Beach Reading

By Mark Alpert

I’m halfway through reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. What a strange novel! It starts with a completely inexplicable event — some unknown object crashes into the moon and causes it to break up into seven pieces, which then collide with one another and fracture into an untold number of shards. A substantial portion of this debris is then drawn toward Earth. The human race has only two years to prepare for the Hard Rain, a worsening storm of meteorite strikes that will make the planet’s surface uninhabitable. Governments around the world begin assembling heavy-lift rockets and lofting hundreds of spacecraft into orbit. The survivors of planetary destruction cling to life in the Cloud Ark, a swarm of orbital modules surrounding the International Space Station.

It’s a great premise for a thriller. The Cloud Ark is vulnerable to strikes from pieces of moon debris, which tear through the orbiting spacecraft. The “Arkies” have to figure out how to make their space colony sustainable for the long term, because the Earth’s surface will remain molten for thousands of years. And conflicts arise very quickly among the survivors as strong-willing contenders battle for control of the colony.

Coincidentally, this has been a great week for sky-watching. A waxing moon was flanked by Saturn to the left and Jupiter to the right. A few nights ago I took the telescope down to the lakeshore (we’re on vacation in northern Michigan) and we gazed upon Saturn’s rings and the Galilean satellites. We spotted a few Perseid meteors too, making it easier to imagine the Hard Rain.

Do you ever get so caught up in a story that you can practically see it happening all around you? That’s a sure sign that the novel is a good one!


My own apocalyptic novel, THE COMING STORM, is featured in the latest issue of the digital magazine NatureVolve. Check it out here.

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Key Types of Conflict: Which One Best Fits Your Story?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

iStock image purchase for Jordan Dane

Conflict is EVERYTHING in writing a fictional story. As they say–no conflict, no story. An example might be the difference between describing what happened in your average day (blow by tedious blow) versus sharing the same story but with a driving conflict that smacked you in the face and you had to deal with an escalating problem. A life altering conflict–such as a weird neighbor moving next door or the water that supplies your city suddenly turns into poison.

Conflict Needs Obstacles – Readers love reading about a good fight or a conflict they can relate to, especially if the conflict escalates or there is a sense of urgency to it. Conflict isn’t just about two people fighting or a man or woman against a villain. It’s about throwing obstacles in the way of your main character(s). Make them worthy of a starring role by testing them throughout the story. Conflict needs to be substantial with enough threat to drive the action, to see what the characters will do.

Conflict Won’t Mean Much Without Empathy – It’s key to get the reader engaged in your story through empathy. Conflict wouldn’t mean much if your characters don’t earn sympathy from the reader. Readers will lose interest in unlikable characters. It’s hard to be in the head of someone the reader can’t stand or a character with no redeeming qualities.

Conflict can be Boosted by your Cast of Characters –  What do other characters in your story think of your protagonist? Even a dark anti-hero can give the reader a good impression if a child loves him or a dog follows him everywhere. The people in the life of your hero/heroine can shed light on who they are and make them easier to relate to. Who has their loyalty and why? A cast of well-placed/well-thought-out characters can be strategic to support the protagonist in a conflict.

Conflict Needs Higher or Escalating Stakes – Conflict shouldn’t be something that two people can simply sit down and talk about to fix. Resolution should be hard and challenging. Try pitting two characters against each other who both have admirable opposing goals. Add major roadblocks that escalate based upon each character’s actions. The story should get complicated by their choices and they should pay a consequential price for what they do.

The essence of most conflicts can be in the list below. If you have others to suggest, please list them in your comments.

Classic examples of well-told stories with major conflict are: The Hunger Games series, The Book Thief, Robinson Crusoe, Schindler’s list, Animal Farm, 1984, Moby Dick, The Help, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, The Handmaid’s Tale, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Key Types of Conflict:

1.) Person against Person – A conflict between two people or one person against a group. Typically the opposition or villain is the alter-ego of the hero/heroine. This opposite nature allows you to explore the internal weaknesses of your hero/heroine. Don’t waste an opportunity to cross over conflicts with friction that adds tension, but you don’t have to hit your reader over the head with your cleverness. If done right, readers will get it. (See Person Against Self.) For an example of person against person, try any Die Hard movie where Bruce Willis is against ANY arch nemesis.

