Romantic Suspense – An Overview

Romantic SuspenseIn a comment on a previous post, one TKZ reader asked about romantic suspense. Since I write in that genre as well as mystery, I’ll try to respond.

At first glance, the answer seems obvious. Romantic Suspense books have both romance and suspense. However, that’s a very broad definition, and in order to write in the genre, one needs to dig a little deeper.

Is it a romance novel with a suspense sub plot?
Or is it a suspense novel with a romance sub plot?

How are they divided? 50-50? 60-40 romance because it’s Romantic Suspense? Or 60-40 suspense because it’s Romantic Suspense? Or something else?

In truth, it’s none of the above, so let’s back up and look at the definitions.

According to the Romance Writers of America (presented long before the recent implosion and I think their definitions/guidelines still hold), a Romance is defined as a novel containing a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction.

One of those subgenres is romantic suspense. What does RWA say about that?

Romantic Suspense: Romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.

You’ll notice the definition does not single out suspense. Instead, it adds mystery and thriller. And my own personal bugaboo is that RWA chose to call the entire subgenre “Romantic Suspense” when the mystery genre is also in there. A mystery is not a suspense, and vice versa.

Let’s look at those genres that fall under the mystery umbrella. Author and former agent Nathan Bradford sums them up thusly:

Mysteries have mysteries, i.e., something you don’t know until the end.
Suspense has danger, but not necessarily action.
Thrillers have action.

A bit simplistic, but it’s a start. An easy way to think of it is in a mystery, the reader follows the protagonist and doesn’t learn anything until he or she does. Think Sherlock Holmes.

In a suspense, the reader is one step ahead of the protagonist and knows facts before he or she does. Think Alfred Hitchcock.

Can your book have both? Yes. In my Finding Sarah, the story begins with a mystery, and both characters are working together. But when Sarah disappears, readers will see what’s happening from her POV, and they’ll know more than Randy. Likewise, as Randy discovers clues, the reader will know them but Sarah won’t. Moving your characters apart can increase the suspense aspect of the book.

What about thrillers? The older definition of a thriller was “a suspense novel with consequences of global proportions”, but the lines between suspense and thriller have blurred. A thriller has more action, should have higher stakes, but often the stakes and/or consequences are only for the characters and don’t reach far beyond the setting of the book.

(Side Note) At a conference, I asked Lee Child whether he thought thrillers had been “watered down” as a way for publishers to attract a wider audience, because I’ve seen reviews for some of my Blackthorne, Inc. books that refer to them as thrillers, which was not my intention when writing them. He gave me a serious look (from way up high, because he’s tall and I’m not.) He said, “Do you want to know the difference between thriller and suspense?”

Duh. Of course I did. This was Lee Child, after all. He said, “It’s an extra zero on your advance.”

So, for the purposes of this post, I’m lumping thrillers and suspense in the same box. Now, back to my initial question, taking the RWA definition of romantic suspense into consideration.

Romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.

Note the word integral. The two elements are entwined so you cannot remove any of the mystery/suspense elements without the book collapsing. Likewise for the romance. If you can remove either of those elements, you don’t have a romantic suspense.

When you’re writing you should be writing 100% romance and 100% mystery/suspense.

Sound hard? You’re right. It is.

 



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

10+

First Page Critique – Closure

Photo credit: jessie daniella – Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Welcome to today’s Brave Author who submitted a first page entitled Closure.

TKZ’s intrepid website wrangler, Lynne, included a note with this submission that the prologue occurs nearly two months after Chapter 1. That means the scene below is actually a flash forward, not a prologue, something to keep in mind as you read the submission. Please enjoy and we’ll discuss it on the other side.

 

Prologue

Sunday, December 31st   9:19 PM

There was nowhere to run now.

Her head throbbed by now.  The agony blurred her vision as blood poured from the nasty gash just above her eye.

She cared little about that now.

Girl get it together, she thought to herself as she dragged her body—uncooperative legs and all—from behind a corner trash bin to the underside of the rusted stairwell.

“No one will find you, Reverend Sinclair.  It’s New Year’s Eve. And you’re about to die.”

The rush of pain exploded with every dreaded movement.

The hell I will, she thought, steeling her mind against the expectation of excruciating pain.  Her legs barely cooperated thanks to her foe’s quick thinking and lead pipe. As she dragged herself from one corner to the next, she suddenly spied an old vent partially covered by plywood.

“It’s over, Reverend Sinclair.  It’s finally over,” the faceless voice bellowed.

She opened her mouth, her mind searching for a retort.  Nothing came out. She needed to squeeze into that vent and in a hurry.  Somehow, grinding her teeth and clinching her bloodied fists, she managed to dislodge the board enough to squeeze through.

Every prayer she ever heard her grandmother pray ran through her mind.  She should have left things alone.

Then again, she couldn’t.  She was never one for that. Like sirens from a distant sea, the “things” had beckoned her, lured her into a whirlwind of unimaginable danger.  Her phone fell out when she bolted through the warehouse from the menace. Her bloodied knuckles, overworked from trying to take out a creaky door, prevented her from wiping the muddled mess from her cheeks.  Life had already stolen so much from her to begin with. Did she really have anything to lose at this point?

“My God,” she whispered, tears rolling down her face in a mingle of blood and dust from her secret abode.  Her body sore and her eyes heavy, Venus longed for rest. Only a flash of light through the crack of the board gave her hope.

“Light? Who is that?” she posited under her breath with a faint smile.  Hope flickered enough to dull the pain that shot from her left knee as she leaned closer to the peak through the splintered plywood.

“Thank you, Jesus…”

Her smile faded quickly when the answer to her question resounded with a crushing rejoinder.

