Everything Old…

Happy 2020! I ushered in the New Year by freefalling into a web research wormhole while educating myself on the subjects of archeology, astronomy, and physics. There are some startling and occasionally frightening discoveries being made in all three fields — particularly astronomy — but today we are going to discuss a recent announcement concerning the significant archeological discovery in Egypt of an illustrated book.

Some of you under the age of twenty may be saying, “Big deal! My grandfather has a first edition of The Watchmen!” I’m talking about something a bit older than that. The book which was discovered is The Book of Two Ways, a work that was well known to historians and archaeologists in its previous editions prior to this latest discovery. It was written as a guide for a deceased individual as they make their journey through the Underworld, with the “two ways” of the title being the options of making the journey by land or by water. The advice presented in the work included spells that could be cast in order that the deceased might ultimately achieve immortality.

What makes this discovery significant is that this edition of The Book of Two Ways, which is estimated to be approximately 4000 years old,  is considered to be the earliest known illustrated copy of the work to date. The location where the book was discovered is particularly interesting, given that it was inscribed on a coffin (rather than being bound or in scroll form) at an Egyptian burial site housing the remains of a woman named Ankh. 

Let’s think about this discovery in modern terms. We have 1)  a coffin dual-purposed as a Kindle 2) containing the first graphic novel 3) which is a distant ancestor of the AAA Travel Guide. With regard to #3, maybe considering The Book of Two Days to be the very first Lonely Planet guide would be more appropriate. Calling it a collection of life hacks due to the spells it contains, however, might be a bridge too far. Still, it makes one wonder whether time truly is a flat circle.

I seriously doubt that the author(s) of the recently discovered edition of The Book of Two Ways considered for even a moment that a few thousand years down the road the discovery of their work would be considered a major archeological event. It goes to show you never can tell. It might be unlikely but the story that you are working on, as humble as it may seem to you now, might get similar treatment. Keep that in mind. As our mothers used to tell us, you only get one chance — if you get a chance at all — to make a first impression. 

The in-depth discussions of this discovery are for the most part buried behind paywalls, but I have ever so thoughtfully provided you with a link to a fairly interesting article here if you should care to read more about this. I also offer a tip of the fedora to Egyptologist Harco Willems, who directed the expedition which led to this discovery. If I had been at the helm I would have discovered nothing but camel spiders and left immediately. 

So…what is the oldest book that you own? Mine is a copy of The Eclectic First Reader by W.H. McGuffey. What is yours? Thanks for stopping by. 

 

5+

Making Time To Write

 

By Elaine Viets
The cat needs to go to the vet, the repairman is coming at three to fix the light switch, and the dryer is making a shrill squeak. When am I going to find time to write with all these household demands?
This is the writer’s dilemma, and after 35 novels, I’m still coming to terms with it.
Here are some suggestions:
(1) Have a dedicated space to work.
I’m lucky to have an office in our condo, with a view of the Intracoastal Waterway. My husband, bless him, prefers a room with no windows. Don says windows are a distraction. I’d get claustrophobic in his office. The landfill pictured below is my desk.

If you’re serious about writing, you need a place to work. A writer friend with a small apartment uses her daughter’s bedroom while the girl’s away at college – my friend loses her space at Christmas and spring break, but otherwise she has a good writing space. Another has a small desk tucked in a nook in the hallway. A third writes at a kitchen desk. No matter how small it is, stake a claim to some space in your home. And when the going gets tough and you’re overwhelmed by noisy spouses and children, head for the coffee shop or local library.

(2) Know your most creative time.
I get most of my writing done between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. After that, I’ll still write, but my work often feels flat. My brain really sparks during those four peak hours. After that, it’s better for editing.
(3) Seize the time you have.
If your husband takes the kids to McDonald’s, don’t use that time to sort socks. Write!
Romance writer Joan Johnston wrote her way to the New York Times bestseller list by writing her novels between 4 and 6 a.m. – while the kids were asleep. Now, that’s dedication.
What if you have a sick spouse or ailing children – or you don’t feel so well yourself?
That’s where your own determination comes in. I’ve written novels by my husband’s bedside when he was in the hospital, and edited proofs for the next book while waiting to hear from the doctor when he was in surgery.
Am I Super Woman? Heck, no! But I can concentrate for short periods. Writing is a way to escape a painful or scary situation. It can be solace.

