Four Lessons From Colson Whitehead

By Mark Alpert

Have you read Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad? If not, you should. Anyone who’s serious about writing fiction can learn something from this amazing book.

The novel has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The Washington Post called it “a triumph” and NPR said it was “an American masterpiece.” The Underground Railroad even got a blurb from Barack Obama. (“Terrific.”) You can’t get much better than that. (The only thing that could top it, maybe, would be a blurb from God: “I’ve been waiting since the First Day of Creation for a novel as good as this one!”)

I finished reading the book yesterday, and today I thought of four useful lessons that I gleaned from the novel:

Don’t be afraid to write about a subject that’s been written about before. The Underground Railroad is about American slavery and all the agonizing attempts to escape it, which continued long after its abolition. For two centuries, the story of slavery has been chronicled in great detail, thanks mostly to the slaves who escaped their bondage and lived to write about it. Perhaps the best known of these stories is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, written in 1845 by the famous abolitionist and former slave, but there were many, many others. Fiction about slavery soon followed: Josiah Henson, another former slave, dictated his life story to a fellow abolitionist — Henson hadn’t yet learned to read or write — and his memoir, published in 1849, became one of the major sources for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This was the top best-selling American novel of the 19th century, and it played an important role in influencing public opinion during the years just before the Civil War. According to one (probably apocryphal) account, when Stowe came to Washington in 1862 and met Abraham Lincoln, the president greeted her by saying, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” The quote is considered apocryphal because neither Stowe nor Lincoln ever mentioned it, and it didn’t appear in print until more than thirty years later, but it reflects an underlying truth: the novel was a major impetus for social and political change.

Many writers have continued to tell the story of slavery, in both fiction and nonfiction; notable examples include Toni Morrison’s 1987 masterpiece Beloved and the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, which was based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. Yet Colson Whitehead has added something fresh and new to the literature of slavery. Some parts of The Underground Railroad are conventionally realistic fiction, but other parts deviate from reality in disturbing and disorienting ways. The book’s main point-of-view character is Cora, a young slave born on a cotton plantation in Georgia, and the suffering she endures in the early chapters — the loss of her mother, a violent rape, and a horrible beating inflicted by one of the plantation’s owners — definitely seems realistic. But when Cora decides to flee to the North, the novel veers into a kind of alternative history, a world with fantastical elements that seem to heighten the horror of slavery and illustrate the exhaustingly extreme difficulty of escaping it.

Don’t be afraid to get wildly imaginative. Whitehead’s primary fictional innovation in this novel is to imagine that the Underground Railroad — the informal network set up by abolitionists to help fleeing slaves escape to the North — includes an actual underground railroad. Cora and another fugitive slave named Caesar are taken to a barn in the middle of the Georgia countryside; hidden beneath the hay on the barn’s floor are a trapdoor and a stone stairway leading down to a railroad platform. Steam locomotives speed through tunnels that stretch for hundreds of miles beneath the Southern states, stopping at stations that have to be carefully hidden from the local authorities. Whitehead allows his characters to marvel at the crazy improbability of the railroad in a conversation with Lumbly, the station agent:

Caesar could scarcely speak. “How far does the tunnel extend?”

Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”

“It must have taken years.”

“More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation, that took a bit of time.”

“Who built it?”

“Who builds anything in this country?”

The novel gets even more inventive after Cora and Caesar complete the first leg of the journey and arrive in South Carolina. In the book’s alternative history, South Carolina is a state where seemingly kindhearted white people take in fugitive slaves and help them change their identities and give them paying jobs. But the kindheartedness is a sham; the true purpose of the operation is to sterilize the slaves and perform medical experiments on them. It seems as if the novel has jumped ahead in time and conflated the horror of slavery with the horrors that followed emancipation. Cora manages to escape South Carolina and take the Underground Railroad to North Carolina, but the situation there is even worse: the state has outlawed black people entirely. All African-Americans found within the state’s borders are hung from the trees alongside a country road, which is dubbed the Freedom Trail. The image made me think of the lynchings and genocides of the 20th century, as well as the alt-right’s despicable vision of a white-only America.

It’s okay to straddle the line between literary fiction and commercial suspense. Colson Whitehead is no stranger to thriller writing; his best-selling 2011 novel Zone One is a fast and fun zombie-apocalypse story. And many parts of The Underground Railroad are suspenseful and gripping. In fact, the suspenseful parts of the book complement the poetic and thoughtful sections. The novel’s chases and kidnappings and shootouts prevent the story from getting too cerebral and didactic. Conversely, the characters’ brilliantly written musings about slavery and freedom and the history of America elevate the book above most historical thrillers. Whitehead gives the story a universal feel. Its themes are relevant to contemporary society, which is still plagued with racial prejudice and hatred.

It all comes down to caring about the characters. The key to the novel’s success is Cora. She’s a wonderful character. I can’t really do her justice here. You’ll have to read the book to see what I mean.


Setting Can Add Tension – Use it – First Page Critique: Dancing with the Well-Bred Devil

Jordan Dane


By Usien – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I will be traveling today for a bit of sun and fun. I’ll try to pop back when I can…IF I CAN. For my post, I offer the work of a gutsy anonymous submitter for a first page critique. I’ll have my feedback below. Please add to the conversation with your constructive comments so we can help this author with suggestions for him or her to consider.