2.) Person Against Society – A conflict that confronts the law, major institutions, society & culture, or government. It’s David against Goliath, a struggle that feels daunting and is all the more celebrated when the little guy finds a way to win–or more crushing when the hero/heroine must give in. The Help or the Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale are good examples of an oppressive society, culture, or the law.

3.) Person Against Self – A conflict that’s internal where a person struggles with physical weaknesses, prejudices, self-doubt, or personality flaws they must overcome. I would argue that even if you HAVE a main conflict, this should be another facet to your story. Giving a character a weakness or flaw to overcome can make the overarching conflict stronger by testing them. Schindler’s List is a great example of a story where the protagonist must confront his own beliefs and practices to do the right thing.

4.) Person Against God/Religion or Fate – A conflict between a person and their faith, their God, or Free Will versus destiny. This category might feel similar to a conflict of a person with Self or Society, but I like to isolate this conflict because religion and the idea of Free Will vs fate is a compelling one. (I’ve woven this thread through many of my books because it intrigues me.) With Death being the narrator in The Book Thief, it can be an example of how fate played a hand in the character’s lives or how God views the struggles of mankind–friend or foe or bystander.

5.) Person Against Nature – A conflict of a protagonist against the forces of nature (from weather to terrain to battling against the animal kingdom). Nature could also mean the embodiment of one formidable creature, as in Moby Dick, or a species such as in The Birds by Hitchcock.

6.) Person Against the Supernatural – A conflict with the supernatural realm. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is an example of a Supernatural conflict. An example of crossing over conflicts is to combine the supernatural obstacle with your protagonist’s views on God or Fate or them battling elements within themselves (Person Against Self). Many people have the belief that the Supernatural ties to the afterlife. The religious aspects complicate the story, but they can be damned compelling.

7.) Person Against Science/Technology – A conflict between a person/humanity against Science or Technology. It’s a given that people generally are skeptical of innovations. Why not make them fearful of them? Create a diabolical villain who creates a technology that is harmful or dangerous for humanity, or discovers a way to rule or manipulate mankind with a new Science. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would fit in this conflict element.

FOR DISCUSSION:
1.) What conflict on this list applies to your present project? Explain how.

2.) When you think about books you’ve read with memorable conflict, what books come to mind and why?

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First Page Critique: There’s A Man With A Gun Over There

By PJ Parrish

Good morning crime dogs. We have a new submission from a fellow writer to go over today that had me thinking about the movies Aliens and Blue Velvet.  I’ll be back in a flash with my input.  Please chime in with helpful hints, encouragement, and insights.

Chapter 1

Matthew Carter checked the magazine of his Glock G22 .40 caliber pistol for the third time before slipping it into the holster at the small of his back. 15 rounds, a full clip. Hopefully he wouldn’t need to use any, but knowing that they were there gave him a small measure of relief, and allowed him to better concentrate on the task before him. He’d been awake for the last three years and eight months – straight, twenty-four hours a day – and even though he felt more alert than ever before, the last thing he needed was for something to go wrong tonight. He knew all too well what a temporary lapse in judgement, or a tiny lack of preparation could do to someone in his position, and couldn’t afford to ever have that happen again, not now, not when he was so close. He got out of his Dodge Charger, reaching behind to touch the gun again, making sure his shirt was loose enough so he could get to it quickly.

The house he parked across from was a two-story semi-detached, and looked, from the outside, generic but well-maintained. The beige siding was clean, and the slate grey roof shingles looked like they were recently replaced. In front of the house was a small yard, the grass neatly trimmed and shiny. A narrow stone path led from the street to the front door. The sun was heavy and bright, blanketing the street in a searing white light. Carter adjusted his sunglasses and walked to the front door. He carefully leaned over to the window next to the door, raising his hand above his eyes to shield him from the glare. The street was quiet, and he saw no movement through the glass. The smell of freshly cut grass was everywhere.

He rapped his knuckles on the door.No answer. He knocked again, harder and louder. Still nothing. He waited a few more seconds then went into his pocket and removed a small rectangular device. The screen on the face of it instantly lit up, snapping to life. On it was a computer rendered map of the neighborhood he was in. A flashing green dot represented exactly where he was standing. Another dot, this one flashing red, appeared on screen about half an inch away. Carter looked up at the house. That meant there was someone about twenty feet away from him, most likely on the second floor.

