Toxic Romance?

My mother-in-law forwarded me an interesting article on the toxicity of many of the romances depicted in YA novels and it got me thinking about how writers tackle the whole romance thing, especially in an age where many protagonists (in mysteries, thrillers as well as YA) are often ‘bad boy’ (or ‘bad girl’)  heroes/anti-heroes.

The article in the Melbourne newspaper The Age (link here), is an interview with Kasey Edwards, an Australian writer, about the often abusive, stalkerish, and horrible relationships depicted in some YA novels (most notably, the Twilight series) where girls fall for the ‘bad boy’ who thinks ‘no’ just means ‘try harder’ when it comes to winning their affection. And it’s not just YA – you have books like the Fifty Shades of Grey series which translate this behavior in a decidedly adult way where girls/women fall in love with someone who is more powerful, controlling and possibly abusive (I confess I haven’t read the Fifty Shades of Grey books so I can’t really comment!).

I do think there is a broader issue at play in terms of the way relationships and romances are depicted, irrespective of gender or genre. I know I’ve certainly fallen into the trap of creating emotionally distant male characters who don’t treat their female counterparts with the respect that I certainly would demand in real life. But then fiction isn’t real life and nice, kind, pleasant people don’t necessarily make the most compelling characters!

In YA I think the issue of depicting abusive, controlling relationships and toxic romance as ‘normal’ is a definite concern, because girls (and boys) reading them may start to believe that these are the sort of relationships they should seek in real life. In adult fiction the lines are more blurred and, though I wouldn’t want to write a book that would in any way condone or encourage abusive relationships, mysteries and thrillers by their very nature deal with the darker aspects of human nature as well as society. So how do we, as writers, reconcile the two? How do we create compelling relationships without falling into the trap of writing ‘toxic’ romance?

I don’t have any answers, except to say that I support a writer’s right to choose to depict whatever characters, relationships, or romances they want – even though somewhere along the line those choices must come with some level of responsibility (again, I think in YA, this is much greater). Beyond that, I’m not really sure – although I do think it’s a valuable topic to debate. After reading this article, I’ll certainly think a little more carefully about the type of romance and relationships I portray in my books.

So TKZers how do you approach the issue of potentially ‘toxic romance’ in your writing? Do you step back and consider the nature of the relationships and romance between your characters – especially if they might be seen as condoning abusive or dysfunctional behavior or perpetuating damaging stereotypes?

 

3+

Radio Is A Sound Salvation

By Mark Alpert

You know that moment when you hear one of your favorite songs on the radio? Or maybe a song you haven’t heard in ages and you suddenly realize just how great it is? I had a religion professor at Princeton (Malcolm Diamond, to be specific) who compared this experience to a moment of grace. It wouldn’t be as exhilarating if you chose to play the song on your iPhone or stereo. What makes it sound so glorious is that the song came to you as an unexpected gift.

That’s one of the reasons why I love radio. Another is the Bob and Ray show, which I listened to fervently when I was a kid. I was also a fan of CBS Radio Mystery Theater and the Dr. Demento show.

And now I love radio even more, because it’s helping me sell books.

I’ve done several radio interviews in the past to promote my novels, but the interview I did last week was the first one that really boosted my sales. I appeared on the Coast to Coast AM show, which is carried by hundreds of radio stations across the country. (The interview is archived here if you’re interested.) I talked with the host, Ian Punnett, about genetic engineering and climate change, the two main themes of my latest thriller, THE COMING STORM. And here’s a funny coincidence: Ian revealed that he was related to Reginald Punnett, the British geneticist who invented the famous Punnett Square. (You may remember the Punnett Square from a high-school biology class; it’s the diagram that predicts the genotypes of crossbreeding experiments.)

My publicist at St. Martin’s Press set up the interview for me. It was great fun. I answered some questions from the show’s listeners, and that was fun too. It reminded me of how much I enjoyed listening to late-night radio way back in the 1970s.

I’m in Nevada right now, coming back from a trip to Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon. I’m pretty exhausted from all the hiking I just did, so I’m probably not making a lot of sense right now, but I plan to write about my most recent adventures as soon as I get back to NYC.

0

You Never Feel Secure

By John Gilstrap

One of the questions that every published writer faces from time to time goes something like this: “Does it ever get easier after you’ve published your first book?”

The whole-truth form of the answer is yes, it does get easier, but not in the ways that people might expect.  The pressure never eases to produce a compelling story with interesting characters doing important things in interesting ways.  There’s no quarter for bad writing, flat storytelling or indulgent rants.  The mechanics all need to be there, and, I would argue, the bar for excellence only increases from book to book.

The confidence factor is where things get easier, I think.  I now realize that somewhere around page 200 in a book, I’m going to feel totally lost and I’m going to conclude that the only way to successfully end the misery is to give the book a ride in the shredder.  Having walked the walk 20 times now, however, I also know that somehow, I’ll figure it out.  The panic evaporates and the story resolves itself.

Yeah, but what if I can’t?  When creativity meets cockiness, a lot of bad things can happen.

September 15 has been my submission deadline every year since 2009.  Every year.  I’ve posted before about how much August sucks for me as I binge-write for 10-hours a day trying to bring the story in under the wire.  It’s total madness in the Gilstrap household during the month of August and the first half of September.

