Ways to Add Humor into Suspense – First Page Critique: WOW

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

I have another first page critique. An anonymous author has submitted their first 400 words for critique at TKZ. It takes guts, folks. My feedback is below and please comment with your observations.

***

I levered the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay and a bullet slammed into my back. Below the right shoulder blade. More to the center. That difficult spot where if you’ve got a rash or insect bite it’s impossible to scratch and not look like you’re having a spastic seizure. If I knew this was the night someone was out to kill me I would have brought something up from the cellar that was more unique than a domestic Chardonnay, even though it had a pleasant balance of oak to it. There was that Nieto Senetiner Malbec from Argentina, I was holding for a special occasion, for example.

Anyway, the chard went flying, the bottle hit my hardwood floor, didn’t break, the amber liquid flowed out. As for me, the impact of the slug jolted me forward. I tripped over my feet and did a full body slam on the deck.

There I was, face down, flat on a hard wood floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps crunch their way over to me. We’re talking serious, heavy duty, outdoorsman leather soles here. All I was grateful for at this point is that I still wore my bullet proof vest from work. No, I’m not a cop, not a private dick sort of guy, no security guard, ex-military or something like that. I worked in a dentist’s officer. Name’s
Wowjewodizic, by the way.

I stayed still, bit the inside of my cheek to distract me from the pain in my back and waited. Waited for the, what’s it called, the ‘coup de – something or other,’ where the bullet enters the back of the skull and you don’t care where it goes next because you’re dead.

Then it occurred to me, this guy, or gal, probably not likely due to the heavy feet, didn’t use a silencer. This was a full on, make-a-lot-of-noise, gunshot. He wasn’t concerned about the blast drawing attention from the neighbors. Then again, my nearest neighbor was three miles away. And it was raining. It does that a lot in Portland, Oregon.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW: This story feels like a cozy mystery with liberal use of humor through the first person voice of the protagonist. in this scene, someone is shot and yet I don’t feel any danger. In the first few lines, the reader learns the protagonist is shot and yet there is far more importance placed on the awkwardness of an insect bite.

I levered the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay and a bullet slammed into my back. Below the right shoulder blade. More to the center. That difficult spot where if you’ve got a rash or insect bite it’s impossible to scratch and not look like you’re having a spastic seizure.

The author voice detracts from any suspense. If the point is the humor, I would think a whole book would make it a challenge to get through, at least for me. I want a plot to follow and characters I care about when they’re in real danger. In suspense/mystery/thrillers, I prefer a more subtle use of humor. At the foundation of every story needs to be a solid plot with escalating stakes and conflict.

STICK WITH THE ACTION – The action of the protagonist getting shot is completely masked by the mental meanderings of the voice, making leaps between wines, insect bites, the gender of the shooter by how weighty the footsteps are, and Portland weather.

In this intro, there’s a seesaw effect of telling a bit of the story, then wading into a distraction of backstory or awkward asides told through the voice of the character. It gave me the feeling of constantly treading water until I’m exhausted, trying to figure out what the story is about. When distractions outweigh the plot, a reader can lose track of the plot and not finish a book.

SETTING – There’s very little setting written into this excerpt and it takes awhile for the reader to piece together where the protag is. A wine cellar is mentioned, but it’s not until the protag mentions “my hardwood floors” that the reader sees he could be at his home. There are subtle ways to add setting without hindering the pace if the descriptions are part of the action. As a reader, I like to get a feeling for setting in books I enjoy.

LINES BEST USED IN DIALOGUE – The line below is an example of how the author could have stuck to the action of the shooting, yet gotten the humor across through dialogue with another character. Witty repartee with a detective, for example, would allow the author to pepper in humor without overdoing it.

If I knew this was the night someone was out to kill me I would have brought something up from the cellar that was more unique than a domestic Chardonnay, even though it had a pleasant balance of oak to it.

FIRST PERSON/GENDER & RAMBLING NARRATIVE – It’s not until this line (toward the end of the 3rd paragraph) that the reader knows the protag is a man–only 3 words. As a practice, I like to get the gender straight at the start whenever I write first person. I love the intimacy of that voice, but there are challenges to it. In the case of this excerpt, I think the author absolutely listened to the protag and wrote down every word they heard in their head, but in first person, you have to direct the action and what you want revealed about your character. It’s too tempting to ramble away from the plot.

No, I’m not a cop, not a private dick sort of guy, no security guard, ex-military or something like that.

RUN ON SENTENCES – I found these sentences hard to follow and the punctuation bothered me. I understand the need to write quicker thoughts in an action scene, but I don’t consider this an action scene with all the asides and random thoughts that detract from the flow. The author might consider breaking these sentences apart. Rather than one long sentence, it could make the writing flow better and improve the natural cadence.

There I was, face down, flat on a hard wood floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps crunch their way over to me.

REALISM – I found it unbelievable that the protag would lay there and wait for the shooter to finish the job, while he’s trying to figure out ‘coup de – something or other,’ determine what gender has heavier footfalls, whether the shooter used a silencer, and the rainfall in Portland, Oregon.

TYPO – Unless this is an obscure job I’ve never heard of, ‘officer’ should be ‘office.’

I worked in a dentist’s officer.

