SEVEN AT ODDS: First Page Critique

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Greetings, fellow travelers! Today we venture into a fantasy land of Rwothtyll trees and First Blood Ceremonies. Doesn’t that pique your curiosity? (It did mine.)

Buckle up. Off we go to meet our Brave Author with our First Page Critiques!

SEVEN AT ODDS

At first, Vo thought the faint ululating cries were animal mating calls. But it was the wrong time of year. The Goddess had Her own ways, many of them mysteries to him and his fellow villagers, and maybe these cries were just another riddle. He leaned out over the thick limb of the Rwothyll tree and rubbed the sweat out of his eyes with his shirt sleeve, the weather unusually warm for early autumn. Studying the clusters of silver-green Rwothyll leaves that hung from the limb, he shook one branch. The lemony scent of the leaves wafted up to him. He took a firm grip on his long harvest knife and sawed easily through the branch. The cluster tumbled down toward Alek and Jilly waiting twenty feet below. Alek, shaking his shock of jet black hair, made a show of catching the leaves in his harvest basket.

A peal of laughter erupted from Jilly. “Oh, Alek, you are such a clown.”

Alek grinned and waved up at Vo. From his perch, Vo returned the gesture, smiling at the antics of his friend who was just a year older than his own tally of sixteen summers. He cut off another branch and held the leafy bundle out. A sudden shadow fell over the leaves as a cloud passed overhead. He shivered, then brightened as the sun returned. “Hey, Jilly. Your turn!”

The girl grabbed the basket and swung it gracefully beneath the harvested leaves. She threw Alek a teasing smirk. She tossed the basket back to him and looked up. “You going to be up there all day, Vo?”

Vo shook his head and groaned, wishing he had not drunk so much of the miller’s home brew at Jilly’s First Blood celebration the night before. He gripped the climbing rope, ready to slither down, when he cocked his head, listening. The same cries, this time joined by a horn blast and an eerie low thrumming sound. Not animal sounds, then. He sat up straight, peering out through the leaves at the hillside that rose above the village. Terraced fields covered its lower elevations and beyond the golden spears of grain waving lazily in the light breeze, forested heights climbed ever higher, forming ridges and shoulders that buttressed the jagged peaks of the Eastern Wall.

——————————–

I like a good fantasy story, and I’m impressed by the author’s particularly close observation of the story’s idyllic setting and the detailed interactions of the characters. This is a vivid, lush world that offers up a number of compelling curiosities that I’d like to know more about. Plus, a Goddess!

Here at the Zone, we operate at a bit of a disadvantage when we do critiques. We have little information as to intended audience. But that’s part of the fun of it!

I’m going to say that SEVEN AT ODDS is a YA fantasy novel about Vo, Alek, Jilly, and–perhaps–four other characters who are at odds with some villain or god(dess) or invader? They feel a little like young superheroes who haven’t yet discovered they’re superheroes, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

I’ll get to edits in a moment, but I first want to say that–and maybe it’s just me–I wanted more tension, more action, a sense that something tense and important and dangerous is about to happen. As it stands, it simmers a bit too low, but can easily be pumped up. Thoughts:

At first, Vo thought the faint ululating cries were animal mating calls. But it was the wrong time of year. The Goddess had Her own ways, many of them mysteries to him and his fellow villagers, and maybe these cries were just another riddle. He leaned out over the thick limb of the Rwothyll tree and rubbed the sweat out of his eyes with his shirt sleeve, the weather unusually warm for early autumn. Studying the clusters of silver-green Rwothyll leaves that hung from the limb, he shook one branch. The lemony scent of the leaves wafted up to him. He took a firm grip on his long harvest knife and sawed easily through the branch. The cluster tumbled down toward Alek and Jilly waiting twenty feet below. Alek, shaking his shock of jet black hair, made a show of catching the leaves in his harvest basket. 

Stakes! Tension! Flow!

We have weird, spooky sounds. An unpredictable goddess. And our friend Vo doesn’t seem particularly alarmed, but goes on to harvest his lemony leaves…My curiosity was initially piqued, but I kind of lose interest when Vo does.

(Forgive me if my rewriting bits don’t track or you find repetitions–I took each paragraph and messed with it and didn’t go for a full rewrite.)

It’s not a bad idea to start with a mysterious sound. But NEVER start with a character thinking. Or wondering. *yawns” I believe this was mentioned on another recent critique. Give our hero something interesting to do, or at least have him reacting physically or psychologically. I was also bugged because I had to assume he was up a tree and didn’t get it until Alek and Jilly were positioned below.

“Animal mating calls” is a bit too general. And let us know immediately why it’s the wrong time of year.

Simplify actions and reactions. Keep dialogue natural. No need to repeat names. Please..no erupting peals. Keep it simple.