Fire.

~~~

At TKZ, we encourage starting with action right off the bat and Brave Author has certainly done that. A woman named Reverend Venus Sinclair is fleeing from someone who has already caused her serious injury with a lead pipe and intends to murder her. A female cleric is an unusual and interesting character, not a typical protagonist. The premise that someone is trying to kill a woman of God is shocking and grabs a reader’s attention immediately. Well done!

There’s lots of vivid sensory detail—blood pouring from a nasty gash over her eye, legs weak and uncooperative because of intense pain, bloodied knuckles. The reader feels Venus’s agony and desperation as she scrambles to find a hiding place to escape her attacker.

So far so good.

But…action without context can be confusing and frustrating to readers. In this case, there’s too much excitement and not enough explanation.

It appears the author is starting at the brink of the story’s climax then intends to double back to the events that led to this point of crisis.

If that is the author’s intention, this page is not a prologue but rather a flash forward.

A prologue is a scene that happens before the current story begins.

A flash forward, or prolepsis if you want to sound really literary, happens in the future to foreshadow events that have not yet unfolded in the story. Here’s an explanation from k12reader.com:

A flash forward, on the other hand, is when some event that has yet to happen in the present narrative time intrudes. A flash forward are [sic] like foreshadowing in that both provide clues as to what will happen later on in a story. But foreshadowing gives only an impressionistic sense of future events, while a flash forward shows the reader or viewer exactly what the future holds in store, even though the reader may not have enough information to make sense of this detail yet. Sometimes, a flash forward is nothing more than an opening line that reveals a major event in the future. “In a week’s time, the Thomas family will be dead.”

I suggest the author delete the word “Prologue” and simply use date stamps to indicate time sequence.

Now let’s dig in to the writing. The main problems are overwriting, repetition, and lack of clarity.

There was nowhere to run now. – This is a decent opening line but now is used three times in three sentences. Suggest you cut the last two.

Cut repetitive descriptions of her injuries to leave more room for important context and setting information. You don’t need both throbbed and agony.

Her head throbbed, by nowThe agony blurred blurring her vision as blood poured from the nasty gash just above her eye.

She cared little about that now. Show this with her actions instead of telling.

Girl, get it together – take this opportunity to introduce her name. Venus, get it together.

Italics makes it clear she’s thinking. Delete she thought to herself.

uncooperative legs and legs barely cooperated are repetitious. The crucial point here is the attacker is armed with a lead pipe and has disabled her. Emphasize that.

from behind a corner trash bin to the underside of the rusted stairwell. – This is the first hint of where the scene is taking place but more detail would help ground the reader. I can’t visualize where she is. Is it a deserted alley behind her apartment building? The dark parking lot of her church? Withholding the location doesn’t increase tension but instead causes disorientation.

“No one will find you, Reverend Sinclair.  It’s New Year’s Eve. And you’re about to die.” Another strong line but, without attribution, it’s confusing. Who’s talking? You don’t necessarily have to reveal the person’s identity. Presumably that’s meant to come as a surprise revelation for the climax. But specify if the voice is male or female.

The rush of pain exploded with every dreaded movement and the expectation of excruciating pain are repetitive.

There’s a corner trash bin followed by she dragged herself from one corner to the next. More repetition plus it’s unclear—the corner of what? The trash bin? A building? A city block? Be specific so the reader can visualize where the action is taking place.

The hell I will is another strong line that shows her personality and determination.

she suddenly spied an old vent partially covered by plywoodNeed more detail. How big is the vent? Large enough to crawl through? Where does it lead to? Into the basement of a warehouse? A restaurant? Her church?

“It’s over, Reverend Sinclair.  It’s finally over,” the faceless voice bellowed. Good line. The reader wants to find out what it is.

She opened her mouth, her mind searching for a retort.  Nothing came out. She needed to squeeze into that vent and in a hurry.  Somehow, grinding her teeth and clinching her bloodied fists, she managed to dislodge the board enough to squeeze throughClench not clinch. More overwriting. Instead of having her think about what she’s going to do, go directly to the action. Her reasons are clear to the reader.

An alternative: She longed to shout a retort but that would give away her position. Instead, she clenched her teeth and yanked at the plywood with bloodied fingers. It barely moved but allowed her to squeeze inside, out of sight.

Every prayer she ever heard her grandmother pray ran through her mind.  She should have left things alone. 

Then again, she couldn’t.  She was never one for that. Like sirens from a distant sea, the “things” had beckoned her, lured her into a whirlwind of unimaginable danger.  These sentences bring the action to a dead stop. Plus they’re distracting. Sirens from a distant sea – this simile adds no meaningful context and further disorients the reader.

Condense her thoughts to the bare minimum like: Her grandmother’s prayers ran through her mind. She should have left things alone. But she couldn’t.

Her phone fell out – From her jeans? The pocket of her communion robes? Use this opportunity to further describe Venus’s appearance. Does she retrieve the phone? Why doesn’t she use it to call for help?

when she bolted through the warehouse from the menace. At last, a specific location is named—a warehouse. Add a couple of words of description. Is it vacant and echoing? Floor-to-ceiling shelves full of auto parts she can hide behind?

Bolted doesn’t ring true when, a second before, she was so crippled she had to drag herself.

Her bloodied knuckles, overworked from trying to take out a creaky door, prevented her from wiping the muddled mess from her cheeks. Delete repetitive description of her injuries. Would she really worry about wiping her face now?

Instead, concentrate on the creaky door. Creaky implies she tries to open it but you never show that. Where is the door? On the other side of the warehouse? Is it locked? Is it an escape or a dead end?

Life had already stolen so much from her to begin with. Did she really have anything to lose at this point? Again, these thoughts stop the action yet don’t reveal anything about why she’s now in this precarious position. Suggest you either delete these two sentences or add an intriguing detail that makes the reader curious.

Possibility: She’d lost her congregation and family. She had to prove her innocence before this maniac killed her.

“My God,” she whispered, tears rolling down her face in a mingle of blood and dust from her secret abode.  Her body sore and her eyes heavy, Venus longed for rest. Introduce her first name, Venus, earlier in the page. Delete repetitious description and focus on her silent, desperate call to God for help.

Only a flash of light through the crack of the board gave her hope. Another potentially strong line but confusing. A few sentences ago, she bolted, implying she ran and is now farther away from the vent she crawled through. Is the board the same plywood she pushed aside? Or is it part of the creaky door? You need to clear this up.

“Light? Who is that?” she posited under her breath with a faint smile.  Posited is a pretentious word that doesn’t belong. She wouldn’t speak out loud, even under her breath, and give away her position. Since she doesn’t know the source of the light, her reaction seems unrealistic because it’s more likely to be the attacker than, say, a rescuer with a flashlight.

Hope flickered enough to dull the pain that shot from her left knee as she leaned closer to the peak through the splintered plywood.  Delete extra the. Peak should be peek. I’m totally confused where she is now. Didn’t she bolt across the warehouse? Did she return to the plywood-covered vent? Or did she never leave there?

“Thank you, Jesus…” Good line but you need to give a plausible reason why she believes she’s now safe. Does she hear police sirens?

Her smile faded quickly when the answer to her question resounded with a crushing rejoinder. More overwriting. Resounded and rejoinder are jarring words that draw attention to themselves. Suggest you delete the entire line. Instead, focus on her brief instant of hope that’s immediately dashed.

Fire. Excellent scary development. If her pursuer can’t beat her to death with the lead pipe, he’ll burn down her hiding place. That’s great tension. But, again, it stretches plausibility unless you show that she’s cornered and trapped. Otherwise, presumably she would have time to escape out the other side of the warehouse.

Overview: 

Focus on painting a crystal-clear picture of the scene. You don’t need long descriptions but be sure the reader can visualize the alley (I’m presuming it’s an alley but still am not sure), the vent in the warehouse wall, and the inside of the warehouse. You mention the underside of the rusted stairwell. That is a good example of the type of specific detail I’m suggesting.

Establish her injuries right away. Example: She dragged her left leg, useless since the attacker had smashed the knee with a lead pipe. Blood from the nasty gash on her forehead obscured her sight. She wiped her eyes with bruised knuckles.

Then move on. The reader knows she’s seriously injured without constant, repetitive reminders of her pain.

Clarify Venus’s position and the choreography of her movements. When she’s outside, she’s dragging herself on the ground. Then she crawls through the vent. Once she’s inside the warehouse, show her movements so the reader can visualize exactly what she’s doing. Does she crawl? Stand up? Bolt?

Watch out for plausibility problems mentioned above. Is the scenario realistic? Are her thoughts and actions believable?

The title, Closure, is vague and general. If you work on using specific details in the story, you can probably find a stronger title.

Brave Author, once you clean up the writing and improve the clarity, I would like to read more about Reverend Venus and how she got into this life-or-death situation.