USE OF HUMOR IN BOOKS

Many authors use humor in their suspense thrillers in various ways: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Janet Evanovich, Harlen Coben, Lawrence Block, Robert Crais, Elmore Leonard, John Sanford, to name a few. There are countless more who have found ways to add humor to their books. I’ve added an excerpt from one of Carl Hiaasen’s stories below. He and Janet Evanovich tip the scale more toward humor than suspense, but have developed a great balance and a loyal reader following.

Excerpt from Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl intro:

On the first day of February, sunny but cold as a frog’s balls, a man named Lane Coolman stepped off a flight at Miami International, rented a mainstream Buick and headed south to meet a man in Key West. He nearly made it.

Twenty-seven miles from Coolman’s destination, an old green Firebird bashed his car from behind. The impact failed to trigger the Buick’s airbags, but Coolman heard the rear bumper dragging. He steered off the highway and dialed 911. In the mirror he saw the Firebird, its grille crimped and steaming, pull onto the shoulder. Ahead stood a sign that said: “Ramrod Key.”

Coolman went to check on the other driver, a woman in her mid-thirties with red hair.

“Super-duper sorry,” she said.

What the hell happened?”

“Just a nick. Barely bleeding.”She held her phone in one hand and a disposable razor in the other.

“Are you out of your mind?” said Coolman.

The driver’s jeans and panties were bunched around her knees. She’d been shaving herself when she smashed Coolman’s rental car.

“I got a date,” she explained.

“You couldn’t take care of that at home?”

“No way! My husband would get so pissed.”

In this example, Hiaasen puts his serious minded characters in outlandish situations using his tongue in cheek humor to allow things to play out. He sticks with the action of a car crash (the disturbance) until the reader finds out what caused the wreck. The dialogue lines are funny, too. The humor is downplayed and yet very present and fluid. It’s how Hiaasen sees his story unfolding. His use of humor is subtle and becomes a thread that holds the story together and creates his author voice. The idea of placing very earnest characters into a complete farce, and yet allow them to confront things in a serious-minded way, it adds an element of the absurd that becomes funny.

WAYS TO ADD HUMOR

1.) Add a funny character, whether it’s the protag or a secondary character.

2.) Have your serious-minded characters confront absurd and escalating situations without seeing the humor themselves. They are facing life or death. Only the reader gets the joke.

3.) Know how to separate or add humor into a suspense/action scene. I recently wrote a scene where I didn’t expect there to be humor. My hero is in a shootout but he gets a cell phone call from a girl. What does he do? I wrote the scene all action, then came back to add in the moments where I thought he might realistically answer that call, without him looking silly or stupid. It gave insight into him and added unanticipated humor to a tense scene. I also underplayed the phone call and made it seem normal, until you see what he’s doing while he’s talking to her.

4.) Throw in the unexpected. Imagine your serious character getting jolted by something he or she never saw coming. How would they handle it?

5.) Develop witty banter between characters in conflict or dare to write characters with different kinds of humor. Pit an educated cynic up against someone with crude bathroom humor in a juxtaposition of character types. You’ll find these characters take on a life of their own in your head and it’s lots of fun to write. Making each voice distinctive in humor is key.

DISCUSSION

What do you think of the anonymous submission, TKZers? Any feedback?

 

5+

Anti-Heroes: Why We Love Them & Keys Ways to Give Them Depth

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

After John Gilstrap’s post yesterday on The Code, a nostalgic reflection on storytelling in his lifetime, it got me thinking about my favorite type of protagonist – the anti-hero.

One of the first “in your face” anti-heroes I remember came from the small screen – HOUSE. He said things we might secretly wish we could and get away with it, but when TV audiences saw how deeply flawed he was, coupled with his vulnerabilities and quirky sense of right and wrong, he became endearing and very watchable.

Here are a few outstanding anti-heroes for your consideration:
Michael Corleone from the Godfather
Walter White & Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad
John McClane from the Die Hard movies
Don Draper from Mad Men
Tony Soprano from the Sopranos
Ray Donovan from the show by the same name.
Jack Bauer from 24
George Costanza from Seinfeld
Patrick Jane from the Mentalist
Dexter Morgan from Dexter

These amazingly memorable characters have introduced a broader use of gray into classic Hollywood’s black and white world of storytelling where the bad guys literally wore black hats in early films. Anti-heroes aren’t pure heroes in the classic sense. They have flaws and baggage that make them borderline villain, but not quite. It’s up to the author who creates them to infuse something redeemable, even if the author simply gives them a dog, like JOHN WICK.

So why the change toward anti-heroes and why have they become so intriguing?

You’d have to look at how much our world has changed, the complex nature of our lives has shifted our moral compass and made resolutions ambiguous. The simple white hat cowboy may appear weak unless he’s willing to confront dark villains who aren’t hindered by a moral code. Anti-heroes are “over the top” strong in their field and are willing to break conventional rules to save the day once they commit to the fight and cross the point of no return. They right the wrongs that seem insurmountable because they are larger than life and don’t let rules or laws get in the way of justice.

Why are we drawn to anti-heroes?

For me, I see them as flawed. They’re not perfect, like classic heroes in Hollywood or in literature were portrayed. I can relate to them better because it makes me feel as if, given the right circumstances, anyone can rise to the level of hero if they have a cause worth fighting for. We also want to see if they are redeemable. Give your anti-hero a chance to grab at redemption in your book and see if he takes it. Or will he find love from a strong woman? Once we get hooked on an anti-hero, we root for them and feel their pain more when they fall. We want them to get back up, because they’re “every man.” And the fact they are not cookie-cutter, and do surprising things and are unpredictable, they make the storytelling fun.

