What Character Age Do You Find Most Challenging to Write?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Yes, how did she get my book title backwards? MAGIC

I’ve written a few sub-genres, but the most different or diverse ones I’ve attempted were writing mainstream thrillers and young adult novels. I’ve always loved reading crime fiction (my big umbrella), so my comfort reads were always any sub-genre of adult crime fiction novels from espionage thrillers to police procedurals to romantic suspense. Although my YA books were suspense oriented, the YA voice was a real departure for me. It took quite a bit of reading it and researching the craft, but since I had grown to love these cross-genre books as a reader, the idea of writing them hit me hard and influenced me. More on that later.

When I first started writing in 2003, my main characters were in their thirties and maybe edged into their forties when I first wrote original mystery suspense novels. The first books I sold were in my comfort reads of crime fiction, yet with a cross-genre approach because that’s the kind of stories I liked to read. With as many books as I devoured as a reader, I figured I was the market. I wanted to write the books I would read.

In 2009-2010, as I sold my first YA novels and series, writing for teens influenced even my adult writing and my characters drifted downward into their mid to late twenties. Of course, my YA books covered teen protagonists, generally 16-18+. I’ve never written New Adult (characters in their early twenties or college age). I’m not sure why that is, except to say that I can relate more to my teen formative years (my rebellious teen self) and writing my other characters to be 25-35ish years old. (It’s like the lens of my creative world had focused on an age I had fun living.)

I had many ways to research my teen voice, including eavesdropping on teens in groups and using my nieces and nephews as lab rats. My aspiring author niece worked with me on my first YA novel – In the Arms of Stone Angels – and we had a blast. But that writing definitely influenced my other suspense books and I noticed the ages of my characters had dropped. On gut instinct, I was targeting the ages I thought my readers wanted to read about so I could bridge the gap between those reading my YAs and the ones who had transitioned into my adult books. From what my readers have said, that plan worked and my YA readers transitioned into my adult books and my adult readers seemed to enjoy my crime fiction YAs. Win-win.

I wrote one novella length story from the perspective of an older woman in her late 50s. I wrote her with an honest truth and I loved being in her head, but I wasn’t sure how readers might take her so I never wrote a repeat.

I’d like to hear from you, TKZers.

For Discussion:

1.) Have you ventured out of your writing comfort zone with trepidation only to learn something new where you grew as a writer? Please share and explain.

2.) What character ages do you find the most challenging as a writer? How did you get better at it? What resources or advice can you share?

3.) Is there a main character age that you DON’T like to read about? Do you find that your reading preferences gravitate toward a certain character age?

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But Does It Sell Books?

By John Gilstrap

I just returned from a fabulous week in New York, communing with fellow writers at Thrillerfest, the annual confab of the International Thriller Writers Association (ITW).  As always happens when two or more writers occupy the same space, the conversation turned to strategies to employ for the purposes of selling books.

There’s universal agreement that a writer needs a platform from which to launch his or her marketing campaign.  There’s equal unanimity that social media accounts are the way to go.  Dutifully, I’ve established my Facebook page, my Twitter feed and my Instagram account.  In addition, I have a YouTube channel, and this biweekly blog in TKZ.  I attend conferences, teach seminars when opportunities arise, and in general make myself as accessible as reasonable security and privacy allow.

For the most part, I enjoy the marketing side of what I do.  I’m kind of a Type-A personality to begin with so I enjoy the interaction with people, even if most of it is virtual.  If the invested time and effort didn’t sell a single book, I would probably do a lot of that stuff anyway.

So, here’s my first question for the group: Forgetting what the pundits proclaim to be immutable fact, what is your experience?  Do you read blog posts in this space or others that inspire you to buy books by authors you otherwise have not read?  Do Facebook travelogues or Twitter insights make you actually feel so much closer to an author that you’ll plop down some bucks for the latest book?

My second question is closely related: Have social media posts ever driven you away from an author you have otherwise been inclined to read?

My answers to my own questions are yes and yes, particularly with regard to blog posts and Facebook.  Excepting the nonfiction blogs that I lean on for research, I will occasionally read a post from a fiction writer whose voice intrigues me enough to take a poke at the fruits of his or her imagination.  And, sometimes an ill-informed political or social screed will push me to place an author on my never-again list.  I don’t care what side a FB friend takes on a position so long as it is well-argued.  When the name-calling starts, I’m out.  (And that’s exactly why I don’t understand why anyone in the entertainment business chooses to write screeds.)

Now, fair warning: When this post goes up, I will be doing my best torpedo impersonation inside the tube of an MRI machine to diagnose the source of pinched nerve in my neck.  Because I am a raging claustrophobe, I expect to be in a narcotic haze for some of the day, and past experience has demonstrated that it’s best to stay away from the Internet and emails while drugged.  Thus, I will likely not be a part of the conversation.

 

5+

How Pickle Ball Helped Me
Up My Writing Game

By PJ Parrish

It’s not easy being a new cucumber.

I think about this every time we here at The Kill Zone critique another First Page submission. I really feel for the writers who send in their work for us to comb over because it’s not easy putting yourself out there when you’re just starting out. Which is what a “new cucumber” is.  When I was a kid, that is what we called the kid who came into the game last, the one who didn’t know the rules, the one who was smallest, slowest or just plain didn’t get it yet.

