Saint Joan of New York, Part Two: How to Tell a New Tale

By Mark Alpert

There are no new stories to tell, it’s been said. Every novel is a retelling, conscious or not, of an older book. Even three thousand years ago, when Homer was composing his epics about gods and war and human frailty, he was probably snatching bits and pieces of older poems he’d heard and reiterating their plots and characters and themes.

And yet readers crave freshness. How do we give it to them?

This problem is particularly acute when the writer deliberately bases his or her story on an older one. For example, imagine the general consternation that must’ve ensued when Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents decided to create a Broadway musical based on “Romeo and Juliet,” featuring street gangs in New York City instead of feuding families in Verona. The potential for disaster was enormous. And yet the brilliant trio avoided nearly every pitfall, and with the help of Jerome Robbins and Hal Prince they produced “West Side Story,” one of the finest musicals ever.

I faced a similar challenge when I decided to retell the story of Joan of Arc. It’s a familiar tale (see my recent post for a recap), but it holds many mysteries that remain unsolved even 600 years after Joan’s martyrdom. For me, the primary mystery is Joan herself: what was going on inside her head? Was God really issuing instructions to her in the voices of Saints Catherine and Margaret? Or did she herself come up with the idea of driving the English out of France and then convince herself that the command had come from the Almighty? Was she perhaps a remarkably high-functioning schizophrenic?

The first step in this process, I reasoned, was to see how other authors had handled the challenge of telling Joan’s story. So I read Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, the 1896 novel by Mark Twain, who was quite obsessed with the teenage Maid of Orléans. Twain spent twelve years doing research for this novel and another two years writing it, and he claimed it was his best and most important book. But it’s not. Twain chose to narrate the story from the point of view of a fictional character named Sieur Louis de Conte, a childhood friend of Joan who goes on to become her scribe and later (in a very unrealistic twist) a clerk at her trial. De Conte is Twain’s stand-in — he speaks worshipfully of Joan and dutifully records the major events of her life, but he never gets inside her head. Her character in this novel is flat and opaque. She’s not nearly as lively or interesting as Huck Finn, the hero of what is actually Twain’s best and most important book.

As it so happens, at the time when I started thinking about writing a Joan of Arc novel I had the opportunity to see one of the best plays about her life: “Saint Joan” by George Bernard Shaw. The play premiered in 1923, just three years after Joan’s canonization, and the 2018 Broadway revival starred the marvelous actress Condola Rashad. The play’s last scenes focus on Joan’s trial and execution, and I loved the many intellectual exchanges among the characters who are trying to understand Joan and decide how to deal with her — the Englishmen determined to exact their revenge, the traitorous French churchmen trying to prove that she’s a witch, etc. And Rashad did an excellent job of portraying Joan’s no-nonsense conviction in the rightness of her cause. But even in this masterpiece of drama, Joan remains an enigma. I still couldn’t see what made her tick.

Needless to say, Twain and Shaw were geniuses, and their worst works are still a thousand times better than anything I’ve ever written. So I began to despair that I could add anything useful to the canon of Joan of Arc literature. That’s when I realized that I couldn’t write a historical novel about her. If I wanted to make Joan come alive, I had to reimagine her as a modern-day teenager with contemporary beliefs. What’s more, I had to connect Joan’s story with my own passions and obsessions.

I’ll explain exactly how I did that in my next blog post. In the meantime, you can read the first chapter of my forthcoming novel, Saint Joan of New York, by going here.

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Whose Story Is it? First Page Critique: Sunny Days Ahead

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Wikimedia Commons

I feel for Charlie in this story opener when he makes a phone call that risked his pride and ego. Join me in reading this 400 word opening and providing constructive criticism in your comments. I’ll have my comments below.

***

Charlie examined the slip of paper and wondered if he had been set up. It could have been some random set of digits she pulled out of her head? That shit happened once before and it ended up being the number for Dial A Prayer.

Charlie fed the payphone, and the muscles in his neck tightened as he dialed. He recalled the cute turned-up nose, dimples, and full pouty lips of the girl at the concert. He struggled to believe he’d worked up enough nerve to ask for her number and was suspicious of the ease with which she gave it to him.

Finally, the first ring sounded. He waited for someone to pick up, but took a breath when he realized no one answers on the first ring.

The second came, and his stomach rumbled.

As the third arrived, hope began to fade.

After the fourth, he relaxed, thinking either she wasn’t at home, or his suspicions were true. Then, a click, and there came the smooth, soft, voice of a sleepy angel.

“Hello.”

“Hi, this is the guy who sat behind you at the concert. I hope you remember me. Anyway, I only have a couple of minutes to impress you. So, here goes. I think you may well be the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen in my life. I got my own place. I like every kind of music there is except opera. Dogs love me, and oh, I don’t remember if I mentioned this, but I think you are, without a doubt, the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen. Okay, how am I doing so far?” It felt like a year-long silence as he waited for her response.

“Well, Dude, you are most definitely full of shit. And that’s okay. On good days so am I. Of course, I remember you. And I’ve been hoping you’d call.”

“No shit, really. Why? I mean, wow. That’s great.”

Sonny, paused. I felt your eyes on me in the concert and when I turned around everyone in the audience was scoping out what was happing on the stage. But you were looking straight at me with the sweatiest smile. That’s what made me remember you.

“And dude, If I’m the prettiest girl you’ve ever seen, you need to work on your social life.”

“Yeah, that’s sort of why I’m calling. Oh, and I’m Charlie Anderson. What’s your name?”

“It’s Sonny, Sonny Makenzie.”

FEEDBACK

All the typos were obstacles to me truly enjoying this anonymous submission. Even the last line and name of a main character is misspelled. More misspellings: happing & sweatiest. Editing 400 words for clean copy is the least an author should do to make it harder for an editor or agent from rejecting the story right away. Enough said. Let’s get to the substance.