____________________________

We’re back. This one really left me flummoxed. On first read, it’s not bad. We identify what I am guessing is a main character, maybe the putative protag, and we can tell what is happening, except for a couple lapses. A man is casing out a tidy home in a nice neighborhood. He has a Glock G22, which is the most common service pistol for cops, so I’m guessing he’s a good guy. But beyond this, I am lost. And worse, I am not sure I care about what is going on here.

Here’s my problem: The writer spent a lot of precious words describing things and using wasteful sentence construction when he or she could have been building some tension and dribbling in some choice backstory details so we get a sense of who this guy Carter is. But, you say, there’s a man with a gun over there! Not enough. Especially in today’s hard-to-crack crime fiction market. A guy sitting in a car casing a building has been done and done and done. And the problem is complicated by the fact that what this guy is, and what he is there for, is hazy.  Now, I hear you — we don’t WANT or even NEED to know every detail of the action in the first couple pages. But we have to have enough telling details to be intrigued.

And here’s a thing about description of your setting. If you are going to use it in your opening two or three pages, make it mean something. USE the setting to enhance mood and create tension. I think the writer was going for the juxtaposing of the neighborhood’s NORMALCY with the ABNORMALITY of lurking danger (either from Carter or whoever is inside that house).  But it doesn’t quite come across.

This made me remember the brilliant opening of David Lynch’s movie Blue Velvet. As the old song plays on, Lynch gives us lovely images of suburban life — rose gardens, picket fences, kids coming home from school, a man watering his lawn. Then…the man is bitten by something and falls. Lynch then takes the camera below the flowers, underneath the green grass and shows us these horrible insects eating each other alive. What lies beneath…

We need to be in Carter’s thoughts more. Why is the street deserted in broad daylight? Someone obviously just mowed their lawn, so why can’t we have some human beings in sight? Maybe Carter could be looking around this nice little neighborhood, watching a kid bounce a basketball, or an old lady walking her terrier. Or maybe the guy mowing his lawn stops and the sudden quiet SAYS SOMETHING about the mood. Maybe the lawn mower’s growl mimics the noise in Carter’s head and then when it cuts out, he hears this deafening silence that SAYS SOMETHING about his mood?  See what I am asking for here, dear writer? Make your setting work harder. It isn’t just there — it has to say something.

There’s a few weird things going on that I don’t get.  Carter says he has been awake for three years and eight months, 24-7.  That makes no sense. Unless he’s a zombie or something, and I don’t think that’s the genre we’re dealing with here.  We SEEM to be in present time (ie Glock and Dodge Charger).  If Carter is some kind of machine, droid or something un-human, you have to give us a clue. Also, you say it’s the shank of the day — broad harsh sunlight — yet he thinks  “The last thing he needed was for something to go wrong tonight.”

Now, because we don’t know what he is — cop? special ops?  assassin? — it’s hard to understand some of his actions. He has some kind of special human locator device.

First off, you have to be more specific about what the heck it is. If you’re making it up, that’s cool, but make us believe it! It can’t be a mere “small rectangular device.” Carter would know exactly what it’s called, so get in his head and tell us. I was picturing that thing in the movie Aliens that showed the monsters on a tiny screen as pulsating blobs. (See photo right).   Now, this technology doesn’t yet exist, as far as I know, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t in Carter’s world. You just have to make us believe it.  Have him think something like, “He pulled out the Arious Motion Tracker X40. There were only three in the world that he knew of. Hell, even the military didn’t know about them yet. He flipped the switch and pointed it at the house. Immediately, a white pulsating dot came on the small green screen. No big deal. That was his own infrared shadow.  But then a second red dot drifted onto the green. Carter started hard at it then looked up at the house. Someone was inside.”

And while we’re at it, why did Carter wait until he was on the porch to use this vital device? He seems to be concerned about his safety and not blowing his assignment again. (You have him thinking in the car: “He knew all too well what a temporary lapse in judgement, or a tiny lack of preparation could do to someone in his position, and couldn’t afford to ever have that happen again, not now, not when he was so close.”)

But here’s where you sort of lost me in the believeability.  Carter is obviously experienced in whatever it is he’s doing. He has reason to suspect someone is in the house. Yet he casually walks up in board daylight, knocks on the door, peers in the window, and sees nothing. This guy would be casing this house within an inch of his life. He’d look for security cameras. He’d see if a car was in the garage. And he’d wonder if this nice suburban house, like so many today, has a doorbell with a camera to ward off mayhem.  The worst thing you can do is make your hero look inept.