(4) Make time
Remember the words of that rabble-rousing journalist, Mary Heaton Vorse: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” You need seat time.
Try to schedule time-sucking activities after your peak writing time. If the cat isn’t deathly ill, make her vet appointment at 4:30 p.m. The repairman – if he deigns to show up – will start the repairs after your peak writing time. And for now, I’m ignoring the squeaky dryer.
Be ruthless when you write. Turn off your cell phone. Ignore the siren call of the internet, tempting you with cat videos, unanswered emails and Kim Kardashian’s latest lingerie photo. Use that time to write.

(5) A writer writes.
Make that your mantra.
I love being a writer. I enjoy talking to other writers at the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime meetings, and hanging out with other writers in the bar at conventions.
But writing is a lonely business. Eventually, I’m going to have to go to my office, all by myself, and write. You will, too. Good luck.

Pre-order A STAR IS DEAD, Elaine Viets’ newest Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, here.https://www.amazon.com/Angela-Richman-Death-Investigator-mystery/dp/0727890166/ref=sr_1_1?crid=GSRN4WJRG8EV&keywords=a+star+is+dead+elaine+viets&qid=1578517051&s=books&sprefix=a+star+is+dead%2Caps%2C176&sr=1-1

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First Page Critique (sort of): The Writer I Was

Photo of me by the late poet Glenn McKee, whom I met at the workshop.

juvenilia (plural noun) : compositions produced in the artist’s or author’s youth.

When: Early August, 1989

Where: The Appalachian Writer’s Workshop, Hindman Settlement School, Hindman, Kentucky

Who: Your Faithful Correspondent

Weather Report: Hot and humid Kentucky summer, not a lick of rain

I’d been writing fiction for about two years. Maybe not even that long. Looking at the definition of juvenilia, it would seem hardly to apply to what I was writing then, as I was twenty-seven years old. Not seventeen, or even twelve. But when we talk about writers of any age, their earliest work is referred to as their juvenilia.

Fully employed, but terminally broke, I wanted to combine a cheap vacation with a writer’s workshop. The Appalachian Writer’s Workshop was pretty much the cheapest out there, with the added bonus that Eastern Kentucky was The Land of My People. Though I didn’t actually know anyone there. That didn’t seem a bad thing to me, as I was shy about my writing.

I signed up for the fiction workshop. That worked out well for me because the instructor was named Pinckney Benedict, and now my name is Laura Benedict, and we’ll be married thirty years in July. But I digress.

The workshop was obviously everything I’d hoped for—and more. Now I wish I still had the story manuscript (we’re talking maybe ten pages) that Pinckney enthusiastically commented on. But here’s the thing about juvenilia for most writers: it’s embarrassing. Sure, when I was eighteen, it wasn’t long after I’d accidentally seasoned my from-scratch spaghetti sauce with celery seed instead of oregano that I could laugh about it. The same wasn’t true for my early writing. There’s a video (vhs no doubt) of me reading my work to the Hindman crowd that someone (thoughtfully?) sent us after Pinckney and I married. Mortifying! Even two decades later I threw out the printed pages of my two practice novels, The Disappearing and Skin Hunger (which I still think is a brilliant title, even though someone used it about ten years ago as a YA title).

We are currently deep into a house renovation due to an early fall plumbing disaster. I discovered a box on the top mud room shelf that was full of surprises from our early years. Among them was a story that another Hindman instructor kindly commented on in exchange for a ride from Hindman to the airport in Lexington.

It’s the only story I have from those very early days, and I warn you: it’s not good. It might even be funny-as-hell not good.

I thought it would be fun if I put it up as a First Page Critique. At first I planned to critique it myself, then let you all have at it. Then I decided that I would probably do a critique that would end up ten pages long, and less than thoughtful. Seriously, I practically have to tie my hands behind my back to keep myself from pointing out the first fifty things I see wrong with it.

All this is to say that it takes a lot of writing to become a writer with eight published novels and a couple of collections’ worth of short stories. I’ve been unpublished, and I’ve been a step below amateur, and I’ve been wildly, unabashedly not so good.

Take a few minutes, if you will, to read the beginning of “The View From the Woods.” What criticism could you offer its newbie writer? I’m curious to know if you see the same things I do. I’m so far from this story that it feels like it was written by someone else, so zero worries about my feelings. Or if critiquing isn’t your sort of thing, tell us how you approach your own juvenilia.

