Don’t Make the Reader Guess the Important Stuff – First Page Critique – URGE

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

 

For your reading pleasure, we have an anonymous submission of 400 words. Please help with your constructive criticism by commenting. My feedback will follow. Enjoy.

***

Remnants of Sunday night trade at the Royal Derby Hotel were strewn in the gutter. Some poor bastard who didn’t get to enjoy the benefits of it would have to clean up the beer cans and broken glass. Jude stepped over vomit stains and around a bent up bicycle obstructing the footpath as it strained against the chain that kept it attached to a street pole. Cams message had been brief, “Murder in Brunswick Street, think your PI outfit could help. Meet me near corner of Cecil, 7am.” She hadn’t been able to reach him when she tried to return his call. That was an hour ago. She had left three messages for James already without any response. She willed him to come. Check your phone James. Please be on time. I need you here.

Two hundred metres further on the opposite side of the street Jude saw a gaping black hole in a shop front and stopped. Its window display had spilled across the footpath after a fire had blown out the glass. She felt a mild strangling feeling and shuddered. Fuck. Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me. Cam was standing outside the shop scratching his head and surveying the contents of the footpath. Beggars can’t be choosers she reminded herself, took a deep breath, checked for cars and stepped into the road. She was hungry to get back into some serious investigative work and wasn’t going to let a bit of queasiness get in the way.

Cam looked up and smiled warmly when he saw Jude and stepped forward to give her a peck on the cheek. “Great to see you. Thanks for coming on such short notice.”

Jude took a quick step back. What’s with the kissing, that’s a bit familiar, this is a crime scene meeting she thought as she nodded towards the shop, “Appreciate the call, what’s the story?”

Cam’s smile faded as he looked at the shop, “Fire brigade got a call around 11pm. Extinguished it by four this morning and secured the scene. Found a body at the back.” He gestured into the open black hole of the building. “Forensics are in there now, doesn’t look like an accident to me,” he nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked, “it’s, a, uh, fetish shop.”

FEEDBACK

GROUNDING THE READER – From the start we have what feels like a cop investigating a crime scene, but the reader has names without knowing what the players do or even what city they are in. (I had to look up that the Royal Derby Hotel is in Australia.) It takes work to decipher who Cam and Jude and James are. Things aren’t clearer until the very end.

Are they police? Arson investigators? News reporters? From Cam’s message, we learn that there’s a PI involved and it took a reread to see this is Jude. I’ve made a quick stab at a rewrite, trying to stay true to the scene as written, but I hope you can see how the names and job titles clarifies the intro. I might’ve started this story a different way, but I am showing this rewrite to demonstrate how important it is to orient the reader into the scene with details.

REWRITE SUGGESTION

Private investigator Jude Hawthorne stared down at the unexpected text message she had received from Homicide Detective Cameron Hunter as she stood under a pale street lamp.

Murder in Brunswick Street, think your PI outfit could help.

Meet me near corner of Cecil, 7am.

I’m here, Detective Hunter. Where are you?

Remnants of Sunday night trade at the Royal Derby Hotel were strewn in the gutter, making it hard to distinguish the trash from the explosion caused by the fire. Jude stepped over vomit stains and around a bent up bicycle obstructing the footpath as it strained against the chain that kept it attached to a street pole. As she came upon the charred remains of the storefront and shattered glass, she cringed.

Why does it have to be a fire crime? I hate fire crimes. Cam must remember that. He should’ve told me.

Readers don’t get a description of what happened until the mention of the fire blowing out a window half way down, otherwise the intro sounds like the dregs of a drunken party or Mardi Gras. In the last paragraph, there’s a mention of a ‘crime scene’ and a fire brigade with a body inside, but readers need to be oriented into the scene much sooner. In my rewrite above, I added the two red letter lines to mention the crime scene.

START WITH A DISTURBANCE – In the rewrite above, I focused on the disturbance of Jude getting an unexpected text message. She’s a PI and it would not be normal for her to get called to a homicide.

KEEP FOCUS ON EMOTION – Jude obviously has an issue with fires, yet her fear is embedded in a longer paragraph and glossed over. Make that front at center. By sticking with her emotional state, the reader gets invested in her as a character. They want to root for her. (I slapped this rewrite together as an example and cherry-picked what resonated with me. I’m sure the author could do better.)