Beginning five or six years ago, my lovely bride, Joy, landed on an antidote for the madness: An exotic vacation that begins on September 16.  Two years ago, it was two weeks in Scotland, last year it was two weeks in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and this year, as I write this post, we’re beginning our second week in Portugal.  The upshot of this, of course, is that with tickets bought and deposits put down, blowing my deadline is not an option.

Next year’s Jonathan Grave book is called Hellfire.  I clicked Send to launch the manuscript five hours before our plane left Dulles Airport.  I wrote it, read it and liked it, but was that because it was good or because I needed to like it?

This is where the insecurity always lives on.  My agent and my editor had copies, and all I had to do was wait for the results.

After a week, I had hear nothing from either.  If it was terrific, they’d tell me right away, right?  But they knew I was on vacation.  If they hated the story, they would say nothing, right?  They’d let me enjoy the trip before ruining my day.  Right?

whole week passed without any word.  What the hell?

As of yesterday, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I sent an email to my agent telling her that the silence was killing me.  She wrote back almost instantly with the news that she loved the book, but was terrified that Joy would kill her if she interrupted our vacation with a work email.  Then I heard from my big honkin’ New York editor, who told the same story.  Loved the book, scared of my five-foot-three bride.  Now, that’s respect!

The takeaway, though, is that I can now have a nice vacation.

And next year, I have every confidence that the paranoids will come hunting for me once again.

What say you, TKZers?  Can you keep your paranoids in the closet where they belong?

7+

First Page Critique: Where Are We
And Whose Head Are We In?

By PJ Parrish

Morning, crime dogs. We have another First Page submission to chew on today.  It has things to teach us about picking a point of view.  And a big hat tip to our writer who has pushed her/his baby out there for our scrutiny.  Remember…that takes guts.

SCARLET LIES

Scarlet crossed the multi-lane city street without checking for oncoming traffic. They would stop. And if they didn’t, what of it? A few horns blared and she clicked her heels across the road, the sun blaring in her eyes through the smog and haze. A man sat across the street, watching the foot traffic from a cafe table. He drank from a small, cream-colored mug.

Was that him?

Yes. It was. It was him. She couldn’t believe she saw him there, just on the other side of the street, drinking coffee, existing. How long had it been? Two years?

“Guy! Hey! Guy!” She hustled, her voice screeching and her gait reminiscent of a baby calf with awkward, tiny steps. Her skirt was tight, the shopping bags she carried were bulky, and her stilettos were sharp. The traffic did stop for her.

The man turned and watched her wobbling approach. She was grinning. He was not.

He said nothing, creasing his brow and sipping his coffee. He ended the call he was on. Slid his phone into his pocket. His olive complexion had deepened in the summer sun, and he had opted not to shave for a few days, giving him a rough, careless appearance.

She was radiant, elbowing people out of the way to get to him and straightening her walk.

“Guy! How are you? It’s been forever!” She was breathless. She stepped through the cafe gate and sat at the table with him. She raised her hand at a server, waving her over. A young woman approached and looked at the two of them, waiting. Scarlet looked at Guy, and blinked a couple of times.

“The lady will have an extra-hot Americano with a half-pump of hazelnut and a pitcher of cream on the side, please.” He looked up at the waiter apologetically.

“Oookay. One very special nearly hazelnut Americano and some creamer coming up.” She forced a smile, rolled her eyes and walked away. Scarlet beamed at Guy, biting her lip.

“You remember my coffee. You were always so thoughtful. How are you, though? Really?” She leaned towards him.

He looked at her for a moment, not returning the smile. “I’m good. I’m surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.”

“Really? Why is that?”

He didn’t answer. He sipped his coffee and stared at her.

“I’ve missed you so much.”

“I doubt that.”

__________________________

Well, right off the bat my first question is: What kind of book am I reading here? Given the description of the woman and the interplay with the mystery man, it feels a little on the romantic suspense side or maybe we’re in cozy territory. Which is fine, if that is where the writer is going.  If this is straight mystery or suspense, then this opening, with its emphasis on the woman’s clothing, shopping bags, shoes etc., is off in tone. It’s hard to tell.  So we are left to judge it as it is, absent the helpful context of cover art or back copy.  The title SCARLET LIES could be anything, but it suggests to me a lighter tone.

Now about point of  view.  We are firmly in Scarlet’s POV at the start because we get her thoughts about the cars not stopping and her wondering if the man is the cafe is “him.”  But as we get deeper into the scene, the POV wavers a tad, floating up into semi-omniscient or even into the man’s POV when the writer starts describing her stilettos and her screeching voice and awkward gait. Who is making these observations?  She cannot, so it is either the man in cafe (which is a head-jumping POV shift) or it is the writer herself (which is a shift to omniscient).  It’s good that the writer is coming up with specifics in the descriptions but they must be grounded in a single POV to be effective.

