Summer Assignments

By Mark Alpert

I’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks, enjoying the cool weather in northern Michigan, but even when I’m not working on my manuscript, I’m still thinking about writing. For instance, my daughter will take AP English in the fall, and her teacher gave the class a very ambitious summer assignment: reading “The Dead,” the famous James Joyce story that is the climax of Dubliners.

Joyce can be tough going, but Dubliners is his most accessible book, and even high schoolers can tackle it. Ideally, the short stories should be read in order, because Joyce gave a logical structure to the collection. The first three stories are told from the point of view of children — “Sisters,” “An Encounter,” and “Araby.” The next four stories are about the disappointments of young adulthood (“Eveline,” “After the Race,” “Two Gallants,” and “The Boarding House”) and the next seven focus on the even more tragic failures of mature men and women (“A Little Cloud,” “Counterparts,” “Clay,” “A Painful Case,” “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” “A Mother,” and “Grace”). “The Dead” wraps up the collection by weaving together all the themes explored in the book: the paralysis of Irish society, the frustrating inability to cast off the English colonizers, the horrible toll of alcoholism on Joyce’s countrymen, and so much more.

But my daughter didn’t like “The Dead” very much after the first reading. She and her classmates couldn’t see the connections between the first part of the story — which describes a holiday party hosted by Kate and Julia Morkan, a pair of Dublin spinsters struggling to run a music school — and the second part, which focuses on their nephew, Gabriel Conroy, and a disturbing revelation about his wife’s past. The connections are there, though, and my daughter began to see them after reading the story a second time. The key to seeing them is the story’s title. The spirits of the dead hover over both parts of the story; the partygoers, for instance, talk about monks who sleep in their coffins (“The coffin is to remind them of their last end”) and long-lost singers whose voices are so fondly remembered simply because they’ll never be heard again. The dead stand guard over Dublin in the form of statues whose shoulders and heads are capped with the snow that is “general all over Ireland,” shutting down and paralyzing the country. And at the end of the story, Gabriel realizes that his wife will never love him as much as she loves the ghost of Michael Furey, the delicate seventeen-year-old who refused to go on living without her.

I loved rereading this story with my daughter, but it also disheartened me. How can I go back to my manuscript now? All my sentences look like trash in comparison.

But hey, I’ll give it a shot.


Dialogue – Ten Ways to Make it Real

Jordan Dane

Recently I’ve been writing characters with unique regional accents or characters that I’ve had to invent how they speak, because they are unlike any other character I’ve ever written. When you create a character like this, you have to work doubly hard to “see” them and “hear” them in your mind.

Listen to real conversations. I especially love eavesdropping on teens, but as writers it is fun to be a snoop and hear the way people express themselves and their cadence. People often speak in fragments and laugh at one word asides. They launch into a diatribe and get interrupted by someone else. How do they react? If they come from a large family, I have a pretty good idea how they would react. But if they are an only child, do they retreat until the blustery winds of a blowhard die down?

It’s important to not only hear authenticity, but to also visualize it, without losing the fluid flow, pace, or clear plot points conveyed. Fictional dialogue must have a point, too.

1.) How well do you know your characters?
• Does it take you some writing time to get to know your characters? A good exercise is to write your character in first person to take them for a test drive, to get a feel for who they are and what matters to them.

• Live in their skin for awhile. Imagine what they look like, what they would wear. Create a photo image board from internet searches to flesh them out –in posture, eyes, attitude, swagger, dialect, education, job, sense of humor, etc.

• When you have a good feel for your main character, pair them with other fictional sidekicks or antagonists who will argue with them or cause conflicts and friction.

• Be careful to minimize slang or poorly spelled words or lots of bad grammar. Readers might have a problem with dialogue that is difficult to read throughout a book, but a smattering of regional color can be just the ticket to setting your world stage.

2.) Imagine Playing Your Character on Stage
When I “hear” voices in my head (from my characters, that is), especially if I’ve written them with accents or attitudes, it is fun to act them out. Do this by reading aloud and embellishing with your thoughts on how they sound. Reading aloud helps catch edit issues, but it can also help you create a cadence suitable for your character and give you insight into who they are.

Whenever I do readings at book signings (which I LOVE to do), I really get into the reading and become the character. I sometimes have my attendees close their eyes to focus on the story and trigger their imaginations, forgetting that they are in a bookstore. Often you can hear a pin drop when I finish and you get the real reaction from those listening when they open their eyes and return to the present from where they’ve been. Who knows? Acting out your character can help you “see” them in your mind – how they move or do hand gestures.

3.) In action scenes or tension packed scenes, make the dialogue sound real.
As an author would shorten narrative prose to give the reader the feeling of tension, suspense, and danger, it’s best to use short, concise sentences to enhance pace. Each line is like a punch in the gut to give the reader a visceral reaction to the change in pace.