BEFORE – Two hundred metres further on the opposite side of the street Jude saw a gaping black hole in a shop front and stopped. Its window display had spilled across the footpath after a fire had blown out the glass. She felt a mild strangling feeling and shuddered. Fuck. Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me. Cam was standing outside the shop scratching his head and surveying the contents of the footpath. Beggars can’t be choosers she reminded herself, took a deep breath, checked for cars and stepped into the road. She was hungry to get back into some serious investigative work and wasn’t going to let a bit of queasiness get in the way.

AFTER – Jude shuddered and found it hard to breathe as she stared into the gaping hole of the shop front, pitted by fire. Its window display had spilled across the footpath after a fire had blown out the glass. Her own demons were never far from the surface. Detective Hunter should have known to warn her.

Jude took a deep breath and clenched her jaw as she checked for cars and stepped into the road. She needed serious investigative work, even if the case cost her sleep and brought back nightmares she thought she’d left behind.

CHARACTER NAMES – Why does the author only mention first names in this intro? I recommend giving authority to your investigators from the beginning. Give them a job title and what relation they are to each other, as I did in the rewrite above. It took me awhile to realize that Jude is the PI, but who are the other players? Who is James?

To avoid the gender issue using the name Cam, I would mention his full name of Cameron at the start and maybe only start using ‘Cam’ when other people call him by his nickname to establish that Cam is Cameron.

I would also question why a cop would call in a private investigator to an official crime scene, but I will leave that up to the author to establish. I’m sure there is a good reason and it sounds intriguing.

POINT OF VIEW – It took me a few readings to get oriented into the POV intended here. The first two lines were through the eyes of a character, I presumed. So when I saw the name Jude, I thought this is deep POV 3rd person, but then Cam steps into the spotlight and because that name is gender neutral, I thought Cam was a woman until I get to a couple of spots and realize he’s not.

Did anyone else have an issue with gender and whose POV is central? Giving titles and orienting the reader faster would help with this confusion.

PUNCTUATION – A well placed comma can make all the difference. Remember the old grammar joke – “Let’s eat Grandma.” versus “Let’s eat, Grandma.” That comma would mean a huge difference if you’re Grandma. I would recommend reading aloud as part of an edit process. When you get to a spot where your voice naturally pauses, that’s usually where a comma goes. Just ask Grandma. There is also missing question marks and run on sentences that should be broken apart to be clearer.

Here’s a couple of examples:

BEFORE – ‘Fuck. Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me.’

Break this apart for clarity and add punctuation. I also recommend internal DEEP POV be italicized (if mixed into 3rd person POV) and I suggest that DEEP POV not be embedded into a paragraph. If it stand out more, it will draw the reader’s eye to it as if it were dialogue. Readers naturally look for dialogue when they are reading. With weighty long paragraphs, as in this submission, the reader might skim or lose important dialogue if it’s buried.

AFTER – Why does it have to be a fire crime? I hate fire crimes. Cam must remember that. He should’ve told me.

Cams message had been brief,… (Cam’s message had been brief,…)

BEFORE – Jude took a quick step back. What’s with the kissing, that’s a bit familiar, this is a crime scene meeting she thought as she nodded towards the shop, “Appreciate the call, what’s the story?”

AFTER – Jude took a quick step back, stunned.

What’s with the kissing. That’s a bit familiar. This is a crime scene, she thought.

All business, Jude nodded towards the shop and said, “Appreciate the call, what’s the story?”

LAST PARAGRAPH – I would break out the dialogue lines to allow the reader to find them more easily. But I’m still not sure why a PI would need to be called in on an arson/murder investigation, especially if it’s a fetish shop. Riddle me that, Batman.

And why is he sure it wasn’t an accident simply because it’s a fetish shop? That’s the implication. His smirk is a little sophomoric, but maybe that is intentional. Is he a professional guy or a wise cracker? We don’t know yet.

BEFORE – Cam’s smile faded as he looked at the shop, “Fire brigade got a call around 11pm. Extinguished it by four this morning and secured the scene. Found a body at the back.” He gestured into the open black hole of the building. “Forensics are in there now, doesn’t look like an accident to me,” he nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked, “it’s, a, uh, fetish shop.”

AFTER – Cam’s smile faded as he looked at the shop.

“Fire brigade got a call around eleven pm. After they extinguished the blaze by four this morning and secured the scene, they found a body at the back.”