~~~

TKZers: I’ll be traveling all day and won’t be able to comment until later. Meanwhile, can you offer any suggestions to help out our Brave Author?

~~~

 

 

 

HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY! Celebrate with a green beer and a FREE copy of STALKING MIDAS!

7+

Introverts Unite

So this past week has been a surreal one on so many fronts – my husband’s company ordered him to work from home, my kid’s school is now closed for at least two weeks, we cancelled our spring break vacation, the robotics tournament my boys had been working so hard for was postponed, and the shelves at our local Kings Soopers…well they looked like a scene from the movie Contagion… Despite all this (or perhaps because of it) I came to realize just how introverted a writer I really am.

This realization dawned half way though day one of my husband’s ‘work from home’ week. He started on conference calls just after the boys left for school (this was before the school district announced all schools were to close on Friday) and didn’t stop talking pretty much the entire day. I know I should be sympathetic (I mean who wants to be on back to back conference calls!) – but most days it’s just me, my collie Hamish, and the imaginary characters in my head and I desperately missed the peace and quiet. By day 3, my poor husband was going stir crazy because he, as an extrovert, needed (and missed) having work colleagues around him. I, on the other hand, was longing for solitude:) So when the social distancing decree came down, I wasn’t fazed. Give me a computer to write on (or good old-fashioned pen and paper), a book to read, and some art supplies…and I am pretty much good to go. My husband on the other hand was already writing up a long list of chores we could accomplish:)

Now my husband and I have been married a long time (over 25 years!) so none of this comes as a great surprise – except that we’ve never really had to confront our own personality types in quite this way before. Neither of us were prepared for just how different our introverted versus extroverted outlook would be. One of my twins joked that he’d seen a meme on how introverts have been preparing their whole lives for social distancing – and while I laughed at first…it’s actually true. Though I doubt most of my friends would ever describe me as introverted – I enjoy being with people, am usually very chatty, and can be quite..er…theatrical when I want to be…but recent events have made me more aware than ever, just how much my creativity comes from the absence of people, and the quiet spaces of my day. This all means that there will certainly be some interesting times ahead, as for the foreseeable future I will have my husband and twin sons at home. We will all have to carve out our own quiet spaces (or in my husband’s case, some virtual-people filled spaces) and I will have to find ways to satisfy my introverted need for quiet and solitude.

So TKZers how many of you consider yourselves introverted? What has recent events revealed about your own personality or creativity?

In these challenging times we can all benefit from appreciating our common humanity, embracing empathy, and understanding how we can bridge our differences. In the meantime though…any words of wisdom on how two introverts (one twin and me) and two extroverts (my husband and the other twin) can survive in quasi-isolation??

7+

The Coronavirus and the Crisis Novel

By Mark Alpert

The New York Times ran an interesting story this week about the experience of re-watching the 2011 film Contagion while the new coronavirus rages all around us. That movie was weirdly prescient in its description of society’s response to a deadly microbe that emerges in China and quickly spreads to the rest of the world. Some of the film’s characters scoffed at the danger, some tried to sound a warning, and many, many of them succumbed to infection.

I saw Contagion when the movie came out, but I don’t remember it so well. In my opinion, the best fictional treatment of a pandemic — by far — is in the opening chapters of Stephen King’s The Stand. With incredible speed and vividness, King describes how a super-virulent government-engineered strain of influenza escapes from a secret lab out West and rampages across the country. Snippets of those chapters came back to me full force this week as I read the news about Covid-19 sweeping through nursing homes in Washington State and synagogues near New York City.  Here are a few samples:

“By dawn they were running east across Nevada and Charlie was coughing steadily.”

 “The man from the Chevy died twenty miles from the hospital. He drew one final bubbling gasp, let it out, hitched in a smaller one, and just quit.”

 “Joe Bob felt fine; dying was the last thing on his mind. Nevertheless, he was already a sick man. He had gotten more than gas at Bill Hapscomb’s Texaco.”

 “He had a slight cold, an allergy cold, maybe, and he kept sneezing and having to spit. In the course of the meal he infected Babe, the dishwasher, two truckers in a corner booth, the man who came in to deliver bread, and the man who came in to change the records on the juke. He left the sweet thang that waited his table a dollar tip that was crawling with death.”

It’s not really fair to compare Captain Trips (the nickname of the pandemic disease in The Stand) with Covid-19; the former had a death rate of over 99 percent of those infected, while the latter’s death rate has been estimated at 1 to 3 percent. (And those estimates may be wildly inaccurate because we just don’t know how many people have been infected by the new coronavirus so far.) Still, the emotional impact of the current real-life crisis feels similar to what I read in The Stand. Like Stephen King’s characters in the novel’s early chapters, we’re experiencing confusion, disbelief, fear, and helplessness.

The Stand is what I would call a Crisis Novel. I’ll define this category as the subset of thrillers that involve a threat so terrible it could take down the human race, or at least a substantial portion of it. Stephen King has written a few other Crisis Novels: The Cell (a mysterious signal transmitted by cellphones drives people mad), Under the Dome (an impenetrable transparent dome descends on a Maine town), and Tommyknockers (residents of another Maine town unearth a buried spaceship that transforms them into alien creatures). Other notable Crisis Novels include Tom Clancy’s Sum of All Fears (a nuclear bomb at the Super Bowl), Max Brooks’s World War Z (zombies), Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (Ice-9), and Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (the moon shatters into billions of pieces that rain down on the Earth).

I think it would be useful to take a closer look at the fundamental narratives of the Crisis Novels and compare them with the sequence of events that have occurred so far in the Covid-19 crisis. By analyzing the real-life events as if they were fictional, we might gain some insights on how to combat the threat more effectively. With that in mind, I’ll propose three important attributes of a global crisis, readily apparent in real life and often reproduced in fiction:

1) In a crisis, the fear is unevenly distributed. This is something that many novelists get wrong. Sometimes their characters all react the same way to the looming catastrophe, with everyone in denial when the threat seems distant, then suddenly shifting to mass panic when the shit hits the fan. But the Covid-19 crisis shows once again that people are quite variable in how they respond to threats. When scientists first identified the new coronavirus late last year, a few doctors in China tried to raise the alarm, but most of the government officials downplayed the danger. For those officials, the greater peril was losing their jobs, and their automatic reaction to the newly emerged microbe was to insist that nothing terrible was happening on their watch.

In the U.S., the initial reaction wasn’t urgent either, or at least not urgent enough to effectively slow the spread of the virus. We still tend to dismiss disasters that occur on the other side of the world, even though globalization has made this attitude dangerously obsolete. And even within our country, many of our fears are segregated; one segment of the population often ignores or dismisses dangers that disproportionately impact a different segment. For example, many well-off urban and suburban Americans were unaware of the opioid crisis while it was gaining steam over the past twenty years, mostly because they were unfamiliar with the poor, isolated communities in Appalachia and New England where opioids were killing so many people. There’s been a similar reaction to the crisis of gun violence, which has a disproportionate impact on people of color (52 percent of gun homicide victims are black men, even though they make up less than 7 percent of the total population). And it should be noted that the annual death tolls from opioids and gun violence are a thousand times higher than the number of Americans who have succumbed to Covid-19 so far.

Although the new coronavirus doesn’t seem to discriminate by either geography or socioeconomic status — it’s already spread to most parts of the U.S., and it infects both the rich and the poor — Covid-19 is much more of a threat to the old than to the young. The current statistics on this disease are iffy at best, but it seems that the death rate for people under the age of 50 is well under 1 percent, while the rate for people over 80 is more than ten times higher. (Elderly people are more likely to have the chronic health problems that make Covid-19 deadlier. Also, their immune systems are weaker.) Thus we have the odd situation right now in Florida, where young people are swarming to the beaches as they do every year for spring break, while their elders are frantically canceling sports events and parades and any other large gatherings that are conducive to viral transmission.