I was often a new cucumber. It wasn’t so bad when I played baseball because I can switch-hit. But dodge ball…geez, I’m just thankful I got out of fourth grade alive.

I am a new cucumber at pickle ball.  I started playing this game (the fastest growing sport in America!) this summer as a way to get some exercise when my knees started going on me.  Pickle ball is a mix of tennis, badminton and ping pong. It’s played on a small-sized tennis court with paddles and wiffle ball-like things. It’s a blast and great for old farts like me. It takes skill, strategy, stamina, heart, patience….and lots of practice.

Pickle ball looks easy, like anyone could do it. Until you screw up your courage, put yourself out there, and try it. Pickle ball is a lot like writing.

I play every day now, 9 to noon, with a group called The Friendly Pickle Ballers. I am, oh, probably the third-worst person on the courts, but all my teammates are kind and patient, teaching me the game, because I think they realize I am determined to learn. Which is sort of what we do here at TKZ with our First Page Critiques and posts. It’s a little community where any new cucumber can find help and solace. One of my favorite partners is Tom, a retiree who can smash and dink with the best of them. The other day, I learned that Tom is trying to write science fiction. He asked for some advice and I told him to come to TKZ, which he does now. I also told him that learning to write fiction is pretty much like learning to play pickle ball. And it’s helped me remember some stuff we talk about a lot here but that’s worth repeating:

  1. You need to learn the rules. Pickle ball has some funky rules that you need to know before you set foot on a court or you end up wasting time — your own and your fellow players. Ditto for writing, right? Why flail around trying to write a bestseller if you haven’t bothered to even learn the basics of the craft?
  2.  You must be creative.  Yes, learn the underpinnings of what makes for good fiction. But don’t be afraid to try something different. You might surprise yourself.  Like I did when, being a vertically challenged person, I learned to lob over the tall men.
  3. Play with folks who are better than you are. I’ve said this a million times, but don’t get sucked into a bad critique group, which can be pity-parties, bad for your self confidence or they just reinforce your worst habits.  Find folks who can help you up your game and listen to them. My friend Tom has taught me to…wait for this piece of wisdom!…keep my eye on the ball at all times.  Which is what Jan Burke told me once at an Mystery Writers of America meeting when I was grousing about James Patterson.
  4. Stay out of the kitchen.  In pickle ball, The Kitchen is the area just in front of the net and the rules say you can’t smash the ball if you have even one toe in there and you can’t dribble a serve into The Kitchen. I’m not sure what this says about writing except maybe don’t make really stupid mistakes.
  5. Hit hard along the lines.  If you are writing genre fiction (and I don’t happen to think that’s a derisive term), learn everything you can about that type of novel. Read extensively in your genre, be it sci-fi, thriller or YA.  Because you need to be smart about what’s going on in the market.  But then, learn to play hard at the edges of those lines, because the best genre fiction is the stuff that honors the past but points to something in the future. I have, for the record, a heck of a back hand along the line in pickle ball.
  6. Don’t always go for the smash shot. Pickle ball attracts a lot of tennis players. Many of them come in thinking they can beat up on the old guys by smashing the ball down their opponent’s throat. (This is sort of like literary types who try to write thrillers and wiff.) Trouble is, the pickle ball has about as much bounce as a dead chicken. And the smashers quickly learn they will be dinked to death (an ultra soft shot that just clears the net) by 82-year-old women named Norma.  And yes, I play with a real Norma. She’s a killer. For writers, not going for the smash shot means not trying to hit a home run on your first attempt, ie a bestseller. You’re doomed if you try because you’re aiming at a constantly moving market-target.  Just go out there in the beginning and have fun.
  7. Try the dink.  This is a money shot in pickle ball, a sweet little “dink” across the net that causes the smasher-guys (sorry, they are almost always guys) to race desperately to the net and sometimes do a face plant on the asphalt. So, if you feel lost in the middle of your 400-page novel, set it aside and write a short story or even a novella. You might find your rhythm again. It’s good for the confidence.
  8. Practice, practice, practice.  When I first starting playing, I went only once a week. Guess what, I didn’t get any better.  I got discouraged and depressed. To say nothing of putting on weight. When my friend Linda came to visit up here in Michigan, she dragged me to the Friendly Pickle Ballers.  I was terrible at first. But I am quickly getting better. Why? I go every morning now. Do you write every day? Why not?
  9. Keep score but don’t obsess about it.  Sure, I want to win in pickle ball, but right now I mostly lose. I’m trying to learn that this is okay.  For writers, I think the point is you should keep an eye on your sales, your Amazon ranking, your reviews, etc. But you don’t want to let it get to you. Messes with your head…
  10. And last but not least, don’t beat up on yourself.  This has been the hardest thing for me to learn in pickle ball because I am sort of competitive and feel like crap when I let my team mates down. But as my fellow players keep telling me, “there’s no I’m sorry in pickle ball.”  So for you writers out there, yeah, you will fail.  You’re going to hit a lot of balls into the net. Your serves will go wide. You’re going to get rejection letters. Whatcha gonna do? Pack up your pickle ball and go home? No. You’re going to put on the old sports bra, get back out there and try again. You will get better. You will get good. You will get published. Because even a new cucumber can become a pickle baller.