Perhaps:

High above the forest floor, Vo stilled his harvest knife in the middle of sawing a cluster of Rwothyll leaves from their branch, and turned his head to listen. Faint ululations, like animal cries, arose in the distance. He guessed they might be the mating calls of some mountain creature. Except it was autumn—a brutally hot autumn—not mating season. It was hard to know for certain what they were. They might even be some trick or riddle of the Goddess, whose ways were often a mystery to Vo and his fellow villagers. Turning back to the tree’s silver-green leaves, he finished sawing through the branch, sending the cluster tumbling down to where Alek and Jilly waited below.

Alek, shaking his shock of jet black hair out of his eyes, made a show of catching the leaves in his harvest basket. Jilly laughed and gave Alek a playful push. “You’re such a clown.”

Alek grinned and waved up at Vo. From his perch, Vo returned the gesture, smiling at the antics of his friend who was just a year older than his own tally of sixteen summers. He cut off another branch and held the leafy bundle out. A sudden shadow fell over the leaves as a cloud passed overhead. He shivered, then brightened as the sun returned. “Hey, Jilly. Your turn!”

Alek has a basket, so how is he waving? Vo returning the gesture is awkward as well. It’s all a bit too happy, happy.

Vo smiled down at his friends. But his smile faltered as a cloud suddenly dimmed the sunlight. Despite the heat, he shivered. Something’s wrong. Something’s coming, he thought. Or had he just had too much of the miller’s home brew at Jilly’s First Blood celebration the previous night? He tried to shake off the tension by cutting another cluster-filled branch. Focusing on the work. “Hey, Jilly. Your turn!”

Give Jilly and Alek more interaction. They are oblivious to what is going on with Vo.

The girl grabbed the basket and swung it gracefully to catch the falling bundle. She gave a little curtsy, and, smirking, she tossed the full basket back to Alek. “No big deal,” she said. Alek shrugged, obviously pretending to be unimpressed, and called up to Vo. “Come on down. We’ve got enough.” Jilly stuck out her tongue behind his back.

Vo shook his head and groaned, wishing he had not drunk so much of the miller’s home brew at Jilly’s First Blood celebration the night before. He gripped the climbing rope, ready to slither down, when he cocked his head, listening. The same cries, this time joined by a horn blast and an eerie low thrumming sound. Not animal sounds, then. He sat up straight, peering out through the leaves at the hillside that rose above the village. Terraced fields covered its lower elevations and beyond the golden spears of grain waving lazily in the light breeze, forested heights climbed ever higher, forming ridges and shoulders that buttressed the jagged peaks of the Eastern Wall. 

Oh, no, Vo! The head shaking and groaning is a bit much as a response to Jilly or Alek asking if he’s coming down soon. He has other more important stuff on his mind–establish earlier that he’s feeling like crap.

I love the description of the terraced hillside. But save it for a page or two because here it diminishes the occurrence of the new sounds. You’ve ramped up the tension, so keep it tense. You don’t have to deliver everything in the first page. Here’s what I would do with the last paragraph:

Vo sheathed the knife, and had just gripped the rope to shimmy down, when more haunting cries, louder now, floated down the hillside brooding over the village. This time they were accompanied by the blast of a [name a local type of horn here] horn, and what sounded like the thrumming of a thousand heartbeats. No. The cries definitely weren’t animal noises. He glanced down to see if Alek and Jilly had heard, too. They had. Their upturned faces were filled with fear.

Yes, I have had lots of opinions about this piece. But I definitely feel it was worth an edit. Good job, Brave Author. Hope this is useful.

TKZers! Thoughts?

4+

First Page Critique – Zip & Millie: Siberian Adventure

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Please welcome today’s Brave Author who’s submitted a first page entitled:

Zip&Milly: Siberian Adventure

Russian train – courtesy of Wikimedia

“Raccoon” — an inquisitive legal assistant from Ducklingburg, U.S.A., appeared in the car of a speeding Siberian commuter rail quite unexpectedly.

Appeared being the operative word. Raccoon was not exactly sure how he got there.

He did not board the rail; did not catch the rail; did not even wake up there with a start. He just . . .  appeared.

A gentle waft of extraordinarily fresh Spring-smelling air shifted and carefully inserted Raccoon’s body into a tight spot between two groups of bulkily dressed people . . . then, before he could get oriented, that same fresh-smelling waft nudged on and pushed him forward, along the swaying length of swiftly moving train, down the narrow corridor with a row of closed compartment doors on one side.

Instinctively, Raccoon steeled his gait — stance wide, head forward, chin in . . . and, finding no grounding point to balance himself, fell in into the closest compartment.

First thing he saw was Zip — or, more precisely, Spaniel Zip’s rear quarters.

“Score! There you are! Zip! Get here!” whispered Raccoon, leaning down. Losing their best client’s dog would be hard to explain back in Ducklingburg.

The Spaniel lay stiffly in the most unflattering position. Head buried deep under the train bench, black hind paws and short un-wagging tail sticking out on the floor, spread like a dead frog, and Zip’s most embarrassing part — the bright-yellow spot of fur under his tail that made him look like he — was not to careful doing business — was shining in full view.