The submitter added this insight into their work:

This is a murder mystery set in the early 1990s that digs into the dark, unseemly corners of academia where moral corruption and the abuse of power hide.


Club Orleans,
Sayreville, NJ
As Megan completed her sinuous corkscrew down the pole she saw him—Professor D.B., the last person she ever hoped to encounter here.

Holy. Fricking. Hell. She released the pole and strutted across the stage away from him, forced on her most seductive stage face, and hoped it hid the rush of fear that filled her stomach to overflowing. She managed to resist covering her all-but-naked breasts.

Her mind flooded with the image of the Psych Department chair dressing her down before sliding the letter across his pompous desk, the letter that would explain that she’d been kicked out of the grad program, and that she might as well pack up her apartment and move back to Gump-ville, Indiana, to the welcoming jeers of everyone who’d ever warned that she was too big for her britches. But it was the thought that followed that made her shudder—the thought of what good old D.B. might propose to keep his silence.

He couldn’t have recognized me. When she started dancing again, she’d gone to great lengths to morph her appearance—heavy make-up, huge eighties hair, costuming—and to transform her persona from Miss Quiet-Studious. Considering she only worked at clubs at least a half-hour from campus (and avoided the elite establishments altogether), she was certain she’d never see anyone from the program. Her transformation was good insurance nonetheless.

As she latched onto the life-preserver thought that D.B. couldn’t have recognized her, the fear dissipated. But what was he doing here? Look, make a last round and call it a night. Stay in persona and treat him like any other customer.

She worked her way around the rectangular bar that surrounded the stage, her nerves increasing proportionally as the number of bills in the elastic of her G-string grew. The whole time, she felt D.B.’s eyes crawling over her body. She suppressed another shudder.

And then she was facing him. “I hope you enjoyed my show.” She tried to keep the right level of sultry in her voice.

“Oh, it was . . . eye-opening, despite how much I missed.” D.B.’s eyes bored into her as he dangled a ten.” Miss . . . ?”

And in those eyes was the damning truth—he recognized her.


There is definitely a disturbance happening for Megan. Nothing like an unexpected visitor to your place of employment to rattle you, especially when you are half-naked and plying your best moves on a stripper pole. It’s hard to imagine why a graduate student would be stripping. The money must be good or she must be desperate for funds.

To have a professor be the one to find her is a solid set up. I don’t know why Megan calls him Professor D.B. by his initials for the reader. Why not just say his name since she’s in her head? I had to reread to see if DB is the chair of the Psych department and assumed DB wasn’t the big kahuna. I liked that the author didn’t drift into back story and stay there until the face off when Megan sees in his eyes that he recognizes her, but there is enough back story and “slow the pace” explanations that divert the reader’s attention from Megan’s mortifying moment of being recognized by someone from her graduate program.

This is definitely a page turner, but I would like to offer a few tidbits for the author to consider, to add layers to this intro. The writing is a little sparse and more can be woven into this intro to give a feel for how much Megan has at stake.

GENRE – If I only had this intro as a peek at the genre, I would’ve thought it to be a Harlequin Romance. There’s a hint of humor to Megan as a feisty heroine working her way through her graduate program. Is DB a soon-to-be love interest or a dastardly villain will to blackmail her into his sexual demands? What conflict would they have to sustain a whole novel? From this set up, I don’t know.

From the set up the anonymous author sent with the submission, we see that this is a murder mystery set in the 1990s and it’s about moral corruption and abuse of power in the academic world, but that’s not the feel of this intro. If Megan will be blackmailed by DB to keep her secret in exchange for sexual favors that will grow into a murder, then I would suggest the author layer in more mystery and the threat of coercion to this piece. The reader needs to see Megan’s fear and vulnerability at getting caught and her willingness to do anything to keep her secret. Beyond this short intro, the reader would need to feel her shame if her mother found out, or how her career plans would be dashed.

Words like “Gump-ville Indiana” and “too big for her britches” and “eighties hair” are meant for cliched humor. If this is not the intention with the rest of the story line, then why begin the book with implied humor?

SETTING – I like the world building of a good setting. It doesn’t have to be drawn out or slow the pace, but an effective setting can add to the emotional aspects of the scene. In this intro, I wonder if the setting can be an element of mystery to draw the reader into the scene, where it’s not completely clear where Megan is. The phrase “sinuous corkscrew down the pole” is a dead giveaway where she is and what she’s doing, but what if the description is vague and develops into something more as a tease. (The sample rewrite below was written hastily by me to illustrate the point of focusing on Megan, avoiding back story and adding more of a threat from DB. I’m sure the anonymous author could do better.)


Through the blinding lights of the small stage, Megan caught a familiar silhouette—a tall man standing in the shadows apart from the rest. Something triggered a memory and made her think of him, but he vanished as soon as his face came into her mind. Spirals of smoke clouded the air as she moved and the music built to a crescendo. Her big finish would be next. Her fake eyelashes made it harder to search the crowd for the last person she expected to see.

Please…it can’t be him.

She strayed from her usual routine to stay in the murky corners near the velvet curtain and worked the edge of the stage until she felt the heat off the horde of faceless patrons and heard the low grumbles from her regulars. Megan couldn’t avoid her big finale. She had a reputation to uphold, but as she strutted across the stage and into the spotlight toward the shiny brass stripper pole, she sensed the laser heat off his eyes—Professor D.B. from her Psych department graduate program.