2) In a crisis, the villain is inertia. I want to single out a glaring example of how bureaucratic inertia stymied the efforts to contain Covid-19 after it arrived on our shores. The very first detection of the illness in the U.S. occurred in mid-January when a Washington State man who’d recently traveled to China tested positive for the new coronavirus. State health officials also tested fifty of the man’s contacts and none tested positive, but there was still a chance that he could’ve passed the virus to someone else. Luckily, local researchers had already launched the Seattle Flu Study, which was collecting nose swabs from thousands of people in the area in an effort to study how influenza spreads. (The flu is caused by a different kind of virus that’s been infecting people for centuries, maybe even millennia. Every year it kills tens of thousands of Americans, most of them elderly and/or chronically ill.)

When the flu researchers in Seattle learned about the new coronavirus, they realized they could search for this microbe in their thousands of collected samples to see if the new bug was spreading across the region and warn anyone who’d contracted it. But state and federal officials wouldn’t let them do it. They raised two objections: the Seattle Flu Study’s lab had the wrong kind of certification for this task (it was a research lab, not a clinical lab) and the subjects of the study (that is, the people whose noses had been swabbed) hadn’t given their consent for the new kind of testing. Although both objections had some legitimacy — it is indeed important to regulate labs and obtain consent for medical research — those concerns should’ve been overridden by the urgent need to protect the public health. The Seattle researchers frantically tried to appeal to the common sense of the federal officials  (at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), but the bureaucrats wouldn’t budge.

Frustrated and desperate, the researchers finally decided in late February to test their samples without permission. And sure enough, they detected the new coronavirus in a teenager who’d had a flu swab just a few days before. What’s more, a genetic analysis of the microbe found in the teenager showed that his virus was very closely related to the one that had been detected in the first Covid-19 patient more than a month before. The virus had been circulating in the Seattle area for weeks, undetected. An earlier detection by the Seattle Flu Study could’ve slowed and maybe even halted the coronavirus’s spread in Washington State, but thanks to inertia, the microbe went on to kill dozens in the region, more than half of whom were either residents or employees of just one nursing home.

It’s obvious now that someone should’ve intervened and cut the red tape, but nobody in the federal government had the authority, expertise, and situational awareness to step in and overrule the bureaucrats. The problem wasn’t really bad leadership — it was a lack of leadership.

It’s hard to present this kind of real-life situation in a novel. Action is more dramatic than inaction, and blinkered bureaucrats don’t make satisfying villains. That’s probably why the Contagion movie introduced an ancillary villain, a blogger (played by Jude Law) who spreads misinformation about the film’s dreaded disease. It’s more compelling to watch an evil person commit foul deeds (and perhaps be punished for them) than to observe a microscopic virus follow its evolutionary imperative to thrive and reproduce. Similarly, the villain in Stephen King’s The Stand isn’t Captain Trips; it’s Randall Flag, the satanic wanderer who seems to have triggered the novel’s pandemic somehow.

3) In a crisis, the hero is sacrifice. In the past few days, government leaders have acknowledged their failure to contain the new coronavirus and have aggressively pursued a new strategy: using “social distancing” to slow the virus’s spread. In New York, the governor has banned all large gatherings. The theaters on Broadway have gone dark, and no one will parade down Fifth Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day. March Madness has been canceled, NBA games suspended. Colleges across the country have barred their students from returning to campus after spring break, and their professors will have to deliver their lectures online for the rest of the semester. One of my kids came home from college yesterday, and I’m expecting the other to return to New York today.

And there will surely be more sacrifices to come. Everyone recognizes that widespread infection by the new coronavirus is inevitable, but the goal now is to “flatten the curve,” to spread out the infections over time so that the hospitalizations of the most severe cases don’t occur all at once and overwhelm our health care system. If that should happen, we wouldn’t have enough doctors and nurses to care for the desperately ill, nor enough mechanical ventilators to keep them breathing. So the goal is a good one. The sacrifices are worthwhile.

If we’re lucky, the new coronavirus will turn out to have a seasonal pattern of transmission like influenza’s, and the number of infections will subside once the weather warms up. But that’s not a sure thing. Covid-19 is closely related to MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), which is caused by another coronavirus that is deadlier than the new one but much less infectious. (It persists at a very low prevalence in the Arabian Peninsula.) And cases of MERS actually peak in the summer.

Either way, we need to accelerate the development and testing of a vaccine. That should be our top priority right now, higher than saving the Tokyo Olympics or the NBA or Wall Street. If I were writing a Crisis Novel about it, I would focus on the residents of a locked-down nursing home whose staff is heroically trying to keep their patients alive. Maybe one of the residents is a retired public-heath official or former pharmaceutical executive who comes up with a brilliant idea that could enable a safe vaccine to be developed in record time, perhaps just six months. But no one takes her seriously, because she’s so old, and her worried children won’t even allow her to step foot outside the nursing home, much less set up a crash program for vaccine development with her former colleagues at Merck or the CDC. She’s clever, though. She figures out how to overcome the obstacles.

And God willing, something similar will happen in real life too.

8+

The First Detective Story

Susanna and the Elders by Domenichino 1603

By Elaine Viets

Sex, violence, perjury, crooked judges, blackmail – and police procedural techniques still used today. All these are in the first detective story.

So which one is it?

Some say the first detective story was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” way back in 1841. Wilkie Collins generally gets credit for the first detective novel, “The Moonstone,” in 1868. And others claim Metta Victoria Fuller wrote the first American detective novel, “The Dead Letter,” in 1866. After that, scholars slug it out until we get to the undisputed champion, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his detective, Sherlock Holmes, in 1887.

But I agree with M.T. Logan that the first detective story was published several thousand years earlier. It’s the story of Susanna and the Elders. If you’re Catholic or Greek Orthodox, Susannah is in the Book of Daniel and is considered divinely inspired. For Protestants and many other religions, the story is part of the Apocrypha, the books that didn’t quite make the cut.

Detail from Susanna and Elders by Tintoretto

Susanna was a young married Jewish woman, living in Babylon. She was God-fearing and good-looking. Susanna liked to walk in her husband’s orchard, and two old pervs – excuse me, two highly respected judges – liked to watch. They fell madly in lust with her, and conspired “when they might find her alone,” as the Good Book says. The old creeps lucked out.

On a hot day, Susanna decided to take a bath in the orchard. The two old men hid themselves and watched as she told her maids, “Bring me oil, and washing balls, and shut the doors of the orchard, that I may wash me.” As soon as the maids brought the things for Susanna’s bath, they shut the doors and left. Nobody knew that the two old degenerates were lurking in the orchard.

Once the doors were shut, the horny old coots cornered Susanna, and said she’d better have sex with them, or they would lie and say “that a young man was with thee, and therefore thou didst send away thy maids.”

Susanna realized she was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t, but she’d be damned if she’d have sex with those two creeps. “It is better for me to fall into your hands without doing it, then to sin in the sight of the Lord,” she said.

Susanna and Elders by Anthony van Dyck

Susanna screamed and the old blackmailers screamed, and there was a trial. The judges testified falsely against Susanna, claiming she was with a young stud under a tree, and they’d tried to stop this terrible sin of adultery. The young man got away, but the judges caught Susanna. “The multitude believed them, as being the elders, and the judges of the people, they condemned her to death.”
This was long before #MeToo, and while adultery was a sin for both sexes, it was a bigger sin for women. The patriarchs didn’t want free-range women begetting someone’s child.
Susanna called out to God, “I have done none of these things, which these men have maliciously forged against me.”
In stepped young Daniel, who said, “I am clear of the blood of this woman.”