[Update, written just after I typed in the excerpt that follows: There’s a dog that has died before the opening of the story. Also, I can’t believe I am offering this up for you all to see. Oh! The melodrama!]

 

The View From the Woods

 

”Mama? Mama, did you hear what I said?” Jerilee screamed into the mouthpiece of the phone. “He shot the dog, Mama. He’s killed Petey!” The valley of silence between Jerilee and the other end of the line was breached by a thousand “I told you so’s”. She paced the cracked linoleum on the kitchen floor, twisting the phone cord around her knuckles as she walked. “Mama, what do I do?” Her voice was a frustrated whine.

”Well, I’d say the first thing you do is bury the dog. He’ll be drawin’ flies in the heat. I’ll send your brother along.”

”No, Mama! I don’t need Will over here!” Jerilee stopped pacing. “I want to take care of it myself. I do.”

”Suit yourself, Jerilee. You’re the one who sounds like she’s dyin’. Now just take a deep breath and calm down,” the older woman ordered.

Jerilee closed her eyes, shutting out the harsh sunlight that poured from the kitchen window.

”Now,” her mother said, “is he gone out of the house?”

”God, yes,” Jerilee answered. “He took his guitar an’ all them stupid dead animals of his.” She looked out at the tiny, towel-covered lump that sat in the middle of the yard. “An’ his guns,” she spat. “He took his guns.”

”You shoulda known better than to get that little dog, Jerilee. Billy Clyde hated that poor thing, always ready to step on it whenever it made a noise. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”

”Mama, it was a helpless little animal, for Christ sake.” Jerilee was pacing again. The floor creaked under her feet. “The man’s crazy, Mama. What I can’t believe is he didn’t shoot me. He’ll be back. I know he’ll be back.” Jerilee’s anger had erupted into fierce rushes of blood that pounded in her head; the air around her seemed close and tight. The ends of her fingers, wrapped securely with the phone cord, throbbed with pain.

Her mother’s voice continued from the fingerprint-blackened receiver. “Why, good riddance to bad rubbish, I say. You shoulda got rid of him soon as he started steppin’ out with that little redhead from down the drugstore last year. I never can understand why you keep takin’ him back. One day you call me to say he’s gone, and the next day he’s answerin’ the telephone. You just leave the rest of his junk packed up on the front porch.”

 

4+

Eight Ways To Help You
Be A Smarter Writer in 2020

By PJ Parrish

I don’t do resolutions. Well, that’s not completely true. I did make one this year — to read everyday, even if for only a half hour, and only from real tree books.

But maybe you guys, as members of the tortured writers club, do try to start with a clean slate come the new year. You know, the usual stuff like make a daily word quota; write every day no matter what; stop wasting time on Facebook; get a short story published in Ellery Queen.

It’s human to want to try harder. But sometimes, setting new year writing goals can be defeating.  Because the first time you break the resolution, you break out the self-flagellation whip. Believe me, I know.  Which is why I don’t make resolutions about my writing life.

But…

The other day, I read a story called 8 Ways To Help You Live Smarter in 2020. It was in the New York Times business section and was a compilation of tips for business types. What was odd was how each of the eight ideas seemed to be relate-able to our lives as fiction writers.  The italics are from the Times story, followed by my thoughts. Here we go…

1. Find more happiness at work

As many as a third of United States workers say they don’t feel engaged at work. The reasons vary widely, and everyone’s relationship with work is unique. But there are small ways to improve any job, and those incremental improvements can add up to major increases in job satisfaction.

Well, all writers need to heed this one. I read this as don’t let writing become a chore. Approach it with the anticipation of success. That’s not Pollyanna speaking. That’s me telling myself to give in to the simple joy of putting words on paper. Maybe I should make writer resolutions…

2. Use your strengths more wisely

In the past two decades, a movement to play to our strengths has gained momentum in the world of work. It’s a travesty that many people are fixated solely on repairing their weaknesses and don’t have the chance to do what they do best every day. But it’s a problem that many people aren’t thoughtful about when to do what they do best.

How should we relate to this? Every writer has different strengths. Some of us are great plotters; others are great at character development. Some of us revel in historical research; others love the spareness of noir. What do you love to read? Chances are, it might be what your heart wants to write. Don’t write for what you think the market wants. Write what you need to write. Trust that genuinely felt and richly imagined fiction finds an audience.

