The Lessons for All Writers
Woven into ‘Charlotte’s Web’

“Remember that writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself.” – E.B. White

By PJ Parrish

Writers are often asked what their favorite book is. Or which one most influenced them as a writer. The first question has always been easy for me — my favorite book is E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.  But it has only been in the last couple years that I realized Charlotte’s Web might be one of the biggest influences in my writing life.

I fell in love with this book the first time I read it. I was maybe eight or nine, just around the age of the heroine Fern.  But a couple years back, on the 60th anniversary of its publication, I decided to read it again.

What a revelation. It is, of course, maybe the most famous kid book ever. It won the Newbery and remains the bestselling children’s paperback even today. But what I didn’t realize is that it is a terrific story for adults.  Like the Harry Potter books, it has a magic that transcends age and a theme that resonates deeper the older you become.

I pulled out my copy last week and read it yet again. Yes, it still holds up for me. But I also tried to look at it with different eyes and dissect how it works as a novel. It has lessons to teach any writer working in any genre.

First off, it teaches us to write from our inner selves, from the most shadowed places of our hearts.  I think this is what the adage “write what you know” really means. It does not mean write about your narrow everyday world.  It means write about what is essential to your unique soul.

E.B. White has said the story came from his childhood memory of being unable to save a piglet. But in his book The Story of Charlotte’s Web, Michael Sims explains that in 1949, White found an spider egg sac in his Maine barn and cut the sac out of the web with a razor blade. He put the sac in an empty candy box, punched some holes in it, and absent-mindedly put the box atop his bedroom bureau in New York.  Weeks later, hundreds of spiderlings began to escape through the holes and spun webs on his hair brush, nail scissors and mirror. Thus was hatched White’s magical meditation that teaches us about life, death and the beauty of friendship.

But the book has many other things to teach us as writers.

Let’s start with the opening. I talk here often about picking the right moment to inject your reader into your conjured up world. And James writes often here about how you need to build your opening chapter around a “moment of disturbance.” Something has to happen. And it has to happen early enough in your plot to engage the reader’s interest. So how does Charlotte’s Web begin?

It’s breakfast time at the Arable family farm. Fern comes in to the table to see her father heading out to the barn with an ax. Mom tells her that one of the piglets is a runt and father is going out to do away with it.

Yikes. Gets my attention! Notice White didn’t start his story with Fern waking up in her little bedroom and thinking about the cute piglets that were born yesterday. He didn’t start it with a beautiful description of the Arable family farm. He went right for the dramatic heart. And what a great contrast he set up in our imagination: The warmth of a morning kitchen and a man leaving it with an ax on his way to a “murder.”

And is there a more chilling opening line in all of fiction: “Where’s father going with that ax?” Fern asked.

THE LESSON: Don’t waste time with pages of gorgeous description. Find the right moment to parachute the reader into your story. Build tension as quickly as you can.

Fern runs outside and we learn in a quick brushstroke that “the grass was wet and the earth smelled like springtime.” The crying Fern confronts her father that killing the piglet isn’t fair. To which dad says “you have to learn to control yourself.” Which is backstory, right? We now know Fern has a history of impetuousness. Dad relents and tells her she can bottle-feed the runt so she’ll learn how hard life can be.

THE LESSON: White sets up the protagonist’s challenge and has begun Fern’s character arc. And he starts plumbing the first level of the most important question an author must answer about motivation: What does the character want? Well, level one: Fern wants to save the pig.

We then meet her brother Avery, who wants to know why he can’t have a pig, too. Dad says “I only distribute pigs to early risers. Fern was up at daylight trying to rid the world of injustice.” (Level two: Fern wants the world to be just)

White then slows things down with a nice narrative about how Wilbur the pig thrived under Fern’s care. But then Dad says that Wilbur is old enough to be sold to the Zuckermans. Fern cries but Wilbur is banished to a manure pile.

THE LESSON: Your plot must have a series of setbacks for the heroine to deal with and overcome.

Chapter 3 opens with a long and lovely description of the Zuckerman barn. Because the plot is chugging along now, readers will be willing to slow down.

THE LESSON: Good pacing isn’t just a matter of full speed ahead. You have to know when to slow down and let the reader catch his breath. A good plot is a roller coaster with a series of tense climbs, terrifying plunges, and areas where you coast along – “whew!” – while you anticipate the next dip.

We then switch to Wilbur’s point of view as he meets the barnyard animals, each one indelibly drawn, especially the goose who helps Wilbur escape and Templeton the rat who steals his food. Fern hasn’t been to see him and Wilbur feels lonely and friendless.

THE LESSON: Don’t neglect secondary characters. Make them vivid and useful to the main character, be it a sidekick, foil, confidante – or a nefarious rat. Good secondary characters are prisms through which reader “see” the main character.

Speaking of secondary characters…has there ever been a finer one then Charlotte the spider? From her first lines – “Do you want friend, Wilbur? I’ve watched you all day and I like you” – we can’t help but love her. She’s smart (“Salutations! It’s just my fancy way of saying hello!”) and pretty and good at catching flies.

Wilbur is appalled by the fact she traps and eats bugs. He thinks she’s cruel. But in a matter-of-fact monologue, Charlotte explains that is what her kind has always done, that flies would take over the world if not for spiders, and besides, she fends for herself while he depends on the farmer to bring a slop pail.

THE LESSON: Never be content to create cardboard characters. Make every character as rich as you can — they are lightness and darkness  — and find ways to make readers understand your characters’ complexities.

Next, the plot turns dark when the goose tells Wilbur he’s being fattened up to become Christmas ham dinner. Wilbur is distraught but Charlotte says, “Don’t worry, I’ll save you.”

THE LESSON: All good plots are a series of setbacks. Wilbur thickens and so does the plot.

In Chapter 9, in what feels like a digression with no relation to the plot, Charlotte explains to Wilbur and Fern why she has so many legs and how she makes a web.

THE LESSON: Readers like to learn things about how the world works, but you have to weave such narratives subtly into your plot or they are boring or worse, preachy. Don’t show off your research. Have it relate to your characters. White slips in this factoid: It took eight years to build the Queensborough Bridge but Charlotte says this only to comment that men “rush rush rush every minute…”

Then we come to the “The Miracle.” Charlotte conjures up a plan to save Wilbur by weaving the words SOME PIG into her web. The Zuckermans are gobsmacked and decide Wilbur is special. People flock to see the miracle pig.

THE LESSON: Give your characters setbacks to overcome, but a good plot also includes triumphs, which usually escalate as the climax nears.

Charlotte worries that people are getting bored with SOME PIG so she gets Templeton the rat to go fetch some words from magazines that she can copy into the web. She weaves TERRIFIC and then RADIANT. The excited Zuckermans think of ways to exploit their pig.

THE LESSON: Always look for ways to up the ante, increase the stakes.

Chapter 14 is titled “The Crickets.” It’s a lovely descriptive dirge about the dying of summer. School would start soon. The goslings are growing up. The maple tree turns red with anxiety. “The crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.”