He lectured the crowd for condemning Susanna “without examination or knowledge of the truth.”
He then conducted his investigation the way all good modern police officers do. He separated the two judges.
He asked the first judge under what tree did he see Susanna doing the wild thing with the young hunk. The judge said, “under a mastic tree.” That tree is where chewing gum comes from.
The second judge claimed Susanna did the deed under a holm tree, a type of oak.

Holm tree

The two lying judges had convicted themselves “by their own mouth.” They were killed.
So there you have it – a detective story with a victim, two villains, and a hero who knew how to search for the truth.
##################################################################
Just out! A STAR IS DEAD, my fourth Angela Richman mystery. Publishers Weekly calls it “skillfully plotted” and says it has “witty dialogue and well-defined characters.”
Buy it now: https://www.amazon.com/Angela-Richman-Death-Investigator-mystery/dp/0727890166/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3P57RLYRP7F08&keywords=a+star+is+dead+by+elaine+viets&qid=1583967357&s=books&sprefix=A+Star+Is+Dead%2Cstripbooks%2C170&sr=1-1

10+

Gotta Have Thick Skin

By John Gilstrap

Full disclosure: This post originally appeared here in TKZ on July 23, 2010, with the title, “Skin Like Leather.”  I bring it back here today for two reasons: 1) It’s still relevant; and 2) I’m crashing on a deadline.

We always tell up-and-comers that they’ve got to have a thick skin if they’re ever going to break into the publishing business. As the rejections pile up, it’s hard not to lose faith in your own abilities. When the news finally turns good, and an agent wants to see the manuscript, and later when an editor decides to buy it, you feel vindicated. Ha-ha and neener-neener, you think. Clearly all those rejecters were wrong.

What clearer affirmation of talent can there be than a publishing contract, right? If you’re not careful, you might start rubbing aloe on that leather-tough skin, thinking that it’s time to shed the bullet-proof coating.

Oh, that it were true.

I won the 2010 award at Thriller Fest for the Worst Review Ever, for an opinion of Nathan’s Run that appeared in an upstate New York newspaper: “The glue boogers in the binding were more captivating than Gilstrap’s torpid prose.” That it followed dozens of major market rave reviews from around the world softened the blow to the point that I laughed out loud when I read it at the time. Now I treasure my award, which is a lovely wooden box containing a fossilized dinosaur turd. All in good fun.

As I write this, I am again in the early stages of a new book launch (Hostage Zero, 19 days straight in the Top 30 in Amazon’s Kindle store), blessed with a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. I’m very proud of the book. Frankly, I think it’s my best work, but then I always think that when a new book comes out.

I almost took out the aloe again. Not so fast.

This is the age of the amateur Internet review, where the opinions of casual readers wield influence equal to that of professional critics. Among many very positive reviews, one fellow calls my book “surprisingly decent.” Another expresses surprise that as a “second tier suspense writer” I have had such a long career. I have been chastised for leading with my left-wing politics, and I’ve been chastised for leading with my right-wing politics. One reviewer chastises me for coming off as stupid because I can’t seem to keep my own politics straight.

Interestingly, several reviewers have accused me in an online forum of writing my own raves, one of them going so far as to praise my ability to change my writing style to accommodate my various fictional identities. (For the record, I’ve never done such a thing.)

God bless them all. Once the book is written and I’ve launched it out to the world, it belongs more to the reader than it does to me. It’s the nature of art that perception trumps intent. A review is a review, after all, and since the major media markets have decided that books are no longer worthy of ink and newsprint, I’m just happy that someone’s paying attention.

The need for thick skin doesn’t end at the impersonal review, however.

Nine times out of ten, people are wonderfully supportive of me and my work. With the exception of certain engineered opportunities—book signings, etc.—I have little desire to be the star of a social setting. I’d much rather discuss current events than the mechanics of writing. Among these friends, the launch of a new book warrants a congratulations and a couple of signed books and that’s about it.

Then there’s the remaining one out of ten who just sort of baffle me. Consider those among my relatives who ostentatiously don’t read my books (even though I think they do), yet ask me to autograph editions for their friends. A day-job colleague of mine went out of his way to list the stores he’d visited where none of my books were in stock, and another rarely missed a public opportunity to express shock that my books do as well as they do. What am I supposed to say in response to such things? It seems sometimes that people go out of their way to be hurtful.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that the rudeness—whether by acts of omission or commission—is rarely intended to be hurtful. The family stuff is weirder than the collegial stuff, but I’ve decided that artistic success—even when it’s second tier—makes some people feel both empowered and uncomfortable. The public nature of book writing empowers people to criticize, while public success—and the minor celebrity that comes with it—can upset the balance of an insecure relationship.

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the past 25 years toiling as a scribe is to respond thusly to even the most scathing review: Thank you for reading my work and taking the time to comment.

5+

First Page Critique: Lost At Sea

By PJ Parrish

Good morning, crime dogs. Well, this one will be short. Has to be, because I can barely type. Lost a fingernail in a home improvement accident and my middle digit is swollen and swathed. DIY tip: Don’t try to hang a heavy mirror without proper wall anchors and if you do, make sure you don’t have your fingers underneath when it falls.

So forgive me my typos and here we go with a First Pager that shows some promise — but also some of the common problems we talked about here at TKZ.  Many thanks to our contributing writer. Please help him/her out with your comments.

CALL ME TRANCE

A few years ago, late May.

Atlantic Ocean, East of the Caribbean Sea

In the dark of night a naked woman, battered and bruised, lifted her face from the ocean’s surface, took a couple of breaths, and resumed the dead-man’s float on the waves. She had lost her direction amid broad, moonlit swells. How long had it been? It felt like an eternity.

Wielding a forced calm in the face of her circumstances, she lifted her head again, let her feet sink, and inhaled several slow breaths to steady her nausea.

How long can I keep this up?

Swiping saltwater from her eyes, she leaned to float on her back and released the tension from her quivering muscles. As her toes broke the surface, chilly in the light breeze and her body drifted like corkwood on wave after wave, the gossamer filaments of her anxious thoughts dissolved into nothingness and she dozed, drifting, unaware.

* * *

Caribbean Sea

British Frigate, HMS Donovan

“Bloody war and medicine,” Surgeon Commander Ian MacRorie mumbled as he slumped against the gray treatment room doorjamb in the wee hours of the morn. “I quit. I won’t treat one more patient.” He peeled off his medical gloves and chucked them into the nearby waste bin, regretting once again that he had condemned himself to this soul-wringing existence.

Ian heard the hum of the engines change, signaling the ship nearing Montserrat. According to the itinerary, HMS Donovan would patrol around Montserrat tonight and early tomorrow, and then would move on to do the same at Anguilla.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat, he thought. Whatever got them closer to home.

He rubbed his burning eyes, took a fortifying breath before heaving his carcass off the doorjamb, and trudged across the gray room to the nearby basin to scrub his hands.

God, I need sleep.

The ship’s ubiquitous gray interior dulled his mind. He felt as though he lost a wee bit of himself with each moment that passed in this gloomy, cheerless environment. All he wanted to do was to crawl into bed and withdraw under the covers. Disappear into oblivion. Ah, yes, only in the arms of Morpheus could he find relief for his physical and mental exhaustion, quiet his tormented thoughts, and escape this gray tomb.

Damn my grief.

Chief Petty Officer Jane Beasley swept into the infirmary. “Surgeon Commander MacRorie, here are Ensign Belgrave’s ultrasound images.”

_________________

Okay, let’s give this a good look-see. I liked the opening image — a battered woman floating, apparently lost at sea, is immediately intriguing. There are some point of view issues, mainly that I wish the writer would have stayed grounded in the woman’s POV instead of hovering above in omniscient. (More on that later). But I also wish this opening scene-ette had more to it.  An opening has to seduce us into wanting to read more and become emotional involved. This is just a truncated tease. Consider, writer, of expanding this into a full chapter somehow, even if it’s just a couple pages. Perhaps you got into too late? If you had shown more of what happened to get her to this point (without spilling all the plot beans), I might feel less frustrated when you switch away. Just a thought…