He’d stepped closer to the stage—and her.

After she turned her back on him and reached for the brass pole, she hoisted her body into her signature spiral that had the men hollering for more. With every turn and every impossible stretch of her limber body, she searched the shadows and hoped the professor hadn’t recognized her. She had troweled on enough makeup where her own sweet mother wouldn’t recognize her.

Her future, everything she had worked for, would be riding on whether she had only imagined Professor D. B. in the front row. Adrenaline raged through her body as heat flushed to her cheeks. Oh, God, please no.

OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS THAT MIGHT ENHANCE INTRO – Here are a few questions that came to my mind that may keep the focus on Megan and the tension, rather than dipping a toe into back story. The back story is sparingly used, but it’s there. It starts in the 3rd paragraph and is threaded through as Megan thinks of the ramifications of getting caught because D.B. might recognize her.

With open-ended, the author can put his or her take on the answers that might make it into a rewrite, to put their own spin on the story. I’ve found that by offering open-ended questions, the author usually comes back with something far better than my rewrite. It’s their story and their characters.

1.) When Megan spots D.B., is she upside down or spinning on a pole with stage lights? This would make it harder for her to see him clearly. She’d have to change her routine to peer through the silhouettes of men and hands touching her costume. It could add to the tension if she catches a glimpse of him, but he disappears–or build up her stress as she sees a familiar face without letting the reader know who she spots until the last minute.

2.) Does she change her routine because she’s afraid of taking off everything if it’s him? Or maybe she does awkward poses to get a better look at the crowd, like looking between her legs upside down. How do patrons of the club react as she changes her routine?

3.) What does the club look like, smell like? Setting might add to her stress if it’s the same “grind” – pardon the pun.


In the sentences below, there are words to clean up. I’m not trying to offer different writing. I’d like to use the author’s words to start and clean up from there. I don’t begin sentences with “And,” don’t embed dialogue lines within a paragraph, and try to build stronger sentences and delete uses of “was.”


And then she was facing him. “I hope you enjoyed my show.” She tried to keep the right level of sultry in her voice.

“Oh, it was . . . eye-opening, despite how much I missed.” D.B.’s eyes bored into her as he dangled a ten.” Miss . . . ?”

And in those eyes was the damning truth—he recognized her.


“I hope you enjoyed the show.” She fought to sound sultry as she came face-to-face with him.

“Oh, it was…eye opening, despite how much I missed.” DB’s eyes drilled into her as he dangled a ten. “Miss…?”

In his eyes were the damning truth. He recognized her.

Thanks to the author for their submission. I wish you luck on your project. For discussion, please comment with your feedback. Thank you.

1.) Is this a page turning submission for you?

2.) What suggestions would you make for this author?

3.) Bonus points for PUNS in your comments.


Take Cover!

By John Gilstrap

My research for the Jonathan Grave series exposes me to some pretty cool stuff.  Having never done the kind of work that Jonathan and his team do, the initial learning curve was pretty steep, and it will get steep again if I don’t stay current on tactics and technologies.  A few weeks ago, I took a terrific class called Active Threat Response through Elite Shooting Sports in Manassas, Virginia.  The focus of the class was on clearing rooms where bad guys are expected to be holed up.  It was a Simunitions class, meaning that everybody had real guns that fired wicked little paint pellets that sting like crap when they hit.  Instructors call that a “pain penalty” and I confess it adds real stress to simulated encounters.  I learned a great deal during that class, and I thought I would combine those lessons with some others I’ve picked up over the years into a blog post.

They’re staples of every police drama:

As cruisers skid to a halt to confront a bad guy, cops throw their doors open and take a knee behind the sheet metal, using the panel for cover as they aim their weapons through the window opening.  Maybe the officers in the car next to them will be aiming their weapons across the hood of their car.


The SWAT team makes its way down an apartment building’s cinder-block hallway to confront the barricaded bad guy. (All too often, the SWAT team is stacked up behind the plain-clothed detective who happens to be the star of the show–but that BS is for a different post).  To prevent exposing themselves to return fire, they’re pressed up against the same wall that houses the door to the target apartment.


The good-hearted hero goes muzzle-to-muzzle with the bad guy, shouting, “Put it down or I’ll shoot!”

Well . . . no.  We’ll take them in order.

A car door provides exactly zero reliable cover.  Barring the off chance that incoming fire will hit one of the steel mechanical components inside the door, a full metal jacketed bullet will pass through a car door with relatively little loss in energy.  And let’s not forget the exposed knees below the door and the exposed face and shoulders above the door.  Not a good source of cover.

The guy aiming over the hood is in better shape tactically because he’s got the more-or-less impenetrable engine block as cover, but the exposed shoulders and face continue to be a problem.  That problem is exacerbated by the risk of a poorly-aimed incoming round ricocheting off the surface of the hood and into his face.  The smart move when using the engine block as cover is to peek around the wheel well and headlights while exposing as little of yourself as possible.

Before getting to the scenario of the guys in the hallway, I need to clarify that when it comes to SWAT tactics, there are as many procedure books as there are teams.  Different teams clear buildings different ways, so the point here is to give you some things to think about.

All else being equal, an armed bad guy holed up in a room has a huge initial advantage over the team that’s coming in to get him. If the bad guy is willing to die as part of the transaction, his initial advantage is even greater.  If there’s only one accessible door, the bad guy knows exactly where his attackers are coming from, and that gives him a free first shot.