 

8+

Inspired by a Good Deed

 

Photo courtesy www.clipartxtras.com

I write this while taking a break from an interesting if long-delayed project. I have a bed in the basement which has been buried by boxes which have accumulated over the past twenty-four years. The bed is suddenly needed the boxes need to be moved, the contents examined, and determinations made with respect to keeping or disposing of the contents. I have been working on this at the rate of one box per hour, with fifteen minutes allocated for each box. The fifteen minutes is broken down as follows: 1) kick box to dislodge spiders hiding within — ten minutes; 2) carry box upstairs — thirty seconds; 3) go through contents of box — four minutes thirty seconds. I’ve made great progress but it’s been somewhat depressing in a way.

You might be surprised to learn that many of the boxes contained books. I don’t remember reading a lot of them, and it’s depressing on a number of levels. The primary one is that there were and are a LOT of books out there. Many of this lot were published before there was such a thing as Facebook or Twitter, so that the author could not instantaneously announce to the world when the book would be published, when the book was published, when the book was reviewed, and so one. One had to rely on email. I have no idea what an author did before that, other than to hope that a kindly clerk at Walden’s or a knowledgeable librarian would recommend their book to a prospective reader. Still…look at all the darn books. One might ask oneself, “Why bother writing? All the stories have been told.”

The answer is that if you have a story, write it. A good story stands on its own. People empathize with it. One can also take the basics of it and work it, maybe twist it around a bit, and make it different.

It may also surprise you that I have an example. Let’s start with a bit of backstory.  I misspent my formative high school and college years in Akron, Ohio. One of the few good parts of that experience was making friends in high school with a guy named Michael Trecaso. Michael combined restaurant experience with an innate ability to squeeze a nickel until the buffalo screams to succeed in a very tough business. He bought an ice cream parlor named Mary Coyle — it was where he worked when we were in high school — and turned it from a popular neighborhood place in the Highland Square neighborhood into a destination restaurant.

Photo courtesy Michael Trecaso’s Mary Coyle Restaurant

Another good part of growing up in Akron for me was making friends with a guy we will call P. I have been friends with him for almost as long as I have been friends with Michael. P. is an antique dealer in Akron, which means that he gets to meet a lot of people and hear a lot of stories. Keep in mind that people who live in Akron tend to stay in Akron. Each resident is at best two or three degrees of separation from another. So it is that on one recent afternoon P. was speaking with a husband and wife in their eighties about who they knew, and what had changed in the city. The husband mentioned Mary Coyle. P. mentioned that a friend of his (that would be me) knew the owner. The wife said, “Oh,  Michael Trecaso is the nicest man.” She then told P. a story.

The lady’s father — who we will call F. and who is now deceased — had some fifteen years previously been living in an elder care residence in downtown Akron. One day he caught a bus which took him to a doctor’s appointment near Highland Square. When he finished with the poking, prodding, and sticking he went outside to discover that the perfect summer day that had been present on his trip there had been chased off by storm clouds. It began raining in torrents as he crossed the street to the bus stop, which was located in front of Mary Coyle.

F. had been standing in the downpour for two minutes when he heard someone calling to him. He turned around and the owner of the restaurant — Michael Trecaso as described above — was beckoning to him, calling, “Come stand in the doorway! You’ll get soaked!” F did so. Michael said, “What are you doing out there?” F. said, “Waiting for the bus.” Mike asked F. where he was going. F told him. Michael looked at F. for a second, came to some internal decision, and walked over to the counter. He wrote “Back in thirty minutes” on a sheet of notebook paper and taped it to the front door. Michael then told F “Come on” and gave F. a ride to his residence. F. never forgot that. Neither did his daughter, who tells everyone she meets about it. Michael has told me a lot of stories, but he never told me that one. I don’t think he’s told anyone that story, actually. It would ruin his reputation. I am accordingly telling it now.

You can do a lot with that tale. If you’re Linwood Barclay, your protagonist in a small city could do the good deed and go back to work, only to have the police show up three days later inquiring as to the whereabouts of the elderly man who was last seen getting into his car. If you’re Paula Hawkins, your protagonist sees her long-absent daughter/sister/husband while she is giving an elderly woman with dementia a ride. And so on. That’s just one story. The woods are full of them. Don’t let my tale of a basement full of books discourage you.

I also must note that doing a good deed is its own reward. Should you be in Akron, however, please stop by Mary Coyle at 780 West Market Street to say hello to Michael and give his establishment your patronage. Should you do so, tell him to report to your office or ask him what school he is going to next week. He’ll know who sent you.  

Photo courtesy Michael Trecaso’s Mary Coyle Restaurant

Now…if you are so inclined, I would love to hear about a spontaneous good deed that you or someone you know performed and that has heretofore gone unremarked. We’ll remark upon it. Thank you.

 

 

6+

The Procrastination Habit

Procrastination is so rife among my writer friends and other creatives I know that we don’t even joke about it. We are clichés. While I would never lie about procrastinating when I’m supposed to be working, I rarely volunteer the fact. If another writer confesses to me that she’s procrastinating on getting pages done, I feel a huge sense of relief. There’s no misery like procrastination misery to build solidarity between writer friends.