Not like Zip at all, Raccoon plopped on the floor, sinking feeling in his stomach. Anybody who met Zip knew: Zip would rather die than let his rear side be seen in public.

Raccoon caught a glimpse of red under Zip’s hind paws . . ..

“Zippy?!” Raccoon hunted under the bench, hooked his arm around the dog’s neck and, scooping Zip, pulled gently, cajoling, “Zippy, why are you hiding — come outta — OUCH! Don’t bite!”

Zip whimpered, and scrambled, burrowing deeper under the bench, from where he growled with an unapologetic menace.

“Alive!” breathed out Raccoon, and for the first time, glanced up. Where are we?”

The train definitely looked like nothing that connected through their native Ducklingburg.

***

Let’s get to work.

This story appears to be a humorous fantasy about teleportation directed at young readers. The POV character is described as an inquisitive legal assistant named Raccoon from Ducklingburg, USA. He suddenly appears in a speeding Siberian commuter train without knowing how he got there. Kudos to the brave writer for starting with action and minimal backstory.

Animal names set a playful, lighthearted tone but also raise a question: is Raccoon the nickname of a human character or is he actually a furry, four-legged critter with a black mask across his eyes?

In all genres, pictures from the writer’s vivid imagination must translate to the page. In fantasy, that’s even more important because the world is unfamiliar.

Unfortunately, in this first page, the reader feels as lost and confused as poor Raccoon.

A scene in a fantasy world must be made clear to the reader. How does Raccoon know he’s on a Siberian commuter rail as opposed to, say, a New York subway?

The laws of physics in a fantasy world must also be clear.

How does a gentle waft of air carefully insert a person into a crowd? How does it then push him along a corridor? A waft isn’t powerful enough to move a person. Waft means “a gentle movement of air,” so adding gentle is redundant. Perhaps “force field” would be a better term to describe it.

The compartment doors are closed. How does Raccoon physically move through a closed door? Or do you mean a door is ajar and he falls through the opening? Clarify. Delete the extra word: fell in into.

There are too many modifiersquite unexpectedly; was not exactly sure; gentle waft of extraordinarily fresh Spring-smelling air; carefully inserted. Overuse of adjectives and adverbs dilutes the power of the prose.

You’ve chosen some good verbs, like nudged, hooked, scooping, but they’re used awkwardly. Suggest you simply say nudged, rather than nudged on. Also you don’t need pushed in addition to nudged.

The description of Raccoon attempting to steady himself on the swaying train confused me.

Instinctively, Raccoon steeled his gait — stance wide, head forward, chin in

He’s actually steeling his stance, not his gait, which describes movement (walking, running).

Head forward, chin in sounds inherently off-balance, which is how I felt reading this submission. Try physically acting out the movements in order to more clearly explain what’s happening.

Next, Raccoon spots Zip, a spaniel that belongs to an important client. However Raccoon’s dialogue causes confusion.

“Score! There you are! Zip! Get here!” whispered Raccoon, leaning down.

“Score!” is an odd word to use when Raccoon first sees the dog, unless it’s made clear earlier that Raccoon has been searching for him and finally finds him.

“Get here!” should read “Get over here!”

Why does Raccoon feel the need to whisper? Is there someone else in the compartment he doesn’t want to overhear him? If so, you need to show that character.

Losing their best client’s dog would be hard to explain back in Ducklingburg is a good summation of the story problem but seems misplaced. Suggest you move the sentence earlier in the page.

Was not to careful doing business should read Was not too careful doing his business.

When Raccoon sees blood, he worries Zip is dead. But the dog quickly proves he’s alive by nipping, scrambling away, burrowing under the bench, and growling. At the end of all these actions, Raccoon says, “Alive!” The timing of that exclamation is too long after the reader understands Zip isn’t dead.

Here’s one way the page could be rewritten:

Zip the spaniel was missing. Raccoon, an assistant at the Ducklingburg Law Firm, sat at his desk, wondering how to tell his boss that their best client’s dog had disappeared. He took a deep breath. From nowhere, a smell of spring flowers filled his nostrils.

Without warning, a gust of wind whisked Raccoon from his chair and set him down inside the crowded passenger car of a speeding train. The swaying movement made him stagger. He stumbled into a woman dressed in a bulky, fur-trimmed parka. She glared at him and spoke in a language that sounded like Russian. Outside the train windows, snow drifted across tundra.

Before Raccoon had time to steady himself–let alone wonder how he’d gotten there–the sweet-smelling wind shoved him into a corridor with compartments lining one side. He tried to stop the force by planting his feet but the gust tumbled him like a fallen leaf. He fell through the open door of a compartment, landing with a jolt on the floor, sprawled on his hands and knees.