He gestured into the charred chasm of the destroyed building.

“Forensics are in there now, but it doesn’t look like an accident to me.” He nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked, “it’s, a, uh, fetish shop.”

FOR DISCUSSION

What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?

3+

The Wagon Wheel of Suspense

By Sue Coletta

We have another gutsy writer who submitted their first page. Please pay special attention to the notes at the end of this post, and you’ll understand my title (I hope).

Gym Body

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. Deep breath. Step in. The cop cars outside reminded me of something that had happened long ago.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes.

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down.

Breathing in the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.”

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist, and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepen into greater and more cynical levels of boredom depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now she was pushing 11 on a bored-look scale of 10. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.”

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!”

Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars. She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

* * *

NITTY-GRITTY

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. If her hand is on the door handle, how could she feel her heartbeat in her palm? If you’d like to deepen the POV, reword like this: With my hand on the gym door handle, the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio pulsed through my hand.  Deep breath. Staccato sentence, which varies sentence structure and adds rhythm. Good job! Step in. This one may be overdoing it, but it’s a stylistic choice. The cop cars outside [the building] reminded me of something that had happened long ago. I’d love a hint to what happened. Don’t explain in detail, though. Rather, hint at it, teasing us to keep us interested. As written, it’s not enough.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes. Good. It makes me wonder why she’s so upset. I hope it’s because someone got their head bashed in with a weight and not due to a minor disagreement. Meaning, if you’re going to show us a woman racing down the stairs in tears in the opening paragraph, you ought to have a compelling reason why, a reason the reader will soon discover. This is precious real estate. Don’t waste it on meaningless conflict that has no bearing on the forthcoming quest. 

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down. Meh. I’d delete this sentence. It detracts from the next sentence, which I like. Breathing in Inhaling the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card. Bravo on using sound and smell to enhance the mental image. Too often writers forget to use these senses, and often they’re the most powerful.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.” You managed to sneak in the main character’s name, which is great. However, this dialogue is too on-the-nose. What if Trixie gossiped about why the woman ran out in tears? Again, give us a compelling reason. 

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist “Fell” indicates she had her hair up prior to this., and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepened into greater and more cynical levels of boredom, depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now, she was pushing 11 eleven on a bored-look scale of 10 ten. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.” Love the snark. This paragraph shows us Suzi’s fun personality. Very good.

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. Unless the character is shouting, lose the exclamation point. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!” <– Here too. Rather than pick away at this, I’m stopping here. Please jump to the notes below. Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars.  She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

Old Fashioned Wagon Wheel Garden Fountain

NOTES

Even if we tightened the writing, these last two paragraphs still aren’t interesting enough for the opening page. I’d rather see you use this space to hint at what Suzi will find inside her classroom. Dead body? Blood? An escaped zoo gorilla? Hordes of tarantulas from the exotic pet store next door? Prison escapee? Suzi’s ex-husband who just dumped the crying woman? My point is, the details must connect. Or show us why she fears the past might be repeating itself. Hint at the disturbance you mentioned in the first paragraph. As it stands now, the cop cars disappeared from Suzi’s mind. By including too many details about the surroundings you’ve undone the tension you started to build in the opening paragraph.

The title, I assume, is a play on words. Gym body = dead body in the gym? As a crime writer, my mind jumps to a scenario that involves murder. If this isn’t the case, then you need a new title. Preferably one that hints at the genre.

THE WAGON WHEEL OF SUSPENSE

Envision an old fashioned wagon wheel fountain (pictured above). The water rides up in the buckets, over the top of the wheel, and spills down into the same basin. The water itself never changes, even though it cycles through several buckets. In writing, especially in our opening chapter, we need to narrow our focus to one main conflict (i.e. a killer on the loose), one compelling question that the reader needs to answer (why do folks die at this specific gym?). This is how we force them to turn the page. We can and should include several disturbances along the way (in this analogy, I’m referring to the buckets), but they all should relate to that main conflict (the water) in some way.

In the opening chapter it’s crucial to stop the wheel partway. Don’t let that water escape till later, thereby raising the main dramatic story question. We still need to transfer the water from bucket to bucket on the way up the wheel (remember, conflict drives story). That’s how we build suspense, little by little, almost painfully teasing the reader till we’re ready to let the water flow.

