they felt somewhat melodramatic and cumbersome. For example, in the second sentence: “I push my feet through dead terns and petrels, their downy wings flopping, their necks lolling as though life never belonged there.”
I think the image of the dead birds is powerful enough on its own: lose the “as though life never belonged there.” Also, consider cutting “my feet.” You also repeat “plow” in the first paragraph, a big no-no. I’m not entirely certain what a braid of birds looks like: that expression briefly took me out of the story.
I’m assuming that the rookery is on a sea cliff- shouldn’t there be a splash when the birds hit the water? I actually think incorporating one makes that sentence more effective. Word choice is always critical. Instead of “some of us thought about,” I would write, “some of us considered.” It’s tighter and less clunky. Also, the second half of that sentence, “but now it’s surely too late for that,” is overwritten. Just say, “it’s too late for that now.”
I’m a little confused by the “topping out” and “eventual slide” in the final paragraph. Is the topping out when air quality reaches the absolute worst point, then gradually starts improving? Or is it when the worst of those air currents finally reaches the island, setting about the inevitable death of the inhabitants? I think if that information is being offered on page one, clarity is key. I love how the page ends, however. Great work.
So, to sum up: compelling premise, just needs some tightening up. And since I’m just emerging from full-bore editing mode on my own manuscript, here are my suggestions for a much tighter opening page:
My boots are slick with blood and guano. I push through dead terns and petrels, their downy wings flopping, necks lolling. In some places the litter of birds is half-a-foot deep across this flat headland overlooking the gunmetal ocean. Not a sound from the cliff-face rookery, except for the occasional splash of a dead bird tumbling into the water. I turn around and follow my plowed trail over the headland back toward my cottage.
Day without wind—a rarity. Fog creeps past the knobheads of grass and fennel,
whispering above the flagstone steps of my cottage. Fog is moisture, water laden with
whatever is in the air: pollution, particulates, poisons. Give us our gales, sea-borne air
currents that daily carry more of the rest of the world to us. No life remains isolated—even
on a remote island like Kerguelen. Air circulation patterns being what they are, in time we
will breathe the same air as everyone else.
There. My last breath was joined by the remnants of a cough from a 19th century
Liverpool tubercular ward, combined with a hacking terminal flu case in Coeur-d’Alene
and, of course, the tick-tick-ticking of some isotope: Strontium 90, perhaps, or Polonium.
Some of us considered going underground, but it’s too late for that now. Every day we pray for a
topping out, after which we begin the downhill slide, nursing our inevitable lesions, losing hair,
pressing on despite frail appetites. We’ve all read the survival manual. We know how it will go.
We just hope it won’t turn out as badly as they promised.
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Innocence Lost

by Michelle Gagnon

Today we’ll be tackling another first page critique. This one is entitled, INNOCENCE LOST:

The elevator doors opened facing the sign for Children’s Psychiatry. Seth Bellingham froze. Places like this never changed. Dreary, gray waiting areas were filled with old, broken toys and troubled people. He was fifteen again, and angry with his mother for forcing him to come. Talking to someone wouldn’t help. No one understood how he felt and no one ever would. They kept asking him, how it made him feel. Why? They didn’t care.

The tap on his arm brought Bellingham back to the present. He saw his new partner, Jake O’Brien, eyeing him with caution before he asked, “Are you okay? Did they get the results back on your father’s tests, yet?”

Bellingham shoved the elevator door that bumped him for the second time, and stepped out. “I don’t know what the results are. The old man threw me out after I dropped my mother off.”

He changed the subject of his father with years of practice and asked, “What do we have?”

Jake pulled his small notebook out of his shirt pocket and flipped to the right page. “The hospital security was here first, followed by a couple of uniforms. They secured the scene and waited for us. I got here a few minutes ago.”

Bellingham followed Jake down the hall, past all the doors that normally would’ve been closed, hiding the private sessions of pain and trauma. Today the doors were open, filled with faces of doctors and patients curious about someone else’s misery. The last time he’d seen a place like this, he was a scared fifteen year old, with a gut full of pain and guilt. His years in the military and on the police force rid him of the fear, but the pain and guilt still lingered and grew stronger the longer he was forced to stay in Maine.

My notes:

I think there’s potentially a great premise here, but it’s buried under some fairly awkward sentences and way too much exposition. I understand that the author wants to give us a sense that Seth has past experience with Children’s Psych wards, and that will play into the story. But as of yet, I’m not invested enough in this character to really care. And not only am I being asked to care about him, but also about his father, an apparently negligent dad currently waiting for test results. That’s a lot of information presented at the get go, about people I don’t really know anything about yet. Better to hint at that dark past with a single sentence, farther along in the story.

I would open with the reason that Seth is there. If the cops are about to interview a kid, I want to see that right away. Consider starting with a line of dialogue, then show Seth’s discomfort throughout, but subtly. Get to the meat of the matter much more quickly. If I know why the cops are there, and how it feeds back into Seth’s past, then I’m engaged. I have no idea what the situation is, but take this as an example:

“So why’d you kill her?”

The kid shrugged, eyes fixed on the floor. He was fifteen, scared, with a gut full of pain and guilt. Watching him, Seth reminded himself that he was a cop here to do a job. Still, all of this was striking uncomfortably close to home…

That’s a little rough, but something along those lines would draw a reader into the storyline more than following two guys out of an elevator and down a hallway. The point at which you choose to open a story is critical. You’ve got one shot at grabbing a reader’s attention, and turning that browser into a buyer. Make sure you don’t squander it.


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