Under the bench seat, he saw a dog’s hindquarters, stained with red, black rear paws spread out like a dead frog. Raccoon zeroed in on a bright yellow spot that looked as if the dog hadn’t been careful while doing his business—the embarrassing spot under his tail that Zip always tried to keep hidden.

“Zippy!” Raccoon reached under the bench to scoop him out but the spaniel sank sharp teeth into his hand. He jerked back. “Ouch! Don’t bite!” Blood seeped from the punctures. “Thank goodness you’re alive. But what are you doing here?” Dazed and dizzy, Raccoon glanced around the compartment. “What are we doing here?”

Odd punctuation was distracting. Insert spaces between Zip & Milly. The “s” in spring-smelling isn’t capitalized. Semicolons are generally not used in fiction. Try Googling punctuation rules to see when dashes, ellipses, and italics should be used. Here’s one helpful link: https://www.myenglishpages.com/site_php_files/writing-capitalization-rules.php

Be careful with your choreography. Movements have to make sense, be clear, and occur in the correct order that they happen. Action comes before reaction. Cause leads to effect.

I suggest you pretend to be on a swaying train and examine exactly how your body feels as you stagger and fall. Kneel on the floor and reach for an imaginary dog under a bench. When it nips, your arm will instinctively jerk back before you yell, “Ouch!”

By physically acting out the movements, rather than simply visualizing them in your head, you’ll have a better idea how to explain each step to the reader.

Brave Author, your humor comes through. Play up that quality. The story premise is fun. Your description of the dog’s hindquarters “spread like a dead frog” is spot on.

You’ve already taken an important step by submitting this first page. Opening yourself to feedback takes courage.

Critique can hurt as much as Zip’s bite. Read these suggestions. Feel free to jerk back in pain and yell “Ouch!” Wash the wounds and put on Band-Aids.

Then come back later and reread. Suggestions don’t hurt as much the second time around. At TKZ, we want to help you make your story as good as it can be.

Most important, please don’t be discouraged. Keep writing.

 

Your turn, TKZers. Any ideas to help out our Brave Author?

 

 

First page critiques work. Shortly after Debbie Burke submitted to TKZ‘s review, her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and was published.

3+

The Value of Libraries

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert” – Andrew Carnegie

My local library is a hive of activity with a bustling cafe attached, a used book sale area, and a busy downstairs where almost every table is occupied by 10am with people working on laptops, reading newspapers, or logging on to the free wifi on the row of public computers available. Upstairs, there is wonderful children’s section with story time and other parent-children activities, and meeting rooms that hold an array of community events and speakers. I remain thankful that my local community and government values a library such as ours because in many other places, the very existence of community libraries is under threat. In the UK for example, nearly 500 libraries have closed since 2010 and many libraries are now being run by volunteers due to budgetary costs and restrictions. The results of this are heartbreaking, especially since, by many accounts library use is actually on the increase (see The Guardian’s report on library closures here).

After seeing posts on Twitter about the rise in volunteer-run libraries in England, I began to think more carefully about what libraries mean to me and my community. They are more than just a place to borrow books or DVDs or CDs – for some it’s a safe, warm, place to read or study, for others it may be a way to find social connection in their lives, and for some people it might be their only way of accessing the internet (which could be crucial in terms of a job search or education). The more I thought about libraries, the more I realized how lucky I was to have such a fantastic one in my community.

Growing up in Australia, our local library was really my only source of research (yes, this was in the dark ages before the internet) and it was a family outing to go there to borrow books or to get material needed for dreaded homework assignments. Now, although I can access much of my book research online, I still find myself drawn to my local library – and I’m frequently seen laden down with books as I struggle back to my car. Our library recently updated their online ebook lending system (the app is called Libby) which makes it easy to borrow ebooks and download them to my Kindle. So for me the library has immediate, work related value, in that it enables me to undertake research without completely draining my bank account:) For my twin boys, the library is still their ‘go to’ place for books and they have discovered many new series and authors simply by making a decision to try something new (no risk as no money was expended!).  For many others, the library provides intangible benefits too – offering a means of attaining social mobility, self-improvement and providing opportunities to reach beyond the limitations of social or economic class.

Still, I wonder in this day and age whether people still value libraries the way I do – so I was heartened to read the American Library Association’s annual report (which you can view here) that indicates that American libraries are still receiving the funding and attention they deserve (though that’s not to say there aren’t still challenges or threats to that!).

So TKZers, I’d love to know what libraries mean to you. Do you still visit your local community library on a regular basis? What do you think is the value of a library today?

 

3+

How Do You Come Up With The Ideas For Your Novels?

By Mark Alpert

It’s Black Friday as I write this, and my daughter and I are protesting the annual capitalistic orgy by refusing to buy anything. Instead, we’re writing. She’s working on a paper about King Lear. I’m going to write about the sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating process of finding new ideas for novels.