Now, what is happening in this scene? Not too much really. A woman, apparently just finishing shopping, spots a man in a cafe, someone from her past, and initiates an encounter. The man seems blase, almost irritated.  Oddly, though, he doesn’t seem at all surprised to see her even though it has been “forever.”  Is this enough to make us want to read on? I don’t think so. There’s not enough meat here in the encounter and the woman, to be frank, is ditzy to the point of being annoying. Guy, on the other hand, by his simple  indifference, seems more interesting.  I can’t tell who the protagonist is here.  I hope it’s not the woman because, as I said, I think she comes across as silly.  If Scarlet IS the protagonist, then I think there’s a problem in asking readers to attach themselves to such a flimsy character.

If Guy is the protag, then I suggest the writer switch this scene to his point of view only. It could be much more interesting.  Let me demonstrate:

Guy Talbot ended his call and laid the phone face down on the cafe table. He was tempted to turn the damn thing off because he was tired of being on call and just wanted to be alone. Just for one afternoon. That’s why he had picked the Tiffany Cafe on Rodeo Drive. No one he knew would ever show up here. 

He was about to pick up his coffee cup when a flash of red across the street caught his eye. A trailing blazing of red hair, and a glimpse of tight red skirt visible through the bounce of Prada and Hermes shopping bags. 

Jesus, what that her? Of course it was. No woman on earth had hair that color. He hadn’t seen her in five years. What the hell was she doing here in Los Angeles? 

He picked up his sunglasses to hide behind. Too late. She spotted him.

“Guy! Guy!” she yelled.

She started across Rodeo Drive without looking. No matter. The cars would stop for her. They always did. Sure enough, a guy in a Ferrari stopped, the screech of his tires matching her voice.

I did this not to rewrite your work but to demonstrate what a difference a secure point of view can make. All description needs to be filtered through a solid POV. So pick one and stay in it.  Now I’d like to do some line editing to specifically show where the point of view has issues.

Scarlet crossed the multi-lane city street without checking for oncoming traffic. Is this a compelling enough sentence to open a book? I think you could do better. They would stop. And if they didn’t, what of it? Ditzy thought…if they don’t stop, she’d get hit. A few horns blared and she clicked her heels She didn’t click her heels; her heels made click-clacking sounds…big difference and it goes to POV across the road, the sun blaring in her eyes through the smog and haze. A man sat across the street, watching the foot traffic from a cafe table. He drank from a small, cream-colored mug. This observation must come from her POV.  She spotted or saw a man sitting in a sidewalk cafe WHERE? You need to tell us where we are. 

Was that him?

Yes. It was. It was him. She couldn’t believe she saw him there, just on the other side of the street, drinking coffee, existing. I don’t understand this. How long had it been? Two years?

“Guy! Hey! Guy!” Set your dialogue off on its own line before you go into movement.

She hustled, odd and unflattering word. She hurried? her voice screeching and her gait reminiscent of a baby calf with awkward, tiny steps. Here is where you really lose your POV. She would not describe her own voice as a screech nor would she compare herself to a calf. Her skirt was tight, the shopping bags she carried were bulky, and her stilettos were sharp. The traffic did stop for her.

The man turned and watched her wobbling approach. This feels like you are now in Guy’s POV. She was grinning. He was not.

He said nothing, creasing his brow and sipping his coffee. Again, you are now in his POV. She hasn’t arrived at his table yet. He ended the call he was on. Slid his phone into his pocket. His olive complexion had deepened in the summer sun, and he had opted not to shave for a few days, giving him a rough, careless appearance. Now we seem to be in omniscient POV. This is you observing, not Scarlet. It’s good to describe him this way but it MUST come from her not you. 

She was radiant, Another POV lapse. She cannot see herself as “radiant” which is in itself an odd description. elbowing people out of the way to get to him On the sidewalk? and straightening her walk.

“Guy! How are you? It’s been forever!” Again, separate dialogue from movement. It’s cleaner. 

She was breathless. She stepped through the cafe gate and sat at the table with him. What happened to all the shopping bags? She raised her hand at a server, waving her over. A young woman approached and looked at the two of them, waiting. Scarlet looked at Guy, and blinked a couple of times.This is one of her gestures that strikes me as ditsy

“The lady will have an extra-hot Americano with a half-pump of hazelnut and a pitcher of cream on the side, please.” He looked up at the waiter she’s a woman apologetically.

“Oookay. One very special nearly hazelnut Americano and some creamer coming up.” She forced a smile, rolled her eyes and walked away.  Giving the waitress this line adds nothing. It wastes space in your precious opening moments. Have her just leave.

Scarlet beamed at Guy, biting her lip. More ditziness. “You remember my coffee. You were always so thoughtful. How are you, though? Really?” Here’s an example where your dialogue isn’t working hard enough. We are in the first page or two of your story. Make every word count! She leaned towards him.

He looked at her for a moment, not returning the smile. “I’m good. I’m surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.” I really like this line.  It is the first punch of suspense as it implies she has some kind of weird past.  It also makes Guy interesting. 

“Really? Why is that?”

He didn’t answer. You really need to amp up the tension in this scene so having him answer nothing after he laid out that great “out in wild” line feels limp. I think you missed a big opportunity to layer in some badly needed background between these two or give him more thoughts about her past or his own. MAKE YOUR DIALOGUE WORK HARDER. He sipped his coffee and stared at her.

“I’ve missed you so much.”  Who is talking? Makes a big difference! I’m guessing it’s her given her fawning tone. 