Even some of the most productive bestselling writers I know sometimes procrastinate. Personally, when I’m in my deepest procrastination moments, I forget that. It feels lonesome, and I become my own harshest judge. (That whole comparing oneself to other writers is deadly too, but we can consider that another time.) Being judgy while procrastinating is doubly unhelpful.

Procrastination offers an escape from tension. If I have a project (or chapter or paragraph or phone call or chore) that makes me feel anxious, I sometimes literally walk away from it. It might be for five minutes. It might be for an hour. It might be for weeks. Eventually I’ll return to it–or, if it’s some kind of chore or event–my lack of action will mean it expires and goes away.

Avoidance. It’s embarrassing to admit that I’m sometimes guilty of it. Ouch.

I’ve read many, many books to try to improve my productivity, shape my behavior, and, yes, fix my procrastination habit. Because it is a habit, not a disease or fatal flaw.

Here’s the latest book I’ve read on the subject:

I listened to it on audio via Overdrive and liked it well enough that I bought the ebook. (I often do that, anecdotal proof that library reads influence consumer book purchases.)

Notice that appealing subtitle. “A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play.” How sexy is that? I couldn’t resist checking it out when I was browsing available audiobooks. The subtitle worked on me exactly the way I’m sure it was intended: put the focus on the positive, not the procrastination.

KillZone is not the place for book reviews, but is about the writing life. So I’ll be brief.

THE NOW HABIT

  1. Helps you identify when and why you might be procrastinating.
  2. Doesn’t judge you for procrastinating–and even explains how it becomes an active coping tool.
  3. Doesn’t prioritize work over pleasure (a real revelation for me).
  4. Offers some compelling client stories.
  5. Has focus exercises and talks about the process and importance of flow.
  6. Helps you create your own “unschedule.”
  7. Has a good section about dealing with the procrastinators in your life.
  8. Explores goal setting.

The “unschedule” is my favorite piece of the process because it turns one’s schedule upside down. After blocking out the time you require for life’s necessities like eating, cleaning, sleeping, and tending dependent creatures, you mark out time for things that give you pleasure and put you in a state of play or creative play. Working out, practicing hobbies, spending time with friends. It might happen daily, weekly, or bi-weekly. Whatever you choose. It becomes a priority. A reward to work toward.

Work (or writing or publishing business for most of us here) can become more energizing. More efficient. I confess that on the days I’ve managed to put this into serious practice, I’ve found myself happily working overtime, sometimes working well into my scheduled pleasure time–but not feeling a bit deprived because I know I’ll get to play again soon. Also, I’m getting a huge amount of pleasure from my work hours.

I know many people who have always operated their lives this way. They tend not to be procrastinators, and are what Fiore calls “producers.” If you are one of those people, you either stopped reading this a long time ago, or are shaking your head, wondering what’s wrong with the rest of us. Congratulations! You are in a really good place.

I’ll give you a peek at a part of my “unschedule” from last week. Up to last month, my two primary jobs were writer and homeschool mom. Now I’m a writer with a rising college freshman in the house, so my time is primarily mine to schedule. Everyone’s life circumstances are different, so your mileage will vary.

 

I make my schedule in pencil because it never works out exactly as I plan and I like to go back and put in what I actually do. It’s quite revelatory for me.

Dealing with procrastination can be a real battle. Particularly for writers. Not all, of course. I’d love to hear from both sides of the aisle. What do you do to fight procrastination, if you fight it at all? If you don’t, what keeps you focused on your goals?

(I won’t tell you how many times I got up from my chair and wandered out into another part of the house as I wrote this. But here’s what happens if I’m gone for even a minute!)

 

 

4+

First Page Critique: 12 Rules

Happy Monday! Today we have a first page critique entitled 12 Rules. My comments follow and I’m hoping that TKZers provide some great input and feedback for our brave submitter. I will be on a plane to Europe so may not be able to respond to comments – but I’m sure it will be a great discussion!

Title: 12 Rules

Chapter 1

Everything around them tended to die, including people. She always struggled with keeping pretty flowers in her room alive by forgetting to water them, and he never could sustain tiny house pets lifespan beyond a couple of weeks. Even inatime things like hopes and dreams had a tendency to writher over time between the two.

Though they both had to admit, this was the first human to die in their presence.

As heartless as Arlo hated to be, the person who had fallen quite literally at their feet was of no importance to either of them. It was Parks’ third cousins step sister. Technically, she wasn’t really family according to him.

Two weeks ago they were at his annual family gathering. Everyone was drinking, laughing, and having a good time as far as Arlo could tell. Her and Parks were huddled by a picnic table full of all the younger kids while sipping on red punch, discussing the boy Parks believed to be his nephew, but wasn’t all that sure. He was cute, Arlo had commented, and in the corner they were devising a plan to get him to talk to Arlo. She knew Parks was the wrong person to ask when his first suggestion came with, “accidently spill your drink on him.” Before she could even fathom saying a word to the gorgeous new stranger, Parks’ mom pulled them over for a picture. Lined up by height, Arlo of course was at the front along with a younger lady who was very pretty. She smiled at Arlo, flashing perfect whitened teeth over baby pink lipstick that popped. Then there was blinding flashes of more than one camera, and then the flashes were gone and she was seeing spots. Everyone stood up, including the nice lady next to her. Parks had already been back at her side with a new and improved plan, but never got the chance to tell her. The lady’s eyelids fluttered and her ocean blue eyes rolled like pool table balls backwards, and she tumbled to the ground like a tiny building- quick and short. The lady didn’t just fall to the side or backwards, she fell forward; right on Arlo’s sunshine yellow shoes she’d been so excited to wear. And just like that, the lady had smeared death all over her new converse. Following the fall and destroyed shoes had been earfuls of screaming.