3. Track — and learn from — your failures

When things go right, we’re generally pretty good at identifying why they went right — that is, if we even take time to analyze the success at all. But falling on our face gives us the rare opportunity to find and address the things that went wrong (or, even more broadly, the traits or habits that led us to fail), and it’s an opportunity we should welcome.

This doesn’t mean to dwell on your failures. It means find the lesson in the rejection letter, the hard critique, even the realization that the story you are working so hard on maybe isn’t good enough. I was dropped by two publishers, got more rejection letters than I can count, and was savaged by a  Kirkus reviewer for my debut novel. Boo hoo. Did I curl up and die? Yeah, for a couple weeks. But each time, I looked for something to help me grow. And the mean Kirkus guy? Well, he was an ass but he was right.

4. Avoid drama

Gossip at work is common, as is the desire to be a part of a group. In a new work environment, this combination can be harmful if you fall in with colleagues who are known for being negative and wasting productive time.

The world of crime writers is small. Don’t sit at the bar at Thrillerfest and bitch about what an washed-up idiot so-and-so is.  Don’t moan and groan about how the traditional publishing world is an evil cabal bent on blackballing you. Don’t wine and whine. And don’t burn any bridges. That editor who rejected you may end up at a new house and become your champion. And if you become a success, extend your hand down the ladder.

5.  Be smarter about asking for advice

It’s a request that experienced people of any industry have gotten: “Can I buy you coffee and pick your brain?” While well-intentioned, execution is everything, and sometimes these unsolicited requests for a casual, informational interviews can come off as entitled and presumptuous. And for the receiver, it can be difficult or even unrealistic for a busy professional to coordinate bespoke consultation appointments for everyone who asks.

Well, what’s our take-away here? Yes, seek out advice from those who can help you. If you go to a writer’s conference, don’t be afraid to talk to published writers and editors. It’s expected. But don’t be noodge. Don’t try to slip your manuscript under the bathroom stall door to an editor. (I actually saw this happen at SleuthFest one year).

 6. Let a friend’s success motivate you

It’s a common situation: a friend’s career is advancing while you’re stuck in what feels like an endless loop of 9 to 5 roadblocks. While it’s easy to grow jealous, you can harness that monster to propel you toward your elusive goal.

We’ve all said it — or thought it: How did that hack get published let alone make the Times list? Okay, go green for a minute but don’t let yourself marinate in envy.  It just makes you feel small and petty. And never do it in public. You’ll look like a fool. (See No. 4)

7. Have kind words for a bad idea

There are ways to turn down someone’s suggestion without being totally brutal. Ask a few questions like “What makes you think this is a good idea?” Applaud the effort. Say why — there’s a big difference between “I don’t like this” and “I don’t like this because…” Pitch an alternative. Have an idea of your own and be prepared to explain why it’s better.

This is for those of us who are in critique groups. It’s easy to tear something apart. But have some tact. Always be constructive. This is something I had to learn to do in my own group and even here with our First Page Critiques.

8. Keep cool while waiting for a response.

After obsessively rewriting an email in draft mode, polishing your resume, or tweaking a pitch, you finally hit send.  But then you’re frantically checking for a reply. Slamming the refresh button all day won’t bring desired results. Pick a replacement behavior to wean you from anxiety. Interrupt your worry spiral — go to the movies or grab a drink with a friend. Hang with select friends. Two people venting ad nauseam about shared stress is called “co-rumination.” Make an effort to lean on friends who won’t drag you into a joint state of panic.

We all need to adapt this to the writing life. Don’t send out one query and sit there refreshing your in-box. Getting a editor response takes weeks; some never respond at all. Don’t wait for an answer from the first one you ask to the prom. Send out as many queries as you can. And that advice about stewing in anxiety soup with like-minded writer friends?  Don’t do it. Stay away from black holes when you’re feeling vulnerable. Find some sunshine.

And a bonus extra 8: Beat those Sunday Scaries

As Maroon 5 famously crooned, “Sunday morning, rain is falling, steal some covers, share some skin.” You look out and realize Monday is just around the corner. The ensuing anxiety is called “Sunday scaries.” Plan an enjoyable (offline) activity like taking a walk or reading a good book. Leave the phone at home. Staying mindful about what’s happening around you will distract you from anxious thoughts about tomorrow. This will help you regain control of your worries and look forward to conquering the week rather than fearing it.