Overall Impression – I liked the first line where Charlie hints of a set up. That got my attention. The tension was quickly diffused by the revelation that Charlie is calling a girl, so I didn’t mind that this wasn’t about a crime. I thought Charlie was charming and I could relate to the risk he took.

General Questions – Charlie is using a payphone? In a technical age, why doesn’t he have a cell? If this is a retro story line, that should be tagged at the beginning to ground the reader in another decade. Plus, is ‘Dial A Prayer’ still in existence? I queried on the Internet and only found a reference to a 2015 movie. Charlie mentions that a girl had slipped him a ‘Dial A Prayer’ number, but wouldn’t that have to be an 800# since that’s a national service? If a girl slipped him a phone number that starts with 800, that should’ve been a clue. These details kept me from getting fully engaged, beyond Charlie’s story.

Setting – Where is the setting? What is Charlie doing as he makes a call from an old payphone? World building is important. Did he slip away from his apartment to make a call from a public phone? What city or town? What can be shared about Charlie? This feels like a stripped down first draft without depth. The bones might be here, but it needs more.

To help an author realize what layers are missing, I like to ask open ended questions to trigger ideas from the author. Questions like: Where is Charlie? Can the weather add tension or mystery to the scene? Does Charlie have money? Does Sonny? Can their clothes give insight into their lives? What other open ended questions would you ask, TKZers?

Add More Tension & Build Up – The long dialogue line where Charlie tries to charm Sonny with “Hi, this is the guy who…” is long and the reader might lose interest or the build up could be better. I would suggest the author break up Charlie’s lines with how he reacts as the tension builds. When he hears nothing on the other end of the line, he keeps talking. We’ve all gone through phone calls like this. Make the reader feel his mounting doubts and the risk he finally takes to spill his guts.

Rewrite Example:

“Hi, this is the guy who sat behind you at the concert. I hope you remember me.”

The girl left him hanging and didn’t bail him out. Dead silence. Charlie decided to keep talking and go for it. He had to bring his A-game, whatever that is.

“Anyway, I only have a couple of minutes to impress you. So, here goes.” He swallowed and took a deep breath.

“I think you may well be the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen in my life.” What a tool. You sound lame, Charlie. Give her your best stuff. Go for it.

He pictured her mesmerizing blue eyes staring at him and how lights from the stage last night had played on her blond hair. Don’t sound like a stalker, asshole.

“I got my own place. I like every kind of music there is except opera. Dogs love me, and oh, I don’t remember if I mentioned this, but I think you are, without a doubt, the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen. Okay, how am I doing so far?”

It felt like a year-long silence as he waited for her response.

Point of View Shift – Before this scene ends, Sonny’s Point of View (POV) interrupts Charlie’s moment. I found this jarring and editors and agents would see this as head hopping. Sonny hints that she might have an ulterior motive to giving her number to Charlie. As a general rule of thumb, I write each scene using one POV. I tend to pick the character with the most to lose or the most emotion. To revise this intro, I like Charlie’s vulnerability for the start, but then create a scene break and shift to Sonny’s POV to draw the reader into her mystery. But when you jumble both together, you lose the impact for both.

First Person Shifts to Sonny – Another craft issue is that when the POV shifts to Sonny, the tense changed to first person. A whole book of this will confuse the reader, especially if, within scenes, Sonny starts speaking in first person in the middle of Charlie’s third person.

HERE is the POV shift to SonnySonny, paused. I felt your eyes on me in the concert and when I turned around everyone in the audience was scoping out what was happing on the stage. But you were looking straight at me with the sweatiest smile. That’s what made me remember you.

As I’ve suggested, the author might consider staying with Charlie’s third person POV as the intro, because he is relatable and vulnerable and there’s a mystery for readers to get into. End his first scene, then pick up Sonny on the other end of the line. What is she doing? What has Charlie interrupted? I often have fun with a simple outsider person calling my protagonist and they talk as if it’s a normal call, but I clue the reader in on what my protag is doing – like killing someone, or cleaning up blood.

Title – ‘Sunny Days Ahead’ needs work as a title. There’s nothing intriguing about it and no mystery.

SUMMARY – I look forward to seeing other comments and opinions on Sunny Days Ahead. For me, I might want to read the book jacket to see what this story is about. I like Charlie, but this intro needs filling out. Sonny holds promise in my mind, but nothing here tells me that. It’s my hope. Thanks for your interesting submission, anonymous. You have bones to build on here. I hope my feedback and the comments from our members will stir your imagination to fill out this story. Good luck.

DISCUSSION

Feedback comments, TKZers? Would you read on?

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Copy Edits and Good News

By John Gilstrap

My favorite pic of my wife and myself from the Iceland trip. This is from the inside of a glacier. That’s actually a white light embedded in the ice. The blue comes from Mother Nature.

It’s been a long three weeks.  First, there was Magna Cum Murder in Indianapolis, followed the next weekend by Bouchercon in Dallas, then a week-long book tour through Texas with my buddy Reavis Wortham.  I finally got home from Texas on the nigh of November 9, only to go back to the airport for a trip to Iceland with my wife and cousins.  If you ever get a chance to visit Iceland, do yourself a favor and go. (This was our third trip, and I can’t wait to go back.)  The highlight was a walking tour through the inside of a glacier.  The deeper you go, you literally are eyewitness to the past.

Upon my return, I was greeted with the copy edits for Hellfire, the Jonathan Grave novel slated for July, 2020.  This is my 21st encounter with copy edits, and therefore my 21st reminder of how little I understand about grammar in general and the deployment of a comma in particular.  Take the previous sentence, for example.  Should it read, “. . . and, therefore, my 21st . . .”?  Should it be “. . . grammar in general, and . . .”?  Feel free to tell me, but I guarantee it will not stick in my head.  (That comma after “tell me” shouldn’t be there, should it?”)  Damn.