In this opening chapter, the main conflict could be what’s inside Suzi’s classroom that’s so horrible a woman pounded down the stairs in tears after witnessing it, but you’d need to drop more clues to make us want to find out. Use the patrol cars outside the building as one disturbance. How does the past relate to present day? What sort of reaction do the lights and sirens have on Suzi? Has this gym been the scene of other murders? Hint at how these things connect to pique the reader’s interest.

Anon, please remember, if I thought you were just beginning your writing journey, you wouldn’t see this much red ink. Your grasp of POV tells me you’ve got the skills to do better. I already like Suzi enough to go for the ride. That’s a huge plus. All you need to do is give us a compelling reason to turn the page. With some tweaking, I know you can do it.

Over to you, TKZers! What advice would you give to improve this first page?

8+

First Page Critique – NELF

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

We have an anonymous submission of the first 400 words to a work entitled “NELF.” Please read and give your constructive criticism in your comments. I will provide feedback below. Our gratitude to the anonymous author for their submission. Enjoy.

***

Geraldine jogged around seaweed and broken shells deposited along the low-tide line by last night’s rainstorms. Turning from the gusting wind, she faced the horizon as the sun broke through a grey cloudbank. The tail of the storm had moved out to sea. She might have customers today after all. She’d better pick up her pace if she wanted a shower before opening the beach shop.

She searched the ocean for her half-way marker, the Hyde Channel buoy. As Geraldine hurdled over piles of seaweed and shells sweat rolled down her spine. Without slowing, she pulled off her sweatshirt, cinched it around her waist, and ran closer to the surf.

When she was parallel to the channel marker, she turned around. Wind pushed against her back and she sprinted all the way to the path leading to Beach Road.

While bringing her heartrate down, Geraldine trotted in place and faced the roaring Atlantic. A red object bobbed in the ocean. Too small for a boat or surfboard. The object disappeared behind cresting waves. Shielding her eyes, Geraldine focused on the whitecaps and waited for the object to reappear.

A small arm stuck up from the waves. A flash of red hair and white face. A child!

Geraldine dashed forward, her pulse racing, and stopped short at the surf line. The child bobbed up and down. The ocean was rough. Dangerous. She couldn’t go in without a boat or a boogie board or they might both drown. She sprinted toward the lifeguard hut. Any floatation device inside would do. She pulled the handle and the door rattled. Locked!

She glanced back at the rolling surf, but didn’t spot the child. Her stomach tightened. Had the child gone under? She shifted her gaze down surf. A flailing arm, and then a head broke through the foam. Thank God. The child was still afloat.

She scanned the beach for someone to alert.

The beach was deserted, but the child needed saving now.

She yanked off her sneakers and ran until she was a half-bay ahead of the child. Geraldine took a deep breath and dove into the surf. She torpedoed under the water.

Geraldine exploded to the surface and swam at an angle to reach the child quicker. Please stay afloat just a little longer.

***

FEEDBACK

This introduction sets up a classic and eerie story. I envision a bleak seashore on the morning after a turbulent storm that has disrupted an unwavering sea. How frightening to see the body of a child adrift in the current with YOU as the only one there to save a life. The premise is a good one that would normally get me turning the page to read more.

The writing is relatively clean and easy to get through without a lot of hiccups, but I wanted more. Let’s talk about setting first in a general overview.

SETTING – Setting can really contribute to setting up a story if it’s entwined with the character or contributes to the atmosphere or mood to the plot. When I think of great examples of settings that ARE an integral part of the story, I think of movies like the Jesse Stone stories from Robert B Parker, starring Tom Selleck. The Maine town of Paradise is mysterious, breathtakingly beautiful and scary at the same time. Another example of a setting that becomes the story is the crime show Wallander (from Swedish novelist Henning Mankell), starring Kenneth Branagh in the role of Kurt Wallander. The isolated setting in Wallander is haunting and also says a lot about the character who is content living alone and isolated.

Tips on Setting
1.) Decide what role you want for setting to play in your plot. In J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Hogwarts IS a character, a very enchanting and unforgettable one. Not every story needs to have the setting so prominently described, but a great setting can enhance the plot or give insight into the character(s).