“I doubt that.”  As I said, Guy’s recalcitrance makes him more appealing as someone I would be interested in following for a couple hundred pages. 

Okay, so to sum up, I think you need to brush up on point of view, especially as it applies to description. You also need to make your dialogue more muscular. What do I mean by that? You need to make every line mean something. Every word and line has to contribute to your dramatic point.

Most important, you need to find a way to inject more interest and tension into this scene. A chance meeting between two characters who had a past together isn’t meaty enough unless you layer in some intriguing undercurrents. Ask yourself: What is the POINT of this scene? What am I trying to accomplish? An effective opening has to introduce your main character, tell us where we are (you need to add that) and most importantly, begin to establish some kind of disturbance.

Thanks writer, for letting us get a peek at your work. Don’t get discouraged. As Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is always junk.” Although trust me, he used a much stronger word. 🙂 Hope you find this helpful.

 

2+

Knives Out!

It is Thursday, September 19, 2019, as I write this. I had been working on my blog for Saturday, September 21 — what you who are reading this will call “today” — when I realized that it just wasn’t working. I started with the intent of presenting some suggestions concerning how to make good writing even better. Soon, however, I found myself discussing Miles Davis, Henry Kissinger, and Kurt Godel. That was all well and good, but I was meandering down multiple roads and decided to save that piece of work for another time. 

Instead, I’m going to talk about a new movie titled Knives Out. An ad for it popped up while I was looking at knives online and I was quickly diverted. It is scheduled for wide-release in the United States on November 27, which by amazing coincidence is Thanksgiving Day this year. Knives Out is pertinent here because it is a mystery, dark comedy film about a fabulously successful crime novelist who invites his very dysfunctional family back home to help him celebrate his eighty-fifth birthday. The novelist is named Harlan (you’re laughing already) Thrombey who physically bears an uncanny resemblance to a popular thriller author who is not the one you are laughing about. Thrombey is murdered during the gathering and a police detective is called in to sort out who in his family did what.

Knives Out will almost immediately you in the mind of an Agatha Christie novel, and from what I have seen in the film’s trailers (which you can find links to here) it winks at its heritage — and thriller and mystery novels in general — several times. The camera lens glides over rows and rows of books (“Did I see one by Harlan Coben?!”). Thrombey, it is clear,  is a fan of A Game of Thrones, as demonstrated by a particular piece of decor in his home. I also don’t think that it is coincidental that one of the primary members of the cast happens to be associated with one of the most enduring characters in action film history, which in turn is based on a gold standard series of spy novels.  

Oh. I mentioned the cast. Daniel Craig has a lead role. You will forget fairly quickly that he plays whats-his-name in the movies. Jamie Lee Curtis is here. Let’s talk for a minute about Jamie Lee Curtis. No one realizes how good an actress she is. Curtis played a lead role in a horror movie franchise that would have sunk the career of a lesser actress. Think about that. She’s still around because she is really, really good at what she does. Don Johnson. Yes, Don freakin’ Johnson, who in his seventies is still the coolest guy in the room, even when he’s not in the room. There are others. Check out the link to the website, above and you’ll see several million dollars worth of talent on the screen. There are supposed to be all sorts of theatrical easter eggs throughout the movie as well. I even learned that the viewers will actually be able to figure out whodunnit if they can identify five clues that are presented during the course of LIGHTS OUT and put them together correctly. 

The primary reason I am psyched on KNIVES OUT, however, isn’t the cast, the scenery or the dialogue (which sounds exquisite from what I heard in the trailer). It’s not how wonderfully it’s staged and filmed, even though I jumped each of the three times that I saw the same two-second clip. The clip? It involves a cheek and…something else. No. What I love about KNIVES OUT is that it is about an author. Yes, he gets murdered, but he has lots of cool stuff in his house, seems to be a bit of a jerk, and is worth killing. He is interesting, in other words. Authors are interesting. They have to be to think up stories that are worth reading. It might not seem that way to everyone, but everyone doesn’t get to hide behind a palm tree the way that I did several years ago in a hotel lobby with a famous author, a really interesting author, who was trying to avoid a clinging, stalking fan. KNIVES OUT doesn’t look like it is quite up to that experience — what possibly could be? — but it is close. Check the website and trailers, and make your plans to see it in a couple of months at a multiplex near you. It will be showing in the theater with the line of grownups waiting to enter. 

Are there any movies that you are looking forward to or any films about authors that you love? Let us know. And thanks for stopping by. You’re the best.

 

5+

First Page Critique: The God Glasses

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Please enjoy the first 400 words of “The God Glasses” from an anonymous submitter. I’ll have my critique after the excerpt. Please contribute constructive criticism in your comments.

***

Ella raced up the stairs as fast as her twelve year old legs could carry her. She had one objective, the same one every time—to escape the terror. She stopped mid-way and listened to her mother scream at her father.

“You never listen to me! You’re buried in your work, your motorcycle, or your sports. We wait for you to come home, but you never do. When you’re here, you’re somewhere else. Why don’t you just go away and never come back? Wouldn’t be much of a change—”

A slap and a heavy fall. Mama moaned—a pitiful sound, Ella thought. Her fists balled up at her sides, her legs shook.