Appropriate use of commas seems random to me and the commas themselves complicate language.  For example, the copy editor changed this sentence to include commas that I did not: “He and his brother, Geoff, were being driven . . .”  To my eye and ear, the meaning is clear without the commas, but I let it go because they tell me they’re correct.  (That comma before but shouldn’t be there either, should it?)

Then there’s this edit: “. . . scrolled through his contacts list, and pressed a button.”  Why? What does that comma do that its absence does not?  Aargh!

Comma Splices

First of all, I didn’t know that a comma splice was even a thing.  Here’s the note, verbatim, from the copy editor:

“There are some comma splices in the book, where two complete thoughts, that is, separate sentences, are separated by commas rather than periods.  Some people accept this in dialogue but not in descriptive text.  I have highlighted those I found like this (word-comma-word highlighted) so you can see where they are and decide what to do.  In many cases, the comma splice can be fixed by adding “and” or “but” after the comma.”

Here’s an example of what he’s talking about: “Questions never changed bad news, they only slowed it down.”  For me, it’s about the rhythm of the sentence and I think the passage flows better with the comma instead of a period.  Apparently, I do this quite a lot.  In most cases, I kept the passages as I originally wrote them.

Another example: “Their mom was just arrested, their dad is dead.”  The “and” is silent and I think the sentence is better for it.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I clearly need a good copy editor, and this one (the same as I had for Total Mayhem) is very good.  He’s just going to have to get used to me not comprehending the role of the comma.

With every set of copy edits, I also receive a “style sheet” that gets deeply into the weeds of my writing style, and that of the publisher.  The sections of the style sheet include:

Characters (in order of appearance).  With each character comes a brief description, based upon what I wrote in the book.  Here’s an example: Soren Lightwater: head of Shenandoah Station, smoker’s voice, mid-forties, built like a farmer, more attractive than her voice;

Geographic Locales (in alphabetical order).  Here again, there’s a brief description of the role the location plays in the story.  For example: “Resurrection House/Rez House, in Fisherman’s Cove, on Church Street, up the hill from Saint Kate’s Catholic Church, on the grounds of Jonathan’s childhood mansion;

Words Particular to Text.  Examples include A/V (audio-visual), ain’t, Air Force One, all-or-nothing deal, asshats . . .

Grammar/Punctuation. Given the subject matter of the post, I thought I’d paste this entire section verbatim.  Apologies for all the spacing, but I don’t know how to manipulate this platform to prevent double-spacing between lines.

Hours and minutes given in numerals (4:47), but just hours can be written out (six o’clock, he had to be there by five)

Author’s preference of comma following introductory “So” is permitted, as is comma after introductory “Or.”

Series comma

Comma before terminal “too” and “either” (Exception: me too, you too, us too, or any other one-word construction before “too”)

Comma around internal “too” and “either”

Comma before terminal “as well” and around internal “as well”

Comma before terminal “anyway”

Comma before terminal “though”

Comma after introductory and terminal and around internal “in fact”

Comma after introductory and terminal and around internal “instead”

Comma after introductory and terminal and around internal “after all”

Comma after introductory “Plus”

Temperature: eighty degrees

Numerals appear before the word “percent,” except in dialogue or when starting a sentence in narrative

Italicize sound effects, emphasis, letters as letters, words as words, internal monologue in present tense and in first-person narration, words written down, unfamiliar foreign words (especially if not found in dictionary)

Quotation marks when something (an object) is being given a sarcastic name or unexpected nickname

Small Caps: signs, displays, button functions

NOW, FINALLY, THE REALLY GOOD NEWS

Six months ago, I posted here about my impending surgery to fuse vertebrae in my cervical spine to relieve a pinched nerve that was causing severe pain in my left arm and shoulder.  Y’all were very supportive of me, and I appreciate that to this day.  As of this morning, as I write this, I heard from my surgeon that that the procedure was 100% successful.  The fusion at all levels is complete, and no complications developed.

I am, as they say, jazzed!

9+

First Page Critique: A Storm Is
Coming Or Is It A Space Ship?

By PJ Parrish

Well, I’m not sure exactly where we are today with today’s submission, but I will say I liked reading this one.  Which is why I’m going to be kinda tough on you, brave writer. Thanks for submitting your work.

(1)The Arrival

When the sun finally came up, Billy Watson was still sitting in the rusted out car, half asleep and shaking. The wind started to pick up and small bits of sand blew through the open windows, some of it getting into his mouth and eyes. A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance behind him. He tensed and turned his head, looking to the sky for more ships but not seeing any.

Catherine Belling sat next to him in the front seat, asleep. He touched her shoulder and shook it, feeling the smoothness of her silk blouse which was now in tatters. She jumped at his touch and sat straight up and looked around. “Catherine,” he whispered. “We’ve got to get out of here. We must keep moving.”

She reached to her right side and pulled a knife out of a leather sheath. It was a medium length hunting knife with a thick blade. She squeezed it, making her knuckles white. She started to speak but had trouble. She moistened her lips and said, “We can leave anytime. Where’s Ruben?”

“Don’t you remember? He wandered off last night and hasn’t come back yet. But we can’t wait around. The sounds are getting closer. Maybe we’ll find him somewhere in the desert.” He started to turn his arms and move his body. Every muscle ached.

Catherine put her knife away and pushed on the passenger door, which was cracked open. It squeaked and resisted and she had to use her leg to push it the rest of the way open.