Let’s say the hero cop in your story needs to clear a room on the right-hand side of the hallway. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll say the door is already open.  If he approaches along the right-hand wall, he has zero visibility into the room until he’s right on top of it.  Then, in order to do the job that needs to be done, he’s got to swing out and expose at least half of his body to whatever the villain has planned.  That’s bad.

Each dot in the picture is the same person, advancing with baby steps.

The smart move is to approach along the left-hand side of the hallway.  As your hero approaches the open door, he moves with tiny steps, his weapon up and ready to shoot.  As that plane of the doorway opens a little at a time, your good guy exposes only a tiny sliver of his body, a little at a time, and that exposed sliver is the one that holds a gun, ready to shoot first or shoot back.  Incoming fire would require extraordinary marksmanship on the part of the bad guy.  This tactic is call “slicing the pie,” and it’s more or less the same maneuver that would be used to turn a blind corner.

In general, it is always a bad idea to advance too closely to a solid wall surface like cinder block or concrete because of the risk of ricochet.  By definition, ricochets have expended much of their energy on initial impact, but the closer you are to the point of impact, the worse the damage will be.

As for the muzzle-to-muzzle trope, I throw that in as a way to introduce the concept that a “fair fight” is anathema to every police and military agency I’m aware of. From the law enforcement officer’s point of view, the threat of overwhelming violence saves lives, but sometimes the threat becomes reality.  No sane person who has the means to defend himself would try to out-talk a bullet.


First Page Critique:
Naked Came the Stranger

John William Waterhouse’s “Naiad.” (1893)

By PJ Parrish

I am way behind on my First Page duties, so I hope you all don’t mind taking a look at another, coming right behind yesterday’s submission by Clare. This is an odd one, in that I am not quite sure what to make of it.  I know it’s a mere 400 words or so, but it’s hard to tell what kind of book we are dealing with here.  Your comments, TKZers, are always welcome.

The Artist and the Model

Blake Everette loved painting seascapes. He enjoyed the rock outcroppings around Smugglers Cove. While descending the steep path down the cliff, he noticed two Sea-Otters playing on the rocks. He found a spot he liked near the south end of the beach, away from the path. Before he set up his easel, he grabbed his sketchpad to sketch the Otters. But, soon they left, swimming off. Blake set the sketch aside thinking: Perhaps, I’ll add the Otters to today’s painting.

Blake worked all morning, painting. At noon he stopped for lunch. He grabbed a sandwich and a beer from his backpack, sat on the dune, sandwich in one hand and a beer in the other. Soon, a movement on the rocky outcrop drew his attention. His first thought: The Otters are back. He reached for the sketchpad. Yet, on closer inspection, he realized: It’s not the Otters … it’s a person. From his distance, he couldn’t tell gender.

The figure walked along the rock stretching its arms and legs. Before long, it dove into the sea and swam outward, with powerful confident strokes. After a hundred yards, it turned back. The swimmer reached the shore, ten-yards from Blake. At that point, gender was not in doubts—it was a woman. Her swimsuit was a piece of red material, held in place by a red cord around her hips—other than that, she’s naked.

“Hi there,” she waved.

“High yourself,” Blake replied, “It’s a bit cold for swimming?”

“A little—but invigorating.”

“I paint here often, and you’re new.”

“I usually swim further up the coast. But I’ve had trouble there. I heard of this spot—deserted—thought I’d give it a try.”

“What sort of trouble?”

She cupped her breast in both hands, “Some people don’t appreciate nude swimmers on their beach.” She dropped her hands, looked straight at him, “Does it bother you—nudity?”

He slipped his sunglasses down and looked over the frames. “Not a bit.” He sat down, “I see nothing unpleasing to these eyes.”

“Ha, ha,” she laughed, dropping to her knees. “I like you,” she smiled. “You’re not like the other older people around here.”

“I don’t consider myself old. But, I’m fair and reasonable,” he said.

“It was a compliment. And as for age, I didn’t mean to imply…” she covered her mouth, blushing.

“No harm done—the truth is: I’m not as young as I once was.”

“In that context—neither am I,” she giggled.

“My name is Blake, by the way.”

She extended her hand, “Nice to meet you Blake—I’m Nancy … Nancy March.”


Okay, we’re back and all goose-pimply from our nude dip in the sea. As I said, I haven’t the foggiest idea what genre we’re in here, so I will assume the story will reveal, eventually, a crime element given our bent here at TKZ.  Or maybe it’s romance. So let’s consider our usual basic question about good openings: Has something been “disturbed?” Well, I guess seeing a naked woman emerge from the surf is disturbing, so yes, we might read on.

But there’s a strange lack of emotion on Blake’s part about all this. I write a series about a male protagonist, so I have to, well, try to think like a man. I’ve been living in Louis’s head for 15 years, so usually it’s not an issue. If you want to write fiction, you must be able to write credibly outside your own experience and gender. But once, I got stumped. I was writing a scene where Louis comes upon a woman sunbathing topless. I knew he had to react, but I couldn’t figure out exactly how. So I asked my husband, “what would you do?”  He said, “I would look but pretend not to.”

I guess what I am looking for in this submission is some kind of reaction from Blake — and not just about a naked woman. We are TOLD that he loves to paint. We are TOLD that he enjoys this particular cove. He seems charmed by otters. Yet when a naked naiad appears before him, he has no thoughts, no emotions, no nothing. Even when the woman makes the oddly sexual motion of cupping her breasts.