2.) Settings can contribute to the mood or add tension or a mysterious sense of foreboding. I’ll never forget the effective use of setting in Tami Hoag’s book NIGHT SINS where children go missing as the extremely chilling winter nights continue to drop in temperature, dead of winter in Minnesota. The tag lines were a constant reminder that the child could die from exposure and the clock would be ticking for the police. I was a nervous wreck as I turned the pages and stayed up way too late to finish the book.

3.) Use the senses of the reader to convey setting. It’s easy to describe a visual setting, but it can add layers of nuance if the reader’s senses are engaged. In this example (NELF), what does the sea smell like after a turbulent storm? Does it affect her breathing as she runs? Does the grit on the shore cling to her damp clothes? How does the salty sea air affect her breathing as a runner (salt through her nostrils or the taste of it on her tongue).

4.) Setting can reflect something of the character and mirror mood or be symbolic of something in the character’s life. The example I gave before about Wallander and his remote home is a solid visual example of the isolated way he lives his life. He’s content, but trouble comes to his door like a personal affront, threatening his comfort zone.

5.) Setting can be described through the character’s POV by giving the character an opinion or by accentuating the character’s body and mind through setting. In the case of NELF, the lone woman runner describes her body as she runs. Rather than focusing so much on a simple task that most people know about (ie running), why not have the mist off the crashing waves mix with the dripping sweat of her body or have the chilly wind fight the heat of her churning blood as she ramps up her pace. I’ve run in the rain before and it’s exhilarating yet very soggy on the clothes and hair.

Examples of interesting settings reflected through the characters:

Catcher in the Rye – J D Salinger (on NYC)
“I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go? I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.”

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt (about Las Vegas)
“Though we’d been driving a while, there were no landmarks, and it was impossible to say where we were going or in which direction. The skyline was monotonous and unchanging and I was fearful that we might drive through the pastel houses altogether and out into the alkali waste beyond, into some sun-beaten trailer park from the movies.”

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Wolff (about the Isle of Skye – Scotland) “So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea.”

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte (about the Yorkshire moors, England) “My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary.”

NELF Thoughts

TIME OF DAY – I didn’t get a sense of the time of day. I presumed it to be morning since the woman is thinking about opening her beach shop and references a storm from last night, but time of day could contribute to the mood. I would recommend this to be clearer.

REPEAT DESCRIPTION – In the first sentence, seaweed and broken shells are mentioned. The same is described in the very next paragraph (ie “piles of seaweed and shells). With such a moody setting, surely there is more to describe.

MAKE THE INTRO STAND OUT MORE – The description of the woman running is bland and forgettable. The setting is also bland, considering that this eerie shoreline could contribute to the foreboding aspects of finding a body adrift in the waves.

CAN THE SETTING ENHANCE THE INTRO? The author does not dwell too much on the setting before he or she gets into the mystery, but the set up could be more effective if the author decides how much the setting can enhance the intro. Review the tips on setting above to see if there is anything that would fit and enhance this mystery opener. An author would know the mind of the character and what would work best, but I would recommend the setting be enhanced to weave it into the mystery more.

WEAVE IN MYSTERY SOONER – The setting description and the woman running covers the first four paragraphs, then the story switches to “a small arm” and the mystery begins. There’s virtually no lead up to the moment she sees the arm. Fear and foreboding should be enhanced to draw emotions from the reader. What if she’s running and sees the red color on the water and keeps her eye on it. Any setting can be enhanced by the mystery element of what that red thing is that’s floating. This would give her something to do, rather than staying in her head and focusing on her running. Weave the mystery in sooner and let it unfold as the sense of foreboding ramps up.

NEEDS MORE TENSION AND EMOTION – As far as tension, the author has described the woman and her reaction, but it’s more in the sense of a clinical description of what she does. The emotional component is lacking for me as a reader. I can easily imagine what this might feel like to be alone on a beach run and see something horrifying, forced into action. Imagine that after she tries breaking into the lifeguard station, she dives into the ocean. On the same level as the rolling waves, she would easily lose sight of the body. Think of how that body might look as the waves undulate and lift that pale form into the sky. How would that body look in the crest of a wave?

If she thinks the child is still alive, the clock would be ticking and she’d be in a panic to get to the kid. How does that affect her breathing? Does she tread water to search the waves? Is the body floating on the back or on the face? Now imagine coming up on the body too fast and being faced with it as it brushes up against you. Cold skin. Icy water. Bloated face of the child? This opening scene could be much more emotional and I can picture how anyone would be drawn into the mystery of this child’s death.