Now they were bumper to bumper in early morning traffic yelling at each other over a blaring radio.

“You were supposed to take that exit we passed like ten minutes ago!” Arlo shouted. She felt the need to cup one of her hands around her mouth like a mega phone. But leaned back in the driver’s seat, he still refused to listen.

My Comments:

Somewhere in this first page there is a great story waiting to emerge – I can see glimmers of a cool, detached, wry POV and the beginnings of a story about two people who can’t keep anything alive suddenly being confronted with an actual death. Unfortunately, this story is stymied by some stylistic choices, a passive choice of sentence structure, and a lack of characterization that robs the page of much of its dramatic tension.

In brief, I think these are the main issues that need to be addressed:

  1. Pronoun confusion – The use of ‘them’, ‘she’ and ‘he’ before we know and understand the characters creates confusion as well as distance. At first I had no idea who was ‘he’ or ‘she’ as Arlo and Parks are gender neutral names (which is no issue – just needs clarification so we know who is who) and had initially assumed they were a couple who lived together. All through this first page, the use of pronouns creates an awkward sense of distance from the story which makes it hard for a reader to feel engaged.
  2. Passive sentence structure – Many of the sentences in this first page are written in passive voice creating further distance from the story. An good example of this is the phrase “Following the fall and destroyed shoes had been earfuls of screaming”…not only does this sound awkward and strange, it also robs the scene of the drama of having people screaming as someone literally dies in front of them. I would recommend the writer go through this first page and change passive sentences to active ones to create  sense of immediacy and action.
  3. Lack of dramatic tension – In the first few paragraphs, the reader starts to feel some anticipation about the death that is going to occur only for it to be handled in a prosaic, indifferent way that drains away all the dramatic tension. I wanted to be intrigued and invested in the characters and how they responded to this initial death and also to get some sense of the story to follow. Once the scene switched from the death to Arlo shouting about how they’d missed the exit, I was no longer engaged in the story.
  4. Lack of detailed characterization – Apart from my uncertainty over the relationship between Arlo and Parks – at first I thought they were a couple whose hopes and dreams withered as much as their house plants – there is also the issue of providing characters with real meaningful scenes and dialogue so that we, as readers, become invested in them as three-dimensional characters. In this first page, none of the characters introduced are given any real substance. We are told  that that Parks is trying to set Arlo up with someone at the party, but there’s no real action or dialogue to make us care about this occurring (also the suggestion to ‘accidentally spill your drink on him’ is so bland that it doesn’t give us a true sense of character’). Likewise all the minor character’s are merely described in detached terms like ‘Parks’ third cousin’s step sister’, ‘gorgeous new stranger’, ‘a younger lady who was very pretty’, ‘ the nice lady next to her’, and someone who Parks ‘believed to be his nephew, but wasn’t all that sure’ (which I didn’t really understand…). This meant it was very hard to visualize any of the minor characters or care about what happens to them in this scene.
  5. Telling not showing – This first page is almost entirely told to us rather than shown, with only the death itself containing much in the way of visual details. I would have preferred we were immersed in the scene and given sensory details so we could visualize all the characters and become invested in the story.
  6. Spelling and grammar issues – We always emphasize here at TKZ that a first page is the all-important first impression and, as such, it must be as perfect as possible. Grammar errors such as missing apostrophes and spelling errors (‘inatime’ not inanimate and ‘writher’ rather than ‘wither’) will immediately put off any agent, editor or reader from continuing to read the story.

Overall, I think there’s a good story lurking beneath the surface of this first page, but the writer could benefit from cleaning up the sentence structure, grammar, and pronoun use, adopting a more active voice, and immersing us in the scene with action, dialogue and more detailed characterization for this first page.

So TKZers what other advice or feedback would you provide our brave submitter?

 

 

3+

Sequel Fatigue

By Mark Alpert

Summer is the time for movie sequels, so I went with my wife and daughter this week to see Incredibles 2, the long-awaited follow-up to the blockbuster 2004 animated film about a superhero family. And I was disappointed.

It isn’t a bad movie. Parts of it are funny. And the animation is beautiful. But it just didn’t live up to the original Incredibles. There’s no way it could’ve.

When the original came out, my kids were five and three. We got the DVD, of course, and over the next few years we watched it at least a dozen times. I became convinced that this was a perfect movie. Better than Shrek or Toy Story. Even better than Finding Nemo. (As you can tell, I was watching a lot of animated films back then.)

So the bar for the Incredibles sequel was set very high, almost impossible to reach. And many book sequels face an equally tough challenge. Dune, the first novel in the sci-fi series by Frank Herbert, was far better than any of the books that came after it. The same thing can be said for The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Magicians, and Ender’s Game. But it’s not true of all series, of course. The Harry Potter books, in particular, seemed to get better as the series went on. I felt the same way about Stephen King’s Dark Tower books. (It’s hard to make a similar judgment about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels because he hasn’t finished the series yet. My favorite book so far, though, is the third one, A Storm of Swords.)