I haven’t had a 9 to 5 job for a while now, but I remember this feeling vividly. Sunday night sweats as I anticipated the horrors of what awaited me at the office in the morning. Part of the sweat came from the fact that, toward the end I was in management and I hated my job.  But I think there is a good lesson for writers in this: TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.  Writing a book can be frustrating, lonely, terrifying, maddening. You have to schedule time away from the computer to refresh your spirit. Walking works for me. And when I’m really aggravated about the work in non-progress, I head to the pickleball court and bang the hell out of the whiffle ball for hours. Stop and look at the clouds. Take up the ukulele.  Empty your mind. So there’s room for the plot to run and the characters to start talking to you again.

Live — and write — smarter in 2020, crime dogs.

 

9+

Happy New Year!!

Happy New Year from all of us at the Kill Zone and welcome to 2020! Here’s to a new year that is both productive and fulfilling for everyone’s writing career!

As usual I have many, many, resolutions – some writing, some fitness/life-balance related but one new resolution of mine – to be kinder on social media – came out of an experience with a wonderful online community that I joined late in 2019. This Facebook group is devoted entirely to collies – and, of course, as an avid collie owner I had to join – even though I had no real idea what to expect. As with everything online, my previous experience with Facebook and other social media groups had always come with some cautionary caveats. We’ve all experienced online ‘discussions’ which (inevitably) lead to arguments, bad behavior, and (more recently it seems) the hurling of insults. For a while there it seemed no topic or group was immune to this, until I discovered the joys of the American Collie Facebook group which exists for the sole purpose of celebrating and cherishing a beloved dog breed and (perhaps more importantly it seems to me) being kind to one another. No one says anything disparaging, no one sets up any discussion just to draw people into an argument – all you get a wonderful, upbeat posts about collies. No one makes snide comments or insults another owner and for every photograph or video posted you see tens (sometimes hundreds) of likes and loves. It’s the way social media should be…or could have been in an alternate universe…and I love it! For me, no matter how many Facebook posts I see where friends rip into each other for their beliefs or twitter rants I read, I know there’s this wonderful safe haven I can visit online. I view it almost like meditation – only with Lassie:)

So this year, no matter how crazy the world gets, or how horrible people can be online, I’m going to follow the example this group has shown me…I’m going to kind. I’m going to ignore the posts that infuriate me and focus on the likes and the loves rather than the hate.    I’m going to know that even in the worst of times, I’m able to belong to a group of people who have their priorities straight – where it’s all about life, love, and a good dog by your side:)

I’m going to be like my own collie, Hamish… (here he is in his holiday post for the Facebook group:))

So TKZers what are your hopes for the new year?

 

 

12+

Lesson of the Decade

By Mark Alpert

I remember watching the last “Laugh-In” show of 1969. I was only eight years old at the time, and many of the jokes on that TV show sailed way over my head, but I got the gist of it: the world is a crazy psychedelic place, it’s fun to say “Sock it to me,” you can fend off a creepy old man by smacking him with a purse, and many things can be described as “very interesting, but stupid.”

The last “Laugh-In” of 1969 featured a sketch in which the show’s cast (Dan Rowan, Dick Martin, Goldie Hawn, Judy Carne, Arte Johnson, etc.) bade a humorous farewell to the Swinging Sixties. I don’t recall anything specific about the sketch — did they tell jokes? Sing a satirical song? — but I do remember getting the sense that the comedians were marking an important milestone, the end of a momentous decade, and I felt weirdly connected to this event because it had also been the first decade of my life. I was already nostalgic for something I’d barely experienced.

Now it’s fifty years later and “Laugh-In” is long gone, but we’re still making jokes as we say goodbye to another ten-year stretch of history. The 2010s weren’t as swinging as the Sixties, but the decade was full of clowns, pratfalls and gruesome punch lines. And is there a lesson we can draw from the tumult, a pithy moral like “Be careful what you wish for”? It’s too early to say.

So let’s focus instead on lessons for fiction writers, or more precisely, on what I think is the most important lesson that budding novelists should embrace, based on my experience of writing for this blog since 2012 and reading the comments from readers. Aspiring authors come here for advice on how to revise their novels, but once you’ve completed all the revisions and done everything you can to perfect the manuscript, it’s equally important to put the book aside and write another.