Who would have rooted for a high school teacher turned drug dealer if we hadn’t learned of his cancer, his concern for his family in the face of his financial meltdown, and his rising medical bills. He’s bucking a broken health care system like David standing before Goliath. He’s more worried over his family than his own recovery. He’s got nothing to lose.

Anti-heroes change our way of thinking about confrontation and empowerment. The right anti-hero can give voice to our frustrations and give us an alternative reality to find justice.

Below are tips to add depth to your anti-hero/heroine & make them sympathetic:

  1. Give Them a Reason—A reader will lose interest if your character is a complete jerk for half the book. Sprinkle in the valid reasons for them being who they are and clue the reader in on these reasons early so they can buy in, even if the other characters don’t know their motivations.
  1. Does Gender Make a Difference? In general, I’ve noticed that readers accept bad boys faster than they embrace a female lead character who isn’t perfect. I don’t know why this is, but it can make crafting your female characters a challenge.
  1. Make them human—Give them a code they live by or loyalties a reader can understand and empathize with. Even a dark anti-hero/heroine has a softer side. In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter was Clarice’s protector with his peculiar brand of loyalty.
  1. Give Them a Soft Edge—If you give even the toughest brooding character a pet or a soft spot for a kid, they will be endearing to readers. Write the darkest character and match them up with something soft and you’ve got a winning combination.
  1. Show Respect—Everyone looks up to a good leader. Show that others admire or respect your dark character and the reader will too.
  1. Stick Redemption under Their Nose—Give your anti-hero a shot at redemption. What choice will they make?
  1. Make Them Vulnerable—Pepper in a back-story that makes your anti-hero vulnerable—betrayed by love, lost an important person in their life, or other tragic experience. Make them fearful of something, perhaps even themselves.
  1. Forge Them from Weakness—Alcohol or drugs, adrenaline addict, insurmountable grief, or fear of the dark. Force them to battle with their deepest fears, making them worth someone’s struggle to win them over.
  1. Make Them Corrupted by Life—Have them see life through personal experiences that we can only imagine but they have lived through. Make trust an issue because they have been betrayed. They must be much more vulnerable than they are cynical to deserve the kind of significant other that it takes to open them up to someone else.
  1. Make Them Real—To be real, they must have honest emotions. That means you, as an author, must delve into the murky corners of your own mind to get into their heads. It’s not always an easy thing to do.

DISCUSSION:

1.) Who are some of your favorite anti-heroes and tell us why? (from TV, movies, or books)

2.) Do you have any other anti-hero crafting tips to share?

My anti-hero – Mercer Broderick as Mr. January. Preorder ebook for $2.99 at Amazon.

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

10+

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.

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Getting Your Homework Done

I have a friend who, even as he has achieved septuagenarian status, remains the master of the bon mot. We were talking about the finality of life and about people of our age group — primarily women we had, um, known in the past — who had already gone ahead. The conversation turned to health, and how fragile it gets as that unknown sell-by date approaches. He capped off the conversation by saying, “Gee! I better hurry up and get my homework done!”

Indeed. It seems as if we are stuck in a Lewis Carroll novel, where we must run faster to stay in place. And what happened with that technological helping hand? Technology was supposed to help us get more accomplished; instead it seems to have inadvertently created more tasks, providing us with a longer reach which is ill-suited  to work with our increasingly arthritic grasp. This doesn’t just apply to those of us who are old enough to remember when television consisted of three channels, either. My ten year granddaughter was recently assigned to write a one-paragraph essay as a homework assignment. She turned in an extremely sub-standard effort — one at odds with her stratospheric IQ — which ended with the sentence: “I wrote this in the car on the way to school.” She earned a grade of “SEE ME” from the teacher. It developed that our darling had gotten caught up in a roleplaying game the night before, which was more interesting than a writing a paragraph could ever be, and then gave it her all, if you will, on the way to school the following morning.

Writers are faced with this time balance on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Life gets in the way of writing. Heck, life gets in the way of life. My way of dealing with this has never been perfect and is constantly evolving. I am accordingly going to share with you my current method for coping with the time crunch, which, as I approach the downhill slope of my life, actually works pretty well.

1)  Eat the booger first. That got your attention, didn’t it? The “booger” in this case is the task you want to do least. It can be anything from emptying the dishwasher to drafting that letter that contains bad news for the recipient. Do that first. Do it as soon as you get the bad news that you have been appointed to pass on. Do it when the dishwasher light goes on, or it buzzes, or whatever. I have found in most cases that the freakin’ idea of whatever it is you need to do but don’t want to is often worse than actually doing it.

Here is but one example. I’ve been fighting the clutter monster, which for me  consists of paper, paper, paper. I had reached the point where a home shredder wasn’t getting the job done. Lo and behold, I discovered that some UPS Store outlets have contracted with the Iron Mountain folks to shred paper at a reasonable price. Problem solved. I started with the goal of going through one box a week to determine what I need (a closed file concerning a client that I still represent on other matters) to what I don’t (a receipt for a garage door repair done in…well, not this century). I am now enjoying it so much that I have to put a limit on the number of boxes I go through in a day, because I wasn’t getting other things done.