At this moment (4:23 p.m.) my daughter and I are doing our creative work at a salad place called Sweetgreen, mostly because we wanted to get out of the apartment for a while. Sweetgreen is a restaurant/takeout chain that’s spreading across Manhattan like a weed; it features salads with cute names like the Kale Caesar, which sells for the very uncute price of $13. Since this place opened a year ago across the street from our apartment building, I’ve dropped at least a thousand dollars on their artisanal greenery, so I’ve definitely earned the right to come here on Black Friday with my daughter and commandeer one of their tables for creative writing and not spend a dime. Because we’re protesting. We hate mindless consumerism. And yet we’ll continue to buy their overpriced salads on the other 364 days of the year.

Sweetgreen is actually a pretty good spot for writing, much better than any of the fancy coffee shops that have opened nearby (Joe Coffee, Joe & The Juice, Blue Bottle, etc.) It’s much less crowded at this place, and there’s plenty of room on the table for our laptops. The Sweetgreen chain has an organic, healthy-living philosophy that’s probably more strategic than sincere. It’s expressed with odd business practices such as refusing to stock sugar or any other sweeteners alongside the dispensers of Jasmine Green Iced Tea, Lemon Fresca, and Kale Gingerade. (Because sweeteners are bad for you! We’re not going to let you give yourself diabetes!) But more pertinent to my writing topic today is the inspirational message printed on Sweetgreen’s recycled-paper napkins: “Some of the best ideas have come from the back of a napkin. Ready to share yours?”

None of my ideas for novels has come from a napkin. I’ve written 14 books so far (nine of which have been published) and the process is still mysterious to me. I can’t remember how most of my plots and characters were born; their origins are clouded by a sort of primordial mist, and all I can do is make guesses about what I was thinking at the time. This is because the process of writing a novel is so immersive and overwhelming. Writing Chapter Two obliterates the memory of writing Chapter One, and so on. The process of parenting is much the same; the time-consuming task of raising a toddler mostly swamps the memories of feeding and diapering the same kid as an infant. When I look across the table at the brilliant 17-year-old writing about King Lear, it’s very difficult to recall the eight-year-old who lived for SpongeBob or the three-year-old who loved to dress up like a butterfly. I rely on photos and videos to remind me what she was really like back then.

But I have no photos or videos to illuminate why I started writing my books. My forthcoming novel, THE COMING STORM — scheduled to be published by St. Martin’s Press in January — was inspired by politics; I started writing it soon after Trump was elected, and all the outrageous events over the following year spurred me on. I made some obvious choices — one of the book’s characters is an unnamed U.S. president who looks and sounds very familiar, and the novel’s hero comes from an immigrant family — but I don’t remember how I composed the plot or selected the other characters. While waiting for that book to be published, I wrote a Young Adult novel that I’m still revising, and in the meantime I’ve started tossing around ideas for yet another book.

Like most novelists, I have certain obsessions I keep writing about. Mine are death, God, and the apocalypse, not necessarily in that order. For me, the key to success is finding an idea that taps into those obsessions, allowing me to work up the passion I need to write the book. But that’s easier said than done. Right now I’m at a loss. I’m still looking for an idea that grabs me.

When I was writing poetry in grad school, one of my teachers told us that writing a good poem was like getting struck by lightning. The great poets were the people who were willing to stand below a thunderstorm all their lives. I used to spend hours in Columbia University’s library, reading Berryman and Bishop and Roethke and Stevens, keeping my notebook open on the table in front of me just in case the lightning should strike. And these days I still follow that strategy. I read voraciously, devouring novels of every genre. This week I’m reading The Adventures of Augie March and trying for the umpteenth time to understand why Saul Bellow is so celebrated. I’m also plowing through the recently released third season of the television adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle.

And my daughter is an inspiration too. In the two-and-a-half hours since I sat down at this table in Sweetgreen I’ve written about 900 words, but she’s written more than 1,800. I need to catch up!

By the way, an hour ago we broke our anti-capitalist promise and purchased a couple of Jasmine Green Iced Teas (for $3 each!) To circumvent Sweetgreen’s anti-sweetener policy, I ran back upstairs to our apartment, poured some sugar into a plastic baggie, and smuggled it into the place so we could sweeten our drinks. But I poured way too much sugar into the baggie, and now the bulging thing is sitting on the table next to our laptops, making us look like a couple of coke dealers.

Which explains the picture of our workspace, shown at the top of this post!

4+

Series, -Ogy, or Stand-Alone?

By John Gilstrap

I am often asked about the business and creative considerations of writing a thriller series as opposed to writing stand-alone thrillers.  The truthful answer is a shrug and a heartfelt “I don’t know.” But having written both over the course of my career, I guess I have some thoughts to share.

An -ogy is not a series.

A trilogy or a quintilogy is not a series.  It is a single story broken up into parts.  As I understand it, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was originally a single manuscript.  There being no market for a 900,000-word book, however, he broke the one story into multiple parts.  I don’t know if that story is true, but I like it because it proves my point.  In an -ogy, there’s no anticipation from the reader for a completed story at the end of any volume but the last one.