In this crazy business, as in so many others, you learn by doing. Unless you’re a literary genius, your first novel is likely to be an apprentice effort, perhaps very promising but inherently and irremediably flawed. That was true of the first novel I wrote, back in the late 1980s. It was also true of the second, third, and fourth novels I wrote in the 1990s. I labored over those books for years, rewriting scenes and reworking plots, and I think those exertions improved the novels, at least marginally. But despite my best efforts, the books weren’t good enough to be published. I was still learning.

I amassed a huge pile of rejection letters from editors and literary agents. Those letters disappointed me, of course, especially the ones that leavened the rejection with some apparently sincere praise. You know, sentences like this: “Alpert writes like a dream, but unfortunately this novel isn’t a good fit for us.” This kind of response, although well-meaning, can actually be harder on an author than a thumping rejection. The disappointment is keener when you miss by inches instead of miles.

In hindsight, though, I realize that those editors and agents were actually doing me a favor. In effect, they were saying, “This book is good, but you’re not quite there yet. Write another novel. Sooner or later, you’ll make it.” And that’s what finally happened to me in 2008, when Simon & Schuster released my first published novel (see image above). It took twenty years, but it was worth it.

The past decade has been a blessing for me. I started the 2010s with one published novel, and now I have ten (including my latest, SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK). My kids survived high school and now they’re in college. I’m still healthy, still writing. And I wish the same to all of you as we enter the 2020s and confront whatever fresh madness the new decade has in store for us.

6+

READER FRIDAY: What Writing Craft Element is Most Important?

Of all the elements to the writing craft, which one is most important to you as a writer and/or a reader? Bonus points if you can give examples of novels that exemplify your answer.

Below is my attempt to list Craft Elements. Did I leave anything out?

Character

Setting

Plot

POV

Theme

Style/Voice

Dialogue

Action

Exposition

Conflict

Motivation

Climax

Resolution

3+

Key Ways to Lure Readers with an Opening – First Page Critique: Follow the Raptor

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Wikimedia Commons

My last TKZ first page critique for 2019. I want to thank all the brave authors who have submitted their novel introductions to share with our TKZ community. Although it’s never easy to hear criticism, no matter who you are, we grow as authors by taking risks. Kudos to all the courageous writers we have at TKZ–those who submit their work and those who offer constructive criticism. Thank you all.

***

From the airport, I drove north in a rental car toward Ketchum, and turned onto a small paved road that ended at an estate owned by a man who had offered to pay me handsomely for an assignment he wouldn’t describe over the phone. I announced myself to the intercom and the gates swung onto a flat curve of driveway. A big-guy checker piece in black answered the doorbell. He mumbled into an earpiece and jotted in a small notebook, a juxtaposition of the new and old. I noticed this because Tireia would notice, and lovers learn such habits from one another.

The big guy identified himself as Jonathan. He led me down a wide hall peopled by brass effigies and through double doors into the presence of a massive sandstone fireplace that loomed over curved and plush seating. The room was filled with paintings and statuary, rainforest plants, and stacks of oversized books on tables that looked as if they were laser-hewn from petrified wood. The drapes were open on floor-to-ceiling windows, displaying a lawn that flowed to sage-strewn foothills on this high-desert side of the road to Sun Valley.

Jonathan left and I wandered over to a Gainsborough-like portrait of a woman in a pleated gown that covered her feet. It was better than the other one on the same wall, of a high-breasted brunette in a print blouse, who sat in a thin chair and stared out of the 1940s at the viewer. She was familiar, and not being able to place her irritated me. The signature in the corner read, “Katherine March.”

Soft footsteps signaled the appearance of my trim and compact host. He sported a velvet smoking jacket and suede slippers, which made me grin.

“I’m Cassim Geyer,” he said.

“Reese Sapere.”

We shook hands.

“I assume you’ll be flying your plane home, Mr. Sapere, so I won’t offer liquor. Will tea do?”

“Tea? Yeah, OK.”

He went to the fireplace and pulled a bell cord, which delighted me only slightly less than the lovely young woman who soon appeared, in a short black skirt over a white blouse. Cassim requested the tea and sat down across from me. He flicked a bit of nothing from his slacks, looked up, and caught me regarding him.

“Tradition has its upside,” he said, “if you take it with a dollop of nonconformity.”