She crept back down to the landing and peered over the railing into the kitchen. Daddy picked Mama up by the hair and backed her tight against the wall, his other hand knotted on her breastbone, pushing cruelly. He towered over her smallness, tattooed muscles bulging under his sleeves, face mere inches from hers. He wrenched her head back, forcing her to look up.

Mama’s wide eyes met hers. She blinked and a tear wetted her bruised cheek.

Ella gripped the rail. It creaked.

Daddy jerked his head up and smiled. He moved his hand from Mama’s breastbone to her throat and leaned in, thrusting his mouth next to Mama’s ear.

“You watch your mouth or I just might leave and never come back!” he screamed. Pulling back, he said, “What would happen to you and the girl if I left? How would you like that—to have to go and beg for help from that old woman up the street? Yeah, I thought not. So straighten up. I’m going out.” He snapped her head back. She fell again with a crash, upsetting the small side table which held his liquor and glasses.

“Clean that up before I get back,” he bellowed.

“Clean it up yourself, you pig—”

Ella ran, long dark hair streaming behind her. She stumbled on the top stair and fell to her face. She picked herself up, raced to her bedroom closet, and yanked the door open. She backed into the corner and sank to the floor, hands tight against her ears.

After Daddy leaves, I’ll go see Grandmother. She’ll tell me again about her God glasses. Maybe she’ll let me wear them.

She rocked back and forth, recalling better times.

***

FEEDBACK

First impressions, I like this author’s voice and the clear concise writing with visual imagery. Good use of the senses. On the surface, there is plenty to get drawn into with Ella. I like that the author stuck with the actions of the domestic violence scene and didn’t stray into backstory or an explanation. I’m rooting for Ella and love that the author has told the story through a twelve-year-old girl’s eyes. Domestic violence through a child’s eyes can be more powerful. Readers will want to protect her, but this first scene feels rushed for the sake of action. Violence like this should be more emotional, especially from a kid’s eyes. Make us feel Ella’s fear and helplessness.

We have clean copy and a solid start, but let’s dig deeper from a bird’s eye view to see how we can strengthen this scene.

ANOTHER OPENING SUGGESTION – The author has a choice to start with action (as in this case) or ground the reader into Ella’s world before the violence happens and build towards it. Anticipation can milk the tension in ways this action opening can’t. Would readers relate to Ella more if they got a taste of her world before the shocking inevitable happens? Should the author build toward a mounting dread that her father will be home or he’s late and both mom and daughter know what that means (without telling readers)?

In this opener, it’s my gut instinct when dealing with a young protagonist to show her world in a short punchy beginning that doesn’t slow the pace. Make every word count and build on what will happen with hints of foreshadowing. As much as I like the action in this opener, I can see how an unexplained growing tension between a mother and daughter can pique a reader’s interest more. Have Ella rushing to finish her homework from the safety of her small bedroom and not quite get it done because her mother yells for her to come downstairs to set the table. That would allow the reader to know what kind of mother she is before everything erupts.

Ella and her mother look at a clock ticking on a wall. When they hear boots climbing stair outside, they tense and wait for the door to open. He steps into the small apartment and he reeks of alcohol. Have Ella read her mother’s cues. Both women know what’s coming. How do they each react? Have patience for the scene to erupt and build on the natural tension.

In this current scene, Ella’s mom aggressively goes after the angered dad and puts Ella in danger. That makes both parents look bad. Is that the intention of the author? I don’t know. Let’s talk about character motivation.

CHARACTER MOTIVATION – This feels like violence that has happened more than once. If Ella’s mother is a battered wife, why would she taunt this man into beating her? She’s overly aggressive with someone who will punch her in the face and put her daughter in danger. It doesn’t feel natural, from a motivation standpoint. If the author would show more of how this anger is triggered and how the reactions would flow, the violence would be more grounded for the reader.

Also, Ella runs scared up the stairs, but turns around and comes back to watch. That feels like a cheat to the reader, to get them into the race up the stairs, only to deflate the tension by having Ella retreat. I can totally see a young kid who might want to protect the mom, stick around to watch. But that’s not how this began.

Make the reader understand why Ella might have a reason to protect the mom. By a slower build toward the violence, we could get a glimpse into Ella’s personality. Is she feisty or a beat dog? Is she ready to fight when her mother isn’t? Ella’s character motivation could be more interesting in this opener.

As a reader, I’m questioning character motives. The author should have patience to let the reader know the hearts of these characters. Contrivances (for the sake of action and tension) don’t allow the reader to buy into the story.

DIALOGUE – There are two long dialogue groupings – the first one when the mom goes after the dad. The second comes when the dad yells back. Because these are grouped together, they feel contrived and forced. Arguments, especially when there is violence, they are more believable if there is an exchange with shorter lines. Let the action ratchet up the tension and have the dialogue be punchy and shorter. More natural.

Have the dialogue get louder. Maybe have a neighbor yell and pound the thin wall, “Shut up or I’ll call the cops.” Then finish with the violence that will stop both parents. I can see him yelling down at her as she struggles to stay conscious.

“See? You drive me crazy. You always ask for it.”