I guess you could say I’m suffering from sequel fatigue. I recently wrote a trilogy of Young Adult novels published by Sourcebooks — The Six (2015), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017) — and in retrospect it seems that the first book was definitely the best. So now I’m back to writing standalone novels. The Coming Storm, a thriller about our very dysfunctional government, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in January. And right now I’m working on a Young Adult novel about God and faith. It’s kind of a crazy stunt — publishers hate books about religion because they’re bound to offend someone — but I can’t stop myself. At least it won’t have a sequel.

4+

“In the Heart of a Child, One Moment Can Last Forever” – Share Your Moment

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I hope you all had a great July 4th holiday. I hosted my parents for a ribs dinner for my holiday celebration. I’ve been on a ketogenic diet (more of a lifestyle than a diet) and have been feeling AMAZING. I’m more energized and have been sleeping well and waking up refreshed and ready to go. As I’m writing this, I’ve had my Keto Coffee, which is like a buttery latte with strong coffee. Yum!

For today’s post, I wanted to share the idea behind a book that a friend recommended me to read. JUST A MINUTE by Wess Stafford is based on a theme that touched me – “In the heart of a child, one moment can last forever.” Although this is a Christian-based book, it holds stories that can touch anyone. Its chapters are split into several categories: moments for rescue, to build self-worth, to form character, to discover talent, to awaken the spirit, to stretch the mind, and to realize one’s calling.

If you think back in your life, can you remember times when the special attention of an adult helped define who you became as an adult? These moments don’t have to be earth shattering. Just moments you have never forgotten, for a reason, because they meant (and still mean) something to you all these years later.

My parents have given me a lifetime of these moments. They recently celebrated their 67th anniversary and I wanted to share their wedding pictures with you.

My mother has given me many of these life-altering moments. She is the first person I think of when I ponder who I was as a child and who I became as an adult. My father had his influence, but my mom was in the trenches with us growing up while dad worked long hours to keep my five siblings in private school in a house he designed (as an architect).

Under the category of TO DISCOVER TALENT – my mom had the opposite effect. After it took me a few years to decide what my major would be in college, I called her to say that I had made up my mind and that I would be getting a B. S. (Business Degree) with an emphasis on Accounting. The first words out of her mouth were, “You’re not good at math.” Yeah, thanks for the vote of confidence, mom. In complete irony, I proved her wrong (sort of). I had 6 hours of deficiencies in math that kept me from taking a necessary course – Statistics. I was advised to bite the bullet and take the 6 hours in other math courses before I would be considered proficient enough to endure Stat. With my Irish dander up, I called B.S. on that and just took the damned Stat class. I finished with a B, one of my lowest grades. When it came time for my graduation, I realized I was still short those 6 hours before I could graduate. I went to the Dean of the school (someone who knew me well from all my hours on the Student Council) and asked him to waive the 6 hours. It obviously was a mistake if I could pass Stat. He agreed and said he would remove the deficiency if I could tell him a good joke. For the price of a good joke, I graduated with honors. Yes, my mom stirred up my competitive spirit and raised the Irish in me–a skill that has served me well.

Under the category of TO FORM CHARACTER, My mom once caught me sneaking out a small bottle of aspirin filled with liquor when I was going to a party of teens. I had planned to share that little bottle with a few of my girlfriends. When she found it in my purse, she told me I was busted and couldn’t go to the party. I told her I understood and was prepared to take my lumps. I didn’t make a fuss. But after a short while, my mom rethought her position and came to me with a moment that changed my life forever. She said that if I promised NOT to take a drink at the party, she would still let me go. She trusted me. That moment of trust made me feel like an adult. At the party, even though alcohol was present, I did not take ONE SIP of it. I told all my friends that I had made a promise to my mom that I would keep. That life lesson stuck with me. After that, I never lied to my mom. I learned that lies diminished me, then and now. If I couldn’t face the truth of who I am as a human being and had to resort to a lie to fake it, what did that make me? I learned to own my truth.

Mom also learned a lesson. If she didn’t want to really know something about me, she shouldn’t ask if she couldn’t handle the truth. I loved shocking her whenever she asked me about things happening in my life. This was the woman who said on my wedding day, “I’d tell you about the birds and the bees, but I’m afraid you’d correct me.” Reality isn’t in her wheelhouse.

What about YOU, TKZers? Who influenced the adult you have become? Please share some of your stories and what you learned from them.

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First Page Critique: A Good Story
Is In Here Trying To Escape

By PJ Parrish

It’s Show and Tell Day here at TKZ school. Some of you might be old enough to remember Show and Tell Day.  (I’m told schools don’t do it much anymore, alas). Like all kids, I loved it because it was a break from the daily grind. You got to sit back and listen to your classmates tell tales and sometimes do tricks. I remember one kid who brought his pet salamander. Another girl showed off her Barbie collection. Then there was the kid who brought in a rock. There was a lot of giggling as he started. What the heck could you say about a rock? But then he told a great story about how he and his family had gone canoeing on the Platt River in northern Michigan on vacation and he had tipped over and almost drowned. He found the rock on the shore and brought it home as a souvenir of his big day. Needless to say, we were enthralled. He almost died! I never forgot him.