2) List your Big Four. List four things which you try to do every day, regardless of what else happens. Put them in your calendar (on daily repeat) at the beginning of your day. Assign one word to each task — Watch, Read, Write, and Listen, for example — and do each of those things for fifteen minutes each day. If you want to keep doing them, fine, but the first time that you start each one  be sure to stop after fifteen minutes. Come back to each one later, if you wish and if you can, but again, in fifteen minute increments. Do it with tasks that you want or have to do regularly, and love or hate (or somewhere in between) , but do each for fifteen minutes at a time. You will be surprised at how long and how short a quarter-hour is, and how much you can get done in that time period. This is particularly true of writing. Depending on your typing speed, inspiration, and perspiration, you can get a couple of hundred words out of you and on the screen in fifteen minutes. What? You say that doesn’t sound like much? Count out two hundred Skittles and throw them around the living room. Now pick them up. See. Two hundred is a lot. Do that for ten days and you have two thousand words or more, where before you had nothing. And so it goes.

3) Schedule things realistically, and adjust your expectations accordingly. It isn’t going to take you fifteen minutes to prepare your income tax return, so don’t schedule that from 10:00 to 10:15 on the night of April 14. You’ll just be making an appointment to be kissed by the goddess of disappointment. Go ahead and block off fifteen minutes for it, across twenty different days, or block off an entire day, if you can do it. You have a pretty good idea how long it takes you, however, from past experience, which is usually a pretty good indicator of present performance. But be realistic in your estimates of how long it takes you and how long you can work on it at a stretch. Think of YOUR abilities and limitations.  Mickey Spillane wrote I the Jury in nineteen days, and Georges Simenon could write a book in less time than that, but you or I aren’t going to do that (probably). Don’t get discouraged when it takes longer than you thought it would, and plan accordingly.

4) Stay the fu-heck off of the phone. And if you can’t, learn how to cut calls short. I am running over my scheduled time for writing this blog because my brother called me and I took the call, which he made to tell me a hysterically funny joke. One thing led to another and all of a sudden I found myself behind the eightball. Some calls you have to take, particularly if you have children who need you for whatever reason.  I’m currently helping a guy who is struggling with the first steps of sobriety. He calls. I’m there. Period. End of story, and to heck with the schedule. When dealing with most other folks, however, I tell them upfront that I am busy and can either 1) give them five minutes before I have to leave or 2) call them back the next day. Make it stick. Be polite, and most people understand.

The great part of all of this is that it doesn’t take two hours out of each day to set up. I’ve worked with systems that used cards, diaries, etc.  This doesn’t. You can make it up and set it up fairly quickly. In the case of my granddaughter, she could have eaten the booger first by writing the essay as soon as she got home, then played her computer game for fifteen minutes, done her other homework, then gone back to the games. She’ll learn, hopefully, though it took me long enough to do so. And I didn’t think this up by myself. I got the fifteen minute thing from a woman who calls herself “The Flylady” and the suggestion to “eat the booger first” from a friend in Louisiana. So use what you like and what works for you. Which brings us to the end of me and the beginning of you: what methods have you used and acquired to stay productive?

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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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Showing and Telling for Thanksgiving

kristy

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all! That said, I have to say that it is extremely inconsiderate of Abraham Lincoln to have scheduled a time-consuming national holiday near the closing stretch of everyone’s NaNoWriMo effort (I mean, the nerve!).  I do, however, have an entertaining suggestion to get you back on your creative track after you have finished dinner. It is also a very basic but extremely well done example of showing instead of telling.

Show, not tell. How often we hear those three words. We often find ourselves telling instead of showing, however, during our writing. It’s understandable because more it’s easier to write “Jack is tall” as opposed to “Jack was easy to spot. To say he looked like Gulliver among a roomful of Lilliputians would be an exaggeration, but not by much”  is harder, but it reads better and begins to set up the locale of your story. That isn’t the post-Thanksgiving creative jumper and example I was talking about, however; no, that would be a film titled Kristy, a slasher film for folks who don’t like slasher films.

Kristy is a very low budget holiday horror film (currently streaming on Netflix) that gets its money’s worth out of every production dime it spent.  The film stars Haley Bennett, who is currently prominently featured in the film adaptation of The Girl on the Train. If I were pitching the idea for Kristy I would call it “Die Hard goes to school.” The premise is fairly basic. A young woman named Justine unexpectedly finds herself alone on her small, rural college campus (but for a couple of  policemen) over the Thanksgiving holiday when she is unexpectedly pursued with great malice and bad intent by a group of masked individuals who insist on calling her “Kristy.” It’s a slow boil for the first half or so of the film, as we watch Justine bid her friends farewell and  go through the paces of studying, getting dinner from a vending machine, doing laundry, and some other mundane things. That first half is also the most important part of the movie, because we learn about Justine. I could tell you, but Kristy SHOWS you what she is studying and what one of her extracurricular activities is (two things that become very important during the second half of the film). Examples abound. The body language between Justine and Aaron, her boyfriend, during the short course of their post, pre-holiday boombah shows two people who aren’t quite on the same page of their relationship without a word being mentioned. Justine conveys compassion, courtesy, and angst with a sentence or a look; the long camera shots up the (initially) quiet and secluded dormitory corridors, with room doors cheerfully decorated create an atmosphere of solitude and loneliness. By the time that Justine attracts the attention of a group of murderous sleazoids when she makes a trip to a local convenience store we pretty much know that she is not the daughter of an Army Ranger who taught her everything she knew.  That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t know anything about defending herself. She just needs to apply what she knows to the matter of defending herself…if she can. If you pay attention to the first half of the movie, you’ll know what she can do, if the creeps don’t get her first.