DISCUSSION

What feedback can you give our brave author, TKZers?

2.) How do you work setting into your stories? Have you ever enhanced your story with setting? Describe how it worked.

9+

Micro-Progress Your Novel

A few weeks ago I spotted an article in the New York Times entitled ‘Micro-Progress and the Magic of Just Getting Started’ (you can read it here) and realized it was tailor made for us writers (especially after I’d seen a number of posts on my writing groups about writers writers feeling overwhelmed about their projects).

The idea of ‘micro-progress’ is simple: For any task you have to complete, break it down to the smallest possible units of progress and attack them one at a time.

In many ways, it’s an obvious concept. But what caught my eye, was the fact that studies had shown that micro-progress (or establishing micro-goals) can actually trick the brain into increasing dopamine levels, providing satisfaction and happiness. Sounds like the perfect plan for anyone facing the daunting prospect of completing a novel:)

Online I was seeing posts from people who felt overwhelmed by revisions, who were despairing that their novel had run aground mid way through, or who were experiencing chronic writer’s block and desperate for advice. In all of these situations, focusing on ‘micro-progress’ seemed a useful place to start.

The concept of ‘micro-progress’ has also helped me. I currently have a number of projects out on submission and a couple of ones with my agent – so it was time to start a new WIP. I faced a dilemma though – I had the first 50 pages of a YA novel that I’ve been noodling over (actually driving myself insane over is probably more apt) and yet I was concerned it still wasn’t quite ‘there yet’. I struggled with whether I really knew what the book was about (despite a synopsis and outline, mind you). So I decided it was best to put it aside and start a completely new project – yet at the back of my mind I still couldn’t quite let the old project completely die. Enter ‘Micro-Progress’!

I decided to use the advice in the NYT article and tackle both projects but with a different mindset. For the brand new WIP I’d sit down and get started in the usual way. I have the synopsis and outline so it was time to face the blank page and get writing. I’d focus on this everyday except Friday – when I’d allow myself to tackle the old project but with a ‘micro-progress’ approach. I’d just take it scene by scene in Scrivener and see what happened – without placing too much pressure on myself. The regular WIP could progress in the usual fashion – but for this one I’d be happy setting smaller, more manageable goals to see how it would all come together. In this way a ‘micro-progress’ mindset helped overcome my confidence issues as well my concerns about abandoning the project all together.

A ‘micro-progress’ mindset could be helpful in almost all our writing as it focuses on the smaller more manageable steps that can be taken. The evidence also seems to demonstrate that this approach can stimulate our brains, enabling us to continue, progress and feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction – rather than becoming overwhelmed by the totality of the task ahead. But I guess the key question is – TKZers – what do you think about ‘micro-progress’?

 

8+

Better Book Descriptions in 3 Easy Steps

By SUE COLETTA

Let’s be honest. Writing a book description isn’t fun. It’s grueling, mind-numbing work that I detest with every inch of my being. Mastering the art of back cover copy-writing is an important skill. Therefore, I’m always on the lookout for tips.

Saturday, I sat through yet another webinar on the topic, and a formula emerged, a formula that finally resonated with me (after 11 books, it’s about time). So, I figured I’d share my discovery with you, my beloved TKZers, in the hopes that it’ll work for you, as well.

I should preface this post with, do as I say, not as I do. After my Ah-ha! Moment, I now need to rewrite all my descriptions. Oy. I’d prefer a bullet to the brain.

A 3-Step Formula

Back cover copy follows a simple three-step formula, but we do have wiggle room to experiment. With readers’ short attention spans these days, the advice is to keep the entire description to roughly 150-200 words. If your description runs 25 words longer than the desired range, I wouldn’t sweat it too much.

Step 1: Headline/Hook

To find our hook we need to look at the main conflict of our story. We want readers to identify with said conflict, so don’t shy away from the emotional impact it causes the hero. Don’t dwell on it, either. Every word counts.

The following books sit on Amazon’s Top 10 Bestsellers List in Psychological Thrillers, and each description employs this exact formula. These authors worked hard on their hooks, and it shows.