THE LESSON: A little foreshadowing and mood is good but don’t be heavy-handed. Let it flow naturally from your setting. This is also White telling us what the theme of his story is – that life is about the inevitability of sadness and change.

The Zuckermans take Wilbur to the county fair for display. Charlotte, who needs to lay her eggs, reluctantly agrees to come along. At the fair, Wilbur is worried about a rival pig taking top prize and tells Charlotte to spin a special word for him. Charlotte confides that she’s not feeling well – “I feel like the end of a very long day” — but she promises to try. The cool of the evening comes and everyone is bedding down. White give us this wonderful dialogue between two old friends.

“What are you doing up there, Charlotte?”
“Oh, making something,” she said.
“Is it something for me? ” asked Wilbur.
“No,” said Charlotte. “It’s something for me, for a change.”
“Please tell me what it is,” begged Wilbur.
“I’ll tell you in the morning,” she said. “When the first light comes into the sky and the sparrows stir and the cows rattle their chains, when the rooster crows and the stars fade, when early cars whisper along the highway, you look up here and I’ll show you something. I will show you my masterpiece.”

THE LESSON: Yes, you should tug on the heartstrings. But whatever emotion you are going for must be well-earned. We have come to know and love these characters and as White moves us toward his climax, we have a soft dread in our hearts. Every emotion he has invested in this scene has come organically. Nothing feels tacked-on or artificial. Everything has pointed toward this logical end.

The fair opens and Wilbur, standing under Charlotte’s latest spun-word HUMBLE, wins a special prize. At night, left alone, Wilbur listens to fading Charlotte deliver her poignant speech about death and renewal:

“Your success in the ring this morning was, to a small degree, my success. Your future is assured. You will live, secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world…Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur, this lovely world, these precious days…”

“Why did you do all this for me? ” he asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”

“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

THE LESSON: Don’t neglect your theme. It is the heart of your machine, purring beneath the grind of your plot. When you are asked, “What is your book about?” the answer is never about its plot. It is about its theme.

Then, of course, Charlotte dies. Here is how White ends this chapter:

“Good-bye!” she whispered. Then she summoned all her strength and waved one of her front legs at him. She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

THE LESSON: Sometimes you must kill off a sympathetic character. If it serves your plot and it is not gratuitous, the reader will accept it. But it must have a feeling of inevitability so that when the readers comes to this point they are sad but acknowledge there was no other way.

Chapter 22 is titled “A Warm Wind.” Life at the farm resumes its cycle. The snows melt, the sparrow chicks hatch. The last remnants of Charlotte’s tattered web float away. Wilbur misses Charlotte but one morning, her egg sac – which he had carefully brought back to the farm in his mouth – erupts and her babies emerge. Wilbur is happy to meet the new spiders but one day Zuckerman opens the barn and a soft wind carries the babies away. Wilbur is crushed, thinking he has lost his new friends. But three of Charlotte’s daughter stay and begin weaving webs above him.

THE LESSON: Don’t neglect the denouement.  A powerful story doesn’t end at the climax. There should be a tail to the tale wherein you wrap up some loose ends if needed, update readers on time passage and what has happens to some of the characters. In White’s story, of course, the denouement is also a coda of hope. Life goes on. Depending on the tone of your story, a happy ending might not be in your recipe.  But a hint of redemption or hope is never a bad thing.

Which goes to the point of theme. In the final chapter, the narrative recounts the passage of months and years. Fern, growing up, doesn’t come to the barn much. But every year, Wilbur has new spider friends – the offspring of his good friend Charlotte. Here’s the last graph of the book.

Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

THE LESSON: Bring it home. Your ending graphs are as important as your opening ones. A good story is circular in that it wraps back around itself, weaving a web of logic and emotion that captures your reader and  leaves them with a feeling of satisfaction.

 

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Balancing Action with Voice – First Page Critique of Urban Patriot

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Purchased image – Croco Designs for Jordan Dane website

Hello, my fellow TKZ warriors. I’m busy cranking on the daily word count of my next release, but I have, for your consideration, an anonymous submission from a daring author and member of TKZ. The first 400 word intro to: Urban Patriot. Enjoy and join me on the flip side for my feedback and please provide your own thoughts in your comments.

Urban Patriot

Choosing a side is dangerous, especially when it comes to politics and you’re African American from a Jewish background, that is, everybody wants to either recruit you or kill you for something. When I was getting high – on life – shit was easier, the only people interested in you were those like you unless they had their own plans which everybody in tinsel town had. One minute you’re relaxing with a naked woman’s bare legs laying on your lap and the next someone throws a stack of $100 bills in at you and says there’s more where that came from, you’re gonna love it.

Instead of letting me deal with my fate on the streets of Chicago, at 15, mom got spooked and sent me off to California to join the father I’d never met and who turned out to be a bigger jerk than the Chicago idiots I was sent away from. Which wasn’t half bad until the thrill of finally meeting him caused me to want to live with him. Grandfather and Mimi took me in where we had a small swimming pool, my own bedroom, and took me on vacations with them. Hell, I even had an allowance. Quite a step-up from sharing a 3-bedroom apartment with five siblings, a single mom, and abusive step-father.

Dr. Anita Daniels, my uncles and aunts American Socialist Party affiliation’s caught my attention like a shiny new car and what they stood for was everything I’d felt being a Black Jew living in America. Working Socialist political campaigns and African American activist activities taught me a lot, to stand-up for myself and expected the worse from people. Encounters with White Supremacists, the police, and Politicians broaden my horizons to the point of rage and cunning calm.

In a sense, I guess my past prepared me for a life of risks, questionable alliances and an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Especially when my wife was shot and left for dead at the airport terminal as we arrived stateside from a five-year extended stay in the Middle East, I wanted nothing more than to personally smoke that bastard of New President and burn his administration to ground. But that opportunity would come much later if only I’m I am strong enough to do it.

“Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded as I leaned over the counter asking the clerk “where is she, is she alive” “I am sorry sir, I don’t have that information” the clerk replied.

“We must leave now Mr. Anderson; your accommodations are waiting” The agent snapped. “This is bullshit” I snapped back, “I’m going anywhere until you I get some information about my wife.” “We’ll explain everything to you later, but you’ll never know unless we get going.”

The agent was already holding the glass door open as I turned toward him, stepping into the hall he whispered: “We’re all just a bunch of bureaucrats following orders – you know that.”

FEEDBACK

Overview – The strong edgy voice drew me into this introduction. It read like a diary and appeared to be set in an alternate reality or a future America. It intrigued me. But the submission starts with lots of backstory and ends with the action of what’s happening in this opening scene. Once I learned that a man’s wife had been shot and left for dead, I wanted to stick with the action. The question of why a federal agent is ushering him away and not telling him anything about his wife intrigued me far more than the backstory that could’ve come later to fill in the gaps as the story progressed.

Housekeeping – By now, you guys know how I feel about embedding dialogue within a paragraph, but this submission goes a step further and not in a good way. Dialogue is embedded and often lines from 2-3 different people.

Example of 3 different people talking in one short paragraph – “Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded as I leaned over the counter asking the clerk “where is she, is she alive” “I am sorry sir, I don’t have that information” the clerk replied.