Now, I’d like to do some line edits for some clarity, mainly to show how you can eliminate some clutter-words. Also, dear writer, be more aware of your paragraph lengths.  You have only three, each almost exactly the same length. In an action scene like this (as quiet as it is), shorter graphs can heighten tension. I’m going to add a few paragraphs to show you what I mean.

Matthew Carter checked the magazine of his Glock G22 .40 caliber pistol for the third time before slipping it into the holster at the small of his back. 15 rounds, a full clip. Not sure this is your best opening line. For one, it’s a tad cliched. Also, you need to tell us he is parked outside a house sooner. He could be in a dark alley in Newark, a dessert hovel in Iraq, a brothel in Brooklyn.   

Hopefully Now, I’m not going grammar cop on you; you can use this. But why would you? It feels weak and wish-washy. I don’t think Carter is either. Try something like: Maybe, with a little luck, he wouldn’t have to fire one bullet. But he was never one to depend on luck.

He wouldn’t need to use any, but knowing that they were there gave him a small measure of relief, Again, relief sounds weak, like he’s not experienced at carrying. and allowed him to better concentrate on the task before him. He’d been awake for the last three years and eight months – straight, Hwenty-four hours a day I just don’t get this. – and even though he felt more alert than ever before, this means nothing. the last thing he needed was for something to go wrong tonight. ???He knew all too well what a temporary lapse in judgement, or a tiny lack of preparation could do to someone in his position, He knew because it had almost cost him his life two years ago in Istanbul. Drop in a dollop of backstory please. and couldn’t afford to ever have that happen again, not now, not when he was so close. He got out of his Dodge Charger, reaching behind to touch the gun again, making sure his shirt was loose enough so he could get to it quickly.

The house he parked across from This is passive construction. Establish higher up that he is casing a house. was a two-story semi-detached, and looked, from the outside, generic but well-maintained. The beige siding was clean, and the slate grey roof shingles looked like they were recently replaced. In front of the house was a The grass in the small yard was freshly mowed., the grass neatly trimmed and shiny. A narrow stone path led from the street to the front door. The noon? sun was heavy and bright, blanketed the street in a searing white light. It would also create deep shadows, making things stand out in high relief. Carter adjusted his sunglasses and walked to the front door. He carefully leaned over to the window next to the door and peered in. , raising his hand above his eyes to shield him from the glare. The street was quiet, and he saw He could see only a foyer but there was no movement. The smell of freshly cut grass was everywhere. Nice sensory detail but it is out of place here, where you are trying to escalate tension. Put all your description in one graph above and move on.

He rapped his knuckles on the door.knocked. No answer.

He knocked again, harder and louder. Still nothing.

He waited a few more seconds then went into his pocket and removed a small rectangular device. pulled a device the size of a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. It was a ….whatever you want to call it. The screen on the face of instanttly lit up, snapping to life. with On it was a computer rendered a map and of the neighborhood he was in. a pulsating flashing green dot that showed represented exactly his position. where he was standing.Another Then a second red dot this one flashing red, moved onto the screen about half an inch away. Carter looked up at the house. That meant there was someone about twenty feet away from him, most likely on the second floor. He can discover this later. Make your sentences short and staccato to mimic tension. 

New graph: Someone was inside.

Okay, dear writer. Don’t be discouraged. There is good material here. I just want you to work harder because I have a hunch this is a good story just off to a slow start. And Carter is a guy I want to know more about. Just make him come more alive. Because you — and he — get only one chance to make a good impression.

 

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Incident at the Library

Photo by Chuttersnap courtesy of unsplash.com

I still go to the library regularly. Books appear like magic on my front porch practically every day but there is something — a few things actually — about a library that you can’t beat. My favorite is a metropolitan branch office located in a shopping center a few miles from my home. It’s the type of library — location-wise, anyway — that I patronized as a wee lad and it will no doubt be the kind that I will be walking into when the engine known as “Joe H.’s circulatory system” decides to call a wildcat strike. Yes, the interiors of libraries and the services they provide, moving far beyond books, have changed from sixty years ago and will continue to change. Joltin’ Joe Moore wrote a blog about those modifications almost seven years ago (which you can find here) and it is still on point. There is something, however, that speaks to me about this library, whose exterior is so similar to the one I visited two or three times a week as a child.