Now, about that POV issue. This opening graph isn’t bad, but it can be better. You need to make us feel the danger of her situation more. SHOW us, don’t TELL us. Show us through her senses, not your own descriptions:

In the dark of night a naked woman, battered and bruised, lifted her face from the ocean’s surface, took a couple of breaths, and resumed the dead-man’s float on the waves. She had lost her direction amid broad, moonlit swells. How long had it been? It felt like an eternity. Wielding a forced calm in the face of her circumstances, she lifted her head again

You tell us it’s dark. Filter that through her:  She could barely make out the moonlit tips of the ocean’s waves. You tell us she is battered and bruised. Have her make us feel that: Her naked skin felt pin-pricked from hours of being in the water. She was so cold she couldn’t even feel the bruises and cuts that she knew were still there. “Wielding a forced calm in the face of her circumstances” is you talking again. Let her tell us:

A new spasm of panic swelled in her chest and she took two long breaths to force it down. It wasn’t working. She licked her salt-swollen lips and began to recite the rosary, something she had not done since childhood but it was the only thing she could remember right now to calm her screaming brain.

That’s not great, but the point I am trying to make is use HER experience, background and emotions to convey the situation. You the writer, need to stay out of her way.

Now let’s go on to Commander Ian. I don’t mind that you switched locations and characters. But as I said, the ocean scene is so bare-bones, that I feel whip-lashed. Again, try to find ways to filter the emotions only through his consciousness. By using phrases like “regretting once again that he had condemned himself to this soul-wringing existence,”  again you are telling us what he feels rather than letting this emotion emerge through action, thoughts and dialogue. You actually do a pretty good job of showing us his frustration, so this type of phrase is overkill. You could easily lose it.

Now I’d like to do a deep-dive line edit.

CALL ME TRANCE

A few years ago, late May.

Atlantic Ocean, East of the Caribbean Sea I usually discourage the use of taglines like this because 99 times out of 100, this info can be — and should be — gracefully integrated into the narrative. But because of the switch in time, place and character, I’m going to give it a pass here. 

In the dark of night a naked woman, battered and bruised, as I said, convey this through her senses; it’s more powerful. lifted her face from the ocean’s surface, took a couple of breaths, and resumed the dead-man’s float on the waves. She had lost her direction This implies she at some point KNEW where she was. Is that correct? Another chance to deepen this scene amid broad, moonlit swells. How long had it been? It felt like an eternity. Cliche. You can do better. Also, because I think this scene needs more meat, why be coy? Can’t you drop a few hints about how she got here? And if, indeed, she has been floating naked in the ocean “for an eternity” she’d be in hypothermia territory by now. She’s not in the Caribbean, she’s in the Atlantic. 

Wielding a forced calm in the face of her circumstances, Very writerly. See above comments about getting inside her head. lifted her head again, let her feet sink, and inhaled several slow breaths to steady her nausea.

How long can I keep this up? When you use direct thoughts like this without attribution, always put in italics.

Swiping saltwater from her eyes, Again, I think you’re missing chances for great detail here. You imply she’s been floating in the ocean for a long time. Her eyes would be nearly swollen shut from saltwater exposure. The scene, as you describe it, feels way too tranquil, like she’s in a floatation tank at some spa. she leaned nit picking here but this seemed the wrong word, she was floating, then righted herself momentarily (?) then returned to floating? to float on her back and released the tension from her quivering muscles. As her toes broke the surface, chilly in the light breeze Sorry, this scene is way too relaxing! and her body drifted like corkwood Don’t think you “drift” like a cork. You bob maybe on wave after wave, Small thing here but waves are different than swells. the gossamer filaments of her anxious thoughts dissolved into nothingness Very pretty but not very compelling. And again, the emotions in this scene are schizophrenic — you can’t be battered, naked, tired, panicked and afraid and have gossamer thoughts. and she dozed, I had to look this up, but yes, apparently you can sleep while floating but again, it makes no sense in this context. AND IT IS ODDLY PASSIVE. When I read the first graph the first time, I immediately started to root for this woman. By the time she falls asleep, I didn’t care anymore because I know nothing about her. drifting, unaware.

* * *

Caribbean Sea

British Frigate, HMS Donovan

“Bloody war and medicine,” Surgeon Commander This is a character title tag. Don’t use them. Find a graceful way to convey this info in the action Ian MacRorie mumbled as he slumped against the gray treatment room doorjamb in the wee hours of the morn. Clumsy construction here. “I quit. I won’t treat one more patient.” He peeled off his medical gloves and chucked them into the nearby waste bin, regretting once again that he had condemned himself to this soul-wringing existence.

It took me a couple reads to figure out what “Bloody war and medicine” meant. I think it’s Ian cursing both the fact there’s a war going on (what year are we in here, by the way?) and the fact he’s a doctor. But I’m not sure about that. If you start a scene with dialogue, please make it mean something. And the graph needs some cleaning up:

“Damn this bloody war.”

Ian MacRorie roughly peeled off his latex gloves and threw them to the waste bin. He missed but made no move from his position slumped around the door of the sick bay. He looked up to the certificate hanging on the wall above the trash bin.

DEPT OF THE NAVY

DR. IAN MACRORIE

“And damn the day I became a doctor,” he said softly. (or something juicier)

By the way, he’s apparently in a sick bay and just peeled off surgical gloves. What was he doing? Is there a body on a table? Is he peering in a microscope? You can’t leave out details like this.

And I don’t understand his line: “I quit. I won’t treat one more patient.” Who’s he speaking to? Is a voiced thought? Is he literally going to quit? 

Ian heard the hum of the engines change, signaling the ship nearing Montserrat. According to the itinerary, He knew the HMS Donovan would patrol around Montserrat tonight and early tomorrow, and then would move on to do the same at Anguilla.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat, he thought. Whatever got them closer to home.

He rubbed his burning eyes, took a fortifying breath before heaving his carcass This is you talking — you really want to call him a carcass? off the doorjamb, and trudged across the gray room to the nearby basin to scrub his hands.

God, I need sleep.

The ship’s ubiquitous gray interior dulled his mind. I like what you’re going for here, using the gray interior of the ship to stand for his state of mind. So do more with it! Don’t you tell us how he feels, let him show us. 

He scrubbed his hands harder, staring at the gray soap bubbles. Gray, everything here was gray. The walls, the floors, the operating tables, even the damn food. He felt like he was disappearing down a gray tunnel that was narrowing, narrowing, always narrowing down to some dark gray hole. In his dreams, the hole was real and he was never able to get out, waking up in the gray dawn covered in sweat.  

Like the woman in the ocean, make us FEEL his emotional claustrophobia. And if you can, try to draw a parallel with the woman — they are both lost, are they not?

He felt as though he lost a wee bit You used wee twice. Wee is a nice word; this isn’t a nice thing he’s feeling of himself with each moment that passed in this gloomy, cheerless environment. More telling. All he wanted to do was to crawl into bed and withdraw under the covers. Disappear into oblivion. Ah, yes, only in the arms of Morpheus could he find relief for his physical and mental exhaustion, quiet his tormented thoughts, and escape this gray tomb. Very writerly. Very uninvolving.

Damn my grief.Whoa. Now this is interesting. Backstory hint. He’s lost someone. This line would be even more effective if you can find a way to link it to his FIRST line, so by the time we get here, we understand that he is not suffering from professional ennui or worries about the war. THIS IS PERSONAL. Which is way more interesting. Good hint..

Chief Petty Officer Jane Beasley Another character title tag. Don’t use these; introduce her title via the action or dialogue. swept Ugh…nobody sweeps into a room. Also, make this happen through Ian’s senses. He hears a bang of a door and turns to LOOK AT HER. into the infirmary.

“Surgeon Commander This is how you introduce a character’s title MacRorie, here are Ensign Belgrave’s ultrasound images.” Also: ALWAYS set off a new character’s dialogue in its own graph.

That’s it. I think I got through with not too many typos. And I hope our brave writer finds this useful and not too discouraging. I like much of what is happening in this opening — the mysterious woman in the ocean and the tormented doctor.  As I suggested, they are both metaphorically lost at sea.  Good chance for drama ahead. (I suspect the ship will rescue the woman and things will get complicated).  But you need to clean up some basic craft problems to make this shine.  Keep going…there’s good stuff to be mined here, writer.

 

7+

To Buy or Not to Buy…

I recently had a defining moment in a used bookstore.