There’s also very poor punctuation which drives me crazy. Missing commas at end of dialogue lines (ie “Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded), the use of double quotes where a single quote should be (ie “I don’t give a fuck” attitude), and missing punctuation like in the example above where there should be question marks (ie “where is she, is she alive” or the lack of a capital letter to start those questions.

Editors and agents would be turned off at seeing so many errors in the first 400 words. Don’t give them a reason to say NO.

Stick with the Action – The meatiest part of this intro was embedded inside a paragraph and almost treated too dismissively. The words ‘when my wife was shot’ should have been the focus.

In a sense, I guess my past prepared me for a life of risks, questionable alliances and an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Especially when my wife was shot and left for dead at the airport terminal as we arrived stateside from a five-year extended stay in the Middle East

This submission seemed flipped backwards to me, in that the action was toward the end after all the backstory. I would suggest focusing on the shock he must be feeling at seeing his wife hurt or dead, then don’t let him find answers as he’s dragged away by the agent. Below is my suggestion for a rewrite. I tried to stick with what the author had written, but just re-ordered it and added more of his shock at the start.

I had her blood on my face and my hands. I couldn’t get the image of my wife out of my head. They must’ve left her for dead at the airport terminal. That’s the only thing I could figure. One minute, we were on the tail end of a five-year extended stay in the Middle East, the next we were stateside. This should’ve been home. How could this happen…here? I wanted nothing more than to smoke that bastard of a new President and burn his administration to the ground.

“Follow me,” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded.

I had to know what happened. I leaned over the nearest counter and found a reservations clerk with enough sympathy to care.

“Where is she? Is my wife alive?”

The federal agent yanked my arm and forced me to keep in step as he hauled me through the gathering crowd.

“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t have that information,” the airline clerk called after me.

 “We must leave now, Mr. Anderson. Your accommodations are waiting.” The agent picked up his pace and dragged me with him.

“This is bullshit. I’m not going anywhere until I know what happened to my wife.”

“We’ll explain everything to you later, but we have to go. Now.”

The agent held a glass door open and pushed me through it. When I stood my ground and faced him, he whispered, “We’re all just a bunch of bureaucrats following orders. You know that.”

I clenched my fists and fought a blinding rage.

The way this story started, with the intimacy of a diary, makes me wonder if this intro could stand with the action of violence, but drift back to where it all began, like the way movies begin with something horrific and back into what led up to it. If that’s not this author’s intention, I would suggest peppering in the backstory later when appropriate. I really do like the edgy voice and the ‘tude.

Names Matter – A federal agent by the name of Kelly made me think this was a woman. It wasn’t until near the end that the author lets us know the agent is a man. This is a bit nit picky, but it jarred for me to realize I had a wrong image in my head. Also, if the name Kelly will be through the whole book, that is a lot of time for the reader to forget this is a man. I also fought with another famous name – Kelly Clarkson, the singer. Her name is too similar to Kelly Carlson, the agent in this intro. I would reconsider the name.

Read your work aloud – Even with the edgy voice, there is a flow and cadence issue and typos where it reads as if the author made changes but didn’t catch all the words. If you get in the habit of reading your work aloud, you will find areas where you stumble over the words. Those are lines you should consider revising to make them flow better. Here are two examples where reading aloud would’ve helped to catch the typos:

But that opportunity would come much later if only I’m I am strong enough to do it.

“I’m going anywhere until you I get some information about my wife.”

Use of tags in dialogue – I noticed these following a dialogue line – demanded, snapped, snapped back. A whole book of words to replace a simple ‘said’ can be distracting, but in Elaine’s recent post on “The Burning Question: He said, She said,” she makes a good case to minimize even neutral tags like the word ‘said.’

Setting – I wanted to know more about where this scene takes place. I can only assume it’s at an airport terminal but the writing is too sparse to get a good sense of where this happens, especially when it starts with a backstory that mentions Hollywood’s Tinsel town and Chicago. Setting can place the reader there and trigger images in their minds. It’s important to ground the reader into imagery that enhances the emotion or action of the scene. For example, if the federal agent has to whisk this guy away and dodge travelers hauling luggage or airport security rushing toward the place where the attack on his wife took place. This kind of setting or world description could add pace and emotion to what’s happening.

On Tuesday, P J Parrish had an excellent post on Your Story as Sculpture: What to Leave In, What to Leave Out. It detailed some solid information on sparse writing (similar to this submission) and how an author should think twice about what to delete and what to keep. Check it out.

DISCUSSION:

What was your reaction to this introduction, TKZers? Did it grab you? Would you turn the page?

Mr. January available in print now (210 pages). Ebook pre-order $2.99!

Zoey Meager risks her life to search for her best friend Kaity in a burning warehouse, only to cross paths in the inferno with Mr. January, a mysterious man with a large black dog, completely devoted to its shadowy master.

2+

White Space on the Page Can Be Your Friend – 1st Page Critique: A Pitying of Doves

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Forgive the blatant Prince/Purple Rain reference. After I read the first lines of this anonymous submission, I had purple on my mind.

Below is an anonymous submission for critique, the first 400 words or so of a project. Read & enjoy. I’ll give my thoughts on the flip side. Feel free to provide your constructive criticism in your comments. Let’s help this author with our take.

A Pitying of Doves
SATURDAY – July 14th, 2012…8:29 am

The delicate bird bobbed around in circles, oblivious to the hungry yellow eyes hidden within the greenery −a common Laughing Dove− it was searching for its own subsistence near the marble steps of the towering Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Latin name: Spilopelia senegalensis. On the fast track out of this messed up existence, Bertie thought, holding her breath and turning her D3x toward the ill-fated bird. Cha-click. Cha-click. Cha-click. Three-seconds. Three human heartbeats. It happened that fast. Death. Looking up over the top of the camera, she kept the shutter going as the lean, elegant feline blinked once in thanks before skittering off, prize in mouth, drops of blood trailing. Metaphor? Or prophesy? The pain in her gut said both as she swiveled the camera on its tripod back to the subject at hand. “Okay!” she shouted. Her assistant swung his arms about and stepped out of the frame as a burst of doves hit the air for her ravenous lens.

“You will get the perfect image I think,” said the Indian man breathlessly, scooping up the camera bag and preparing to follow her to another spot.

“It has to be perfect, Amir,” she said, still clicking, but thinking only of the killing that she’d been involved in three days ago. Murder. For the first time, she suddenly felt ill. “Khalas! That’s enough. I can’t do anymore.” She quickly abandoned her equipment for the parking lot and stumbled behind her silver Range Rover. The acrid smell of rubber and petrol made her eyes water as she held onto the bumper, pressing her black and white keffiyeh scarf across her mouth, trying to maintain her composure. Murder. The word ricocheted inside her skull. It thundered like an avalanche and threatened to bury her, just like they had buried him. “Necare,” she whispered, murder’s more attractive Latin equivalent. She usually found it soothing, translating words into the old language, perhaps because it took her back to her college years, back to a time of relative innocence. “Homicidium,” she went on, fist clenched against sternum, near panic as the tears came along with the realization that her virtue was lost forever. “What the hell have I done?”