Also, there’s a little bit of throat-clearing. Why begin at the morning with all the busy-business of him setting up, stopping for lunch, etc? Pick up the scene later, maybe when he pauses to take a drink of beer and then sees the woman? There are also some logic issues. What exactly is this woman wearing? I’m thinking it’s some kind of red bathing suit, bottoms only? But from a distance, he mistakes the “figure” as a brown otter?

We also have myriad typos and mistakes in here. Yes, we all make them, but we have to strive for a certain level of professionalism, even in a rough draft submission. Let’s take a closer look:

Blake Everette loved painting seascapes. You’re telling me; show me this through his thoughts and actions. He enjoyed the rock outcroppings around Smugglers Cove. While descending the steep path down the cliff, he noticed two Sea-Otters why capped?playing on the rocks. He found a spot he liked near the south end of the beach, away from the path. Before he set up his easel, he grabbed his sketchpad to sketch the Otters. But, soon they left, swimming swam off. Blake set the sketch aside thinking: Perhaps, I’ll add the Otters to today’s painting.  Maybe I can add the otters in later to today’s painting, Blake thought. Don’t use “academic” punctuation like colons to convey thought.

Blake worked all morning, painting. At noon he stopped for lunch. I’d suggest starting here. He grabbed a sandwich and a beer from his backpack, sat on the dune, sandwich in one hand and a beer in the other. Don’t need to tell us that. Soon, a movement on the rocky outcrop drew his attention. His first thought: His first thought was that the otters were back and he reached for his sketchpad. But then he realized it was a person. The Otters are back. He reached for the sketchpad. Yet, on closer inspection, he realized: It’s not the Otters … it’s a person. From his distance, how far? he couldn’t tell gender.

The figure walked along the rock stretching its arms and legs then Before long, it dove into the sea and swam outward, with powerful confident strokes. After a hundred yards, it turned back. The swimmer reached the shore, ten-yards from Blake. A little confusing here. When he first noticed the figure, it was so far away he couldn’t tell it was a naked woman. She swam 100 yds out and came back, but somehow ended up 10 yds from Blake? I thought she began way down the beach? 

 At that point, Go right into a reaction here. gender was not in doubts—it was a woman. Her swimsuit was a piece of red material, held in place by a red cord around her hips—other than that, she’s naked. A tense lapse.

“Hi there,” she waved. “waved” is not an attribution verb. She waved and then said. 

“High ???yourself,” Blake replied, “It’s a bit cold for swimming?” Seems a strange thing for a man to say to a naked lady. Unless you made it a visual point that maybe her skin is all goose-pimply? You don’t give us much visual to go on here at all. You missed a chance to SHOW us what the woman looks like via his thoughts. This whole scene is oddly bloodless. It might work to tell us before this how cold the day is. 

“A little—but invigorating.”

“I paint here often, and you’re new.” Again, this seems an odd thing to say. I am dying to know what this man is THINKING! Go into his thoughts a little. What is he feeling? Shy? Embarrassed? Turned on? He’s not even curious! At the very least, you are missing a chance to slip in a little backstory ie: He had been painting at Smuggler’s Cove every morning since he had moved here two years ago. He knew everyone in the village, from the old woman at the post office who remembered he liked bird stamps to the skinny kid who never seemed to remember he liked his newspaper tossed on the porch.  But this woman…he had never seen her before. WHERE ARE WE? Blue Hill, Maine? North Vancouver? There are always ways to gracefully slip this info in early on.

“I usually swim further up the coast. But I’ve had trouble there. This is the first indication of intrigue. I heard of this spot—deserted—thought I’d give it a try.”

“What sort of trouble?” Again, this begs for a quick thought. Maybe this is where you can tell us where we are? He can think that up the coast in Mendocino (or whatever), there had been trouble with kids on the beach…or something. Don’t miss small opportunities to insert details about setting.

She cupped her breast in both hands, I think you mean she cupped her breasts? Or do you mean she is trying to cover herself? Cupping is provocative. Folding her arms across her chest implies modesty. “Some people don’t appreciate nude swimmers on their beach.” She dropped her hands, looked straight at him, “Does it bother you—nudity?” A bunch of punctuation mistakes here and/or missing attribution.

He slipped his sunglasses down and looked over the frames. “Not a bit.” He sat down, “I see nothing unpleasing to these eyes.”

“Ha, ha,” she laughed, dropping to her knees. “I like you,” she smiled. “You’re not like the other older people around here.”

I’m only thirty-four, he thought. (slips in backstory!)  But he guessed that the woman was maybe twenty, so perhaps she considered him old.  We also get NO description of the woman other than she’s wearing a red bathing suit bottom. Perfect place to SHOW us what she looks like via Blake’s point of view. “I don’t consider myself old. But, I’m fair and reasonable,” he said. What does that mean, I’m fair and reasonable? 

“It was a compliment. And as for age, I didn’t mean to imply…” she covered her mouth, blushing. This woman, given her provocative actions thus far, does not strike me as someone who blushes easily.

“No harm done—the truth is: Lose the colons! I’m not as young as I once was.”

“In that context—neither am I,” she giggled. What context?

“My name is Blake, by the way.”