RESEARCH – Abusers often blame their victims. It wouldn’t hurt to research the psychology behind domestic violence. Good research on motivation will add authenticity. Although there are lots of good books on the subject, I often look first at online articles on any given topic. These type of articles can inspire ideas on how to add impact to a scene. Here is a link to “The Psychological Wounds of Domestic Violence.”

COMBINE THE YELLING LINES? The long diatribe has the potential of losing the interest of the reader if it’s lumped together, without much grounding. Below is an example of breaking apart the dialogue groupings and combine them, with tensions escalating toward his first assault on her.

“You never listen to me!”

“Watch your mouth.”

“You’re buried in your work, your motorcycle, or your sports. That’s what matters to you. Not us.”

“Give me something to come home to. Look at you. You’re a mess.”

“Why don’t you just go away and never come back? Wouldn’t be much of a change—”

“Oh, yeah. What would happen to you and the girl if I left? How would you like it if you had to beg for help from the old woman? You don’t know how to make it alone.”

“Being alone is better than being with you.”

“You ungrateful pig.” (He strikes her)

WHAT WOULD ELLA DO? – What options does Ella have as a twelve-year-old child? Even if you didn’t change this scene much, I wondered what was going through Ella’s mind as she sat at the top of the stairs and watched her dad beat her mother. She must be in agony. I wanted the author to show the conflicts that must be raging through her. For Ella to sit on the stairs, without lifting a finger to call police or help her mom, that did not feel normal.

If you have the neighbor call the cops, the sirens could be wailing before he storms out, leaving Ella and her mom to deal with the aftermath. Ella would want to see if her mom is okay, wouldn’t she? Would she try to stop her father? The combination of Ella crying and fending off the old man, along with the cop sirens coming, could be enough to make the wife beater leave. But Ella running to hide in her closet, without checking on her mother, doesn’t seem heroic.

That’s why it matters to build on Ella’s world, even a little. A stronger foundation gets the reader in the girl’s corner from the start. We get a glimpse into her home life and how she feels toward her mother and father.

TITLE – I’m not sure what God’s Glasses have to do with the story. I like the title but I’m not sure why yet. It piqued my interest, but don’t rush to have Ella thinking about the old woman and God’s glasses. That feels like a contrivance for the sake of having a better opening scene cliffhanger. Be patient as the story unfolds. I’m sure there is something magical about God’s Glasses and Ella.

SUMMARY – This is the kind of story that would make it through a writer’s group reading with flying colors. It’s clean copy and there’s a lot to like about it. But as I read this strong opening, I had questions in my mind. Character motivation is a big one. Make it believable and real. Then ask yourself, is there a better way to start this? I don’t know if Ella will be a main character. I presume so, given the title, but it’s doubly important to have the reader think favorably of her from the first page. Or at least, be intrigued enough to turn the page. Have patience to portray your character. I normally love to start with action. Many of us do, here at TKZ. But with this opening, I thought a more deft hand in Ella’s portrayal was needed. What do you think, TKZers?

DISCUSSION:

Let me know what you think of this story, TKZers. I’m pretty sure we would all turn the page of this story, but what would you do to make this intro stronger?

Do you have different ideas on how to make this opening stronger?

Are there relationship elements between Ella and her parents that would enhance this scene?

 

5+

Blue Menace: First Page Critique

Photo credit: Canva.com (author pro access)

Greetings, readers, writers, and population at large. Today we have a first page critique of a futuristic story about a young woman with the colorful name of Diamond Blue. Please read the submission, and my comments, then let our dear writer in on your thoughts.

Working Title: Blue Menace

Diamond Blue scrambled around her small bedroom, grabbing clothes and accessories at random, shoving them in her backpack.

She looked at her wrist. Crap! Ten minutes to get to the ship, and maybe another twenty before the cops figured out what she had done.

In the bathroom, she held the backpack up to her side of the shelf and swiped everything in. She rested the bag on the vanity and pushed at the jumble inside to close the zip. As she finished, she glanced at the mirror – red face, sweaty, and wild-eyed. Oh sure, they’d let her on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.

She splashed water on her flushed face and ran her damp hands over her long sapphire-blue braids.

Deep breaths.

The memory flashed of her best friend, Rina, surrounded by a swarm of armed cops. She shook her head to clear it. If she didn’t get moving, it would all be for nothing.

She turned out of the bathroom, swinging the backpack onto her shoulder, and crossed the living room. She and Rina weren’t messy flatmates, but the remains of yesterday’s hasty planning session was strewn across the coffee table – pizza, wine, chocolate. Diamond grabbed the last few squares of chocolate and popped them into her mouth. Breakfast of champions.

At the front door, she waved her hand over the sensor. It slid across the opening and disappeared into the opposite wall.

Diamond pulled the hood of her sweater over her hair, leaned out and checked the corridor.

Her neighbors in this quadrant of Residential Floor Three liked to start work a little later than most. There was no one around.

Neither was her ride. Of all the times for the damn Sliders to malfunction!

The Sliders, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from the public bays near the core to her location based on the quantum chip in her hand.

The chip! Ahh, she was a class-A idiot!

She slapped at the cuff around her lower left arm to wake it up, and re-ordered the Slider in the name she’d stolen in the early hours of the morning – Rina Cavanaugh.