FEEDBACK

Overview – I enjoyed the imagery of Bertie taking objective photos of a dove killed by a stalking cat. She merely observes and documents. The author eases the reader into why Bertie might view death differently. I also liked the reference “ravenous lens.” Very fitting. The last line intrigues me – “What have I done?” It makes me wonder what Bertie had to do with murder. The name Bertie seems like someone elderly and a very non-lethal person. Below are my suggestions for the author to consider:

1.) White Space & Flow – My first thoughts are to improve the use of white spacing on the page so the eye of the reader doesn’t get lost in what looks like weighty paragraphs they might skim. There are important imagery, plot details and dialogue embedded in these longer paragraphs that could be enhanced by merely showcasing them. Often, the reader’s eye looks for dialogue or (heaven forbid) they skim looking for dialogue if they see long paragraph’s ahead.

I’m a believer in steering the attention of the reader to important lines or showcasing a single line to emphasize something foreshadowing or important. I like shorter chapter lengths and using foreshadowing/cliffhanger techniques at the end of each chapter to keep the reader turning the page. I’m also suggesting the author use Bertie’s name sooner so the reader immediately knows whose head we’re in.

Here’s an example with only minor changes to tighten 1st paragraph:

Bertie spotted a delicate bird bobbing in circles, oblivious to the hungry yellow eyes hidden within the greenery. A cat searched for its own subsistence near the marble steps of the towering Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The common Laughing Dove was on the fast track out of this messed up existence.

Bertie held her breath and turned her D3x toward the ill-fated bird. Cha-click. Cha-click. Cha-click. Three-seconds. Three human heartbeats. Death happened that fast.

She looked over the top of the camera and kept the shutter going as the lean, elegant feline blinked once in thanks before skittering off, prize in mouth, drops of blood trailing. Metaphor? Or prophesy?

The pain in Bertie’s gut said both as she swiveled the camera on its tripod back to the subject at hand.

“Okay!” she shouted.

Her assistant swung his arms about and stepped out of the frame as a burst of doves hit the air for her ravenous lens.

2.) Stick with the Emotion/Show Don’t Tell – In the last long/weighty paragraph, I understand Bertie is haunted by something bad that happened. I wanted to see more of her emotion, but the clinical word translation drew me out of her head and I didn’t understand why. If this was meant to give insight into Bertie and the way she deals with things, the author must still show her emotional struggle to get the reader more invested. Perhaps her mind takes over (with the word game) while her body reacts to a dark memory, but if this is the case, it wasn’t as clear as it could have been. The author also “tells” rather than “shows” Bertie’s turmoil.

 
Here’s an example with only minor changes to tighten last paragraph:

“It has to be perfect, Amir,” she said.

Her fingers trembled as she took the shots and her stomach roiled from the memory of what happened three days ago. Hot bile rose in her belly until she thought she would throw up. She couldn’t lose it in front of Amir.

“Khalas! That’s enough. I can’t do anymore.”

Bertie abandoned her equipment and ran for the parking lot before anyone saw her break down. She stumbled behind her silver Range Rover, out of breath. Her eyes watered from the acrid smell of rubber and petrol–and something more. She held onto the rear bumper and pressed her black and white keffiyeh scarf across her mouth to stop from getting sick.

Murder. The word ricocheted inside her skull. It thundered like an avalanche and threatened to bury her, just like they had buried him.

With her eyes stinging with tears, she shut them tight to block out the images that haunted her. For days she hadn’t slept. Exhaustion had worn her down until her mind tortured her with a word game she hadn’t played since she was in college. The old language game used to soothe her. Not today.

“Necare,” she whispered, murder’s more attractive Latin equivalent. “Homicidium.”

Tears ran down her cheeks and wouldn’t stop. Bertie wrapped her trembling arms around her waist, breathing hard until her head spun. She’d crossed a line three days ago and lost the last of her innocence. How could she look anyone in the eye?

“What the hell have I done?”

Final Thoughts – All the elements are here in the submission, but by focusing on Bertie’s emotional state and showcasing certain lines, plot elements, and dialogue, this submission can become a smoother read without much effort.

Discussion: What do you think, TKZers? Please comment.

Mr. January available in print now (210 pages). Ebook pre-order $2.99!

Zoey Meager risks her life to search for her best friend Kaity in a burning warehouse, only to cross paths in the inferno with Mr. January, a mysterious man with a large black dog, completely devoted to its shadowy master.

7+

Guest Post: Harking Back To The Golden Age Of Journalism

Today we welcome back to TKZ our friend and fellow ITW member, author Lisa Black. Enjoy!

By Lisa Black

Who hasn’t wanted to be a newspaper reporter at some point in their life? Chasing a big story, elbowing your way up to shady corporations, reluctant witnesses, crusading leaders? Living on coffee and take-out, your only uniform a pair of jeans and a worn leather jacket, with the ever-present notebook and pen in hand? Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable?
At least that used to sound glamorous to me. Now it just sounds exhausting.
But I still love newspapers. Reading the day’s edition, delivered to a box at the end of my driveway, over a cup of tea is my favorite part of the day. So when I decided to set the second Gardiner and Renner book around a large city newspaper, I knew it was the right decision.
I did a ton of research, but one book that was more fun than work is titled Gimme Rewrite, Sweetheart…. It is a compilation of memories of reporters for the two major Cleveland, Ohio newspapers from when Cleveland still had two papers. Like most cities it now has one and that one only provides home print delivery four days per week.
Reporters in a bygone era could be assigned to the police beat, and their schedule became dictated by the police radio which sat on a shelf for constant monitoring. Fires, traffic accidents, helpful dispatchers warning officers that they might need noseplugs for a week-old welfare check gave the reporters a quick summary of what the story might be. But of course they couldn’t really know until they got there.
Some other tidbits of information from this book:
You may wonder why stories are ‘buried’ near the obituaries. Editors have no way to know how many people will die on any particular day so they leave a little room open near the obituaries. Late-breaking stories are placed there because there is space, not because of any editorial decision.
A reporter got on the good side of some mobsters at their trial by stealing 20-30 year old photos of them from the newspaper’s archives. Giving each a photo and saying, “Look, this is you when you were, like, 22,” made him their new buddy and got them chatting.
Back in the heady days of large staffs, each paper had specialized writers. There were religion writers, aviation writers, medicine writers. At one point both papers had dog writers.
Game-changing stories don’t always have to be herculean, dramatic efforts. One reporter, with help from the hospital’s employees, simply wandered around a hellish psychiatric ward for a day. When the state governor read the story, he strengthened state regulations to improve conditions. Another reporter wrote a story on Savings & Loans soaking home buyer on fees (one of the practices which would cause the entire economy to crash in 2008) and wound up taking on the inimical Freddie Mac. But the local Congresswoman happened to be on the House Banking Committee and Freddie Mac happened to be asking the Committee to do an IPO. Freddie Mac wound up having to make information public and belatedly enforce its own rules.
Or smaller stories—a car dealership beloved in the area for its corny TV commercials ran a contest where they awarded a car to a worthy person. The college girl winner had a father recently disabled from a heart attack, but the car she won got two flats on the way home and the exhaust system fell off. A reporter wrote the truth. Luckily for the reporter the dealership didn’t advertise in the paper, so the paper ran the story anyway—the dealership sued, but the reporter won the lawsuit. The truth, it seemed, was still a valid defense.
Some things don’t change.