She extended her hand, period. “Nice to meet you Blake—I’m Nancy … Nancy March.”


As I said, we’re handicapped by our 400-word limit, so it’s hard to tell where we’re going or what kind of world we’re entering here. But my main suggestion, dear writer, is that you slow down and little and add some emotional meat to these bones. The situation is intriguing, but because you haven’t given much of a context in setting or in your main character’s thoughts and emotions, I feel…well, at sea.


First Page Critique: The Heights of Valor

Happy Monday TKZers! Today, I have a first page critique that I think is really terrific – which means I don’t have a lot of comments as a result (though I have some you can read at the end). I think this submission demonstrates what a tight, well-written, historically authentic first page should look like!


Platteville, Wisconsin

April 26, 1898

The white-haired man behind the desk threw the newspaper down on the blotter. “It is completely out of the question,” Jeremiah Dawson sat back in the leather chair and stroked his beard. “The semester is not yet over. If you fail to complete the term, you shall not graduate with your class next year.”

The well-built young man sitting in front of his elder responded with a sober nod. “I am aware of that, Father. After my service in Cuba, I can return to the campus and take my final examinations. I have spoken to my professors. My standing in the class has earned me some measure of…leeway, let’s call it.”

“Charles, I–”

The young man leaned forward. “If you’re concerned about me delaying my joining the firm, rest assured, Father, I have every intention of coming back here once I complete law school. When the new century dawns, I will be here, at your right hand. Just as you and Mother planned all these years.” He sat back, crossed his legs and joined his hands. “I know that was her wish, God rest her soul.”

“It was most certainly not her wish for her only son to become cannon fodder.” The older man frowned, then stood, boosting himself up with a hand on the heavy oak desk. He reached for a cane. “You have no idea,” he whispered, shaking his head. He walked to the display case on the far wall of the office, unable to hide his limp. Pausing before the case, he placed a hand on it. “Son, war is not a lark. It is not…it is not some grand adventure.”

The young man stood, tugged at his waistcoat, and strode confidently to his father’s side. He moved with the easy grace of an athlete, and indeed he was one of the best boxers at the University of Wisconsin. He’d also taken up polo, further developing the horsemanship skills he’d honed riding through the ridges and valleys of Grant County. Fully three inches taller than his father, he stood next to the old man and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I understand that, Father,” he said. “Truly, I do.”

“That is not possible. You have not seen the elephant.” He flipped the latch and raised the glass lid. Reverently, he reached down and touched the old sword that rested on the red velvet. “If it is glory and adventure you desire, Cuba is the last place you shall find it.”


I think this is a great first page. The conversation between Charles and his father has a nice balance of tension, affection, and drama when it comes to why Charles wants to go serve in Cuba. I found this first page compelling and I would certainly continue reading. Even after just one page I have a good sense of the relationship between father and son, their expectations, and the conflict between them. I can already visualize both characters and have an understanding of who they are and what motivates them. Without having a whole lot of historical information, there’s just enough provided to set the scene and the dialogue and descriptions provided feel authentic for the time period.

If I was to be nitpicky I might say there were just a tad too many adjectives and description for Charles but that really didn’t bother me (although I was wondering if the writer meant ‘somber’ nod as opposed to ‘sober’ nod). I wasn’t totally sure about the reference to the elephant (seemed a strange nickname for a sword) but again, that didn’t bother me. Overall, I think this first page is tightly written and compelling. Bravo, to our brave submitter!

So TKZers, what comments or advice would you provide?


Remain Calm

Photo courtesy Louis N. Sorkin, BCE, AMNH

I offer the following with the intent of helping, knowing that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Those of us who visit TKZ on a regular basis are readers, among other things. As readers, we come into contact with books, and by “books,” for purposes of this discussion, I mean physical books. Part of that contact almost certainly includes visits to libraries, trips to used bookstores, and yes, the occasional foray into garage sales. Please note that you might bring home something other than words in that first edition you picked up for a quarter from the neighbor or that thirty-year-old book by a new-to-you author that you found at the library.

Someone I know recently showed me their ankle, which bore a number of horizontal puncture wounds with accompanying swelling. “Do you know what those are?” they asked. “Sure,” I replied. “Those are bed bug bites.” Hilarity did not ensue. I went into interrogation mode and had the person list all of the places they had been in the previous ten days. This was fairly easy to do, given that their cell phone tracked everywhere they been (yours almost certainly does the same thing). One place stood out: a library in the city we live in. “Well,” I said, “we know that you certainly can’t get bed bugs from the library!” Just to be sure, however, I did a little research and, contraire mon frere, the presence of bed bugs in libraries is becoming a significant problem nationwide.

There are a couple of reasons for this which aren’t important to our discussion here. What is relevant, however, is that once the little beasties are introduced into libraries they make their collective way into the books. This is particularly a problem with hardcover books, the majority of which have what are called “hollow backs,” where the spine of the book cover is not directly attached to the spine of the book block (the inner part of the book, consisting of all of the pages). If you open a hardcover book and peer down the spine from the top of it you can see the “hollow,” or tunnel. This gets larger with age and/or use of the book. The majority of paperback books have what are called “tight backs” where the spine of the book cover is directly attached to the spine of the book block, so that a hollow does not exist. However, you should flip through the pages anyway. Just to be sure.  Again, note the word “majority” here. In any event, bed bugs, it has been found, just love to nestle down in those hollow backs (for up to five years) and wait for someone to bring them home in a book, put the book on a bed headboard shelf, and go to sleep. For bedbugs, it’s kind of like being locked in a Duck Donuts shop overnight. Yum. The same problem theoretically exists in used bookstores, though I haven’t seen anything in the literature about that.