Somewhere on the Justice floor was a Slider hovering around the booking desk, maybe even outside Rina’s cell if it got that far.

She had less time than she thought.

______________________-

This, dear readers, is an example of a quite accomplished opening to a story. We have immediate action occurring in the midst of some troubling event—that desirable in medias res we so often encourage around here. A well-defined setting: sometime in the technological future. Clear, identifiable characters: Diamond Blue and her flatmate, Rina Cavanaugh, the cops. Interesting nomenclature in the story’s world. And a nearly complete scene that doesn’t lose its focus. Check, check and check.

So let’s look at some details, dear writer.

I like the title, Blue Menace. Evocative, and connected to the main character. While I’m not certain, the title and voice make it sound like it’s a YA story.

Opening line:

“Diamond Blue scrambled around her small bedroom, grabbing clothes and accessories at random, shoving them in her backpack.”

This is a perfectly good opening line for a chapter. I’m less convinced that it is telling enough for a novel. If this is, indeed, a novel, I’d like to see the opening chapter—even just a paragraph– be an event in the obviously chaotic world outside the building (or whatever where Diamond lives is called). It can be in the past, such as the scene where Rina is surrounded, or some apocalyptic event that we will eventually learn about. Make the stakes of the story bigger right off.

“She splashed water on her flushed face and ran her damp hands over her long sapphire-blue braids.”

A couple of commas will make the sentence clearer:

She splashed water on her flushed face, and ran her damp hands over her long, sapphire-blue braids.

You could even lose “-blue.” I don’t think anyone would imagine her hair is made of actual sapphires. Though there are a few sapphire stones of other colors (rubies are technically sapphires), they are typically blue. Then again, it occurs to me that her name is Diamond. Is the sapphire reference intentional?

I admire the way you do the reflection description of Diamond, dear writer. Mirrors can be cliché, but it works.

Quoting a character’s thoughts—

Oh sure, they’d let her on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.”

Using italics to hear a third-person character’s thoughts is fine. But if you’re going to use quotes or italics, you need to treat thoughts like internal dialogue, and use me instead of her, and I instead of she. It should read:

“Oh sure, they’d let me on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.”

When you quote this way, you can make the thoughts sound a little more natural, as in,

Sure. Like they’ll let me on board looking like a crackhead after a five mile run, no problem.”

Later, Damn Sliders. Of course they choose now to screw up!” and Holy crap, I’m an idiot!

A matter of agreement—

“The Sliders, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from the public bays near the core to her location based on the quantum chip in her hand.”

I had to think about this one a moment. I’m assuming individual Sliders are referred to as “a Slider.” If so, the sentence should read:

(Simpler, preferred version. Don’t get caught up in exact locations.) A Slider, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from a public bay closest to the requester’s location based on the quantum chip in their hand.

 Or, The Sliders, simple hover-platforms with t-bars to steer, were supposed to come from the public bays near the core to requesters’ locations based on the quantum chip in their hands.

(I know I use “their” as singular in the first one. According to some, that usage is still under debate. I’ve made the change in my work.)

 “She slapped at the cuff around her lower left arm to wake it up, and re-ordered the Slider in the name she’d stolen in the early hours of the morning – Rina Cavanaugh.

Somewhere on the Justice floor was a Slider hovering around the booking desk, maybe even outside Rina’s cell if it got that far.”

Okay, you’ve got me here, dear writer. I’m lost. Am I supposed to understand that she ordered in her own name originally? If the Slider is supposed to come to her based on the fact that it responds to the chip in her hand, shouldn’t it have located her where she is? What does the cuff have to do with it? I finally understand that Rina is locked up on the Justice floor—good news that she’s not dead—but I don’t get the explanation for the Slider mixup.

Perhaps simply drop the whole mistaken Slider thing, unless it will have an effect on the plot later. If that’s the case, just make it as simple as possible, and put the revelation of Rina’s location somewhere else.

What a great start, dear writer. I would definitely read on.

Have at it, TKZers! What are your thoughts and suggestions?

 

 

4+

Behind the Scenes at a Writers Conference

What the well-dressed crime novelist wears to a writers conference.

If you’ve attended writing conferences, you likely had a great time. You chatted with fellow authors, learned about craft, picked up marketing tips, and made important contacts with editors and agents. Organizers strive to make the schedule seamless, the meals hot and tasty, the speakers interesting.

Everything probably ran smoothly and you walked away happy.

You never saw the drama behind the scenes.

And that’s how it should be.

But making it look easy requires lots of preparation plus the ability to drop back and punt when circumstances go awry.

The 29th Annual Flathead River Writers Conference wrapped this past weekend. By all accounts, attendees went home happy, loaded with new tools, inspiration, and fresh energy.

Jeff Giles, Ben Loehnen, Haven Kimmel

The speakers were excellent as well as great fun, as this photo shows. Mugging for the camera is Jeff Giles, Vanity Fair Hollywood editor, Simon & Schuster editor Ben Loehnen, and Haven Kimmel, author of A Girl Named Zippy.

As a conference committee member and sometimes co-chair, I’ve worked many of those 29 events.

Some years are a blast. Other years, s**t happens.