With that prelude, let’s take a look at today’s submission. Thank you, dear writer, for letting us learn from your work.

Nephilim of Flame

Wren Wilson held her face in her hands but she had no more tears left in her. Besides, tears belonged to the grieving, not the guilty. The town had its first murder in more than forty years and Wren was responsible. The media had eaten up the story, a heroic sacrifice that led to Wren’s escape from a madman. Somehow it had made the horrible murder easier for the town to handle. They had put Wren on a pedestal like she had accomplished something. Wren was sick to her stomach thinking about it. Not because the tragedy of it all, but because it was a lie. The lie came easily to her lips after so many re-telling’s. Wren knew she didn’t deserve the sympathy and good will showered on her. She was no damsel in distress and certainly no hero.

Wren took a deep breath and lowered her hands to blankly out the car window. The sunny day was already beginning to become overcast as the funeral procession approached the cemetery. Wren watched the distant clouds, doing her best to ignore the sight of the hearse and flashing lights ahead. Wren daydreamed that she was out on a normal drive with her parents, unconcerned with big city problems like murder. For a few minutes, she managed to become lost in the tranquility represented by the car window. The illusion shattered when the car pulled to a stop and Wren glanced forward, they had arrived to the cemetery.

Wren picked her way carefully to the cemetery plot where the hero would be interred. She had been asked to say a few words today and she fretted over what to do. To her left she could see TV crews filming the mourners while reporters updated their viewers on the day’s events. Wren tried to keep a mournful look on her face. She knew cameras would be focusing on her. Wren plucked at her black dress irritably. She glanced up and met the eyes of some of the other mourners, lowering her head quickly. Their sympathy made it worse.

Wren sighed and shook her head, they didn’t know the whole truth, that is why they gave her those looks. Wren had lied to the police, to the media and to her family. She had conspired to keep the truth from everyone.

_______________________

As you might guess by now, I’m using this as a springboard to talk about showing versus telling in fiction. What we have here is an intriguing idea (a woman who harbors a dark secret about a murder). But the idea is obscured by two problems that are common to many openings — confusion and too much telling. Let’s tackle the confusing part first.

What’s happening on the surface isn’t the problem — Wren Wilson, the putative protagonist, is at a funeral thinking about the dead person, her own status in her community and the secret she carries.

But what’s below the surface is really confusing, especially about the relationship between Wren and the person being buried here. We get this line first:  The town had its first murder in more than forty years and Wren was responsible. This implies Wren murdered someone, probably the person being buried? Which makes her a criminal. Then we get this line:  The media had eaten up the story, a heroic sacrifice that led to Wren’s escape from a madman. Which makes me think that Wren was abducted maybe and she killed him and escaped? So she’s not a criminal; she’s a victim. But if she was abducted, she killed in self-defense, no? So that’s not a murder. It’s a justifiable homicide. 

The town lauds her, “showering her” with “good will and sympathy.” So apparently, she did something really brave and positive? But she feels so guilty about it, she’s cried-out and can’t stand to look out at the cemetery but then she “picked irritably at her black dress.”  I don’t understand what is going on in this character’s head. I also don’t understand who is being buried — the “madman” or someone else who so far has no grounding in the story.  After I re-read this several times, I also wondering if maybe Wren was abducted (by the “madman”) and someone ELSE saved her (“the hero”) but he got killed in the process and now folks are mourning him?

Wren picked her way carefully to the cemetery plot where the hero would be interred.

Who is this “hero”? I thought she was the hero. We go on:

She glanced up and met the eyes of some of the other mourners, lowering her head quickly. Their sympathy made it worse.

Wren sighed and shook her head, they didn’t know the whole truth, that is why they gave her those looks. Wren had lied to the police, to the media and to her family. She had conspired to keep the truth from everyone.

Other mourners? Why is this person being mourned? Again, I think the confusion is just because the initial implication here is that the “madman” who was “murdered” by Wren is now being buried. But that makes no sense given the use of “hero” and “mourners.”

I get that the writer is going for some misdirection here. Wren was some kind of victim at the hands of a madman but became a “hero” herself by escaping. But apparently, this is not true.  Wren herself tells us it is a lie. So that is a great source of tension and intrigue. But I think the writer needs to clarify the characters here — the “madman,” the “hero” and Wren’s relationship to them. And who is being buried? 

Now let’s talk about the showing versus telling.  There is minimal action here: Wren is driving up to a cemetery where a burial is taking place and walks to the grave site. That is all that happens. Everything else is thinking, remembering, regretting, thinking, sighing, thinking…

Everything is told to us. All the crucial information is conveyed through Wren’s thoughts. The first paragraph — that critical door into the reader’s imagination — is 99 percent backstory. Now, I don’t like trying to rewrite someone’s opening because we all tell our stories in our own voices, but I just want to suggest a different approach to make my point. What if this scene opened at the END of the grave site ceremony? We see Wren standing there, feeling exposed under the TV lights and cameras and the eyes of the people in her town. Maybe a pastor says a quick last word about the person being buried (so we know who it is) and Wren has a BRIEF thought about him. (No long backstory — you dribble that out artfully later!)