The Harry Potter saga is another example–one with which I’m more familiar because I actually read the books.  Not to be confused with Hobbitty stories, which I have not.  Book One of the septilogy (is that a word?) is dedicated mostly to establishing the wizarding world, along with establishing relationships between the kids.  The whole business of the Sorcerer’s Stone is more of a MacGuffin.  At the end of that volume, while there is a sense of continuing peril, Harry’s immediate world is stable.  Looking back on those books, I believe that Rowling wrote Sorcerer’s Stone in a way that it could have lived on as a stand-alone if the market had not embraced Harry and Hogwarts.

Beginning with Book Two, and continuing all the way through to the end, the Potter story was a continuous one.  Even though Harry resolved the immediate crisis of each book, the last pages always revealed more impending doom.  There was no real resolution.

A series is more episodic.

My Jonathan Grave thriller series is not a continuing story, but is rather a collection of stand-alone stories that involve recurring main characters.  Jonathan Grave’s character arc over the course of eleven books now is very long and slow, while the arcs of the characters he interacts with are completely developed within each book.  There are Easter eggs for readers who have read all the books in order, but I am careful to make each episode as fulfilling for a reader who picks up  Book Ten as their first exposure to the series as it is for a reader who’s been with me from the beginning.

Writers like the always-fabulous Donna Andrews write series that are driven as much by place as by characters.  The people in her fictional town of Caerphilly, Virginia, are a hoot, even though an extraordinary number of people are murdered there.

Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme solves a new crime by the end of every book.  While Rhyme’s medical progress as a quadriplegic is continually evolving from book to book, as is his relationship with Amelia, a new reader is well-grounded in any story, without benefit of having read the previous ones.

A stand-alone, well, stands alone.

When I finished Nathan’s Run, the story was over.  There was no place I could feasibly have taken Nathan or the other characters to tell a new story.  That was the case with each of the following three novels and, of course, with my nonfiction book.  I think the primary characteristic of a stand-alone is that “The End” means the end.  The character and story arcs have all been driven to ground.

A series takes planning.

When I was writing No Mercy, the first book in the Grave series, I knew in my heart that I had finally landed on a character who could support a series.  What I didn’t know was whether or not a publisher would buy it, and if they did, whether they’d support the idea of developing the one story into many.  Still, I made a conscious effort to plant as much fodder as I could for potential use in future stories.  For example:

  1. Jonathan is a former Delta Force operator, leaving the potential for stories dealing with his days in the Unit.
  2. His hostage rescue activities are a covert part of a legitimate private investigation firm that does work for some of the largest corporate names in the world.  This sets up potential stories set in the world of more common private investigators.
  3. Jonathan is the primary benefactor for Resurrection House, a school for the children of incarcerated parents.  When every student has parents with lots of enemies, there’s lots of potential for future stories.
  4. His home, Fisherman’s Cove, Virginia, is the town where he grew up.  This puts him in the midst of people who already know the darkest secrets of his childhood and accept him for who he is.  Or they don’t.  This sets up the potential for small  town conflicts.

There are many more such seeds, but there’s no need to highlight them all.  The point is that unlike a stand-alone, a series needs to be engineered not just for the current book, but for future books as well.

What do y’all think?  Do these resonate with you?  What have I forgotten?

And finally, tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the United States.  For those who celebrate, I wish you a wonderful time with whatever your holiday traditions may be.  For those of you who read this from somewhere other than America, I wish you a great day with lots of high-calorie food and televised sports!

5+

When Should A Story End?

Vincent the Lost dog with dead friend

I suppose sequels are inevitable for a writer of a certain age. — John Updike

By PJ Parrish

We’re binge-watching Breaking Bad in my house lately. I know, I know…I am the last one to the party, but now I am hooked. Great characters (and a lesson in how writers can make even the most reprehensible people sympathetic). Great plotting (and a lesson on how writers should strive to make each plot point arise organically from character).  And each episode ends with a cliff-hanger.

We’re almost to the end. So the husband and I looked at each other last night and said, “how in the heck are they going to tie this up?” And the first thing I thought was:

Please, don’t let it be another Lost.

Do you remember Lost? The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 were 1,000 miles off course when they crashed on a lush mysterious island. Each person had a shocking secret, but so did the island — an underground group of violent survivalists that made The Time Machine’s Morlocks look like teletubbies.  I loved that show, grooving on its nerdy sci-fi cum mythology thing. But somewhere around season three, things started to get…dumb. I was mentally exhausted trying to make sense of it all (what’s with the polar bear? Who cares how Jack got his tattoos?) and finally, I gave up. Plus I was too worried that Vincent the Labrador Retriever would get killed. One by one, all his owners did.