Some passages may have longer lines of explanation or technical plot essentials, but keep those to a minimum if you want pace to lead the way. An expert in a dangerous situation would not suddenly turn into Mr Wizard to explain everything. They might get impatient and find a quick example or way of speaking to get their point across, while showing their frustration. How do they react under stress will show in their dialogue.

A long back and forth with punchy short sentences can let the reader sense the mounting tension, but if it goes on too long, it can get old, fast.

Excerpt: The Darkness Within Him (Amazon Kindle Worlds)
When a startling vision triggered a memory Bram Cross thought he’d buried, an icy shard carved through his body The macabre and haunting face of his mother lurched from the pitch-black of his mind—her eyes, what she did.

No, I can’t do this. Don’t make me. He fought hard to stifle his childish, irrational refusal, but he had to say something.

“You’re an asshole. We shouldn’t be here,” Bram said. “Someone’s watching us. I can feel it.”

“Shut up. You’re paranoid,” Josh spat. “You said you’d come with me. Quit your whining.”

“Something’s not right.”

Josh stopped, dead still, at the mouth of the infamous tunnel. He stood on the spot where the mutilated, half-eaten bodies of dead rabbits had been found in 1904—killed by ‘Bunny Man,’ an insane prison escapee named Douglas Grifon. The bad omen made Bram step back, but too late. By sheer stupidity and bad luck, Josh had jinxed them both.

Josh glared at Bram as he reached into a pocket of his jacket.

“I brought insurance, courtesy of dear old dad. We’ve got nothing to worry about.” He pulled out a gun and grinned as if he had all the answers.

“Are you insane? Put that away.” Bram fumed. “I’m out of here. I didn’t sign up for this.”

Bram turned to go, heading back toward the car that Josh had parked at the trailhead, but his friend grabbed his arm.

“You’re not going anywhere. I’ve got the car keys. Man up, shit for brains.”

4.) Dialogue should intrigue and draw reader in. Don’t use it to explain or the lines fall flat.
Dialogue should enhance the action and add to the emotion and pace. If you take the time to explain an action, the dialogue will sound contrived. If you explain what the characters should already know, why are you doing it? Savvy readers know when the dialogue is meant for them and when it doesn’t add to the story, but detracts from it and slows the pace.

Think of endings where the villain goes through lengthy explanations to “tell” the reader what the book has been about. Old mystery formats are like this where Sherlock Holmes expounds on how clever he is by detailing “who done it.” If a certain amount of this is necessary, make it about a mind game between the hero and villain where they have a reason to “one up” the other with reveals, but keep it to a minimum and not at the expense of good dialogue.

5.) Interruptions can be good in dialogue.
Interruptions can focus a character, keep up the pace, or show a realistic way to direct the reader where you want them to do. Have your characters ask questions of each other to liven things up.

Excerpt – The Darkness Within Him
Ryker Townsend – FBI Profiler
After the kid undid the latch and the deadbolts, he opened the door enough for me to see the injuries he’d sustained in his fight with Mr. Whitcomb. Josh stared at me for a split second before he shoved the door closed, but I jammed my foot in the opening.

“Police. We just want to talk.” I pushed through the breach and he winced. “Are you Josh Atwood?”

He didn’t answer and backed into a small living room. Reggie and Jax walked in behind me.

“Hey, aren’t you supposed to show ID?”

I eyed Reggie and the detective indulged him with a show of his badge.

“But I didn’t invite you in.”

“That only works with vampires. Consider this a welfare check, Bueller.”

6.) Add tension in Dialogue by making your characters hesitate or stall.
Is one of your characters in charge or forceful? How does that manifest in the other character in the scene? Often dialogue is like a chess game where one person tries to outwit the other or get the upper hand.

When one character stalls or shuts down, and the conflict grows, that can read as very authentic. We all have little voices in our heads, especially when we are dealing with arguments or confrontation. Effective dialogue must have nuances like a dance choreography that flows naturally and reads as effortless. When the scene starts out, one character can suddenly change course. How would you reflect that? Conflict is always interesting.

7.) Cut out the unnecessary and keep your dialogue vital. No chit chat.
I often write dialogue first, like in a script, to flesh out the framework of a scene. Later I fill in the body language, action, internal monologue, but dialogue is vital to make the scene hold up. It’s what the reader’s eye will follow on the page. When I edit, I will tighten dialogue lines, especially in action scenes, to keep the lines flowing naturally.

8.) Punch up the dialogue with action or character movement in the scene.
Give the reader something visual to imagine as they read your scene. All dialogue scenes, where two characters sit at a table, can be mind numbing and boring. Make the scene come alive by giving them something to do, especially if it puts them at odds with each other. Make that action unexpected, like adding sexual tension in the scene below (excerpt from Elmore Leonard).