Yes, there is violence during Kristy, but it’s not gratuitous (well, not entirely). While I wouldn’t let the youngsters watch it I wouldn’t let them watch Old Yeller, either. Kristy has a happier ending. Oh, and if you hate movies where a guy comes in and saves the damsel in distress you will absolutely love Kristy. The reason that I mention it here, however, is that it’s instructive in showing rather than telling, and entertaining too. The reason that I mention it now is that…well, it’s a Thanksgiving  holiday movie with a warm ending. Heh heh heh.

Again, Happy Thanksgiving, whether you take my recommendation or otherwise. Your turn now. What was your best or worst Thanksgiving? My best was in 2006 when my granddaughter was born. My worst was in 1994 when I set my kitchen on fire making dinner. You? And if you have had a Thanksgiving holiday like Justine, please share.

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Setting the Stage for Suspense – First Page Critique: Staying Alive

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased from Fotolia by Jordan Dane

Purchased from Fotolia by Jordan Dane

 

A brave anonymous author has submitted the first 400 words of their WIP – STAYING ALIVE. Read and enjoy. Catch you on the flip side for my feedback & your constructive criticism in comments.

***

The Dobbs Hotel wasn’t much to look at, a cheap dump really, but if you were going to kill someone, it was the perfect spot.

Nestled down a dark side street in one of Miami’s rougher areas, about a half-block off Northwest Seventh Street, it was little more than a flop — not even good enough for whores and their johns — surrounded by a neighborhood of closed eyes and silent tongues. Just what Jimmy Quintana needed for this job.

He and Raúl pulled up in front. No other cars in sight. A dim streetlamp down on the corner and the vertical neon sign in front of the hotel were the only sources of light, and they weren’t much. The moon was blacked out by low clouds moving in from the Keys, assuring a late-night rain. They checked their weapons — semi-automatic pistols — each jacking a round into the chamber and affixing silencers to their barrels. Their eyes met, only briefly, but long enough to cement the bond between them and validate the act they were about to commit. They got out of their car into the steamy night.

Inside, the night clerk dozed behind an ancient front desk. Cigarette smoke of sixty years lingered in the air, staining the off-white walls and choking what life was left out of the dusty armchair and threadbare rug in the small lobby.

Wilfredo was in room ten, according to the snitch. The men tiptoed up the sagging stairs to the second story, where room ten greeted them right away. Jimmy took up position by the wall nearest the doorknob and motioned Raúl to the opposite side of the door. They drew their guns. Jimmy turned the knob slowly and soundlessly.

Locked.

He knocked on the door, a couple of light, unthreatening taps. No answer. More taps, more silence. He wiped sweat from his eyelids.

He nodded to Raúl, who pulled two long, pointed instruments from the pocket of his shirt. Inserting them into the lock, Raúl skillfully twisted them and jiggled them until he heard a soft click. He withdrew the picks and shoved the door open.

Feedback:

The strength of this submission is the way the author sets the stage for suspense and sticks with the action, without unnecessary back story dump to slow the pace. There is a lot to like about this, but here are my comments:

1.) FIRST LINE – The first line needs to grab the reader more. It has the word “you” in it, which reads like omniscient POV. To eliminate the “you” and keep the voice in Jimmy’s head, I would suggest the line be changed to:

The Dobbs Hotel looked like an unmade bed with lice, but Jimmy Quintanilla knew it was the perfect place to kill someone.

I’m sure you can tweak this into something better, but you get the idea. Place this thought into Jimmy’s head and make it more direct with a bit of his attitude. It will make the reader curious from the start. Plus the words “cheap dump” are cliche.

2.) PICK POV PER SCENE & STAY WITH IT – In the following sentences, the author jumps back into omniscient by using the word “they” to describe both Jimmy & Raul. I tend to like picking one POV per scene, usually the person with the most to lose, or the character telling the story.

BEFORE – is the sentence ‘as is.’ AFTER – is Jimmy’s POV with more focus on his state of mind and what he has to lose, with added tension and mystery as to what is about to take place.

I also added more details like the type of vehicle he drove and his weapon, and I changed word choices like “affixing” which doesn’t sound like a word Jimmy would have in his head and “semi-automatic pistols” which sounds stilted. I also tried to imagine what would be in Jimmy’s head as he stared at Raul. “Cementing the bond” and “validating the act” seemed like a stretch for something Jimmy would assume is in Raul’s head. I thought Jimmy would wonder if he could truly trust Raul and hoped he could.

One POV per scene is not a hard and fast rule, but it’s good to try something and understand it, before you disregard it entirely. You might discover something important if you stay open to new things.

BEFORE – They checked their weapons — semi-automatic pistols — each jacking a round into the chamber and affixing silencers to their barrels. Their eyes met, only briefly, but long enough to cement the bond between them and validate the act they were about to commit. They got out of their car into the steamy night.

AFTER – Sitting behind the wheel of his parked SUV, Jimmy racked the slide of his Glock 19 and chambered a round. As he attached his suppressor, he cleared his mind and let go of his last shred of conscience. His fingers worked from muscle memory as he watched the street. When he looked over at Raul, the man stared back with a grave look in his eyes. Jimmy would cross a line with Raul that few men did and forge a bond of secrecy. Raul would hold his life in his hands. Jimmy hoped he could trust him. Without a word, he opened the vehicle door and embraced the muggy heat of Miami.