I think what happened with Lost was that it was so hot that ABC got cynical and said, “Find any way to keep it going!” It felt like the writers were just winging it, with no real thoughtful end ever in sight. (This happened with season two of the original Twin Peaks, you remember). Apparently, I should have toughed it out with Lost. Rabid fans tell me the writers found their focus again and that I missed a great payoff. Today, the series is being reassessed as break-through serial television, giving TV bean-counters the guts to take chances on great stuff like Game of Thrones and yes, Breaking Bad.

All this was on my mind the other day because I read an intriguing article in the New York Times by Amanda Hess called “The Curse of the Never-Ending Story.” Click here to read it. Hess bemoans the trend of turning stories into franchises that trudge across Hulu and populate Amazon like zombies, always alive when they should be dead.

Today, the tradition of the novel has been supplanted by that of the comic book: Stories that extend indefinitely, their plot holes patched through superpower, magic and dreams. Or maybe every story is a soap opera now: Nobody is dead forever, not Dan Conner of Roseanne and definitely not the superhero genocide victims of Infinity War. To Hollywood’s bean-counters, sequels are mere brand extensions of intellectual property. The logic of the  internet is colonizing everything.

So far this decade, 17 of the top 20 top grossing movies were sequels. Television is eating itself alive with reboots (Lost in Space, Will & Grace, and egad, Murphy Brown wearing a “Nasty Woman” t-shirt). And apparently, there are second acts in American life: Harry Potter made it to Broadway.

I am not sure what this means for us novelists. For those of us who write series crime fiction, it can be a struggle to keep our plots fresh without straining credibility. How many times can our hero get shot or beat up? How many bodies can turn up in Cabot Cove, the apparent murder capital of the world? How deep do we dig into the brains of our hero without looking like that creepy family in Get Out?

But maybe this is really in my thoughts right now for a different reason. One that I don’t want to deal with.

Back in 2015, our stand alone SHE’S NOT THERE was published by Thomas & Mercer.  I loved writing this story about Amelia Brody, an amnesiac who is convinced her husband tried to kill her so she goes on the run. It is, at its thematic heart, about what happens to your soul when you try to live an inauthentic life. It is about a woman whose past is erased, so she must painfully reconstruct it before she can have a chance at a future. When I typed THE END, I was convinced I had nothing more to say.

The problem I don’t want to deal with? I think I might be wrong.

In SHE’S NOT THERE, there was a skip tracer named Clay Buchanan who was hired by Amelia’s husband to track her down and kill her. Buchanan was one of those characters who emerge from the ether of the imagination unbidden; he was supposed to be a cameo, but he became a second protagonist. Amelia is desperate to remember her past. Buchanan is desperate to forget his. His wife and infant son disappeared ten years ago and he was accused of murdering them. He was cleared but his life was broken, especially because he lost custody of his daughter. Like Amelia, he can’t move forward until he fully confronts his past. Throughout the book, I use a devise where his dead wife speaks to him — or, in his grief, he believe she does. In one scene, he is looking at a photograph of his wife:

Buchanan stared at the photo then he looked up, into the shadows of his bedroom.

“Are you here, Rayna?”

He heard nothing.

“I need to know something,” he said. “I need to know if it’s too late.”

Still, silence.

For the first time, she is gone. But in this “man in the mirror” moment, Buchanan makes the decision that he will find out the truth about what happened to her. Until he knows for certain, he can’t move forward. This happens on page 362, the second to last chapter. When we wrote this scene, we had no intention of revisiting Clay Buchanan. I believed just having him decide to take action was enough. But then readers weighed in — often and loudly.  They wanted to know what was going to happen. They want to hear Buchanan again. They weren’t content with silence.

I have mixed feelings about this because I’ve always believed that all stories have a logical end, that you shouldn’t over-explain. I’ve always believed in the power of ambiguity, even in unhappily ever after. (I blogged HERE about it a couple years back). I believe in leaving some space at the end of a story for readers to fill in the missing pieces themselves, to imagine what a character’s life is like after they close the book. I like the idea that readers can “write” their own epilogues.

But I think I might be wrong this time. I think I might have to write a sequel.

I’m having trouble getting moving on this book. Partly is it because I don’t want this to feel forced or derivative. I don’t want this to be a soap opera. Maybe I have seen too many bad movie sequels that felt cannibalized or read too many series thrillers that felt phoned in. Maybe I am just worried because, so far, Clay Buchanan isn’t talking to me. Or maybe it’s just that I’m not listening hard enough.

My sister Kelly keeps telling me, as she always does when I am blocked, to just have faith, that we will figure it out before we’ve been there before. But with this one, we haven’t. I don’t know how this is going to turn out. As they say in the serials, stay tuned…

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Giving Thanks

(c) Copyright Uncooked Media UK. All rights reserved.

I am going to meander a bit today. Please bear with me. I’ll get to the point somewhere in here and probably veer off again, but I’m sure you’ll understand.

I received a bit of sinus-clearing news early Thursday morning a couple of weeks ago. Let me give it to you in the manner in which my older son gave it to me, via cell phone:

“Samantha (his daughter, my granddaughter) is fine. She got hit by a car on her way to school.”