I was in that library this past Sunday and was reminded in an up-close and personal way of the reason that we still need libraries. I usually go there just to pick up books I’ve reserved, and this visit was initially no exception to that rule. I got a few graphic novels, consisting of some collections of Ed Brubaker’s and Sean Phillips’ Criminal anthology series and the first two volumes of Brian Azzarello’s and Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets. I  also knew that the branch had a copy of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (which has been on my “must-read” list for three years) so I picked that up as well. It took me a second to find the non-fiction section amidst the CDs, DVDs, reserves, audiobooks, and magazines, but find it I did. Seeing the books with the Dewey Decimal System numbers on the spine was like greeting an old friend. I in due course found Hillbilly Elegy right where it belonged (“305.562 VAN”). I was about to go to the self-serve checkout kiosk when I noticed a book displayed on the shelf where I found Hillbilly Elegy. The book — Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (“302 GLA”)— looked interesting, so I checked that out as well, thanks to a librarian who liked the book enough to put it on display so that would stand out. 

Digital editions of books are becoming more popular, This has caused a bit of a dispute between publishers and libraries which you can read about here).  The market for physical books may be decreasing but it hasn’t collapsed. I like physical books — there is something about the tactile experience with a book that can’t be beat — but I have come to prefer eBooks for two reasons. One is that I can adjust the font and its size. The other is the “search” feature. If a novel has more than a couple of characters I often forget by page 135 who was doing what on page 40. One can obtain either format, regardless of preference, of many titles at or through the library. Take the aforementioned Hillbilly Elegy. There was a waiting list — a long one — for digital copies (author Vance is an occasional resident of the Columbus area) but a physical copy was readily available. And yes, many of you like audiobooks, which are available at and through the library as well. I am amazed at the width, breadth, and depth of audiobooks which are available digitally and physically through and at the library.

One last story. While I was browsing an announcement was made that the library was closing soon and that anyone who needed a ride home should contact the front desk. After I checked the books out at the kiosk I walked to the front counter, and asked the three women sitting behind it, “Who do I see about that ride home?” They all laughed, and one said, “Wellll…Uber, Lyft, Yellow Cab…” Everyone laughed again, and then the quick-witted librarian happened to look at the books which had been checked out by the half-witted patron. “Oh! I’m glad you got that,” she said, pointing to the copy of Outliers I had checked out. “I put that up weeks ago!” So there you go. You don’t get that type of human interaction on Amazon.

 

That brings us to you. Joe M., at the conclusion of his long-ago post, asked when your last visit to the library was. What I want to ask is when was the last time you recommended the library to someone. I did it two weeks ago. And when was the last time you visited the library and came away with something that you didn’t go looking for? Bedbugs don’t count.  But you do. Thanks for being here today.                

 

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Reader Friday: Favorite Villain

Imagine yourself in a prison visiting room, with a petition of plexiglass between you and a fictional villain.

Who’s sitting across from you? Why did you choose to interview this villain?

What’s the first question you’d ask?

 

If your favorite villain is still loose on the street, where are you conducting the interview? Do you feel safe? Why/why not?

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The Nose Knows

By Elaine Viets

Does your writing stink? Do your scenes feel flat and your characters cardboard?
Maybe you’re neglecting the sense of smell. Sights and sounds are essential. But smell can add another dimension.
Smell is tied to emotion. Real estate agents tell prospective sellers to bake cookies or a loaf of bread just before a buyer tours their house. They’re hoping those smells will trigger happy memories of home cooking and the lookie-loo will buy the house.
Years ago, when I was growing up, I would wake up and smell the coffee – and the fried eggs and bacon. Those were good memories.

Smell can be a quick, easy introduction to a flashback in your novel.
The smell of climber roses and cut grass take me back to my Midwestern summers. The scent of honeysuckle reminds me of Sundays at my grandmother’s house, when I read near a honeysuckle vine.
The smell of hothouse flowers make me think of funerals.
Beer, gin, wine and other alcoholic odors can bring back good times and bad ones.
These smells can trigger a happy – or sad – memory and give you an easy way to reveal your character’s back story.