Even if you MUST put them at a table, give them something to do. I especially like body language where it’s obvious the characters are hiding something and have let the reader in on that fact. Or punch up a funny line with a physical habit to accentuate humor or give distinction to a character.

9.) Minimize tag lines and give characters unique dialogue so tags aren’t as necessary.
One of my edit reviews is looking at tag lines to eliminate ‘saids.’ I often replace a said with an action that attributes which character delivered the line.

Also keep in mind, if you have a number of characters in a scene, a well-placed ‘said’ can orient the reader and ID the character in a scene where it’s easy to get lost. Gender oriented lines can help distinguish characters, or the regional dialect, or even if one character has a certain type of humor. ‘Said’ is the kind of word that disappears in a reader’s mind, but if you string too many together, it’s like sending up a flare “NOTICE ME!”

10.) Reading authors who write excellent dialogue is important.
Real pros at dialogue make it look effortless. Get schooled. If an author makes dialogue work, try to understand why it works and how you can infuse that in your own style and voice. Here are a couple of examples:


Elmore Leonard Excerpt – From Out of Sight (U S Marshal Raylan Givens) – I can imagine this very visual scene with the sexual tension.

‘You sure have a lot of shit in here. What’s all this stuff? Handcuffs, chains…What’s this can?’

‘For your breath,’ Karen said. ‘You could use it. Squirt some in your mouth.’

‘You devil, it’s Mace, huh? What’ve you got here, a billy? Use it on poor unfortunate offenders…Where’s your gun, your pistol?’

‘In my bag, in the car.’ She felt his hand slip from her arm to her hip and rest there and she said, ‘You know you don’t have a chance of making it. Guards are out here already, they’ll stop the car.’

‘They’re off in the cane by now chasing Cubans.’

His tone quiet, unhurried, and it surprised her.

‘I timed it to slip between the cracks, you might say. I was even gonna blow the whistle myself if I had to, send out the amber alert, get them running around in confusion for when I came out of the hole. Boy, it stunk in there.’

‘I believe it,’ Karen said. ‘You’ve ruined a thirty-five-hundred-dollar suit my dad gave me.’

She felt his hand move down her thigh, fingertips brushing her pantyhose, the way her skirt was pushed up.

‘I bet you look great in it, too. Tell me why in the world you ever became a federal marshal, Jesus. My experience with marshals, they’re all beefy guys, like your big-city dicks.’

‘The idea of going after guys like you,’ Karen said, ‘appealed to me.’


John Steinbeck – Of Mice & Men

‘Tried and tried,’ said Lennie, ‘but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.’

‘The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard street and watchin’ that blackboard?’

Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile. ‘Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…’

‘The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?’

‘Oh, sure, George, I remember that now.’ His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, ‘George…I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.’ He looked down at the ground in despair.

‘You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ‘em here. Think I’d let you carry your own work card?’

Lennie grinned with relief.

For Discussion:

1.) What dialogue craft skills work for you? Any tips to share?

2.) What authors do you like to read for dialogue?

Vigilante Justice – $0.99 Ebook – Published by Amazon Kindle Worlds



A Sea of Squares

by John Gilstrap

In the last few weeks, I’ve had the honor of teaching two of my six-hour classes entitled, “Adrenaline Rush: Writing Suspense Fiction.”  The first was at the always-wonderful Midwest Writers Workshop which is held every July on the campus of Ball State University, and more recently at the Smithsonian’s marvelous S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, DC.  It’s a fun, interactive course that includes four writing exercises that are designed to help students understand the issues of voice and characterization.

A large part of that discussion by necessity deals with point of view (POV).  I find that students inherently understand the relative strengths and weakness of first-person story telling, but when they shift gears into the third person, they have difficulty creating as intense a relationship between reader and character as they can with the first person.  I tell them that it’s largely a case of writing the same sentence and changing the pronoun (“His heart slammed in his chest as he opened the door” vs. “My heart slammed in my chest as I opened the door”), and while they get it intellectually, they have difficulty pulling it off on the page.  They tend to slip into that omniscient, reportorial space.

While teaching at MWW, I hit upon an analogy that I liked, and the students seemed to bond with.  I urged them to pretend that we were writing about a very intense chess game, along the lines of that scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where the chess pieces are living things.  I explained how the point of view of the chess master–the guy with the strategy–is entirely different from that of the pawn.  In the case of the latter, the poor guy just stands there, oblivious, staring out at a sea of squares until some unseen thing grabs his face and moves him forward.  After a few iterations, he finds himself kitty-corner from a guy who looks just like him, but in a different color, and now he’s supposed to kill him.  Hell, he never even met the guy!