Samantha and my son live three doors and a crosswalk away from her middle school. She was crossing said street — in the crosswalk, with the light, in a school zone  — when a woman turning left struck her from the side and rear. Samantha went up on the hood of the car, rolled off, and fell to the ground. She, fortunately, landed on her side (as opposed to on a joint or, God forbid, her head). I won’t go into detail with regard to the legalities of what happened afterward as that is still unwinding (I incidentally while questioning Samantha about what happened used some of the techniques which Sue Colletta noted in her wonderful TKZ post of November 5). What is important is that Samantha is okay so far (and yes, we are keeping an eye on her) but she picked herself up, submitted to medical examinations, and went to school the next day, where she basked (probably the wrong word) in the vague celebrity that shines on someone of her age (she’ll be 12 next week) who experiences a near catastrophe and comes out of it (relatively) unscathed.

Am I grateful or thankful that she was apparently uninjured? I’m not sure. “Thankful” and “grateful are appropriate but don’t quite cover it. I don’t think I have the words. I am considering, somewhat seriously, leaving all of my worldly goods behind and joining a monastery where I can devote every waking moment to prayer and good works as a small step toward balancing the scales that tipped so that Samantha could emerge intact. There is at any given moment only a hair’s breadth between a sigh of relief and the scream of anguish that herald’s the worst day of someone’s life. The birthday party we will be having on Thanksgiving might have been spent in a hospital waiting room. Or worse.

So. Flash forward to this past Tuesday. I had been trying to think of something, some minor gesture, to uplift Samantha a bit and tilt her world away from what happened and into the right direction. I happened to be in one of the local Half-Price Books stores and passed by the magazine section. There was a space jammed with a magazine called Weekly Shonen Jump which I quickly recognized as a manga magazine. For those of you over the age of forty — and what follows is a bit of an oversimplification — manga is the general name for a Japanese comic book. It is distinguished from anime, which is what we might characterize as a Japanese animated movie. The styles of both media are the same and very distinctive. I am not a fan — it gives me a headache to read/watch it — but Samantha is a huge follower. Weekly Shonen Jump runs upward to five hundred pages an issue and reprints previously published stories. Its nickname in both its American and Japanese incarnations is “phone book,” because of its thickness. The English language version (which is what I had found) goes for a cover price of five dollars an issue which isn’t a bad price at all. The bookstore was selling the issues for fifty cents each, which is, um, even better. An extremely helpful clerk who saw me looking at the magazines directed me to another stack of a publication titled Neo, a slick-paged magazine which concerns itself with manga, anime, and Japanese video games. I bought the entire kit and kaboodle of both, dropping around ten bucks for seventeen magazines that ultimately took up most of the room in the box I needed to transport them to my car.

Samantha’s school was just letting out by then so I drove over to my son’s place and showed up at the front door with the box in hand. When Samantha got home from school, I handed the box over with the words, “For you.” She opened the box and started going through it, making exclamatory noises which were followed by the awe-struck statement, “This is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen in my life.”

(c) VIZ Media. All rights reserved.

Thankful? Grateful? Yes. My granddaughter is alive, well, and loves to read. Like I said earlier, however, I don’t quite have the words to express how I feel. I’m thankful for other things. I wake up in my own bed every morning and can put my own feet — I still have both of them. Many people don’t — on my own floor and can put on my own clothes without assistance. And I have clothes. I also have windows and doors that I can open and close at will in a house that I own free and clear in a neighborhood that is (for the most part) quiet and peaceful. If my reach occasionally (okay, frequently) exceeds my grasp, I have both arms, both hands, and ten digits with which to fail gloriously and otherwise. I also have an ungrateful and unappreciative cat who somehow still elicits the best out of me several times a day, every day. There’s food in the refrigerator and the water, heat and air conditioning works on demand. I can still work at my job and if I get tired of it I can go do something else. I have four wonderful children, who are each successful in their own way. And. I get to do this — communicate with you — which is what I am doing right now. I am thankful for you. But to have a granddaughter who loves to read and appreciates a small gift that elicits a response like the one she gave o me…as I keep saying, I don’t have the words.

Happy Thanksgiving. Please keep reading, and for those of you who fight the good writing fight, please continue to do so in order that Samantha and every child who loves to read will have great stories to enjoy for the rest of their lives. May they and you be safe for all of the remainder of their days and yours. Thank you.

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Reader Friday: What’s Your Favorite Emotion to Portray?

By SUE COLETTA

On TKZ, we’ve been known to beat the show-don’t-tell drum, because it makes the scene come alive. When a writer nails an emotion so perfectly, it’s easy to visualize the moment.

What’s your favorite emotion to portray?

What’s your crutch body cue that you edit out?

Care to share a favorite line or two from your WIP, published book, or from a story you’ve read that shows a vivid emotion?

Please also share the circumstances surrounding the character, so we can appreciate the emotion in the right setting.

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