They both staggered to the front of the car and looked around at the sky. To the north, from where they had come, they could see dark clouds and flashes of orange light and hear booms. To the west and east the skies were blue with a few clouds. To the south there were less clouds and what looked like clear, sunny skies. That’s where they headed.

____________________

I liked this opening. We are getting into the scene in mid-action, even though the two characters are just awakening. I don’t mind that, because they have obviously, from the description, been through something bad.  I like the unanswered questions of this opening — what happened last night? Why are they in such bad shape? (his injuries, her tattered silk blouse — and the little detail that it is silk is intriguing in itself given their barren surroundings.) What happened to Ruben? Are these two good guys or bad guys? This makes me want to read on.

Here’s what the writer didn’t do that also makes this work for me:  The guy wakes up and we don’t get a bunch of thoughts, musings, rememberings and god forbid, backstory.  The writer immediately gets us into some action. I trust the writer will explain as this chapter progresses what happened and how Billy Watson feels about it.

I don’t yet know exactly where we are, but I get the feeling of desolation. I also trust the writer will soon pinpoint the location. I get the sense that we are in some sort of apocalyptic time, possibly in future, since Watson looks to the sky to see if “ships” are there. I tripped over this sentence in my first quick read, thinking what the heck are ships doing in a desert? But then I got it.  While I like the spareness of the writing, I could use a few other descriptive details to ground me in where we are and what time era. All I can see in my reader’s imagination is sand, a storm-imminent dawn sky, and a rusted car.  One or two more choice details might go a long way here to upping the tension and intrigue.  Give me some hints!

One suggestion: Right now, we are getting the point of view mainly through Billy but with a semi-drift into Catherine.  I think it might be stronger we stayed firmly with Billy. A reader wants to connect with a main character as quickly as possible, and although Catherine may turn out to be just as important, it would help you establish rapport if you began more stronger with Billy.

Let’s go to some line editing so I can show you how.  And address a few minor quibbles.

When the sun finally came up, Billy Watson was still sitting in the rusted out car, half asleep and shaking. You are in omniscient POV here. This could be stronger if you can filter this moment only through Billy’s sensibility. It’s hard to make someone awakening FEEL real but if you can do it, it can be more powerful. Ask yourself, what is the first thing Billy is aware of?  A brightness that makes him squint (the sun coming up); the stiffness of his body? A smell? Make us feel this moment. The wind started to pick up and small bits of sand blew through the open windows, some of it getting into his mouth and eyes. Same issue here. This could be stronger! A sudden rush of cold-warm-hot? air on his face and the feel of grit in his eyes and mouth. A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance behind him. He tensed and turned his head, looking to the sky for more ships.  but not seeing any. He let out a long breath. No ships. It was just thunder. Make us feel his fear and/or trepidation more. But see my comments below about my confusion over what these “sounds” and “booms” are.

Catherine Belling sat next to him in the front seat, asleep. To make this feel more in Bily’s POV, I would not give her full name here.  He wouldn’t be thinking “Catherine Belling.”  Something like: He looked over at the woman slouched in the passenger seat. He touched her shoulder and shook it, feeling the smoothness of her silk blouse which was now in tatters. He shook her gently.

New graph is good when you move to a new character. She jumped at his touch and sat straight up and looked around. Give her a quick line or reaction. Is she scared-jumpy? I might even move up the whole bit with her knife. Also, action-reaction for your characters must be logical. If she is jumpy, her first reaction after someone touches her as she comes out of a fitful sleep might be to pull her knife. And Billy can calm her and then tell her they have to get moving.  That strikes me as more human. It also gives her a more logical reason to pull the knife.  

“Catherine,” he whispered. said. No need for whispers since it’s the two of them alone in a desert. “We’ve got to get out of here. We must keep moving.”

She reached to her right side and pulled a knife out of a leather sheath on her belt?. It was a medium length hunting knife with a thick blade. She squeezed the hunting knife, her knuckles turning white. She started to speak but had trouble and ran her tongue over her cracked lips. moistened her lips and said, “We can leave anytime.More details and more visceral.

Where’s Ruben?” she said.

“Don’t you remember? He wandered off last night and hasn’t come back yet. Obviously, he’s not back yet. This is a pretty dramatic point. Might she not react? Or say something?

But We can’t wait for him around,” he said. “The sounds are getting closer.” Confusion here. Above, you have him thinking the sounds are “just thunder.” Apparently the “sounds” concern him. Why? We need this clarified. Which doesn’t mean you have to spill all the beans but maybe somewhere in this brief scene he hears another sound that he KNOWS is not just thunder and that elicits this remark. Otherwise it makes no sense. Maybe we’ll find him somewhere in the desert.”

I would have Catherine put her knife away here, not later. Make this gesture mean something. Is she discouraged? Resigned? Frightened for Ruben? Maybe Billy thinks about her having the knife. The contrast between silk blouse and hunting knife is delicious. Make it work! Make every line of dialogue and every gesture AMPLIFY and ENHANCE your plot and mood.

He started to turn his arms and move his body. Every muscle ached. What did he start to do exactly? Be specific. How about if he tries to open his door and can’t. Make it mean something to what you’re setting up here. Have it relate to their dire situation. What happened last night to make him so sore he can’t move?  And the phrase “every muscle ached” is meh writing. You can do better. Make us FEEL something of this man’s pain — physical and psychological. 

Catherine put her knife away and pushed on the passenger door, which was cracked open. It squeaked and resisted and she had to use her leg to push it the rest of the way open. I’d have her come around and yank his door open. And make it mean something. Is Billy wounded? It gives her a chance to develop some personality.  Maybe you can even have Billy think something about here, which also gives you a chance to drop in her full name.  ie:  Billy flashed back to two nights ago, at the party. When Catherine Belling walked in a room, she always got stares. But that night, dressed in that white silk blouse and red pants, even he couldn’t look away.  That’s corny, but you see where I am trying to go with it?  An effective tool in fiction is compare and contrast.  If you can drop hints at what it was like BEFORE this moment (why do you have Catherine in silk otherwise?) then it can be an effective contrast to the arid and dire position they are in now.  Don’t dwell in backstory, but a brief well-rendered thought can be powerful.  It can also hint at the relationship between these two.