****

It begins with the kind of bizarre death that makes headlines—literally. A copy editor at the Cleveland Herald is found hanging above the grinding wheels of the newspaper assembly line. Forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner has her suspicions about this apparent suicide inside the tsunami of tensions that is the news industry today—and when the evidence suggests murder, Maggie has no choice but to place her trust in the one person she doesn’t trust at all….
Jack Renner is a killer with a conscience, a vigilante with his own code of honor. He has only one problem: Maggie knows his secret. She insists he enforce the law, not subvert it. But when more newspaper employees are slain, Jack may be the only person who can help Maggie unmask the killer–even if Jack is still checking names off his own private list.

UNPUNISHED available January 31 wherever books are sold!
www.lisa-black.com
Twitter: @LisaBlackAuthor

Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.

www.lisa-black.com
@LisaBlackAuthor

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Publishing Trends to Watch in 2017

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Jordan Dane purchased image from Shutterstock

I’ve been involved in many “experiments” lately, like Amazon Marketing Services and Amazon Kindle Worlds. I plan to get more familiar with Kindle Unlimited with my upcoming release in Feb – Mr. January. Retaining my copyrights and self-publishing this book, I can explore more marketing tools to see how effective I can be. So I thought I would list some of these things to watch in 2017 as I see them. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on trends you see as important in 2017 or marketing efforts you have had success with. Join in the discussion in your comments.

Publishing Trends to Watch in 2017

Marketing Power of Digital – Print books are expected to continue a comeback in 2017, but for anyone publishing fiction, e-books drive sales and are easier to promote since social media and reader websites offer more economical ways to promote. Digital is the gift that keeps giving in that each book is on a forever shelf. Any author can recreate interest in a back list novel by repackaging the work with a new cover or new content or bundling as part of a box set. (See more on this below in “Over-crowded Digital Book Shelves.”) It’s easier for an author or publisher to focus marketing efforts in the digital arena since it’s cost effective and the exposure can be much greater, but with all the e-book competition, marketing strategies will be more important in 2017.

Small Presses & Savvy Self-Publishers are Growing – The larger traditional publishers market shares are dropping each year. Over 50% of the market share is comprised of self-publishing authors, small boutique publishers, and Amazon imprints. The challenge comes when trying to navigate this new sea of 50-percenters. Simply discounting an ebook or offering it for free won’t cut it. That makes marketing and visibility more strategic in 2017. Amazon is offering their Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) to smaller houses and indie authors. With sales stats to track the effectiveness of this AMS marketing tool, it is an easy way for authors to try it and see how it results in sales vs cost to promote.

Amazon Imprints Are Dominating – In 2016, 7 out of 10 Kindle bestsellers were from Amazon Imprints. Is there an advantage to selling a book to Amazon in 2017 when it comes to their sales ranking algorithms? I don’t know, but if anyone knows how to maximize visibility and preferential marketing spots on Amazon, it would be their own imprints, don’t you think? When traditional houses offer bare minimum of support to most mid-list authors, selling to Amazon feels like an author has a leg up on marketing and promotion when the buyer is an Amazon imprint. An Amazon imprint could give any author an edge in marketing strategy in 2017.

Kindle Unlimited Expanding – More readers in 2017 will be finding benefits to the Kindle Unlimited program and Amazon markets their program effectively. This growth trend will undoubtedly affect e-book sales and I’m sure Amazon will find more incentives for authors to try their program. I see this program expanding in 2017 to keep Amazon dominating.

Kindle KDP Select Enhancements Provide Better Outreach – If you are part of the Kindle KDP Select Program, where you publish only through Amazon for a given period of time, you are automatically enrolled in Kindle Unlimited AND the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) and will earn different enhanced royalties as incentive. The KDP Select program also provides for better royalties globally (70%) in countries like Japan, India, Brazil and Mexico. Plus authors can expand their outreach through Kindle Unlimited in the US, UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, India, Japan, and Australia. (My reader fans have complained that Kindle Worlds books aren’t available for distribution yet into their countries, but until that happens, any books I have through KDP Select is available to many of my readers.)

Over-crowded Digital Book Shelves – New e-books have to compete with the over-crowded digital shelves of digital books in 2017 that never go out of inventory. The good news is that there is endless space for digital books forever. The bad news is that authors must compete with a growing mass of books competing for readership. Don’t forget your back list, authors. Redesign your covers, obtain new praise blurbs or write new book jacket copy, get new reviews, and spend marketing dollars toward generating new interest in your tried-and-true back list. The bigger your inventory for a reader to “discover,” the more visibility you can achieve and your promo dollars can go a longer way.

Audiobook Market Is Growing – I haven’t focused on this enough, but with indie authors able to use ACX to create an indie audio book, it’s worth a shot to make your own audio book in 2017 (if you haven’t sold your audio sub-rights). It’s always a good thing to make your book available in as many formats as you can – plus you get to retain your sub-rights in audio.

Marketing Strategy Will Be More Important Than Ever – This is a tough one for me and my biggest challenge. I try new things all the time to stay effective. I’ve seen good and track-able success in Amazon Marketing Services, but there are other marketing tools, such as BookBub, Freebooksy, and Bargain Booksy. In 2017, continue to expand your marketing strategies and evaluate what is working and drop what isn’t.

Facebook Ads Declining – I’ve never been a fan of Facebook. Their ads might not seem too costly, but unless you have a good metric to establish whether these ads are truly effective and result in actual sales, it doesn’t matter how much they cost. Some authors have used FB ads to increase their mailing lists, but for actual book sales, I haven’t seen anyone who can analyze this. With Amazon Marketing Services being a better option, with sales data tied to the promo, it is a much better option.

Try Expanding Your Foreign Sales in 2017 – Part of anyone’s sub-rights are foreign sales. If you have an agent, they could be marketing this for you “a la carte” or your publisher might have gotten your foreign rights when you sold to them. These foreign sub-rights have value and a potential for growth. And if you’re lucky enough to get your back list rights returned to you, try marketing to international markets. Many international buyers love American authors. If you’re an indie author on Amazon, you would notice the foreign markets they list when you set up your book, but there are other international markets. An agent or broker might be able to enhance your sales by tapping into this resource. Some may take English language “as is” or they may require language translation, but they pay an advance for the rights. It could be worth exploring in 2017 to expand beyond US and UK readers.

Authors Find Safety in Numbers – In 2017, expect to see more authors banding together in projects where marketing and promo can be shared. Co-writing books and creating box sets can generate buzz. Authors have always been generous with other authors and it warms my heart to see this, but it also makes good sense. The best part of the Amazon Kindle Worlds books comes from the cross promotion of all the launch authors banding their efforts together. We share our readerships with all the other authors, but get a lot in return. The concept of the Kindle Worlds launches and cross-promotions is a real benefit for all authors involved.