***

FEEDBACK

SETTING FOCUS IN INTRODUCTION – This introduction sticks with the action of what is happening. No real backstory. That’s a plus, but when the tedious description of the setting overtakes the narrative, the pace slows down to a crawl. The author hasn’t given me enough reason to care about the setting. I really don’t know where Ketchum is – in Oklahoma or Idaho? If the character had more of a colorful opinion, I might see the reason for the description-to showcase and give insight into the character.

A reader isn’t as much after the details of a setting, but more about atmosphere and mood.

Here is an example of a more effective intro that paints a picture of setting, but it also reflects on the character and a darker mystery.

EXCERPT

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred introduces her room with details that not only grab us but hint at something dark:

A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.

If the action in this submission were better matched with the setting details, the main character might be more integral to the setting with hints of emotion or something more at stake. As it reads now, the setting descriptions are just an inventory of room furnishings. Below is a good example of how the author uses plain setting descriptions to stir feelings of foreboding in the reader and give insight into the female lead.

EXCERPT

Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion turns a simple setting into something ominous when the character realizes someone has violated her home and been inside. Can’t we all relate to being shaken at the possibility of a home invasion? This short description, that incorporates the details of a setting, gives insight into the woman living alone and the emotion she must be feeling.

Reaching for the bedside lamp, she stopped and withdrew her hand. The photograph of her father had been turned out to face the room. She touched it every night before she went to sleep. It was always facing towards her, towards the bed, not away from it. … In the darkness, what had felt safe before now felt frightening: the way the dressing-table mirror reflected the street-light through the curtains and the sight of the wardrobe door left slightly ajar.

 

MYSTERY – There are elements of mystery to this intro. Below are four I noticed, but not all of them are presented well.

Good Mystery Elements

1.) The character is paid handsomely for an undisclosed assignment. Why? This is a good mystery to drop at the start. Make the reader wonder what this guy does for a living. Good guy or bad.

2.) Who is Katherine March and why is she familiar to him? This is a good mystery. It’s intriguing and it has the potential for foreshadowing something to come. I like it.

Not so Good…

3.) What gender is the central character (male of female)? I have to wait until nearly the end of the dialogue where he’s called Mr. Sapere. Even the first name of Reese can be female. It’s not good to keep a reader guessing about gender, but this can be an easy fix if the author would introduce gender earlier.

4.) Who is Tireia? From the line – “I noticed this because Tireia would notice, and lovers learn such habits from one another.” There’s no attempt at an explanation, but why bring it up? This reads like a series with characters the reader should know. This kind of mystery will have the reader scratching their head and wondering why. I would find another way to bring this up later, but it’s not necessary in this intro. It’s only confusing.

LOCATION – I mentioned this earlier, but the reference to Ketchum could be in Idaho or Oklahoma or anywhere. A simple tag line would clear this up. Or the author could make a choice to make the setting clear from the start and make it memorable in short order, as in the excerpt below.

EXCERPT

Gabriel García Márquez, opening One Hundred Years of Solitude, introduces his village like this:

Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.

FIRST SENTENCE LENGTH – The first sentence is too long with too many unrelated details, that they get lost in the length. My instincts would be to make the character more colorful with a more memorable voice. Give him an opinion of his surroundings that reflect on him, as a protagonist. Make him more wary of who this new client is and why is the man so secretive about the assignment. The first sentence (below) is tedious, forgettable, and the last part of the mystery assignment almost gets lost at the tail end.

From the airport, I drove north in a rental car toward Ketchum, and turned onto a small paved road that ended at an estate owned by a man who had offered to pay me handsomely for an assignment he wouldn’t describe over the phone.

Also, in this submission, we learn at the very end of the 400 words (in the dialogue) that the protagonist is a pilot and must have rented a car from the airport. It’s seems odd that we have to wait until the end dialogue to discover that Sapere is a pilot. It’s a bit confusing that the new client knows more about Sapere than the reader does, after being in Sapere’s head.

MAKE DIALOGUE COUNT – For the first lines of dialogue, they are very anti-climactic and chit-chatty.

WHERE IS THE ANTICIPATION? – I would’ve liked to see the author have a build up of anticipation where the protagonist is curious about the man who wants to pay him handsomely yet couldn’t talk about the assignment over the phone. This is how you build on the mystery, when the protagonist is drawn in himself and searches for clues.