They both staggered to the front of the car and looked around at the sky. To the north, from where they had come, they Billy could see dark clouds and flashes of orange light you’re a good writer so this can be better and hear booms. Again, this “booms” is meaningless. Billy probably knows exactly what this is, since he knows about “the ships.” I think you’re being a little to obtuse here. A few choice details about what they have escaped from will go along way toward heightening your tension. To the west and east the skies were blue with a few clouds. To the south the sky was a blinding blue. there were less clouds and what looked like clear, sunny skies.

That’s where they headed.  I might put this in dialogue for Billy. But see caveat below.

Your description of the sky is a metaphor. Therefore, I would stay with north and south in that reference above because it’s clean and simple and is symbolic of the past (dark clouds, orange light and booms) and the future (blue skies.)  But be aware that clouds (bad past) and blue skies (good future) is a cliche. As the old saying goes, if you’re gonna use weather, make it mean something. Remember the end of “The Terminator” when Linda Hamilton is sitting in the jeep at the desert gas station and she looks ahead to the roiling storm clouds . A kid tells her in Spanish that a storm is coming. She says, with a heavy dollop of James Cameron portention, “I know.”  The weather must stand for something.   

So, all and all, a pretty good beginning. Which is why I’m being a little tough with you, dear writer, and asking you to stretch even harder. As I said, every line of dialogue, every action, every word of description you choose, must have a reason for being there.  Make every line you write more “muscular.” Make it work harder. You can do it. The story is worth it.

5+

“There is no frigate like a book…”

I shifted earlier today from the “manic” gear of my personality into the “depressive.” I saw it coming, given that this is the time of year where we turn where the day is of darkness more than of light. To pile on, if you will, a friend of long standing remarked during a telephone conversation about how many books and authors there are plying their wares, and asked rhetorically, “Why bother?” Indeed. Through this and other static, I could hear Churchill’s black dog baying in the wee hours, even though he was not yet in sight. 

I, fortunately, had some St. John’s Wort at the ready in the form of a Lawrence Block novel entitled The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, which is part of the Bernie Rhodenbarr series. Block may be semi-retired now (he keeps threatening to stop, but only pauses), but when he was more actively pursuing his career he was quite prolific. It is difficult to have read everything he has written to date and somehow I had missed reading this title even though I have had a copy of it for almost a decade. One cannot come away from a Block novel without chuckling here, smiling there, and learning something along the way. There were some lessons presented in this book— how to bypass a home burglar alarm (circa 1979), for example — that I already knew, but —no surprise — there was plenty that I did not.

I learned that St. John of God is the patron saint of booksellers, and, interestingly enough, of alcoholics (there is a lesson here, I think).  I should digress to note, in case you are wondering, that the patron saint of writers and authors is St. James Sco… I mean, St. Francis de Sales.

 

The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling also includes also a quotation, however, that Block just kind of tosses out there and which, I have appropriated as the title of my offering du jour to you. 

“There is no frigate like a book.” That quotation is the title of a poem by Emily Dickinson. I must have been absent (or, more than likely, daydreaming) when poetry was covered in my Senior English because it was a case of first impression for me. I should have paid attention in class because it contains an important observation about the reason that we read and write, succinctly stated in seven words. I stopped reading the book for a bit and started down the internet rabbit hole, doing a bit of research concerning Dickinson, because I could, thus proving Dickinson’s point. You can’t hop off of a frigate in the middle of the ocean (well, you could, but it’s not a good idea) but the blessing — and yes, the curse — of a book is that you can stop reading, set it down, and start up again. I learned as a result of my digression that Dickinson was a virtual recluse for much of her life.  She communicated mostly by letter (for those of you under thirty, a “letter” was something that people wrote to each other before texting became popular). Dickinson wrote approximately 1,800 poems, of which not even a dozen were published during her lifetime. She apparently, unlike my friend, was not concerned with the number of other authors who were out there already published and plying their trade. She felt the need to write, so she did, to the exclusion of much, if not all, else. It is interesting to me that relatively few of her contemporaries (we’re talking mid-19th Century) are even remembered, let alone mentioned in, for example, a Paul Simon song. 

You may be click-click-clicking along on your word processor in obscurity right now. Keep doing that. If you get discouraged, think of Emily Dickinson, her life, and her words. There is no frigate like a book. You can build it at and on a desk and it can take you and your audience to places that they never would have imagined but for you. You can’t top that with a Ferrari or a Nintendo Switch or even Netflix, either. 

The gloom is now officially shaken off, thanks to a contemporary author, his burglar creation, and a long-deceased reclusive poet. It’s time to go back to work. First though, please tell us: who or what shakes you out of your doldrums, if doldrums you have, and why? Whether you choose to share or otherwise, thank you for being here. 

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Reader Friday: First Lines

We haven’t asked this question in a while.

What’s your favorite first line of a novel, novella, or short story?

What’s your favorite first line of a movie?

What’s the best first line you’ve ever written?

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Mistakes Many Writers Make

By Elaine Viets

I edit manuscripts, some for writers you’d know and others who haven’t been published yet. No matter how well they write – and many write very well indeed – the same mistakes often appear in their manuscripts. In mine, too, for that matter.
Here are some of the mistakes many writers make:

Not checking your corrections.
Aha! You spotted the mistake in this sentence:
I her saw leave the store.