Then one by one, a few folks come up to talk to her. DIALOGUE IS ACTION! And this is how you begin to fill in the backstory. Let me take a stab at it:

Wren saw a woman in black moving slowly toward her but it was too late to dodge her. It was her old sixth grade teacher.

“Wren, you poor thing,” the woman said, embracing her. “I don’t know how you can come here today. Not after what that man did to you. You’re so pale. Are you okay?

Wren pulled away. “I’m fine, Mrs. Marsh.” But she wasn’t. She was downing Ambien every night and staring out the window of her florist shop every day, unable to fill the simplest order. (You slip in what she does for a living).

Wren turned to get away, nearly bumping into the tall man. The WMRK emblem of his TV station was emblazoned on his blue blazer. Mark Standish…the reporter who had been there when the police first brought her out, clothes torn, face streaked with blood. She still wondered how he had heard about her escape.

“When you going to give me the story, Wren?” Standish asked.

“I told you all as much as I remember,” she said. But she hadn’t. She hadn’t told anyone what had really happened in that week she had been held captive in that basement. She had told just enough to be called a heroine, just enough to get the sympathy of everyone in town.

Wren pushed past him and went to stand under a tree. She pressed a hand to her chest and shut her eyes tight. FILL IN HER WITH SOME BRIEF FLASHBACKS TO WHAT HAPPENED.  Wren turned to look back at the grave site. The mourners were leaving, heading back to their cars, popping up umbrellas as a light rain began to fall.

Wren waited until they were all gone then walked slowly back through the rows of plastic chairs to the edge of the grave. She looked down at the black casket.

“We know,” she said.  “You and me. We are the only ones who know the truth.”

Well, you get the idea. What I am trying to do here is to convey the same backstory but through the actions and dialogue of the characters. You needn’t have slam-bam death and destruction in your opening. But you need tension and action. Dialogue is action. It is showing. Use it!

Okay, I know I am running long but I like this submission for its potential so let me  quickly go over a few more things in Track Change edits:

Wren Wilson held her face in her hands This is an odd image and sorta cliched. Can you find a more compelling first line? but she had no more tears left in her. Besides, tears belonged to the grieving, not the guilty. The town had its first murder in more than forty years and Wren was responsible. The media had eaten up the story, a heroic sacrifice that led to Wren’s escape from a madman. Somehow it had made the horrible murder easier for the town to handle. They had put Wren on a pedestal like she had accomplished something. Wren was sick to her stomach thinking about it. Not because the tragedy of it all, but because it was a lie. The lie came easily to her lips after so many re-telling’s. Wren knew she didn’t deserve the sympathy and good will showered on her. She was no damsel in distress and certainly no hero. This is an info-dump of backstory. This needs to come out slowly, gracefully, throughout the first chapter, not in the first graph. The first graph should be a tease not a tell-all confessional.

Wren took a deep breath and lowered her hands to stare? blankly out the car window. The sunny day was already beginning to become overcast as the funeral procession approached the cemetery. Wren watched the distant clouds, doing her best to ignore the sight of the hearse and flashing lights ahead. Wren daydreamed that she was out on a normal drive with her parents, unconcerned with big city problems like murder. For a few minutes, she managed to become lost in the tranquility represented by the car window. I think this odd jump back to childhood clutters things up here. The illusion shattered when the car pulled to a stop and Wren glanced forward, they had arrived to the cemetery. I think this whole graph could cut. It doesn’t add anything.

Wren picked her way watch your choreography here. Did she drive or was driven? She needs to get out of the car. carefully to the cemetery plot where the hero Huh? would be interred. She had been asked to say a few words today and she fretted over what to do. To her left she could see TV crews filming the mourners while reporters updated their viewers on the day’s events. Wren tried to keep a mournful look on her face. She knew cameras would be focusing on her. You already implied this. Wren plucked at her black dress irritably. whiplash change of mood She glanced up and met the eyes of some of the other mourners, lowering her head quickly. Their sympathy made it worse.

Wren Note that you started every graph with her name. You also could use some variation in your graph length. Dialogue would go a long way to breaking up how this gray mass looks on the page sighed and shook her head, they didn’t know the whole truth, that is why they gave her those looks. Wren had lied to the police, to the media and to her family. She had conspired to keep the truth from everyone. Nice intrigue being placed into the story but you must find a way to convey this through ACTION and dialogue instead of all thought. 

One last thing: I really don’t like the title. When I read this cold the first time, I thought, uh oh…they gave me a fantasy story and I am terrible at those. But this story appears to be contemporary (though we get no sense of time) and set in a big city or a town. (the writer uses both phrases and they imply different places). I had to Google Niphilim. Turns out it is the Nephilim were the offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” before the deluge, according to Genesis in the Bible. That’s kinda sorta interesting but for a contemporary murder story? Not so sure. I also don’t get the “of Flame” unless it’s put there for alliteration.  I love biblical and literary allusions in novel titles, but if your reader is sent scurrying to Google to get it, you’re in trouble.  I think it might work for fantasy, or especially dystopian fiction. For this story, as we understand it in 400 words, I think it’s off tone.

Again, thank you writer for submitting and don’t give up.  I sense there is a good story and character here waiting to escape.

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