Discussion:
1.) What trends have you noticed that you’d like to share with your TKZ family?

2.) What marketing tools have you tried and had success with? Please share.

Mr. JanuaryMercer’s War Book 1 coming Feb 2017 in print and ebook

Zoey Meager risks her life to search for her best friend Kaity in a burning warehouse, only to cross paths in the inferno with Mr. January, a mysterious man with a large black dog, completely devoted to its shadowy master.

 

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Put Your Setting to Work – First Page Critique – Unknown Rider

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

iStock image purchased by Jordan Dane

iStock image purchased by Jordan Dane

My last critique for 2016. I’ve enjoyed reading the anonymous submissions this year. We have some very talented authors following our blog. Thanks to all of you who participate with your comments and for all those brave souls who have submitted your work for our feedback. We all learn from the experience.

Enjoy UNKNOWN RIDER and I’ll have my feedback on the flip side. Please provide constructive criticism in your comments. Thank you.

***

Prologue

A narrow palm-lined alley led off the main boulevard to the boat docks. A warm front had blanketed the area with a thick overcast, obliterating the faint starlight on the moonless night. At one o’clock in the morning, the few functioning streetlights created a dimly lit gloom that made it hard to distinguish between the living and the nonliving as the tropical breeze animated palm fronds and various pieces of trash on the derelict street. It was still a quarter of a mile to the docks, but even at this distance the low-tide smell of spilled diesel fuel, dead fish, and decay polluted the air.

Frank Stodd walked quickly down one side of the pavement towards the water. He looked very much out of place in his dark suit and tie, but he hadn’t planned to be here. He had a growing suspicion that he had taken a wrong turn on the way back to the hotel, but he pressed on, looking over his shoulder every few seconds for the black Escalade. Then he patted the gun through his jacket for reassurance, and felt for the small package in his inside coat pocket. He was a large man, quite overweight, and in spite of the sea breeze blowing in towards the shore, he was sweating profusely underneath the stiff white collar of his shirt.

Maybe he could see the hotel when he got to the water at the end of the alley, he told himself. It was a well-lit high rise, after all, with a big red ‘Hilton’ on the side. There was too much at stake to blow it now.

They had seen him in the van outside the bar in old San Juan. He’d sped off immediately, cursing his bad luck, but they tailed him for several blocks. Finally, he lost them somewhere near his hotel, ditched the van, and continued on foot. The shortcut he’d taken past the marina and docks should have thrown them off. Yes, he was sure now that he’d lost them.

But against the wall of a building, well hidden in the shadows to Stodd’s left, was another man. In blue jeans and a t-shirt, he looked like anyone else you might see in the city, someone who had bubbled out of the melting pot of the Caribbean. He checked the cylinder of his revolver to confirm that it was fully loaded and wondered again whether the silencer screwed into the end of the barrel might affect the gun’s accuracy. But when he got a good look at the size of his target he decided it wouldn’t matter.

He raised the gun at arm’s length.

Stodd saw a flash from his left. There was a slight whooshing sound like someone had spit, the sledgehammer impact of the bullet, then he was lying on his side, his left arm and shoulder on fire. The pavement was cool in spite of the heat of the night, his vision blurred, and the pain took a back seat. He knew only that he was tired and wanted to rest. He closed his eyes.

FEEDBACK:

OVERVIEW – There are some gems in this intro. The author has a visual style and imagery is important. Often setting is overlooked, but not with this author. I like how he or she describes through use of the senses too. I can see Frank sweating as he lumbers through a shady part of town. But there is an issue with ORDER in this scene. The idea is to introduce a conflict and tension and build upon it, not deflate it. Below are some observations:

SETTING – The first paragraph is an author’s chance at establishing a voice. In this example, the author describes weather and setting without these elements being through any character. As much as I can appreciate a good setting, without a character seeing it, I tend to skim. I don’t even know where the description is supposed to be, other than it’s coastal and has palm trees and water. By mentioning San Juan and Caribbean much later, this appears to be Puerto Rico. Why not include a tag line to establish the location right away? That would make the setting an instant recognition for the reader and even establish a time of day. It’s best not to make the reader guess or have to reread because they thought the setting was somewhere else, like Florida.

REVISED START – I would consider starting with elements of paragraph 2. I like knowing Frank is out of place and uncomfortable where he’s walking. It makes me wonder what he’s up to, but make him sweat for more than weather. The example below is a rough draft and if it were mine I’d tweak it more, but I hope you get the idea. Getting into Frank’s head and the tension he’s feeling is the place to start.

Example – Frank Stodd picked up his pace as he walked toward the docks, looking out of place dressed in his dark suit and tie. He tugged at his stiff white collar with sweat trickling through his hair. Muggy heat turned the stench of low-tide into a vile smell of spilled diesel fuel, dead fish, and decay. He must’ve taken a wrong turn on his way back from the hotel and he kept glancing over his shoulder for the black Escalade. The small package he carried in his jacket pocket weighed heavy, pressed against his gun.

PUT YOUR SETTING TO WORK – Rather than start with a long first paragraph to establish setting, the author might consider peppering the heat and the stench and other sensory descriptions to add to Frank’s discomfort and tension. Make the setting work by using it to escalate the tension or messing with Frank’s head. I’ve incorporated some of the setting descriptions into the revised intro to exacerbate Frank’s situation and add tension. He’s a heavy man and he’s sweating, not only because of weather and where he is. He’s anxious over his situation, so an author can drop in setting through action to enhance the intended emotion for the scene, without slowing the pace.

USE of PROLOGUE – I’ve never had an editor say they wouldn’t buy something because it had a Prologue, but when you get authors together and they talk about perceived rules, they usually are not in favor of using Prologues. If a Prologue is used properly, where the inciting incident of a story begins earlier (ie Batman as a boy when he witnesses his parents murdered before he dedicates his life to fighting crime), then make it clear it’s a short segment that is the foundation for what comes. Lately, I’ve simply started on Chapter 1, even if there is an older inciting incident, because I use tag lines to establish the time and place. But I wanted to point it out, as I’m sure others might comment. I’m indifferent, but a Prologue should be used in the right way.

STICK WITH THE ACTION – Once a story has started with action, it should stick to that action and not vacillate from what’s happening to drift away from it. The idea is to BUILD on tension and not deflate it. In the short paragraph that starts with “Maybe he could see the hotel…” – this deflates the tension established when the reader sees Frank is in trouble. He thinks of getting back to his hotel and even the line of “not blowing it now” is ‘telling’ and could be deleted to stick with the action of him being tailed.

ACTION OUT OF ORDER – The action in this opener is out of order. The author should resolve this to not lose any momentum in the action from start to finish.

“They had seen him in the van…” This is a 4th paragraph flashback to an earlier incident the same evening. The author could consider starting at that point where Frank is spotted by shady characters or by men in the Escalade and he tries to outrun them in his overweight condition, not dressed for the occasion. Or have Frank evading the Escalade and stick with the action to have the vehicle find him again. No need to go back. No matter which way the author decides, the action should gain momentum and tension should be mounted and not diffused.