So you correct it to:
I her saw her leave the store.
And don’t remove that extra pronoun. Arggh! Don’t forget to check the corrections to make sure they’re correct.

Clang clunkers.
These words sound similar to the word you really want. Here’s a recent example I encountered:
My friend, who was no athlete, clamored up the side of the steep hill.

Really? He shouted his way to the top? More likely this is what happened:

My friend, who was no athlete, clambered up the side of the steep hill. That means he climbed awkwardly to the top.

Lost in space.
Let’s say you’re Arthur Conan Doyle, writing about the immortal Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Dr. John Watson. Somewhere in your latest manuscript, you’re going to slip and call Sherlock Watson, or vice-versa. I find at least one misplaced name in every manuscript, no matter how careful the writer.
Conan Doyle is the patron saint of authorial absentmindedness. Was Watson wounded in the shoulder or the leg? Did he have only one wife or maybe as many as six? Sherlockians love to debate these points.

Dropped pronouns.
Most pronouns – he, she, it, I, you, him, her – aren’t very heavy. Even the biggest – they and them – are a slender four letters. But they get dropped again and again. So does “a,” a harmless indefinite article.
Here are a couple of examples:

He worked long hours for family.
She’s smart woman.

The pronoun “his” is missing in the first sentence and “a” is missing in the second. The best way to locate those tricky dropped pronouns and articles is to read the sentences out loud.

Good luck, writers. There are more examples, in your manuscript and mine. But those don’t show up until after publication.

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Are You a Neurotic Writer? Sometimes You Need to Leave That Stuff At Home.

Fangirling over Elizabeth George.

The Tuesday after I returned from Bouchercon 2019, my therapist congratulated me on experiencing my first non-neurotic conference. No, I don’t mean the conference itself was non-neurotic, because I can think of few things with higher potential for neuroses than 1700 writers, industry professionals, and fans, all gathered in one hotel. I mean, of course, that I was way less neurotic than I usually am at these things. How did I manage it? I decided to have a really good time, and do exactly what I wanted to do the whole six days I was there.

Things didn’t start so great, as I told pretty much everyone I spent more than 10 minutes with. (Okay, maybe that was a little neurotic.) It was a good airline story though. It took me 9 hours, plus an hour’s travel on either side, to fly from Houston to Dallas because of rainstorms. Yes, I could have driven there and back and halfway back to DFW again in the time I spent waiting for a plane. Our first plane got grounded at Hobby Airport before it could head to IAH, and then the crew timed out. I counted 15 “your flight will now depart at…” emails in my box.The 737 we finally got at 5:30 only had 30 people on it, including the crew, because so many people had to rebook. Sweet. Too bad my room service burger that night was nearly raw instead of medium well. They fixed it with reasonable promptness, returning a medium well burger (no bun, as requested), with fries I didn’t order. I confess I ate a few.

One reason conferences can be super stressful for me is my pantser, not plotter, nature. Though I’m pretty shy, this time I made a couple of lunch plans and a dinner plan with friends before I arrived. Those have always been risky asks for me. What if they don’t want to? What if they’re waiting for someone more interesting, more famous to come along and make a date? It turned out that one of the lunches and the dinner fell through, but I didn’t panic. I asked other people. How revolutionary was that?! A couple of them were busy, but several weren’t.

I also gave into the (albeit small) risk-averse side of my nature. Talk about food deserts. There were few restaurants within easy walking distance. To make matters more challenging, the temperature was frequently 60 degrees or lower. In the midwest, where I live, 60 degrees is positively seasonal for late October. But if you’re hanging out with some folks from southern Texas and Atlanta, you’ll soon find that you’ll be taking a lot of cars. because they have little desire to walk in the cold. And that was okay. I just popped up my app and away we went.

Back to the food…The always-delightful Judy Bobalik found us a French restaurant called Bouillon for lunch on Thursday. I liked it so much, that I brought people back for Friday lunch and dinner. Yep. Same restaurant three times, over two days. Did I mention it was delicious? Sadly, I did not receive a frequent diner discount. I also discovered a marvelous restaurant called Saint Ann’s when I perused reviews on the Open Table app.

A thing l did only once: Hang out at the bar in the evening. Conference bars are frequently hard-surfaced, crazy noisy, and crowded. I hate that cocktail party atmosphere where the person you’re talking to is often scanning the room for their next conversation. Though I’d be a horrible prig if I got upset about those situations. They’re perfectly normal and very human.  Now, I do enjoy a bit of gossip, and drunk people are great about leaking things. (I’m shameless, I know!) But I don’t drink much myself. I happily overshare when sober. It’s much more fun to me to visit with people one-on-one, or with groups in the lobby or the coffee bar. Do I sound like a terrible frump? Oh, well. I’ve done my time in conference bars, and once you’ve heard one drunk writer’s story about his 4 hour Viagra priapism (God rest his soul), you’ve heard them all.

More fangirling, this time over Therese Plummer, the FABULOUS audio narrator for The Stranger Inside. She also does Charlaine Harris’s Aurora Teagarden books.

A thing I did a lot of: Go to panels and interviews. I’ve attended conferences where I didn’t attend a single panel except the one I was on. This was mostly in the days when I would hide out in my room, freaking out because I was afraid I’d made some horrible faux pas. Or I was simply terrified to be around so many writers. What if they figured out I was a fraud and didn’t belong there? I decided just to get over that–or at least stress about it back at home. Conferences are short. There’s no time for too many neuroses.