3.) USE THE SENSES TO SHAPE SETTING – I like adding the senses to any scene to trigger memories in the reader and make the scene real. I would like to see and hear more about the streets of Miami once Jimmy gets out of his car, or he could have his windows rolled down to let the atmosphere in as he rolls onto the street. That could enhance the paragraph starting with – ‘Nestled down a dark side street…’ if Jimmy can see and hear and smell what is happening through his life’s experience and his POV.

This author does a great job with painting a scene. Here are some examples I liked:

A.) …surrounded by a neighborhood of closed eyes and silent tongues. (This gives a face to the neighborhood that is memorable.)

B.) Inside, the night clerk dozed behind an ancient front desk. Cigarette smoke of sixty years lingered in the air, staining the off-white walls and choking what life was left out of the dusty armchair and threadbare rug in the small lobby. (I’ve been to this hotel. I can see the worn furnishings and smell the embedded smoke. Well done.)

SUMMARY:

I would definitely read on. This is an enticing crime fiction read, right up my alley. The author’s voice paints a great picture in word choice. A few things could be tightened or strengthened to punch up the voice, but there is a lot to like about this submission.

DISCUSSION:

1.) What do you think, TKZers? Would you read on?

2.) What suggestions do you have?

intheeyesofthedead_highres

In the Eyes of the DeadBook Birthday! $1.99 ebook
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 holy man and his secret believers. (31,000 words)

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First Page Critique: The Elf Prince

legoelves_character_336x448_farran

Image (c) Copyright 2016, The LEGO Group. All rights reserved.

THE ELF PRINCE

I stepped through the mirror and into the Elven city.  I knew my mother was alive was determined to find her.  If anyone could find her it was the elves; their powers of divination equaled no other.  Compared to the other worlds I’d visited this one was one of my favorites.  Everything was done by magic so the air was clear and clean.  Everything was lush, colorful and the air hung with magic.  The Elves were friendly people; waving to me as I passed.  I continued until the palace came into sight where I stopped and stared in awe.  It seemed to shimmer with rainbows in the light.  Once I got closer I realised that the palace was made of crystal, the sunlight refracted off the many facets and created a rainbow aura around the whole building.

Elven guards flanked the doors as I approached.  Everything about them screamed otherworldliness.  Perfect faces under perfect sapphire eyes, perfect brown hair and perfect bodies.  Everything was so perfect.  The guards didn’t look at me as I approached, but reached out in synchrony and opened the double doors.  The inside of the castle wasn’t crystal as I expected but stone.  I could feel the effects of heavy magic and suspected the stone was changed from crystal.  I continued down the hall and soon came to the throne room.  These doors were opened by another pair of guards.

“Shoes off please miss.”  One guard said.  I slipped off my sandals and stepped into the throne room.  The Elf Prince was lounging in his throne.  He looked different than the others.  His face had a regal edge, his eyes were the color of emeralds and his hair was silvery blonde. He wore all black, contrasting with the pale of his hair and skin.  From across the room his eyes pierced mine.

“You’re looking for your mother.”  His voice was deep and musical.

“How did-” I stopped.  The Elves were masters at divination.  Of course he knew.  “Can you help me?”  I asked, walking up the lush carpet to the throne.

“I could.  But will I help you?”  He watched me calmly.

“Well will you?”   His green eyes watched me with detached amusement.  The Prince stood and strode towards me until we were practically nose to nose.  I looked up, his eyes sparkled as he leaned down and whispered into my ear.

No.” 

 

Let us start with a disclaimer: I read very little fantasy. My interest in the genre is limited to the so-called horror sub-genre, and from there to Turkish and Spanish horror films (I’m not making a recommendation, by the way). So it is that when one mentions the word  “elf” I am generally not interested unless the name “Keebler” is in front of it.  I do know a bit about the contemporary popular fantasy genre, however, and have tried to base my critique on that knowledge. If anyone out there believes that I am too tough or flat out wrong in my First Page Critique of “The Elf Prince” by Anonymous du jour please step right up and say so.

That said, I felt while reading the first page of “The Elf Prince” as if I was in one of those westerns where the cowboy is riding a horse which is out of control, eventually causing the rider (me) to fall off with his foot caught in the stirrup, resulting in his being dragged along until he could bring the steed under control. I am aware that it is part and parcel of fantasy novels to drop the reader in medias res from the first page. When I did read fantasy, back in the day, books like Dune  and Lord Foul’s Bane did exactly that.  I didn’t feel dropped here so much, however, as I felt dragged at warp speed through a field of stones. What I think we’re looking for as readers is to be tugged into the narrative. Here, within the first page, the protagonist arrives in a different world/city populated by elves and within (apparently) seconds goes to the castle where she’s ushered in and given a ‘no” to her plea to help her find her mother before she even asks. Whoa!

My best advice — the short version — is to blow this first page up ( including the title)  and start over. It is what is known in the real estate business as a “tear down,” meaning that you’ve got a great lot but the old house on it does not pass building codes. It’s easier to tear it down and build a new house than to remodel it.