It’s obvious the man he came to see is someone he doesn’t know. I would think he would screen his jobs better. Wouldn’t he be more wary? Wouldn’t his mind be searching the grounds for hints of the assignment or who this man is?

SUMMARY – This author shows talent. There’s a good crime fiction start here, but this reads like a first draft. With some feedback and filling out of details to create more mystery and a sense of anticipation, this introduction could be more effective.

FOR DISCUSSION:

Please share your constructive criticism with this writer and with your TKZ family. We all have an opportunity to learn.

 

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Zipper Rescues and the Importance of Communication

By John Gilstrap

Fair warning:  This week’s post has very little to do with the craft of writing.  In fact, it’s sort of a one-off non sequitur.  I wrote it because I told these stories to some friends the other night, and they said, “You really should write those.”  Well, this was the only venue that came to mind, and really, it does have a strong message about the importance of effective communication.  So, here we go . . .

When I was 13 years old, I had to inform my mother that I had contracted gonorrhea.  But more on that later.

One lesson I learned through the fire and rescue service is the importance of detailed, explicit communication when dealing the the victims of mishaps.  As a medical provider with an important job to do, I occasionally lost track of how easily patients could be distracted more by perception than reality.

By way of background, EMT school trained us not just in overall emergency medical care, but also for some very specific rescue techniques.  For example, there is such a thing as a “zipper rescue”, which is prompted by a “zipper injury.”  This is a condition that in my experience applies exclusively to males who are in a hurry.  Consumption of alcohol is frequently a factor.  You’ve got the picture, right?  Whether you want to or not?  (I see you squirming over there!)

As you can imagine, patients who are suffering from this particular malady are often distraught, and always pretty bloody.  Our protocol for zipper rescues was pretty simple: You use a pair of scissor to cut the zipper out of the trousers to take the tension off of things, and then transport the patient to the ER, where doctors would take care of the more detailed work.  Honestly, you’d be shocked to know how many times I had to employ this technique in the field.  It helped to have a college in close proximity to the firehouse.

This brings me to my communication failure.  In this case, the patient was younger than usual–say, 12 or 13–and as far as I could tell, he was stone cold sober.  He’d just been rushing things a bit too much.  I assured him (and his mom) that this was something I was trained to take care of, and that soon he’d be feeling better.

Then he saw the scissors.

He, uh, jumped to the wrong conclusion.  So did Mom, actually, which I found a little startling.  Yeah, I kind of dropped the ball on that one, and no amount of backpedaling and explanation could stem the panic.  I put the scissors back in the aid box and we transported him as-is, trousers and all.  When the medical director asked me why I had violated the protocol, I explained.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a doctor laugh that hard.

Which brings me to my adolescent venereal disease.  And again, it comes down to garbled communication.

If you’ve ever been a young teen boy–or if you’ve had them in your life–you know that certain . . . obsessions kick in as the hormones hit.  Showers become longer and alone time becomes more important.  Are you with me?  Now remember, we’re talking about the early 1970s in a house where certain things were never discussed.  Never.  Those corners of life were giant voyages of discovery.

So, there I was in Mr. Binion’s English class when all the girls were herded out of the room and the school nurse came in with her film strip projector and a lecture on the perils of venereal disease–or, simply, VD.  Why this presentation was made in English class rather than, say, PE or Shop class, is a secret known only to the administration.

I’m confident that we probably learned important stuff that day, but the one detail that nailed me to my chair was this: One of the primary symptoms of gonorrhea is . . . wait for it . . . a milky white discharge from you-know-where.

Well, shit.  For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how or where I got infected, but I was INFECTED!  At the rate I was going, blindness and dementia couldn’t be more than a week or two away.  Days, maybe.  I needed a doctor, and I needed one, like, yesterday!

When I walked home from the bus that afternoon, Mom knew that something was wrong.  I tried denying it for a while, but ultimately, the tears came, and with them, the devastating news of my disease.

And I saw the look.  My mom’s eyes would flash when she was amused–almost literally–and that’s what I saw.  She tried to keep her poker face, presumably to save me from humiliation, but I knew then that I had somehow miscalculated.  Things weren’t as bad as they seemed.  That night, my dad and I had the most awkward conversation of my life.

Happy Holidays, everyone!  I’ll see you in the New Year.

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