I got to see/hear Charlaine Harris, Elizabeth George, and Meg Gardiner on panels or interviews twice each. Elizabeth George practically gave a masterclass in how she writes during her interview. (Brava, Hallie Ephron, for great questions.) I took in a panel on setting, and also one on cozies. I went with my talented friend, Rebecca Drake, to Half Price Books for an evening panel, and we all went out to a 24 hour BBQ place, where they had killer brisket. I’m always surprised when writers disdain going to panels. For probably the first time, I took out the pocket schedule the first day, and marked the panels I didn’t want to miss. And I was careful to include the one I was on and the one I moderated, because I can get distracted.

A thing I didn’t do: Author Speed Dating. I’ve done them the last 3 Bouchercons I attended, but not this one. One, they started at 7 in the morning! 8 is madness, 7 is just cruel to everyone. Also, there was some confusion about whether they were invitation-only because of a publisher’s involvement. If true, that would be a real shame. Bouchercon is a fan conference, and it’s important to seek out new potential fans.

A thing I regret doing: Giving a big, warm hug without warning to a woman I’d only corresponded with a few times. Clearly, I made her afraid. What can I say? I’m a hugger.

A last pitch: Go to conferences if you can. Be friendly, open to new experiences, and leave (most of) your neuroses at home. You’ll have a better time for it!

Do you go to conferences? What’s your favorite thing about them? Least favorite?

 

 

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First Page Critique – Rooster Strut

Chamber pot – photo courtesy of National Park Service

Today’s Brave Author takes us on a tour of a piss-poor town. Please enjoy this first page entitled Rooster Strut.

Rooster Strut

My name is J.B. Hoehandel Jr. But most folks call me June Bug for short. Me and my buddy Wad Larson was pigging out on two for a dollar corn dogs one night at the Silver Dollar Drive-In restaurant. Anita Moore Love just started working the night shift. She’d been a stripper someplace up north and was down here running from the law. At least that was according to the local rumor mill which was headed up by Wad’s great grandmother.

Anita finished taking an order from a carload of high-school hoodlums in someone’s dad’s station wagon when she turned her back to them and bent down to tie her shoes. That was kind of strange considering she was wearing flip-flops. When those tight short shorts rode up to the point of Oh-my-dear- God- in-Heaven, the whoops and hollers from that carload of brain-dead teenagers could be heard way over in Dognut County. Wad laughed so hard he about choked on his chewing tobacco.

Wad’s had a golf ball-sized cheek full of Red Man in his mouth since he was ten. He’s never taken it out, not even to sleep. He keeps chewing it down and adding to it, which is how Wad got his name.

We all live in a small town called Rooster Strut. It’s not the kind of place you want to raise your kids. The odds are against them making it much past puberty with all the toxic shit that comes out of the Morgan Tillman Tannery.

You may not know it, but the way they turn animal hides into those expensive purses and high dollar leather goods you folks like so much, starts by soaking raw animal skins in a mixture of cow piss, chicken shit, quicklime, salt, and water.

Back in the day, people would save up their piss and sell it to the tannery. A tradition that gave us such sayings as “piss poor.” or, “He ain’t got a pot to piss in or a place to put it.” Nowadays there’s more money in cooking meth than saving up piss, but they both smell pretty bad which is why real estate in Rooster Strut is so cheap.

~~~

Several years ago, at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson gave a talk about world building. I walked into the session with minimal interest since sci-fi/fantasy is not a genre I foresee myself writing. Also, as a reader, I tend to skip over setting details because character development and plot action are more interesting to me than places.

Was I surprised and blown away!

Kevin kicked off his talk with an anecdote about his family’s home town purported to be the sauerkraut capital of the world. His mom held the title of Miss Sauerkraut of 1955. He described how the waste water from the sauerkraut factory was expelled into ditches around town. The inescapable, rancid smell permeated the area for miles around. In winter, the same polluted water froze and kids skated on it. Occasionally someone broke through the ice into the rank slurry below.

The specific details Kevin chose were so vivid and evocative that my nose still twitches when I remember his talk. I came away with a whole new appreciation for how a powerfully described setting adds to a story.

Rooster Strut is similarly memorable. Brave Author uses the sense of smell to build the world of a depressed, dead-end, small town. The reader is immediately pulled into a place stinking with the greasy aroma two-for-a-buck corn dogs, pungent cow piss and chicken shit, and meth cooking. We’re not sure we want to be here because the overall impression is pretty disgusting.

But it’s also irresistible.

Short, punchy descriptions sum up the atmosphere:

It’s not the kind of place you want to raise your kids.

Nowadays there’s more money in cooking meth than saving up piss, but they both smell pretty bad which is why real estate in Rooster Strut is so cheap.

Why would a reader want to stick around this crummy place where clearly nothing good will happen?

I believe the main reason is the wildly humorous voice.

The names are unabashedly corny: June Bug Hoehandel, Wad, a former stripper named Moore Love, Dognut. The narrator not only pokes fun at the residents, the locale, and the situation, but also makes observations full of ironic wisdom.

The description of Anita bending over to tie non-existent shoelaces on her flip-flops makes a strong visual impact in the reader’s mind. Then the author layers on a deeper meaning with the phrase to the point of Oh-my-dear-God-in Heaven, giving a hint at the cultural and religious mores of the narrator, probably shared by many residents of the town.

Some readers don’t care for the technique of directly addressing the reader as you but it doesn’t bother me. In fact, it felt particularly appropriate and in keeping with the mood of this piece.

The narrator issues an invitation to the reader, essentially saying, “Howdy, stranger, you’re not from around here. Why don’t you sit down and let me tell you a story about Rooster Strut and its local characters? And have a corn dog while you’re at it.”

That evokes instant intimacy between the narrator and the reader.

While the story doesn’t open with an obvious problem—like finding a dead body, for instance—the scene is set in a skillful way that promises lots of conflict ahead.

An outsider (the stripper from up north) is on the run from the law and causing a disturbance in the community. The illicit meth trade is juxtaposed with young victims apparently poisoned by a supposedly legitimate industry, Morgan Tillman Tannery. People are stuck in a hopeless economy that will likely lead to desperate acts to escape or improve their family’s circumstances.

Yet, as depressing as the set-up sounds, the humorous voice promises considerable fun along the journey.

Great work, Brave Author!

The typos I saw were minor and easily fixable.

Insert hyphens in two-for-a-dollar.

Remove extra spaces in Oh-my-dear-God-in-Heaven.

The time period wasn’t specified. Someone’s dad’s station wagon sounds like 1980s or earlier but, in Rooster Strut, Dad might well drive a 40+-year-old vehicle. A poverty-stricken small town can often feel stuck in time, harking back to the days when there were good jobs and opportunities. Consider including a quick notation that signals if this is contemporary or in years past.

Humor is subjective. Vulgar, earthy language and hokey humor may put off some readers and that’s okay because tastes vary. However, like habanero peppers, a little goes a long way. A challenge for the Brave Author will be to sustain this rollicking voice through the story without becoming tiresome. But I have faith s/he can pull it off.

I thoroughly enjoyed this page.

Thanks, Brave Author, for taking TKZ readers on a tour of Rooster Strut!