What to do? “Stop reading” and “stop patronizing libraries and bookstores” is NOT on the list. Just check the hollow backs of any books you borrow or buy going forward. If you peer down there (a flashlight helps) and if something waves back at you as you peer down the hollow then you have a problem. Stick the book in a ziplock bag, squeeze the air out, seal the bag and wait a few days. In space, no one can hear a bed bug scream. As it happened, I had several library books in the house when I was playing Doctor Kildare, so I immediately checked them. All of the books were fine. If you do find something, tell the library or bookstore. Libraries have become very proactive about dealing with this problem but the librarians have to be aware that the problem exists in their library before they can do anything about it. Again, I’m not trying to scare or panic anyone. It’s just a potential problem with which we must deal.

Question: what is the worst thing that you ever accidentally brought ho…actually, let me start over. What is the worst creepy-crawly that you have ever accidentally brought into the house? I was bringing in the daily paper for a vacationing neighbor and discovered that a spider had stowed away in the plastic bag. It was on the wrong side of the door when it manifested itself. I stomped it for something like a half-hour. Anyway, that’s me. Tell me what you have. And thank you as always for stopping by.


Re-reading your work

By Elaine Viets

I can’t read my novels when they’re hot off the presses. That’s when I see the parts that sag and the phrases I wish were more graceful.
But when I finally read Shop till You Drop, the first Dead-End Job mystery I wrote in 2003, it almost seemed like it had been written by someone else.

I had to reread all my Dead-End Job mysteries. I have four mystery series: the Dead-End Job series is a collection of funny mysteries set in South Florida. There’s the cozy Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper mysteries. Plus the Francesca Vierling newspaper mysteries. Right now, my current series is the forensic mysteries with death investigator, Angela Richman.
I am “backlist rich,” as my agent, Joshua Bilmes says. Joshua is president of the JABberwocky Literary Agency in New York, and he wanted to re-release my backlist. JABberwocky represents award-winning authors including Charlaine Harris, Brandon Sanderson, Toni Kelner and Tanya Huff, and has made books available from two dozen of the agency’s clients within its e-book program.
Done right, re-releases are expensive: re-releasing my 23 books in the Dead-End Job and Josie Marcus mystery shopper series can cost a solid five figures, and JABberwocky fronted the money. The novels will get new covers and fresh cover copy. We started with the first 13 Dead-End Job mysteries. Jenn Reese at Tiger Bright Studios designed clean, bright covers with a different symbol and color for each novel.
Meanwhile, I had to read all 13 Dead-End Job mysteries, and correct the small errors that happen when the files are converted to book format, plus the occasional typo. I was blessed with good copyeditors for this series, but one was crazy for semicolons. I have a deep, abiding hatred for semicolons in novels. They should be banished to term papers. I rewrote to get rid of the pests.
I recommend rereading your own work. I shouldn’t have waited 15 years. Reading your work will teach you a lot about your writing. Here’s what I learned:

(1) I needed a bible. Not the Good Book, but a list of every character and place I used in the series. I never expected this series to last for so many books. How long did Helen’s deadbeat husband live off her without getting a job? In some books, it was five years. In others, it was seven. I settled on a biblical seven years. And Helen’s age ranged from 41 to 42. She became 42 forever. Even if you have a two-book series, start a bible.
TKZ writer Kristy Montee, one half of PJ Parrish, says she has a high-tech method: She keeps a handwritten notebook. “We started it with the first book. It’s a dossier with a page(s) for every character we have ever created. To be honest, it’s easier to use than a computer file.
“On Louis’s page, for example, we have such strange facts as:
“Foster father was wounded in left leg in Korea.
“Joined Ann Arbor PD Jan. 1981
“His badge number in Loon Lake was #127
“Got college girlfriend pregnant in Feb. 1980.
“Takes 3 sugars in black coffee.
“Refurbished his vintage Mustang in the book Paint It Black.
“We do this for every character. It’s saved us MUCHO grief.”
This is what I should have done.

(2) I was overly fond of certain phrases. Never mind which ones – they’re gone.

(3) I insulted an ethnic group. I described a Caucasian woman who’d had too many eye jobs as having “Chinese eyes.” More than one reader said that was insulting to Asians. They were right. Never mind that I didn’t mean to insult anyone. That phrase is gone.

(4) The novels I thought were the best turned out not to be. I didn’t rewrite them – they got good reviews. But I learned another lesson: don’t overload the first few chapters with too much information.

(5) Some lines made me laugh. In Clubbed to Death, Helen’s co-worker says this about their hated boss: “Her heart is as hard as her fake boobs.”
When Helen meets her future husband in Dying to Call You, she notices, “His nose was slightly crooked. Helen liked that quality in a man.”
The novels were wistful at times. In Murder with Reservations, Helen wonders, “How come when you finally got what you wanted, it wasn’t what you needed?”
After reading all the novels, I liked them. They’re mysteries with a sharp look at Florida life.
But from now on, I need to woman up, and get booking. I’m taking my own sharp look at my writing.