What would it take to make you intervene? I Am Watching You by Teresa Driscoll 

It begins with a phone call. It ends with a missing child. Guilty by Laura Elliot

When family secrets are unearthed, a woman’s past can become a dangerous place to hide… Twist of Faith by Ellen J. Green

Every time Gwen closed her eyes, she saw him in her nightmares. Now her eyes are open, and he’s not going away. Killman Creek by Rachel Caine

They were all there the day your sister went missing. Who is lying? Who is next? The Reunion by Samantha Hayes

She’s a daughter he didn’t know he had. Until she calls him… from death row. 30 Days of Justis by John Ellsworth

What if you discovered your husband was a serial killer? Tell Me I’m Wrong by Adam Croft

Side note: Adam Croft is a master at hooking readers. This next book he wrote after he created the hook. What a doozy, too!

Could you murder your wife to save your daughter? Her Last Tomorrow by Adam Croft

Wow. Right? If that hook doesn’t grab fans of the genre, nothing will.

Step 2: Short Synopsis

The synopsis also follows a micro-formula…

  1. Introduce the protagonist by showing what defines their role in the story.
  2. What is that character up against?
  3. What’s standing in their way?
  4. Transition paragraph or as Kris called it in a 2014 post, “The Big But.”
  5. End with a cliffhanger.

Let’s go back to our examples to see if this micro-formula has merit. The red-bracketed numbers correspond to steps 1-5.

Synopsis of Her Last Tomorrow by Adam Croft

Nick and Tasha are a couple held together by their five-year-old daughter [1]. Until one ordinary morning, when Ellie vanishes amid the chaos of the school run [2].

Nick knows she can’t have gone far on her own, which can mean only one thing: she’s not on her own. Who would take his daughter, and why? With no motive and no leads, Nick is thrown into a tailspin of suspicion and guilt. Like Tasha, he doesn’t know what to think, or whom to trust… [3]

But then someone starts doing the thinking for him. Confronted with an impossible choice, Nick will have to make a decision, and both options will leave him with blood on his hands. But perhaps that’s to be expected. [4]

After all, Nick’s not quite as blameless as he seems. [5]

I Am Watching You by Teresa Driscoll

When Ella Longfield overhears two attractive young men flirting with teenage girls on a train, she thinks nothing of it—until she realises they are fresh out of prison and her maternal instinct is put on high alert.[1] But just as she’s decided to call for help, something stops her. The next day, she wakes up to the news that one of the girls—beautiful, green-eyed Anna Ballard—has disappeared. [2]

A year later, Anna is still missing. Ella is wracked with guilt over what she failed to do, and she’s not the only one who can’t forget. Someone is sending her threatening letters—letters that make her fear for her life. [3]

Then an anniversary appeal reveals that Anna’s friends and family might have something to hide. Anna’s best friend, Sarah, hasn’t been telling the whole truth about what really happened that night—and her parents have been keeping secrets of their own. [4]

Someone knows where Anna is—and they’re not telling. But they are watching Ella. [5]

Synopsis of Guilty by Laura Elliot

On a warm summer’s morning, thirteen-year-old school girl Constance Lawson is reported missing. [2]

A few days later, Constance’s uncle, Karl Lawson, suddenly finds himself swept up in a media frenzy created by journalist Amanda Bowe implying that he is the prime suspect. [1]

Six years later … [4]

Karl’s life is in ruins. His marriage is over, his family destroyed. But the woman who took everything away from him is thriving. With a successful career, husband and a gorgeous baby boy, Amanda’s world is complete. Until the day she receives a phone call and in a heartbeat, she is plunged into every mother’s worst nightmare. [3]

* * *

Even though Guilty played with the order, the description works. The formula still holds. Hence why I mentioned the wiggle room at the beginning of this post. *grin* Also note: some authors put their characters’ names and/or important details in bold, and the words catch the reader’s eye.

Step 3: Selling Paragraph

The selling paragraph answers two variations of the same question that readers ask themselves:

It sounds good, but how do I know it’s for me?

Sounds good, but will I like it?

There’s two ways we can go here, by showing similar books — if you enjoyed X, you will love Y — or by simply mentioning the genre.

A psychological thriller that keeps you guessing till the last chilling page.

If you like heart-hammering suspense, this book is for you!

A third option is to use clips of reader reviews or blurbs from authors in your genre.

CLEAVED by Sue Coletta

 

 

How far would you go to save your child?

CLICK HERE to look inside CLEAVED.

 

 

 

 

Over to you, TKZers. Do you use this formula for your book descriptions? If not, are you tempted to try it? Any tips of your own to share?