That’s the close third-person, I told them.  Now, if you add the point of view of the knight who can’t move, but is exposed to certain death at the hands of the bishop on the other side of the sea, all because the pawn stepped out of the way, you’ve got a thriller told in shifting 3rd-person POV.  And it’s potentially much more interesting than the story that would be told through the omniscient view of the chess master.

What should I add in the next class to illustrate POV choices?


On Breaking the Writing Rules,
Bad Advice and Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee in his library of 2500 books.

Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own. – Bruce Lee.

By PJ Parrish

A couple years ago, I decided I needed to get back in shape. I had gotten lazy, a little flabby and sort of depressed about it. So I decided to go to a personal trainer. John was just what I needed — a kick-butt no-nonsense guy’s guy who knew a lot about how the human body worked. He also knew a lot about how the human mind worked.

Or in my case, didn’t work.

It hit me somewhere around the second month of training that my brain was out of shape. I had lost discipline, fallen into bad habits, and was locked into an inertia of inaction.

You probably know where this is going. I am talking also about my writing life.

My writing routine had gotten slack. My output had declined. I was making excuses to not write. I was getting down about the whole thing.

John was big into martial arts, and his hero was Bruce Lee. He talked often about Lee’s discipline and his approach to his “art.” I pretended to listen as I did my curls and crunches. But stuff started to sink in and I did some research on Bruce Lee. Pretty amazing life, that guy. He was famous for developing his own brand of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do. He took techniques from a wide variety of other disciplines and discarded many of the “rules” of traditional martial arts.

But here’s something that really resonated with the writer in me: Before he got to this point, he spent years training in all the traditional styles like karate, aikido, judo. To find his own unique style, he did all the “basic training” and took no short cuts. He was a little like Picasso, who painted this

Before he painted this

Both Lee and Picasso learned the rules and then broke them.

Writers talk a lot about rules.  We here at TKZ talk a lot about rules. Maybe it’s because what we do is not easy to learn, even if you are a “natural.” We go to workshops and conferences, read how-to books, underline passages in Stephen King’s On Writing, looking for tips and techniques to help our writing. We want to get better, always, at what we do. We want to know the rules, because if you learn the rules, maybe you can get in the game.

Don’t use adverbs!

Don’t use passive voice!

Keep backstory under control!

Write every day or you die!

It’s a wonder we get anything down on the page. Except maybe our own blood.

Writer’s rules aren’t anything new. A guy named S.S. Van Dine’s set down his Twenty Rules For Writing Detective Stories in 1928. (“There must be a corpse, and the deader the corpse the better.”) Many other famous writers have been compelled to weigh in with their own lists. Here are a few tidbits I culled:


  • Margaret Atwood: Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  • George Orwell: Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Jonathon Frazen: It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
  • PD James: Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
  • Joyce Carol Oates: Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and “obscure” – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
  • Ian Rankin: Have a story worth telling.
  • Zadie Smith: Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  • Hilary Mantel: Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.
  • Henry Miller: Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  • Mark Twain: Write without pay until somebody offers pay.
  • Richard Ford: Don’t have children.

I can agree with most of that. But then again, I have dogs. There are some rules, however, I found that I can’t endorse:

  • Mario Puzo: Never write in the first person.
  • Robert Heinlein: You must refrain from rewriting except by editorial order.
  • Jack Kerouac: Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind.

If someone can explain that last one to me, I’d be grateful.

It used to be that you had to read a book to get advice from the famous on writing. When I first read Annie Dilliard’s The Writing Life, I didn’t learn how to write but I was relieved to learn I wasn’t alone in my self-doubts. But now, thousands of writing tips are available to us at the tap of a finger, and anyone can hang out a how-to shingle. So how do you sift the wisdom from the chaff? I remember when I was first starting out in the romance field, I read dozens of Silhouettes, went to the RWA convention in New York, and searched for the secret formula that would make me rich and famous. I had to learn to write sex scenes, which I hated doing, and back in the 80s, there wasn’t much help on the internet. I could have really used blogger Steve Almond back then.  He calls himself “an internationally famous author celebrated for my graphic portrayals of amour.” He wrote a blog  detailing his rules for writing sex scenes. Here’s one of his rules:

Never compare a woman’s nipples to:
a) Cherries
b) Cherry pits
c) Pencil erasers
d) Frankenstein’s bolts
Nipples are tricky. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and shades. They do not, as a rule, look like much of anything, aside from nipples. So resist making dumb comparisons.

If you want to read his other tips, click here. But be warned, they aren’t all PG-rated.

Rules can be confusing, arbitrary, and deeply frustrating. I guess the only good advice I can offer is what Bruce Lee suggests in the quote at the beginning of this post. Adapt what you find useful, reject what is useless, and find your own path. I’ve been writing novels professionally for about thirty years, and whenever I see someone — famous or not — laying down rules, my hairs go up.  Still, I have discovered a few “rules” along the way that I have found deeply useful:

Kurt Vonnegut: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.  This taught me to dig deep for motivation for every character I put on the page, especially the villains.  Later, I heard Les Standiford preach the same principle when he said that until you understand what your character wants, not just on the surface but at his deepest levels, you can’t write a good story.