Smell can herald a person. I can smell smokers before I see them: I pick up the stale nicotine scent of their cigarettes or cigars. The smell lingers on their skin and in their hair.
So do perfumes. In a mystery I just read, the protagonist knew the man she was talking to had just seen his girlfriend – his car still smelled of Chanel No. 5. I know when a certain security guard is on duty at our condo because he wears a strong, pleasant aftershave that I can smell throughout the lobby.

Smell can announce your protagonist or cue your characters that the killer is in the room.
In “Postmortem,” Patricia Cornwell has a killer who

(spoiler alert!)

has a rare metabolic disorder, maple syrup urine disease, which provides a crucial clue. He smells of stale maple syrup.
You can have your victims smell their assailant’s sweat, cigarette smoke, perfume or aftershave. They can be close enough to have garlic or curry or mints on their breath.
In “The Poet,” Michael Connelly says a room “smelled like stale smoke and Italian salad dressing.”
Smells change at different times of day. I visit an office building two or three times a week. Early in the morning, about 7:30, it smells like cleaning products with top notes of bleach. After 9 a.m., when many of the workers are at their computers, the building smells like hot coffee. By noon it smells of microwave dinners. And at 4 p.m., it smells tired. What’s that smell like? Burnt coffee with undercurrents of sweat and stale microwave meals.
In the morning, people may smell freshly showered and their shirts smell of starch. By nighttime, after a stressful day, they could smell of sweat.

Smells can give your story a sense of reality. Your writing can paint an idyllic picture of a farm: the green fields, the sturdy farmhouse, the horses grazing in the pasture. But what’s the first thing you smell?
Be honest now.
Manure.
That smell gives your pretty word picture a whiff of reality.

****************************************************************************
Win “Backstab,” Elaine’s first newspaper mystery, reissued as an ebook. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com

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First Page Critique: The Purple Door

 

 

(Purchased photo via iStock)

 

Greetings, readers and writers all! It’s First Page Critique time. Please take a few moments to read the submission, and my critique–then share your thoughts and advice in the comments.

THE PURPLE DOOR

CHAPTER ONE

Christina

Thursday, October 1

For the first time since Christina buried the yellow bag, it was time to check in. She was in no shape for it. She hadn’t slept in two days, maybe longer, and the Storm was here.

She stood at one of the windows, the old boarding house creaking in the wind. The Storm poured out of her unwell mind, blurred the pane of glass, blended with the actual, physical storm outside. The leaves on the treetops shook with tethered fury, and lightning splashed over the street. She looked down over the neighborhood, her ceaseless thoughts flowing out into the raindrops watering the ground.

So much had happened in a month, most of it bad. But she’d found something unexpected at the Purple Door. This attic room had become home.

She’d made herself a nest.  Up in this high-raftered roost, working on the mural and listening to her records as loud as she wanted, talking to Adam until the sun came up, this place was her whole world. Everything and everyone she needed was here… and all the little things she didn’t need, she’d buried.

She was going to stay right here. So she had to pass this phone call.

Christina dropped the curtain on her faint reflection in the glass, a flash of long blond hair. She had to be ready. She began to pace, staring into the fathomless black face of her phone until it lit up in her hand:

“DAD”

The name leapt off the screen in all caps, a visual shock. It was a trick she used in order to focus, now that the crazy thoughts her meds used to kill were back in bloom.

She’d buried her pills, and several other problematic artifacts, in little holes around the boarding house. In the back yard, a gauzy yellow bag that used to shimmer in the light was now stuffed with tablets of lithium, lamictal, and clozapine, and sealed underground with three feet of dirt. She was up here without a net.

________

Let’s start this party with a quote from William Howard Taft, 27th President of the United States, and 10thChief Justice of the United States:

Don’t write so that you can be understood, write so that you can’t be misunderstood.

This is a big deal when it comes to writing (or speaking), and it’s uniquely critical when a writer is creating a fictional world for the reader. If the reader feels unbalanced by the prose, or more confused than fascinated, the writer may lose them. Below I’ll discuss how this is relevant.

There’s so very much to like about this submission, The Purple Door.

–Christina is a vibrant protagonist. She’s a person of strong will and motivation.

–Dreamlike imagery

–Precise language

-Compelling portrait of a young woman with brain differences

 

 

“For the first time since Christina buried the yellow bag, it was time to check in. She was in no shape for it. She hadn’t slept in two days, maybe longer, and the Storm was here.