Manuscript evaluations by editors and agents are always major draws for attendees. Slots fill fast and the back-up wait list is long.

This year, three weeks before the conference, the guest agent suffered a family medical emergency. He remained hopeful he could still attend but the outcome was too uncertain to predict. We told him to take care of his family and that we would find a replacement.

We organizers felt terrible for him. But we also had 100+ attendees to worry about. Many travel from other states and expect to hear an agent. We had to deliver. Out went a wild flurry of phone calls and emails.

But…August is traditional vacation time in the publishing industry. Some were out of the office and unplugged. Others already had commitments and couldn’t come on such short notice.

As our panic grew and time evaporated, a hero stepped up. A couple of years before, Barbara Schiffman had been a big hit at our conference. She’d worked for decades in the Hollywood film industry, doing story analysis and script evaluation for producers. Recently, she semi-retired and moved to nearby Whitefish, Montana. She graciously agreed to substitute, including doing manuscript critiques.

Whew! Saved!

One year, a much-anticipated horror author was sidelined by airline snafus. She departed New Orleans on Friday morning and was supposed to arrive in Montana by 4 p.m. in time for the welcome dinner for speakers.

At noon, she called from Houston where she was stuck. A weather system caused a domino effect, delaying all flights. The poor woman spent nine hours in the Houston airport trying to reschedule. The upshot: the airline could deliver her to Montana at midnight the following day…after half the conference was over. She wound up going home to New Orleans, unfortunately with a new horror story to tell.

Years ago, a renowned true crime author agreed to present. We were over the moon to have such a big name. Registrations poured in. Even non-writers paid to hear her speak.

But…she was a nervous flyer. First, she said she’d drive. Then she decided her health wasn’t good enough to drive. Could she take a train? I looked into arrangements but the cost was four times that of a plane ticket. Our group is nonprofit and the money for a train ticket wasn’t there.

She nearly backed out several times. I spent hours on the phone with her, trying to reassure her. Finally she gathered her courage and got on the plane.

She was a huge hit–the attendees were thrilled. Best of all, she herself had a fabulous time and loved every minute.

At the end of the conference, she clasped my hands and said, “I am SO glad I came! This is the best conference I’ve ever been to. And to think I almost didn’t come.”

Whew!

Most speakers are wonderful, gracious people who want to help other writers. In 29 years, I can count the clinkers on the fingers of one hand. But those few clinkers really leave an impression.

One year, a big-name mystery author was supposed to teach a three-day intensive workshop. He showed up with his girlfriend and they were fighting. He then told us he shouldn’t have come because he was on deadline.

Uh, you didn’t know that when you committed to teach?

The first morning, he grumbled and complained for three hours to his students about his deadline and troubles with his girlfriend. After lunch, he pitched a fit, saying he couldn’t possibly write in his hotel room because his girlfriend was irritating him. “I’m not hard to please,” he claimed, “just find me a quiet place with a table.” So I found several alcoves in the hotel where he could write. He couldn’t stand any of them.

The second morning, more whining, no teaching. Students were irritated and their complaints were totally valid.

The third morning, he put in a halfhearted effort to review a few manuscripts but the class was a disaster. We wound up refunding tuition to his disappointed students.

At the party on the last evening, in front of everyone, he apologized to me for his behavior and presented me with a T-shirt…that advertised his books.

Can you spell E-G-O?

Hiccups aren’t always with speakers. Once in a while, volunteers throw sand in the gears. One member was obsessed with finding an agent. He found out when the agent’s flight was scheduled to arrive, even though someone else had been assigned to do airport pickup. He showed up early, grabbed the agent, took him out to dinner, and badgered him for three hours about representation.

This happened before cell phones so we couldn’t call the agent. We knew he’d arrived on the plane but he’d disappeared. No one could find him.

Finally, the dazed agent arrived at the hotel. He told us he wasn’t thrilled that we’d sent this obsessed writer to pick him up. We apologized profusely and explained the guy had acted on his own, totally without our knowledge. Fortunately, the agent had a sense of humor. He probably told that story at future conferences as a cautionary tale of how not to impress an agent.

Needless to say, the kidnapper didn’t receive an offer of representation.

For every horror story, there are at least a hundred tales of writers who were inspired to finish a book, take the plunge into publication, or step up to the next level in their careers.

This year, attendees came from all over Montana, as well as Texas, California, Indiana, Iowa, Colorado, Missouri, Arizona, and Canada.

I’m introducing Gabe Grende, up and coming Orson Welles

Several young writers were at their very first conference, including a 16-year-old filmmaker. Gabe Grende is a local high school student who started working in video six years ago. He recently attended a film school taught by Michael Polish and Kate Bosworth. Gabe so impressed Michael that Michael took him to Puerto Rico for a location shoot of a Mel Gibson movie.

Gabe agreed to film our conference and we can’t wait to see the finished product.

Meeting a student who’s eager and already accomplished at a young age gives all of us hope and inspiration.

 

Writing conferences are lots of work. Are they worth it?

Oh, yeah!

~~~

TKZers: What’s the best lesson you learned at a conference?

If you’ve volunteered, how did working behind the scenes increase your understanding of the business?

~~~

Debbie Burke’s new thriller Stalking Midas is available here.

5+