Linus Pauling: The way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. This taught me that not every story idea will work.  Some are good maybe for a short story. Some are ugly babies that might need a few years to blossom into beauties — ie, you might not be ready to tackle that story at that point in your life or technique. And many ideas  are just dumb or dull and you have to let them go. Sometimes you have to drown them.

David Morrell: Know your motivation. I’ve heard David speak at conferences about this and he has lots to teach writers. But this one always stuck with me. Here’s more from him: “Before I start any novel, I write a lengthy answer to the following question: Why is this project worth a year of my life? If I’m going to spend hundreds of days alone in a room, I’d better have a good reason for writing a particular book.” I urge you to click here and read the full post. It’s instructive and poignant.

Ernest Hemingway, who didn’t put his rules on paper, but did confide this to his friend Fitzgerald: “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of sh*t. I try to put the sh*t in the wastebasket.”

So yes, study the rules. Learn the rules. Many even write a few unpublished stories that adhere to rules and old formulas so you can see the departure point. But then have the courage to break the rules. I don’t read much sci-fi and I don’t read any YA. But this blog was inspired by a story I heard about recently about a debut author named Marissa Meyer. She wanted to write a Cinderella story. Pity the girl…not even published yet and she was breaking a big rule:  Don’t rely on stale old plots! Agents and editors want something fresh!

Meyer’s book is called Cinder. Yes, it’s based on the old fairy tale — Cinder is an outcast with nasty stepsisters. She’s also an Asian cyborg. The book became a New York Times bestseller. Why did I like this? Because one of my “rules” is to say something unique or say it uniquely. This is what Meyer did – took something old and made it new and her own. She broke the rule. And somebody came up with a slamming cover.

One last rule. It comes from one of my favorite new-to-me authors:

Neil Gaiman: The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

What are some “rules” that you’ve found that work for you? What are the ones that you’ve rejected? And how did the rules help you find your own way?



How not to do an Interview!

As a regular reader of the NYT Book Review I usually look forward to their weekly column ‘By the Book’ but this week’s contribution raised my eyebrows. Unfortunately, to me at least, it was a classic example of what not to do in an author interview. The author this week was Philippa Gregory (a link to column can be found here) and in some ways my post today is a follow up to the one I did about Hilary Mantel (who appeared to look down on female historical writers such as Gregory!). Gregory’s interview is full of such gems as:

  • “What I don’t read is historical fiction in the period I am writing. Firstly, the characters as described by anyone else drive me mad…”
  • “Why does anyone write sloppy genre novels? The typing alone is so exhausting – surely if you’re going to undertake 150,000 words, you might as well have something interesting to say?”
  • “Why do people write crime novels with blindingly obvious murderers?”
  • “Choosing to write a genre novel is like fencing the universe because your are afraid of space.”

The upshot of Gregory’s tone is that she is far above those mere mortals who write ‘genre’ novels. What bothers me the most about her town is the unprofessionalism that seems to be on display. When giving an interview, I think that all writers (and especially those who enjoy popular acclaim) should be mindful of the image they present. There is no need to denigrate ‘genre’ writers (or any other writers for that matter) and there is certainly no need to show disdain for their craft. By the Book is normally a column that displays the quirks of an author and their book tastes, it doesn’t usually involve book snobbery or an attitude that, quite frankly, turns me off reading an author’s work….but this one did.

My takeaway from this? A few pointers on how to do a professional interview…

  • Don’t use the interview to denigrate other writers, genres, or work. You can most certainly reveal your preferences, but negativity isn’t needed.
  • Don’t make statements such as ‘why does anyone write sloppy genre novels?’. No writer I’ve ever met has sat down to write 150,000 words of absolute crap. We all sit down to write the best book we can, and who is Gregory to judge the merits of that in such wide ranging terms? Genre novels are not by their very nature ‘sloppy’ – and many so-called literary books can be excruciating to read:)
  • Be aware of the tone you are conveying and avoid anything that smacks of pretentiousness or snobbery.
  • Publishing doesn’t need to be shark-infested waters where, to succeed, you have to lunge and bite other writers in order to succeed. Most writers I’ve met are nothing but supportive and humbled by the own success. This interview suggests that Gregory feels herself far superior to other mere mortals writing historical or genre fiction (was that really the image she wanted to convey?)

So TKZers what is your take on the interview? If you were invited by the NYT to be interviewed for ‘By the Book’, how would you want to appear?