She stood at one of the windows, the old boarding house creaking in the wind. The Storm poured out of her unwell mind, blurred the pane of glass, blended with the actual, physical storm outside. The leaves on the treetops shook with tethered fury, and lightning splashed over the street. She looked down over the neighborhood, her ceaseless thoughts flowing out into the raindrops watering the ground.”

 

The first thing I imagined when I read this opening was that Christina was either a witch or a superhero who was maybe checking in with her handler. I had no clear idea what kind of this story was. Call me overly literal, but I cannot lie.

The second paragraph, about the Storm, definitely has a supernatural feel. Now, I understand that the drug combination at the end of the piece implies that our protagonist has psychiatric issues that present her with some spectacularly trippy, mind-blowing experiences. And there’s room for them in the story. Maybe just not right off the bat. Don’t give the reader dessert before the meal. UNLESS you’re going to start out with a hugely damaging or significant psychotic episode as the novel’s opening gambit. But that’s not happening here.

I’d like to see the piece start out with the bold facts, and resist being coy. Always resist coy.

Suggestion:

Exactly one week ago, Christina had used a rusted hand spade to bury her pills, and other problematic artifacts, in deep holes around the backyard of the boarding house. A gauzy yellow drawstring bag that used to shimmer in the light now lay hidden three feet underground, stuffed with what was left of her lithium, lamictal, and clozapine tablets. They were down there, which meant she was up here, living without a net.

We immediately know who Christina is, and the battle she’s fighting in her brain. It’s a fierce beast. Sure, she has to get by DAD, but he is a secondary foe. No doubt he’s one of many she’ll encounter over the course of the book. The real beast—that brings her both burdens and strange gifts—will be with her all her life.

With that in mind, it’s okay to go on and show us Christina’s current sleepless, exhausted, nervous state. If you’re going to go with a visual of the Storm she experiences as she looks out the window, be straight about it. She knows it’s not real, but she’s also experiencing it. Let the reader know, too.

Now she stood in the darkness, looking out the window, phone in hand, waiting for her father to call. It was time to check in. Time to convince him that she was doing just fine on her own. Except, she felt the Storm in her head coming on. It blurred the pane of glass, blended with the real rainstorm lashing the outside of the old house. The topmost leaves of the trees shook with tethered fury… [continue as written]

I very much like the imagery in this section. The splashing lightning made me hesitate, but I think it works.

As far as I’m concerned, the rest of the page works fine—as long as the burying of the pills moves to the beginning. Two minor points:

–Remove the ellipses in the fourth paragraph and replace with a comma, or begin a new sentence.

–Does she really think of her thoughts as “crazy thoughts?” [penultimate paragraph] One of the implications of not being on the drugs appears to be that she feels like herself. It brings into question the concept of normalcy—something that is certainly debatable.

One more significant suggestion. After the first paragraph, try switching to the present tense. Not everyone is a fan, but just try it. It offers an immediacy that I think is appropriate to the subject.

Now she stands in the darkness, looking out the window, phone in hand, waiting for her father to call. It’s time to check in.

Sally forth, Brave Author. This is a terrific story!

 

 

 

 

 

5+

First Page Critique: No Tomorrows

Happy Monday (and for me, the final week of summer before my twins start high school – so no stress at all this week…)!! Today I’m critiquing the first page of a project entitled (ominously…) ‘No Tomorrows’. As always, my comments follow and I look forward to your input!

No Tomorrows

Sally Lee’s sandals squished on the wet pavement. She should’ve changed to sneakers, but hadn’t wanted to take the time. She had to escape the house.

Escape? A curious word. Where’d that come from?

The fog had closed in after the evening’s pounding rain. It swirled around her, shrouding her in cold white anonymity as she walked away from the peaceful cul-de-sac where they’d lived for twenty years. It felt good to be walking somewhere, anywhere. Her jacket whipped around her. She zipped it up and tucked her blond curls under the hood.

Wrapped in the mist, she could think, find her reason again after the strange events of the evening. It had started with the conversation at the dinner table.

After the blessing, Sally asked, as she always did, “How was your day, kids? Anything interesting happen?” She started the mashed potatoes around the table, then reached for the platter of pork chops. Dinner as usual. Sally thrived on as usual. Dinner was family talk time.

Four scrubbed faces turned her way. Mayra answered first, tossing her long blond hair over her shoulder. At fifteen, she acted as if it was her right to be first in any circumstance. Sally often had to remind her to allow the youngest to go first sometimes.