I have mentioned here on a number of occasions that my formative years were delightfully and wonderfully warped by perusing crime fiction on a regular basis. Every drugstore and supermarket had at least one revolving wire rack of paperback novels with several — I’m thinking twenty-four — pockets which could hold four to six books in each slot. Not all of these contained mysteries and detective fiction but it seemed as if more than half of them did. There wasn’t any particular rhyme or reason to the display, either. It wasn’t neat and orderly, with everything arranged by genre or alphabetically by title/ author, Each slot might have as many as six different titles. The book in the front of each slot concealed its brothers and sisters behind it. Browsing accordingly took a while. It also seemed as if titles were only there for a few weeks before they disappeared and a new crop of books took over.  Most of the covers were variations on a theme — weapons wielded by women in various suggestive stages of undress were the order of the day — and had little or nothing to do with the stories. My favorites were the Carter Brown stories and Richard Prather’s Shell Scott mysteries. Scott on each and every cover sported a blond crewcut and a knowing leer. I decided I wanted to be Shell Scott when I grew up. I kind of got my wish, but that’s another story. There were also titles by authors whose names are only remembered by their families, if that, but who no doubt had the same excitement, however briefly, that we do now when we see our names in print and for sale in public.

I used to spend hours browsing those books. I could on a rare occasion sneak one into the house but given that I was ten or eleven it was tough. I still have a few of them but at some point wistfully came to the realization that I was born too late to buy most of them at their cover price of thirty-five to forty cents apiece. Life, however, goes on. 

Flash forward sixty or so years. Last week I was in a local used bookstore and noticed that there were new displays of used paperbacks all over the premises. These weren’t just any displays of used paperbacks, either. What I saw were many of the books that I saw a few times in my youth at this or that drugstore. Each of the titles on display at the bookstore was priced at three dollars, eight or nine times the cover price but a bargain in the current collector market.

I buttonholed a clerk I knew and asked him what the story was. He said that the books had been owned by an elderly gentleman who had recently passed away after an extended illness. His longtime caregiver had been tasked with disposing of his estate, which included over fifty boxes of the paperbacks that the store now had on sale. The deceased had a longrunning interest in genre fiction (as well as several boxes of some other printed material which I was told that the store couldn’t, um, “appropriately” sell). There were so many books that the store did not want to go through the books and individually price each one appropriately. It was decided that three dollars per book was a fair average price. I was also told that if a fine gentleman such as myself wanted to make a reasonable offer on the whole kit and kaboodle, as it were, such an offer would be entertained and probably accepted. 

I thought about it. Picture the scene in the movie Animal House where the debate between the devil and the angel unfolds on the shoulders of Larry “Pinto” Kroger. The devil was telling me “Buy ‘em! Buy ‘em all, you f*****k! Who cares if your granddaughter goes to college?!” The angel was at the same time telling me, “You have all of those books at home you haven’t read yet! You should donate the money to a charity instead!” 

Twenty or thirty years ago I would have jumped on the opportunity to buy those books like it was a three-dollar government mule. My plan would have been to read every one of those books and eventually sell most of them, though not before enjoying their presence and inhaling the scent of old paper and ink. And yes, admiring the covers, too. In the here and now, however, I am aware that even under the most optimistic of estimates I have fewer reading years left than otherwise. There is also the consideration of space. I don’t have room for what I already have and am trying to downsize my possessions. Where would I put some additional fifty-plus boxes of books? How would I even get them home, realistically? Yes, I would still admire the covers. It just wasn’t enough of a reason to do it. I accordingly walked out empty-handed, though not before calling a friend who collects old Nick Carter books to see if there was anything he could use (he laughed and told me that he had a complete run of them).  I do have to admit that I tried to cajole the caregiver’s contact information out of the bookstore clerk, given that I was curious about that material that the store didn’t buy. He laughed but would not tell me. It’s just as well. 

I wasn’t a dollar short but I was two or three decades too late. It’s okay. Everything happens for a reason, including a situation where you have the opportunity to wisely walk away from a temptation that, like most temptations, is more trouble than its worth. I still find myself intermittently thinking about those boxes full of books, however, the way you might think of a stranger who you encountered and found attractive but who kissed your cheek and said, “I’m trouble. Bye” before walking away, never to be seen again. Still, I occasionally wonder what I would have done should I have had some of those revolving wire racks at home. 

*****

But wait, there’s more. A day or so after writing the above, I read a brand new mystery novel —published this week, actually — titled Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson. It is Swanson’s sixth book, and in some ways, his best. Eight Perfect Murders is a dark love letter to the mystery genre, used bookstores, and readers. The book, which you really should read, in part concerns a bookseller who compiles a list of eight classic mystery novels,  each of which features a murderer who gets away with “it.” I was brought up short by one of the books which made the list of the character in Swanson’s novel. It was The Drowner, an all but unknown stand-alone work by John D. MacDonald. A character named Travis McGee brought MacDonald fame and fortune, but he wrote a number of other books of lesser note as well. Indeed, when I was standing in that used bookstore trying to decide whether to buy those boxes, it was the presence of The Drowner, with which I was unfamiliar, among those rows and rows of all-but-forgotten books that almost — almost — tipped me over to the dark side. When I saw it on that fictional bookseller’s list in Eight Perfect Murders I felt my world tilt on its axis for just a moment. Maybe I should have bought those books. If so, I’ll chalk it up to a long list of mistakes and keep moving forward. 

That’s it, my friends, for me and for now. Be well.

 

5+

Tips & Pitfalls to Writing in First Person – First Page Critique: Organization K

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Today we have the first 400 words of a novel entitled ORGANIZATION K. With it written in first person, I wanted to talk about using first person – benefits and dangers – as well as give our brave author feedback. My comments will be on the flip side. Enjoy!

***

Insane or not, I refused to let Victor assassinate me without a fight.

Exaggerating my daze, I meandered toward the locked exit of Bienveillance Hospital’s Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy. If someone opened the door carelessly, I’d flee. My pale, youthful skin crawled, and I scratched my stubbly cheeks. I was nearsighted and had discarded my glasses, so my surroundings appeared blurry. As I passed a couple staff members in white uniforms and neared possible freedom, blood pounded behind my ears.

An olive-skinned female orderly intercepted me. “Breakfast time, Max,” she said in German with a Turkish accent. She pointed over my shoulder and tapped her foot.

I tugged on my bleached-blond hair’s jagged ends. “Oh joy.”

My former best friend, Victor, might reenter the recuperation prison to murder me. He’d once failed to kill me there. Given my lingering madness, the personnel would disbelieve my claim. Besides, in my disgrace, maybe I deserved to die.

Clenching my teeth, I plodded into a corner of the main common room. The space’s pastel green paint, which matched my ward outfit, reminded me of vomit. Outside the lofty windows, October 2001 fog obscured the Berlin Television Tower. On clearer days, the landmark from ex-East Berlin resembled a giant lance impaling a cratered moon. As an earlier East German, an Ossi, Germany’s tallest structure inspired me to surpass my rivals.

A boyish patient with a fair complexion draped a blanket over his shoulders. Wordlessly, he wandered around the roomy area in sandals and hugged people. He approached me.

My body stiffened, and I crossed my arms. “Go easy on me, man.”

The stranger embraced me. His obliviousness to his bleak position repulsed me. Like pins and needles accompanied a hand waking from sleep, regaining sanity hurt, but the pain came with healing. He released me and strolled away.

At long tables, many fellow sufferers clanked their tableware, grating my ears. The reek of greasy food and disinfectant seeped through the air. My stomach churned.

I rushed into my spartan room and sprawled on the bed or paced on the floor. Zoned out, I stood facing the murky outdoors. The door opened behind me. Someone thumped their boots toward me and stopped. As I turned around, my spine tingled.

Victor waved at me, grinning. “Hey, Mega Max, how the hell are you?” he shouted in German with a slight Californian accent.

I swallowed hard.

***

FEEDBACK & TIPS