Photo courtesy Filip Gielda on

Please join me in welcoming Anonymous du jour to the semi-regular revolving feature of The Kill Zone known as First Page Critique! Today we will be looking at the first page of Anon’s Descending Darkness, a work-in-progress tale of a lost love and the potential for revenge:

Descending Darkness  

The man stood on the outskirts of Vista Bay looking down at the town that took his wife. The woods would hide him for now. Anger roiled in his heart as the memories of what the town had done to him and his wife flooded through his mind. If he had a match, he would have burnt the town with a single strike. Or died trying.

He stood there, seething, the wind bringing tears to his eyes. The town below getting blurry. He pulled his coat closer to his chest and inhaled the cold air. Then, from the lake below, a white cloud billowed over the land. Snow, and lots of it.

He was miles from his abandoned car, thinking that he would end it all. Now the town gave him something to think about.

The snow blew harder against him. He had to get out of it. Sure, he wanted to die but he didn’t want to freeze to death—that would be a slow death not worthy his pain.

The snow cleared his mind and the desire to die evaporated. Revenge. He turned back toward his car.

An hour later, his feet numb and his hands feeling like cold stone, he admitted he was lost. It wasn’t fair, the town owed him. He pushed his way through the trees.

Bent forward against the blowing snow, he climbed another hill only to be blinded again by the blowing whiteness as he reached the top. He shielded his eyes and surveyed the expanse of white and trees and prayed. He did not know to whom he was praying but only that he asked for protection until full retribution was made. He lifted his arm to shield his face from the frozen torrent then fell onto the cold snow.

The lowering sun mocked by producing no heat, only bright light threatening to blind him. He was going to die. He squinted into the distance and for the first time, he saw it. Hope. A cave lay ahead. He thanked whoever had answered his prayer and pressed onward.

Anon, you have a potentially interesting story here and do a good job of teasing your audience into it. That said, Descending Darkness needs a bit of work. Please note: what I have looks like a lot, but it really isn’t. It amounts to minor corrections here and there. Accordingly, please don’t be intimidated by the length and number of corrections.

— First, name your protagonist.  For our purposes we are going to call name “William.” We can identify a bit more with William if we call him by a proper name rather than “The man.” Let’s name his wife as well. How does “Mary” sound, just for this exercise?

— Next, I’m a little confused about the visual perspective which you present. You’ve got William looking down — your word — at a town (and let’s name that town, too. How about if we call it “Fairlawn” for our purposes?) as he stands on the outskirts of Vista Bay. Since water seeks it lowest level (ask those poor folks in New Orleans) let’s keep William just outside of the woods which are above the town but put Vista Bay (and any other body of water) next to or (preferably) below Fairlawn.

— Let’s follow up with your description of the weather. I don’t observe Elmore Leonard’s rule of writing that forbids talking about weather at the beginning of your story. You, however, go the other way just a bit too much. You use the word “snow” five times and the term “cold” three times in one page. Mention that it’s cold and that it’s snowing once and focus the attention of the reader on what is going through William’s mind. If you want to sustain the idea of how cold it is you can do that by mentioning that he’s leaving tracks or talk about his car skidding on ice and getting stuck or something (see below for more about that car). Your reader will get the picture. You also use the words “death” twice in one sentence and “die” four times in one page, not to mention in two consecutive sentences.  Try “passing on” or another phrase or euphemism for “die” or death instead. You’re not the only one who uses a word too frequently in too short a space. It’s one of my cardinal sins in my own writing and one I strive mightily to avoid.

— Speaking of cold: in the last paragraph you describe the sun as “producing no heat.”  The sun is always producing heat; it’s just not helping William at this particular time of year. Try this: “The setting sun mocked him. It provided no heat, only bright light threatening to blind him.”

— As far as that car is concerned, I’m wondering why William parked it and then walked for a while if he was going to commit suicide. There are all sorts of reasons for that but tell us one. Did he run out of road? Did he get stuck in the snow? Run out of gas? Get a flat tire? Tell us. I think that you probably want William out of that car and walking so that he can find something in that cave in the middle of that snowstorm, but tell us why he left his car behind so that we’re not wondering about it.

— The next comment may just relate to your style. You seem in a couple of places to separate two complete sentences with commas and set off incomplete sentences with periods, to wit:

If he had a match, he would have burnt the town with a single strike. Or died trying.

Instead of:  “If he had a match, he would have burnt the town with a single strike, or died trying.”

It wasn’t fair, the town owed him.

instead of: “ It wasn’t fair. The town owed him.”

What you’re doing isn’t grammatically correct, but it’s a style that a number of authors utilize. I don’t particularly like it but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it. Reasonable minds may differ.

It doesn’t always work, however:

He stood there, seething, the wind bringing tears to his eyes. The town below getting blurry.