KNOW YOUR WEAPON – Another point I would like to make with regard to action – once guns are drawn, there’s no time for checking for bullets in a revolver. Frank was nervous enough to pat down his pocket to make sure he had his gun. He should know if it’s loaded. I’m also a believer in adding details like the type of revolver. Most gun enthusiasts know what they are carrying. It looks novice if the author ignores the details. I’m also thinking guys who ride around in Escalades, aren’t carrying revolvers. I’d be thinking of ramping up the firepower to a semi-auto.

A SUPPRESSOR ON A REVOLVER? – A revolver has a short barrel. Between the cylinder (bullets) and the forcing cone is the cylinder gap where the gases, flames, and sound escape when fired. VIDEO ON THE MYTH The way this intro is written, very generically, most crime fiction readers would question a suppressor on a revolver unless the author can research a type of gun like the Nagant M1895, a Russian revolver, where these gases are contained. Here’s a VIDEO of someone shooting a suppressed Nagant. Look at how large this weapon is (with suppressor) and how difficult it would be for Frank to have it under his jacket. I don’t see how a suppressor enhances this scene and it actually stands out as a research error. Plus if other people are shooting back, without suppressors, what’s the point of Frank being stealthy? I tend to think of suppressed weapons as in the hands of assassins or killers who are the aggressors. Frank seems to have the weapon for defense purposes.

POV – In the sentence below, the author brings in a shooter, but since the guy is “well hidden,” how can Frank see him? It would appear to be an omniscient POV as was the first paragraph where the setting is described without being in Frank’s head. I would strongly suggest one POV in this scene, through Frank’s eyes.

“But against the wall of a building, well hidden in the shadows to Stodd’s left, was another man.”

FRANK SHOT – Frank seems like he’s resting rather than shot at the end. I know in the heat of the moment, often gunshot wounds aren’t felt (except as a punch) when the adrenaline is high, but I would consider shortening the sentences and making him feel more than tired, just to add tension for the reader. He seems too calm.

DISCUSSION:

1.) What do you think, TKZers? Comments anyone? What do you like? What would you suggest to improve this intro?

intheeyesofthedead_highres

In the Eyes of the Dead – $1.99 Ebook – Ryker Townsend FBI Profiler series

After four teens are murdered, a mysterious Santeria holy man and his devoted followers force Ryker and Athena to join forces to uncover a tragic truth.

 

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The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction – ‘A Disloyal Element’ Critique

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Confederate General Robert E Lee

Confederate General Robert E Lee

 

For your reading enjoyment, we have an anonymous first 400 words submission from a daring soul. My feedback will follow. The author would appreciate your constructive criticism in comments. Thank you.

The procession of Yankees moved down Richmond’s High Street, clanking chains muffled by snow. Footsteps left a bloody path. Some wore whatever could be held together with rope to substitute for shoes. Many wore no coat. Some were bound for Chimborazo Hospital, the others Castle Thunder, Belle Isle or Libby Prison. Their faces were etched with apprehension, despair, dread, fear. Some appeared dejected, others stood straight and walked proudly.

The unknown lie ahead for them. Annie stood looking, useless, her hands clenched in her pockets unable to help or comfort them. How many would be dead in a month? Conditions were abysmal at the prisons. She’d heard stories. Prisoners who got too close to the barred windows were shot on sight. There were probably worse atrocities people were afraid to talk about.

Once they went in, they were never seen again. These men had families they longed to see and who longed to have them safe at home. How do you hold onto hope when it seems you’ve been forgotten? The war had gone on for nearly three years now with no end in sight.

The prisoners continued the slow march down the road. One man faltered in his step for a moment and collapsed to his knees. His comrades came to his aid and lifted him up to continue. Most of the citizens ignored them as they passed by, but members of The Butchertown Cats, one of Richmond’s street gangs, called out names not uttered in polite society and used slingshots to hurl stones at the men. These street toughs were little more than boys themselves, many only months away from being conscripted for service in the Army. The bravado they displayed today would be tested by their first taste of battle. A member of the local constabulary broke up the toughs and they ran in different directions. The prisoners they taunted marched on to face whatever fate God had for them.

Annie watched until they turned the corner and were out of sight. A green tartan scarf lay in the snow where the prisoners had just walked. It looked brand new and certain to be missed by its owner. A gift, perhaps, from a loved one. She started for the object in a vain attempt to return it when one of the Butchertown Cats flew past her and scooped up the garment and ran in the opposite direction.

Feedback

I was drawn into this submission by the human suffering and the idea of prisoners of war being paraded through Richmond. The word ‘Yankees’ and Richmond hinted at a Civil War period piece, but I had to look up the hospital name to be sure. The time period is a good one for intriguing stories, so the author had me hooked. But I have the following suggestions for consideration.

1.) Give Context – A tag line at the outset would clarify without a doubt this is a historical work about the Civil War. Something simple like – Richmond, Virginia and the date somewhere between 1861-1865 – would suffice. The reader would be oriented at the beginning.

2.) Make Point of View (POV) Relatable – The start of this offering, and most of the writing, is told in omniscient POV. This submission reminded me of a recent and excellent post by James Scott Bell on “The Perils of Author Voice.” Annie the observer first shows up in the 2nd paragraph and again in the final paragraph, but it’s not clear to me that she actually sees the whole procession and the men trudging toward their fate. It’s as if she sees into the heads of all the men marching (omniscient).

Think how much this beginning would change if Annie is the sole POV and the reader sees everything through her eyes. By orienting the reader inside Annie’s head, we learn more about her and the time period, as well as the story of the men she has empathy for. If you pick one POV per scene, where the reader can only see through that character’s eyes, the story will be more intimidate and emotional. In omniscient POV, the reader is held at a distance to be a neutral observer. This might work for some stories, but I prefer seeing history unfold through the strife of an endearing or compelling character.

Let’s take Annie. What could her story be?

Annie could find someone in the march who reminds her of her younger brother who’s missing in action. She leaps over the backs of tall men, straining for a glimpse of the rabble. When she sees a familiar gait or a pair of blue eyes she’ll never forget , she races after the men. She hides among them, maybe has the guards racing to pull her out. She sees each man’s suffering from the way they smell to the bones under their clothes from starvation. They beg her for water. They bleed on her clothes. The reader would more fully understand the plight of these men while also finding out about Annie.

  • What is Annie’s last name?
  • Why is she there?
  • What are her politics?
  • How is she treated as a woman during this period?
  • Is she looking for someone, is she a spy, or does she disdain the enemy?

3.) Add a Dose of Historical Perspective – The writing has a modern feel to it. There is no attempt to use historical authenticity using terminology from the time period or by inserting some clothing/uniform descriptions. Historical readers are fanatics about getting the history right. The insertion of “dark blue trousers and kepi caps” or the guards carrying “Springfield muskets and sabers” could add something. Depending on her backstory, Annie may not know details of weaponry, but during a time of war, I’m sure she’s seen what men wear and use in battle.