Let’s do that. After the dust settles and the smoke clears we’ve still got the land, and the idea for a story. I suggest, Anon, that you do the following:

Begin by naming things and people. Science fiction and fantasy authors love to come up with exotic titles and words.. Make a list of your characters and give them names. Do the same for the places. “The Elven City” doesn’t cut it. Give it a name. Do the same with the palace. If the palace has guards they’ve undoubtedly got some sort of military hierarchy with titles to match. Those two guys who brought the narrator in probably have a title, like “Garda” or something. Use it.. Give the prince a name, and his throne a name as well. You could make a game of it (…did I really say that?). And who is your narrator? You can drop that into the text quite easily (see below). Since the elves are so smart they’ll be greeting her by her name since they already know it, correct? And what do the Elves call themselves? Do the elves call themselves elves? Do they have different name for themselves? Do they have a term for human beings that can be used in polite company?  I suggest that you avoid calling them “elves” for a bit. You don’t have to explain what each term is; your readers should, if you’re doing your job, be able to pick it up in context. I’ll reference Dune. I had no idea who the Bene Gesserit was at first, but it all gradually became clear. 

Next. I was very confused as to whether our narrator had been to the Elven City before. She seemed familiar with it, but she was describing the elves as if seeing them for the first time. Clear that up. A sentence will do it. One way would be “It looked the same as it did on my previous visits, (insert description of weather and streets here). Or, if it’s her first time, say so.

Also: as you tug us through the narrative give us more detail concerning what the narrator sees. Let her stop and smell the roses. What are the elves doing? Are they selling cookies from market stands or flying through the air on hoverboards? Are they tending to plants or crops? Are they playing with their children? Are they committing acts of mayhem or robbery? Tell us a bit more about what she sees. It will help you to “grow the book” and help your reader visual things as well.

Personal taste: I don’t like the mirror thing at all. How does one control it?The narrator mentions going to other places while using it, but I was wondering how she keeps from winding up in, say, Hammond, Indiana when she wants to go to Louisville, Kentucky, or finds herself in Columbus, Mississippi when she wanted to go to Columbus, Ohio. She might as well be flying. I think that this may be a problem later in your story, so I would solve it at the beginning by getting rid of it.

The narrator states that the elves have perfect eyes, perfect hair, and perfect bodies. What does that mean? Are they all five-feet seven, pleasingly plump and always wearing a winning smile? A term like “perfect” to describe someone can mean many things to many people. Maybe you could describe them as wonderfully crafted sculptures, come to life” in addition to the specific descriptions you do give. And use this as an opportunity to describe your narrator, and how her appearance compares and contrasts with the elves.

Proofread, and get someone else to look it over for you.  There is a grammatical error in the second sentence of the story (where did that “and” go between “alive’ and “was”?), a punctuation error in the seventh (common instead of a semi-colon), and they continue from there. You also use the word “everything” to begin two consecutive sentences. Use it in the first and combine the two sentences. And…if  your narrator and the prince are nose to nose, she doesn’t have to look up at him and he doesn’t need to lean down to whisper in her ear. I am not a proofreader; for every one I find in my own work a fifth grader can find six more. Check your work over as best you can and then get a proofreader to go over it again and again.  

In closing, let me give you an example of some of the elements I’m discussing. There are any number of ways to begin this story, but try this on:

Prince Quaffa stared directly at me and said, “No, Sarah Quinn.”

I had come too far, and expended too much effort for too good a reason to hear a negative answer.I wasn’t going to be brushed off or refused by anyone, not even the royal  Johnny Winter lookalike who stood in front of me. Getting angry, however, wasn’t going to help. I checked myself, took a breath, and tried again. “Your Highness, the abilities of the Huldufolk —”

“Don’t. Call. Us. That.” Prince Quaffa didn’t raise his voice, but it  sounded as if it was coming from the bottom of a well.. His green eyes — so different from the sapphire color of his subjects — sparked with an anger that replaced the shine of aamusement they had exhibited a few seconds before. “We hate that term worse than ‘elf.’” He clenched his fist and struck his chest, whispering fiercely. “We are the Lowenpick, you stumpig!”

“We don’t like being called stumpig,” I replied, trying to keep my voice even.

What the foregoing does is hold the action in one place while telling you just a bit about two the characters and creating immediate conflict. You can spread outward from there. Let Sarah plead her case, and have Quaffa explain why he won’t help. After Sarah leaves Quaffa’s presence and walks through the city, have her describe it and the people a bit. Who knows, maybe she’ll encounter an el…er, member of the Lowenpick who will take pity on her and assist her, using those powers you hinted at in your original first page. Or not. I am sure that our readers will have other ideas and suggestions. Please check them all out, Anon, and take heart. Be not discouraged, but encouraged: continue telling your story. And thank you for submitting your first page to The Kill Zone.

Readers, what say you? I’ll be checking up on things throughout the day but will keep my comments to a minimum..

 

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TKZ – a Guide for the Writer’s Journey

by Tom Combs, physician-author, www.tom-combs.com tom_tkz-safety-chain-on-tricky-climb

In 2007, after twenty-five years as an emergency medicine specialist working in the ERs of busy inner-city level-one trauma centers, a personal health event ended my medical career. I’d worked briefly as a technical writer prior to medical school, but for the last eight years have been able to focus full-time on the study and creation of fiction.