Thirteen Dead-End Job mysteries are being re-released as e-books by JABberwocky Literary Agency. Buy the whole set or treat yourself to the books you missed. Prices start at $2.99 and go up. Check them out here.


When A Thing Becomes a Motif

There’s a lovely word that describes an object or idea that shows up again and again in a story: motif. To be a true motif, that object or idea should reinforce the story’s theme. But I confess that when we start to talk too long about things like stories’ themes my eyes tend to glaze over. So I’m perfectly happy to expand the definition to anything that appears repeatedly.

Years ago, it was thought that you could up your chances of getting poems into the New Yorker if you included water images in them. I think I read that something like 40% or more of the poems actually did have water in them for a period of time.  Even if an individual poem only contained one mention of water, water was still a motif that strung together many, many issues of the magazine.

Famous literary motifs: a handsome prince, a poor, but humble girl who becomes a princess, darkness, fog or rain, in gothic stories. In Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, there are sets of doubles, Lord of the Flies has the conch shell, and The Wizard of Oz has a heart, courage, and a brain. Both Shakespeare and the Bible frequently use references to light and darkness to make a point.

In some mystery and thriller stories: the emotionally scarred cop/investigator, the town gossip, weapons, a MacGuffin, a wise mentor. I know there are many more. Motifs and tropes are closely related.

For years, I had an antique comb, mirror and brush set in every story (until someone pointed out to me how weird it was). But now my main motif is a house. I find it hard to write a story unless some of the characters are closely identified with a particular house. As in dreams, a house can be a metaphor for oneself. For me, a house represents a home, and that motif matches up with a theme that’s common to all my books: home is the most important place in the world, even if it’s a terrible, frightening place.

(Update: I originally forgot to include a motif in one of my own stories that someone who was teaching it for a college class pointed out to me. I confess I had never realized it was there, which was probably the reason it worked so well. It’s a recurring dialogue exchange but spoken between varying characters: “Are you there?” “Yes, I am here.” Here’s the link to the story in PANK Magazine. “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.”) 

Do tell, TKZers. What motifs stand out in stories you love? And what things show up again and again in your work?




Have You Tried The “Page 69 Test”?

Photo purchased from Shutterstock

Let’s revisit a little test that was first introduced at this blog by own TKZ alumnus Joe Moore back in 2010: the “Page 69 Test”.

So, what is the Page 69 Test? Quoting Joe:

(It is)…a trick to help everyone in choosing a book to read.
Picture yourself standing at the new release table in your local bookstore. You see a bunch of new arrivals. Some authors you’ve heard of, some names are new. How do you choose? According to John Sutherland, author of How to read a novel, you don’t judge a book by its cover.


Dust jackets, blurbs, shoutlines, critics’ commendations (“quote whores”, as they are called in the video/DVD business) all jostle for the browser’s attention. But I recommend ignoring the hucksters’ shouts and applying instead the McLuhan test.


Marshall McLuhan, the guru of The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), recommends that the browser turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book. It works. Rule One, then: browse powerfully and read page 69.

Want to try it? Grab one of your books (or a book you’re reading) and turn to page 69. Does it grab your interest? Would you buy that book, based on what’s written on page 69?


Sources of Inspiration

By Mark Alpert

I had a great week. First, I received the D&A check for my next novel, which will be published by St. Martin’s Press in January of next year. (In the lingo of publishing contracts, D&A stands for Delivery and Acceptance. A D&A check is the portion of the advance you get after you deliver your manuscript and revise it to your editor’s satisfaction.) This will be my ninth published novel, but the thrill of depositing checks from publishers never gets old. I still can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.

More important, I made good progress on the book I’m writing right now. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about this novel. I’ve written only 6,000 words so far, and I don’t like to talk about the manuscript at this stage. I’m afraid that if I talk about it too much, I won’t write it. I’m superstitious, I guess.

But I can tell you what inspired me: reading Tim O’Brien’s classic short-story collection about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried. The book came out in 1990 and I read it for the first time shortly afterwards. A few months ago, my wife and I watched the Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War, and one of the episodes featured O’Brien — a Vietnam veteran — talking about his experiences and reading from The Things They Carried. This prompted me to reread the book, and once again I was blown away by how good it is. Part of its appeal is the sheer quality of the writing, but I also love the philosophy of the book, its focus on narrative honesty. Here’s an excerpt from one of the stories in the collection, “How to Tell a True War Story”:

You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.

For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true?

The answer matters.

You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen – and maybe it did, anything’s possible – even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.

That’s a true story that never happened.

When I’m inspired by a book, I like to read the best parts over and over. I also like to transcribe those wonderful paragraphs, typing them out word-for-word on my laptop, like I just did with the above excerpt. It’s a useful exercise, analogous to the ancient practice of Native American warriors who ate the hearts of their bravest enemies. By typing those paragraphs, I hope to put O’Brien’s finesse into my own fingers. Another superstition.

I had a second source of inspiration this week: I started listening again to “Guitar and Pen,” a song from The Who’s 1978 album Who Are You. What a great song for writers! Just consider this verse:

When you take up a pencil and sharpen it up
When you’re kicking the fence and still nothing will budge
When the words are immobile until you sit down
Never feel they’re worth keeping, they’re not easily found
Then you know in some strange, unexplainable way
You must really have something
Jumping, thumping, fighting, hiding away
Important to say.

The full lyrics are here and you can listen to the song here. Keith Moon lives!