Let’s sharpen that up just a bit by making the second sentence a complete one:

“He stood there, seething, the wind bringing tears to his eyes. The town below blurred.”

Then we have:

The snow cleared his mind and the desire to die evaporated. Revenge. He turned back toward his car.

There’s just a bit of a jump between wanting to die and revenge, from a narrative standpoint. How about building a small bridge between them? For instance:

“The snow cleared William’s mind. His desire to die evaporated and was replaced by revenge. He turned back toward his car.”

— I’ve got two more items for you, Anon. Be careful of the placement of the word “only.” To wit:

He did not know to whom he was praying but only that he asked for protection until full retribution was made.

What you are saying is that William only knew that he was asking for protection. I think what you meant was that William was asking only for protection, which would look like this:

“He did not know to whom he was praying but asked only for protection until full retribution was made.”

…and while we’re at it, that second clause is a little awkward. Retribution is achieved, not made. How ’bout we change that to

…until he had achieved retribution.

I will now attempt to stay uncharacteristically quiet (though still present) as I open up the floor to our TKZers. Anon, thank you for contributing and braving the First Page Critique. I look forward to at some point discovering what the town (whatever you should name it) did to deserve the man’s (whatever you should name him) enmity, and what occurs.






Book Signing Jitters

By Elaine Viets

I still remember my first signing for my first mystery, Backstab. It was a frozen January afternoon in St. Louis, and the streets were slick with ice. I didn’t expect anyone to show up, but there was John Lutz in the bookstore, stamping the snow off his boots. Yep, that John Lutz, the thriller writer whose novel SWF Seeks Same became the movie Single White Female.

I was a recovering newspaper reporter who’d crossed over to novels. “Congratulations,” John said. “You’ve managed to find a business even more screwed up than newspapers.” The copy I signed for John was my first book signing sale.
Mystery writers support one another. That’s still true. Since then, I’ve had too many signings to count, but I still remember how nervous I was at that first signing in 1998.

 Now mystery writer Patricia Hale is facing her first signing for her new novel, The Church of the Holy Child. “It’s my first signing ever, so I’m a little nervous,” she wrote. “I know there will probably be no one there and I’m mentally prepared for that. Do any of you experts out there have some advice?”

Congratulations, Pat. Be sure to tell your audience this is your first signing. They’ll love the idea that they “discovered” you. Here are some things you should be doing:
Right now. Publicize your event. Publicity for an event starts at least six to eight weeks out, but it’s not too late to send an e-newsletter or an e-blast to your friends, family, co-workers, and potential readers. Post your news on all the mystery lists and on Facebook. Tweet it. Send a notice to your community papers and radio stations. It may be too late to make the news columns, but many of them have local events pages that will list your signing for free. Check their Websites. 
Food and treats. Check with the bookstore about its policy. Some don’t allow food because chocolate thumb prints can ruin a book. The damaged novel will be sent back – and charged against your royalties. Other stores allow cupcakes, veggie trays or other snacks. A little alcohol can liven up the event and pry open wallets, if the store permits it.

If you can’t bring food for your audience, don’t forget the sales staff. I often bring cupcakes or Krispy Kreme doughnuts for the booksellers’ break. They’ll remember you remembered them, and maybe recommend your work to their customers.

If the bookstore has a cat or dog, bring it a treat. Unless you’re seriously allergic, take time to pet and praise the bookstore cat. I had a signing where the store’s big orange tabby plopped down on my table in the middle of my talk. The audience laughed and photographed the cat sitting on my books. Afterward, readers brushed the cat hair off the books, and bought them.

Bookmarks are a good way to publicize your books. A less expensive option is business cards with your cover in color on one side and your name, Website, and author e-mail address on the other.

The day of the signing. If you don’t have an audience. You said you were prepared if no one shows up – but if no one comes to your signing, you’ll be rattled. At least, I am. It doesn’t help to tell myself it’s happened to Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark: those empty chairs feel like an accusation. If no one shows up, talk to or help the bookseller. I also do guerilla signings if no one shows. I’ll go up to people entering the store and say, “Hi, do you like mysteries?” If they say yes, I’ll hand them a copy of my new book and tell them about it. Stalking customers works.

If you do have an audience. Even the kindest readers look scary at your first signing. Early in my career, I was told, “If you’re scared, just imagine the whole audience is naked.” That idea was too traumatic. Instead, imagine the audience is your friends and favorite relatives. After all, some of them will be. While waiting for the signing to start, talk to the people. Ask them about themselves. Compliment them on a pretty piece of jewelry or a fun T-shirt. Ask what kind of mysteries they like to read. Once you get people talking, they’ll be your fans.

During your talk. Be prepared to give your readers two or three fascinating facts about your novel, or an unusual bit of research. Tell them why you chose this subject.
Should you read from your novel? Only a short selection, no more than a page or two. And practice first.