The Kill Zone and its contributors have been a daily part of my writing life for years. I contacted Kathryn Lilley a few weeks back to share news of the release of the second book in my medical suspense-thriller series and mentioned my long-term involvement with TKZ. She suggested I guest blog and share how TKZ has influenced my writer’s journey. Specifically she mentioned that she believed my experience “would be inspiring to others, and spread cheer to my fellow bloggers!” I hope so.

Here are some ways TKZ has helped me on my journey from aspiring fiction writer to indie publisher of two well-received thrillers:

Instruction on craft

TKZ provides ongoing instruction on the craft of writing fiction that engages and sells.

James Scott Bell, Jodie Renner, PJ Parrish (Kris), Jordan Dane, Larry Brooks, and all the TKZ contributors regularly share the essence of their experience and hard-gained knowledge. I realize I’m preaching to the choir when I identify that the writing instruction presented on TKZ is ninja-level. The TKZ bloggers are the faculty of an online academy. Note: many of most useful posts are organized by topic in the TKZ Library (click HERE or on “TKZ Library” in the banner above).

Philosophy, support, and guidance

All readers here know the writer’s life can be tough at times. Self-doubt, frustration, discouragement, and disappointment are all part of the journey. I’m certain the honesty, humor, and sage counsel of TKZ’s “usual suspects” has assisted many a writer get over the rough spots. It has definitely helped me.

First page submission

By 2012, I’d been a TKZ follower for years and felt as if I knew the faculty and their personalities. I’d missed the submission deadline for the initial and subsequent “First Page” critiques and regretted having lost out on the great opportunity.

In 2012, I submitted on time. My mouth went dry on April 12, when I saw that TKZ emeritus John Ramsey Miller had rendered the critique of my work. JRM was a particular favorite of mine and, among his traits is a no-BS, flame-throwing honesty. I approached his critique with fear and trepidation. His favorable response to my submission gave me a lift unlike any I’d experienced in writing to that point. It is a treasured memory in my TKZ history.

The comments beneath the critique provided education on the varied and subjective nature of opinion/review – “dang excellent,” “this is brilliant,” “it’s not without problems,” “I’m hooked,” “wouldn’t have hooked me in any way,” etc. This provided additional education on the realities of writing.

Top-shelf editor

Years back, a TKZ guest blogger presented an article on craft that blew me away with its content and clarity. I learned that the writer, Jodie Renner, had edited two of Joe Moore’s novels. Jodie became a TKZ regular for a few years, and followers benefitted from her many outstanding articles on craft as well as her three writing guides. I did even better – after her guest piece, I was able to convince Jodie to work with me, and we have collaborated on both of the books in my series. She is amazing as both an editor and a friend – another major personal and professional benefit of my involvement with TKZ.

James Scott Bell and the TKZ faculty

I can’t recall if I discovered James Scott Bell first and it led to TKZ or the reverse. The discovery of both was definitely a boon to my writing development and career. JSB’s savvy, humor, enthusiasm, and guidance on both craft and the writer’s life is special and representative of the warmth, wisdom, and generosity of the TKZ faculty, both current and past. I attended Jim’s outstanding “Story Masters” seminar with his teaching partners, Donald Maass, and Chris Vogler, where I learned a great deal while laughing often (JSB could do stand-up comedy).

James Scott Bell’s enthusiasm, professionalism, and support of other writers is characteristic of my experience with TKZ.

I’m not certain I can inspire TKZ followers, but I can unequivocally recommend ongoing participation. The return on investment is astronomical – how can you beat free writing wisdom? TKZ is a writing travel guide that is updated daily for those who seek excellence.

I share Kathryn’s hope that her fellow bloggers/faculty will feel cheered. These people deserve to feel good about themselves. The hours, effort, and imagination invested in creating the daily posts are considerable. Despite receiving little in return, they share their knowledge and support every day.

Thank you to TKZ faculty, current and past, for your continuous commitment to helping writers. Your efforts are, and have been, a special part of my writer’s journey. I’m certain there are many among the TKZ faithful who have benefitted as I have.

I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to share my appreciation today.

tom-c_nerve_damage_kindle_bestDo you have examples of how TKZ has helped you on your writer’s journey? Please share in the comments below.

Nerve Damage, the first book in my medical suspense-thriller series, was released in 2014. The response has been excellent, with more than 200 five-star Amazon reviews, wonderful personal comments from discriminating readers, and glowing independent book reviews.

Hard to Breathe, the second installment in the Drake Cody suspense-thriller series, is now available.

ER doctor and medical researcher Drake Cody has a past no physician is allowed to have. When an injured woman presents to the ER with a report of a fall, Drake reportstom-c_hard-to-breathe_best to police his suspicion that her powerful businessman husband is guilty of domestic violence. Within hours, Drake’s medical license and the rights to his breakthrough experimental drug are threatened.

Murder, billion-dollar intrigue, and corruption involving the most powerful elements in healthcare threaten Drake’s career, those he loves, and his life. Can the law deliver justice, or will it abandon him?

“Intense and highly entertaining. Combs’ writing grips you from the first chapter and never lets go. Very cinematic and intense. Speeds the reader from chapter to chapter at a breakneck pace. Hard to Breathe is a terrific book.” – Laura Childs, New York Times best-selling author

Nerve Damage and Hard to Breathe provide an insider’s exposure to the blast-furnace emotions of critical care medicine and the high-stakes “business” of healthcare and its mega-dollar temptations.

Both books are fast-paced, intense, twisting thrill rides involving individuals you care about and medical realities that affect us all.

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