This anonymous entry has an intriguing premise of a man confined in a mental hospital with an assassin out to get him, but the way it’s written, it made me wonder if I could suggest ways to make it more effective to draw the reader in. The author is counting on the reader to be curious, but are there other nuances the author could add that would intrigue the reader more?

Tips to Writing in First Person

1.) Start with action – Instead of being in the head of a character as they passively begin a story, have them DO SOMETHING. Is this character really in action? He’s stumbling through a ward and on alert, but it’s more like he’s taking inventory of the setting for the reader to “see it.” The action is TELLING. We’re being told about Victor wanting to kill him. If he’s purely delusional, the first line feels like a cheat to the reader. By the second line, any tension or intrigue the reader might’ve felt is gone when the action goes nowhere.

It might be more effective if Max is agitated and feeling the effects of an unexplained drug, attempting an actual escape from an unknown location. Leave the reader wondering – escape from where? The reader can wonder if he’s a captive, a good guy or bad. Give the reader something to care about with his situation.

2.) Make the reader care – Since this is the start of the story, I know nothing about Max. Yes, he is in a precarious position and vulnerable with an assassin after him, but why should a reader care about him at this early stage? Has the author given enough to get the reader engaged? Rather than focusing on describing the setting of the hospital through Max’s head, why not target his mental state and show the reader how he is vulnerable. Make the reader feel like THEY are held captive with him. I don’t know where this story is going, but I don’t feel enough empathy for Max because of the author’s choice to keep the story superficial.

3.) Show don’t tell – As I mentioned, Max is telling us what he fears. He’s not showing us enough of his emotional state or his vulnerability. He’s too in control and the threat doesn’t seem real – especially since he is locked up in a mental hospital. I’m not buying his fear. The author hasn’t done enough to make me feel it. Since I don’t know the rest of the story, it’s hard to suggest how to rewrite this intro, but the author should make the reader feel the threat and not just tell it.

There are many ways the author TELLS through Max, but below are specific examples:

  • Insane or not, I refused to let Victor assassinate me without a fight.
  • If someone opened the door carelessly, I’d flee.
  • My former best friend, Victor, might reenter the recuperation prison to murder me. He’d once failed to kill me there.
  • Given my lingering madness, the personnel would disbelieve my claim.

4.) Make your character’s voice stand out – It’s a challenge to cram a great deal into 400 words, but why squander the opportunity with generic? I’m assuming Max is the main character. When he enters the scene, make him show why he has earned the storytelling role. Give him an attitude about what he sees and let the reader in on it. Give him color and make him memorable. Think about how movies portray main characters when they first walk into the scene. In the first minutes of Pirates of the Caribbean, Captain Sparrow makes a splash for moviegoers. That intro defines him for the rest of the film. Shouldn’t that be how books are written? It takes thought and planning on how to do this effectively.

Make each word count on what he says? Does he have an accent or a unique way of speaking? How does he express himself? The author controls ALL of this. Is Max a chameleon in appearance? Does he have skills that would make it hard to confine him in a hospital or anywhere? Is he charming or funny and can he talk himself out of any situation? If he’s a cynic, why not infuse his surly, sarcastic nature into his dialogue? Less internal thoughts, more dialogue with another character to set up a mystery?

5.) Use your character’s self-deception as an unreliable narrator to manipulate the reader into your mystery. How much are they delusional or unreliable? Is their self-deception in small ways or is the character completely unaware of the situation. With first person, the author has a unique perspective for plot twists and misdirection. Be patient and savor the moment to add mystery and intrigue.

DANGERS OF USING FIRST PERSON

First person is fun to write. It is very intimate if the author stays in the head of the character. The insights into the nature of the protagonist are alluring for an author. Even if you use third person for your book, it can be a great exercise in getting to know your character by writing a scene in first person to get a feel for their personality. But first person also has dangers. Here are a few:

1.) The reader is trapped inside the head of one character. Even if you mix the POV between first and third in your book, the first person character generally dominates the story. It could be a major turnoff for the reader if the character weren’t sympathetic or compelling.

2.) Don’t make the first person voice about YOU. Some authors have trouble distinguishing between their character and themselves. It can be limiting. It’s much more interesting if you don’t limit your imagination.

3.) Overuse of “I” & filtered words – In first person, it is important not to overuse the tedious sentence beginning with “I.” This leads to filtered words and sentences that diffuse the action through the character. It distances the reader from the action. For example:

Don’t:

I watched an angry crowd of protesters marching down the street.

Do:

The angry crowd of protesters marched down the street.

4.) Too much introspection can lead to telling and backstory dumps. Rambling internal thoughts can be boring, page after page. Give glimpses inside your character for insight or plot twists but get your character into the action with their attitude and color.

5.) First Person can be limiting plot-wise, especially if you only use first POV for the whole book. The plot is only seen through one set of eyes. It takes planning to make a plot work.

SPECIFIC FEEDBACK ON SUBMISSION

1.) In general, I found the action uneven and a bit jumbled. Max goes quickly from wandering the ward, into a large day room until we make a leap to a dining room situation until there’s another quick shift into his room. It’s as if the author wrote a quick draft and forgot to fill in details. The author is more interested in describing the hospital than in setting up Max’s story. There’s no real action. The story is taking place in Max’s head by telling.

Here are some sentences where the scene transition was most confusing and had me re-reading. There’s no transition between spaces and the leap from dining hall to private room is too noticeable.

At long tables, many fellow sufferers clanked their tableware, grating my ears. The reek of greasy food and disinfectant seeped through the air. My stomach churned.

I rushed into my spartan room and sprawled on the bed or paced on the floor. Zoned out, I stood facing the murky outdoors.

2.) The author chose first person POV but certain passages & word choices didn’t feel like an internal thought. In an internal thought, Max would feel his skin crawl. He wouldn’t picture his skin as pale and youthful. He might tug at his hair, but not describe the bleached color and jagged ends, as if he were seeing from outside his body.

I’ve highlighted these examples below:

  • My pale, youthful skin crawled, and I scratched my stubbly cheeks.
  • I tugged on my bleached-blond hair’s jagged ends. “Oh joy.”

3.) In the sixth paragraph, the author diffuses the action with a diversion from Max as he looks out a window and sees a historical site. It’s brief, but coupled with all the other distractions, this is a passage that could’ve waited for later in the story.

On clearer days, the landmark from ex-East Berlin resembled a giant lance impaling a cratered moon. As an earlier East German, an Ossi, Germany’s tallest structure inspired me to surpass my rivals.

4.) Californian Accent? At the end, Victor comes into Max’s room and speaks in German with an accent. I may have to defer to others on what a California accent is. I come from Texas and know about a distinctive accent, but I wasn’t aware that California had a unique one. Are we talking surfer dude lingo? This reads as more author intrusion. The author is cutting corners to introduce Victor and let readers know he’s not a local.

SUMMARY

I didn’t make line by line corrections. I wanted the author to reevaluate their introduction by considering my questions for Max and rethinking how this story begins. Give Max more action and give him a distinctive attitude for his voice. Eliminate the TELLING and add depth to this introduction with elements of mystery. I’m pretty sure the author has something more in mind for a plot to fill a book, but this excerpt doesn’t leave me wanting more. Reading into the piece, I would imagine Victor is someone Max knows well. Hence, the nickname Mega Max. That would completely deflate any intended tension written into this intro. I would rather the author give us something real to wonder about. Thoughts?

FOR DISCUSSION

I would appreciate your feedback. I’m sure the author would love more voices weighing in, but besides line edits, let’s try something a little different. Let’s keep the basic premise the same, that Max is in a mental hospital and he fears Victor will kill him.

1.) How would you rewrite Max’s actions? What would you have him do? Think out of the box. Let’s brainstorm as a writing exercise.

2.) How would you make Max unique and give him more character and a more memorable voice?

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