~~~

Your turn, TKZers. What suggestions do you have for the Brave Author? Did you want to keep reading?

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Please check out Debbie Burke’s award-winning thriller, Instrument of the Devil, on sale for $.99 until November 15. Here’s the link.

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First Page Critique: The Master’s Inn

Today, I’m reviewing the first page of a woman’s fiction novel entitled The Master’s Inn. My comments follow – looking forward to getting input from this great TKZ community and bravo to our brave submitter!

The Master’s Inn

“Mom! Where’s my iPad?” Joanie bellowed.

Susan Brown, downstairs in her newly remodeled dining room in Sandpoint, Idaho, ignored the stomping noises overhead and her fourteen year old daughter’s frantic voice.

It sounds like a bull moose on the rampage up there.

Staccato stomping was followed by Joanie’s voice floating down the stairs as she talked to herself. She used every foul word in her teenage vocabulary—loud enough for Susan to hear. Something else to confront.

She shook her head in exasperation and reviewed the contents of her garment bag once again—no mistakes this time. Two other bags were packed and strapped by the front door. She wanted to surprise Bill by being ready to go on time tomorrow. He was a stickler for schedules and sometimes lashed out at any bump in his plan.

She hummed to herself as she scanned her list for the third time. As usual, she’d packed too much.  But she hadn’t been able to decide what to bring. She’d whittled it down to two evening and three day outfits she could mix and match.

She tucked everything neatly into the bag and made sure the clothing was tightly strapped. It wouldn’t do to have wrinkled blouses—although the venue hotel in Las Vegas offered full valet service. Nothing but the best for Bill.

She lined up the bags by the front door where he would see them when he came home, then returned to the dining room and grabbed a clean microfiber cloth she kept handy and wiped the table where she’d had her bag. Bill had a critical eye—he would notice a blemish on the expensive table.

She stretched and looked at her watch. He would be home from his meeting soon.

She looked forward to the long weekend—only her and Bill. The one thing she didn’t look forward to was watching him compare her to the glamorous women they’d see on the stages and in the restaurants. She’d never had any reason to question his loyalty, but she knew—after all these years—that she didn’t measure up. She’d lost her petite figure and the glow had faded from her complexion.

She walked back out to the entry hall and looked at herself in the elegant full-length mirror outside the dining room. Her face turned red at what she saw.

Pudgy. That’s the word.  

Overall Comments

I liked how, as I continued to read this first page, the tension over Bill slowly began to build until the reader realizes just how much Susan is in his thrall, and how terrified she is of disappointing and angering him. That being said, I think that the dramatic tension could have been ramped up even more, so as to place the reader right at the moment Bill comes home. In some ways we get too much of her anticipation of what might happen if she doesn’t have everything exactly right for him and not enough actual conflict. Even the tension with her daughter is remote (just hearing her upstairs, rather than being engaged in an argument with her). I also wanted to know where her daughter figured in the upcoming trip – is she going with them or going to a friend’s place? Is Bill her step-father or just her mother’s boyfriend (and how does her daughter view Bill’s controlling nature?). I wanted a little more of this backstory to become invested in the characters and a little less about the house or the contents of the bags.

One thing I did ponder was whether Susan was going to be an unreliable narrator or if Bill really was as controlling as she made him out to be. As a reader I was torn between empathizing with her and being frustrated that she was so worried about satisfying his need for order and control. Given that the novel is described as women’s fiction, I wasn’t sure if there was going to be a suspense or mystery aspect to the story – but I have to say I already hope Bill gets what’s coming to him:)

Specific Comments

  • There was some repetition of words like ‘stomping’ and ‘strapped’ which was distracting and, as I looked down the page, 7 paragraphs all began with the word ‘She’. Although this might seem pedantic, it’s important to vary sentences so as not to appear repetitious or sloppy.
  • I also noticed that, apart from Susan’s inner monologue and preoccupation with her appearance, we don’t actually get any description of her which made it hard for me to picture her in my mind.
  • Although the descriptions of the house suggest a measure of wealth – expensive table, elegant full-length mirror, and remodeled dining room for example – the reader doesn’t actually get any specific descriptions to help visualize the scene. I would have liked a more sensory exploration of the house so I could imagine Susan in it (the glint of polish, the smell of cleaning spray etc.) as well as specifics that could be telling (such as the brand of bags, clothing etc.)
  • Finally, the title of the book, The Master’s Inn, seemed a little incongruous as it evoked more of a historical fiction novel in my mind.

So TKZers what additional comments or feedback would you give our brave submitter?

 

 

 

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