“Remember I told you we have to write an essay?” she asked. “Today Miss Harris told us we had to choose one of three questions to answer in our essays.”

Five pairs of eyes looked at her.

“Well?” Roger asked, “What question did you choose?”

“What would I do today if I knew I’d die tomorrow?” Mayra answered her father, reaching for the platter of dinner rolls.

Sally dropped her fork. It hit her plate with a clang, then bounced to the floor, skittering under the table. Five pairs of eyes watched as she scooted her chair back and dived under the table. She picked it up, along with a piece of broccoli.  Her hand trembled as she pushed her hair back from her damp forehead. The fork clattered to the floor again.

“What are you doing under there, Sal?” Roger peered down at her.

“Getting my fork—you writing a book? Leave that chapter out, okay?”

The children giggled.

Crawling out, she wiped her fork on her napkin and popped the broccoli into her mouth.

“Five second rule?” chirped five-year-old Kimmie.

Overall Comments

I loved how this first page juxtaposed an ordinary dinner scene with Sally’s rather desperate ‘escape’ in the first paragraph. The reader knows something is off kilter, yet there’s nothing obvious to explain Sally’s disquiet…yet…and this provides the reader with a great reason to keep turning the page. The writing is also succinct and clear, with just enough detail to evoke the rain and fog, as well as the dinner table conversation and the family dynamics. Sally’s reaction to her daughter’s essay topic certainly left me wanting to read more and, as with any good first page, it left me with lots of questions I wanted answered.

I particularly liked the first paragraph and the chilling use the phrase Escape? A curious word. Where’d that come from? This definitely made me want to know more about Sally’s past and why she felt such panic and anxiety that she needed to flee her house. The author did a great job of introducing some short snippets of information that made us empathize and also be intrigued by Sally (I loved the line: Sally thrived on as usual. It reveals so much about her character in just a few words.)

Some Suggestions

Still, I do think there were a few ways in which this first page could be strengthened – although most of my recommendations are really only minor nitpicks:)

First, I did feel like the dinner scene could have had a couple of more lines describing the whole family as we only really hear Mayra, Roger, and Kimmie (if my math is right there are two other kids at the table). I found it hard to picture them all – and the use of “Four scrubbed faces turned her way” followed by “Five pairs of eyes looked at her” was a bit generic. Likewise, having both the protagonist and her daughter described by their blond hair didn’t seem very distinctive or interesting.

Second, I didn’t really believe the essay topic that Mayra had been given at school. At fifteen, “What would I do today if I knew I’d die tomorrow?” seems a rather odd topic (though maybe this is just me??). I think I would have been more willing to go along with it had Roger reacted in some way or said something like “Wow, that’s pretty dark…” or “Miss Harris is a strange one.”  – something to show his character a bit more. This would also provide a nice contrast to Sally’s reaction.

Finally, I think I would have liked just a little bit more tension, maybe even menace, when it came to Sally’s reaction to her daughter’s essay topic. Just one line that could intrigue the reader a bit more perhaps? I didn’t quite understand why Sally said: “Getting my fork—you writing a book? Leave that chapter out, okay?” but that might just me! I think I wanted her to snap at him or be more defensive – something – to add to the disquiet beneath the cozy domesticity of the dinner table scene.

Overall though, I thought this was an effective first page. It managed to combine the ordinary with an uneasiness that made me want to find out more about what was really going on in Sally’s life – so bravo to our brave submitter!

So TKZers what comments, feedback, or advice would you provide?

 

 

4+

A Novel Exercise

By Mark Alpert

I got on the bike today, searching for inspiration. Hoping to stumble upon some exciting ideas that’ll accelerate the plot of the novel I’m outlining.

The temperature was in the low 80s, which isn’t bad for NYC at this time of year. I headed for the bike path in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, which runs along the eastern bank of the Hudson River.

I saw a few awesome sights: a big freighter lolling in the current; a hundred cairns crowding the shore like lost souls; the gray GWB outlined against the Palisades.

I passed eight cyclists. Two faster cyclists passed me.

I sweated. A lot.

But I found no inspiration. No ideas for new characters or scenes.

Was I disappointed? Not really. Sooner or later I’ll think of something good.

Does anyone else out there look for inspiration while exercising?

5+