               Bring a notebook. Ask readers to sign up for your free e-newsletter.

                    Do not be surprised if someone asks you where the bathrooms are. Just tell direct them. You may also be mistaken for a bookseller. In that case, find a staff member who to help the person.

After the signing. Thank the bookseller for the signing and the nice display. Ask if you can sign your stock. Signed stock can almost always be returned. Often, after the signing, the bookseller will display your signed novels on a table, an end cap (the display on the end of the shelf rows) or best of all, next to the cash register. This is prime bookstore real estate.

Help clean up and put things away. If you brought food, ask the staff if they’d like it.

Have fun. I know, that sounds easy to say. But you’ve worked hard to write your book. Now, enjoy showing it off.

If you’re in Newburyport, Mass., Patricia Hale’s signing is Thursday, August 17, from 5:30-7 p.m. at The Book Rack, 52 State Street.

Good luck, Pat. See you on the bestseller lists.

               TKZ readers and writers, what advice would you give Patricia?


The Edit Has Landed

(photo via GoDaddy stock)


The edit has landed. I repeat: The edit has landed. This is not a drill.

This refrain runs through my head every time I get an initial editorial letter from my editor after I’ve sold a manuscript. For the uninitiated, the editorial letter contains detailed comments and suggestions for changes the editor would like to see in the next version of a contracted manuscript.

On Sunday evening, the editorial letter for One Last Secret, my next suspense novel, arrived in my inbox.

I’m going to gloss over the agonizing hour or so I spent actually analyzing my letter. Imagine cheers or tears or cringing or reallys?! or ack–how did that get through? or yays! It’s a private moment that you are already familiar with if you’ve workshopped your own writing, or have had editors or truthful friends comment on it.

There’s a fine line when it comes to accepting or rejecting an editor’s suggestions. Ego can get in the way. Unless we’re collaborating with another writer, our stories have incubated in our own heads for months or years. Perhaps the initial drafts have been read by friends or spouses, etc, but they’re still essentially ours. It can be hard to let go, to be willing to let the manuscript change. But while an editor is also a reader, and often a fan, they are not just any reader/friend offering suggestions. They’re professionals who have a financial interest in seeing that the story appeals to a large number of readers.

An editor or reader is attracted to a novel or story as a result of the writer’s ability to successfully communicate a vision of the story that exists in the writer’s head.

But as we know, no two visions of a story are even close to identical. The best writing speaks loudly to people for myriad reasons, and tugs at the chords deeply anchored to our souls. And no two souls are alike. It’s a huge compliment for a writer to have a reader say a writer’s work resonates with them, whether it’s something as simple as a character with whom they identify, or a whole new world into which they can escape for an afternoon  and beyond.

An editor is an agent of the re-visioning process. (I’ve probably mentioned re-visioning before as a concept mentioned by Joyce Carol Oates.) In a re-vision, the vision of the story becomes something totally new for the writer. This new vision will change with each new addition or deletion or deepening of the story. It can be brought about with mechanical precision by making sure the story has all the necessary beats, or meets and even enhances the conventions of the genre. Or it will change when the writer combines characters, kicks the hero(ine) into higher gear, or tweaks the emotional impact of a scene. It’s a birth process that goes on and on until both the editor and the writer agree that their mutual visions meet on the page and are compatible enough to be presented to the world. They’re both happy. (Or they run out of time!)

For me it’s both wrenching and exciting to work with an editor. In theory—and it’s a theory I extoll frequently—I want to write and edit in service of the story. I write toward that Platonic ideal that exists for every story. The ideal we can only ever express as a shadow. But I want to at least make it a shadow that lives and makes other people see it as an ideal thing in their heads. It should have no visible seams, no dull moments, no unnecessary details, clear ideas, smart dialogue, and compelling images. In other words, as close to an ideal as possible.

Occasionally though, the old ego wants to dig in its heels when the suggestions come. My story! it cries. Mine! Mine! Mine! It begs me to leave it alone. Very occasionally there are story elements that I feel are integral and necessary to the story, and I try to negotiate their continued existence. Now that I think about it, the very few times that has happened, various editors have been very supportive. But I generally keep my ego in check. It really is all about the story. And a good editor knows how to balance the writer’s need for respect/story integrity with her own need to make the story more appealing to the marketing department and readers.

Not everyone likes the revision process. As I said, it’s both wrenchingly difficult and exciting for me at the same time. Change is hard, and changing our stories can be particularly tough because edits often feel like judgments. I just keep telling myself that an edited story is something shiny and brand new in the world. A new creation. And who doesn’t like the feeling of having created something new?


How do you approach the editing process—whether suggestions are from reader friends or paid editors? Do you love it, hate it, or see it as just one more step to be endured?

Or tell us about an editor you’ve loved working with…