A resource I found on Civil War Terminology might help insert a few key descriptions to make the writing appear more period. Here is a resource for Civil War Uniform description. This is a resource for Civil War Weapons that the Confederate soldiers might be carrying as they take the prisoners down the street. These are quick resources I found online from a simple query. Experienced authors of historical fiction have a vast amount of reliable sites they use.

For Discussion:

What would you add, TKZers?

Would you turn the page?

Do you have good resource links for the Civil War?

 

Croco Designs

Coming November 15 – In The Eyes of The Dead (Omega Team/Amazon Kindle Worlds)

FBI profiler Ryker Townsend and Omega Team’s Athena Madero join forces in a small Texas border town after ritualistic murders of four teens point toward a sinister Santeria priest and his secret believers.

Cover by Frauke Spanuth at Croco Designs

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First Page Critique – Miss Bryson Loses Her Hat

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Image By Frode Inge Helland - Wikipedia Commons

Image By Frode Inge Helland – Wikipedia Commons

An anonymous author has submitted the first 400 words of a work-in-progress. Please enjoy Miss Bryson Loses Her Hat and I’ll have my two cents on the flip side. Share your constructive comments to assist the author in making this intro shine.

Scene one
Once a girl crashed to the floor with a bone-shaking thud before a thousand people, it gave her a clarity of mind she lacked prior to the event. In Lara Bryson’s case, it elucidated too late the hazards of satin slippers on a freshly polished floor, and illuminated, in a flash of searing insight, the vagaries of a God who, in blessing her with an angelic voice, tempered it with the less benevolent bestowal of two left feet.

Yes, He seemed to say, in a voice Lara imagined as a rolling thunderous crack rending the heavens, she could sing as gloriously as the seraphim, just never in company, and never anywhere requiring the use of her legs.

If only He’d bothered to tell her this before she sold every possession, expended every shilling, and endured sixteen perilous hours battened to the top of a London Mail Coach.

Even a hint five minutes earlier would’ve sufficed.

Instead, Lara lay crumpled and mortified. The roar of adulation that had provoked a warm tingling sensation to cascade like a waterfall through her limbs moments before replaced with the frenzied gasps of a mob titillated by the unexpected sight of a lady splayed out like a ragdoll.

Even more lowering, the dismal conviction that her promise to her dying mother to sing for the Queen would remain forever unfulfilled settled like a rock in Lara’s heart.

The clip, clip, clip of boots dashing across a wooden floor interrupted Lara’s fit of the blue devils. She guessed she had about thirty seconds to find a dignified way out of the Ballroom before the crowd reached her.

Or she could crawl.

The odds poor she’d get upright in a graceful manner, and stay there, slinking away on all fours seemed not only the best option, but a fitting end to her wretched evening. Her decision made, Lara clamped her eyes shut, and prayed silently; God, if you wish to keep alive what little trust I still have in You right now, then at least clear a path for me to slink out of here.

“Clear a path everyone, and give the lady some air.”

Lara gasped; never before had she received such a direct answer from above. The request for air an inspired touch. An exotic woody scent drifted over her. Sandalwood. Interesting; she’d thought myrrh.

The voice spoke again, “Are you hurt?”

Feedback:

The intro is reminiscent of the beginning to a fairy tale as it starts with, “Once a girl…” The tag line Scene One reminded me of a script. I’m not sure why it’s there. But overall, I enjoyed the proper British tone of the author voice and the way the girl’s plight was detailed–it’s like Downton Abbey meets Bridget Jones–with an undertone of controlled humor. I sense a Cinderella story coming, although I can’t be sure in this short intro.

Here are a few things for the author to think about:

1.) Add More Mystery – Who are the 1,000 people? In the first sentence, we hear of the girl’s fall. The audience is not emphasized much until we get a hint at the promise she made to her dying mother, to sing for the Queen. If this is indeed a performance for the Queen, why not play that up more? Or at the very least, hint at the once in a lifetime opportunity, the titillation of the crowd, the tension as she builds to the moment where she walks out. The fall is put into the first sentence, very anti-climactic, because the author chose to focus on her mortification in great detail.

2.) Flip the Scene – Imagine this scene starting another way. As the girl’s mind prepares for her big moment (a moment the author holds back but only hints at), she’s haunted by the promise she made her mother on her deathbed. Tension builds. Her palms sweat. Every movement in her routine replays in her head as she waits in the wings of the stage or outside the ballroom, but the crowd noise and her mother’s face haunt her. She is introduced and the music starts. When she walks out under a glaring spotlight, she sees the silhouette of the Queen in the shadows. Everything is the way she visualized it and her mother’s voice fades in her mind. The stage is set for perfection, but that doesn’t happen. The end of the intro comes when she falls. Every reader will want to know – what comes next?

3.) Use of Humor – There is definitely charming humor written into this piece. It appeals to me, very much. But keep in mind that humor can diminish intrigue or lessen the danger in a scene or shift the focus if it’s used too much. (As an example, a smart mouthed detective can appear too confident and invincible if he doesn’t act afraid when a gun is pointed at him. Over time and as the pages turn, the reader becomes insulated to any danger and never fears for the protag’s life.) In this case, we are drawn into Lara’s cynical, self-deprecating humor about the wreck of her life and her big fall when she may resonate more with the reader if there’s a focus on the action, rather than her internal monologue. A sparing use of her humor could be used after the fall, but let the reader feel her anticipation of a promise fulfilled before we know what happens. I get the feeling this author is quite funny, but less can be more to make Lara endearing. Let her think big before reality sets in. It will make the punch line better.

4.) Who is her Prince? – I know this is only 400 words, but I am really intrigued by who this person is at the end. Her savior. This is a tribute to the author’s writing and the set up. There is a lot of internal monologue as the scene progresses, when what I really wanted to know is mentioned above and who this person is at the end.

5.) Scenes are Mini-Stories – I think of each scene in a book like a mini-story. There’s a beginning, middle and end. Each scene should progress the story forward with at least 1-3 plot points. If an author does this, the writing will be tight and each scene serves a purpose. There’s also a character journey within the scene where the protagonist will grow, learn something to advance the plot, or raise more questions to foreshadow what might be coming. With this in mind, I like the intro to a scene to have a strong opener, a tight middle with mystery elements to intrigue the reader, and a foreshadowing of things to come that will keep the reader turning the page. In Miss Bryson Loses Her Hat, this mini-story can be accomplished by sticking with the action building to her fall, with only a hint of how important this is to her and who she is dancing for. The big conclusion of the fall and who comes to her aid can be the foreshadowing and make a great page turner. (Another trick to make a page turner is to split a scene and carry it over into the next chapter. It’ll keep readers up late and you may get an email in the early hours saying, “I can’t stop reading.”)

Conclusion:

I really want to turn the page and read on. Kudos to the author. Overall, I love this author’s voice, but even with that talent, there is still a need for how to create and build on an introduction. Elements of mystery are very important, no matter what the genre. I like to tease the reader with questions as they read on, then build on the suspense to answer those questions as the reader finishes each paragraph. Add more mystery elements as the scene progresses and you’ll hook them deeper and in multiple ways.

Discussion:

1.) What feedback would you give this brave author, TKZers?

2.) Would you keep reading?

3.) Can you imagine this premise starting differently?

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