19+

Winter Tails

Photo (c) 2018 by A. L. Thummz. All rights reserved.

I for whatever reason am occasionally asked for advice about writing. My bottom line suggestion — one that I follow myself only after being dragged to it, kicking and screaming — is to tell the story simply. Not everyone needs to be James Lee Burke, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison or Cormac McCarthy, and they shouldn’t be. Write from Point A to Point B, at least at first. You have to build the wall before you decorate it. Get those corners at right angles and those verticals plumbed in your story before you decorate it. You’ll have plenty of time for that later. Your story or novel isn’t going anywhere unless your cat walks across the keyboard and steps on the delete button.

That brings me to an example of the foregoing.

There is a feral cat who has been coming around since late last spring. We call him “Felix.” He’s grey and skittish. His trust is measured in incremental inches, bought and paid for with food on demand. Felix disappeared for several weeks near the end of summer.  I was fairly certain that he had crawled into the brush to await the arrival of the picadors and had risen to meet them one last time. He surprised me, however, by returning near the end of October, gazing at me through the rear sliding glass door with an expression that probably translated to, “Yeah? Whaddya want from me?” He has visited regularly since. It’s been a tough winter, and I’m surprised whenever I see him, but see him I do, and almost every day.

Felix and I tell each other a story each day.  When I get up each morning I turn all of the backyard lights on. Felix always shows up within ten minutes. His arrival is heralded by Demonspawn, the resident housecat and indoor maitre ‘d. I bring the food out while Felix stands an arm’s length (mine, not his) or so away from me until I go back into the house. If he wants more, he hangs around and I give him more. We follow the same pattern at night. Sometimes I’ll see his footprints on fresh snow, weaving in the same pattern he always makes, and know that one of us missed the signal. I make it up on his next pass.

The story that Felix and I tell each other is simpler than that, however.  He tells me he’s hungry. I tell him I care. Actually, that’s the root of just about every story, from Aesop’s Fables to The Bible to The Dark Tower series and beyond. So there you go.

Simple stories aren’t just for children, but it’s during childhood that we normally hear our first ones. Are there any that you care to share?

As always, thank you for stopping by. And if you are able please take a minute to feed our friends outside. It’s a cold one this year.

12+

A Lesson in Deep POV — First Page Critique

By SUE COLETTA

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. I’ll see ya on the flipside.

Murder Audit 

Jim Dunn, Controller of Prairie Pipeline Co., rubbed his eyes as he glanced up at the clock on the wall of his office. It was almost 7:00 pm and while this would be an early night for him, he was ready to call it quits. He had been working late hours getting ready for PPC’s annual financial statement audit and he wanted to make sure everything was in order for tomorrow’s inventory count. Although he had met with audit manager, Cynthia Webber, several weeks ago, he felt it was important he was at the office bright and early on inventory day.

            He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a half-full bottle of Crown Royal. He unscrewed the cap and poured a good jigger into his stale, cold coffee. After replacing the bottle in his desk drawer, he swirled his coffee cup and downed the concoction in three big gulps. As he planted his cup back on his desk in its usual spot he thought he heard voices. Knowing he was alone in the office, he went to his window and noticed some protesters had gathered outside the front entrance. Feeling brave from his last four mugs of “coffee Royal”, he opened the window and shouted at the protesters.

            “Get outta here you granola loving hippies! This town wouldn’t be what it is today without this company. I bet half of you work for our subsidiaries and don’t even know it. Go find something better to do!” As Jim closed the window, he heard something thunk against the building. He looked at the angry mob of about 20 to see that they were throwing rocks at the building. He opened his window and shouted at the crowd.

            “I’m calling the police!”

            “Oooh, the police. We’re scared now!” one of the protesters sarcastically snapped back. By this point Jim was ready to take matters into his own hands. He was sick and tired of environmental protest groups showing up at the office and disturbing not only the normal course of business but also the time he put in after hours. It was almost as if they were stalking him. He just couldn’t understand why they would choose 7:00 pm as a time to protest. Then he remembered there was a benefit dinner happening at the University to raise funds to relocate the hundreds of thousands of birds that would be without homes if the new pipeline went ahead as planned.

Overall, I liked this piece. I can see the potential for a fast-paced story, rife with conflict. It’s because of the writer’s potential that I’ve narrowed in on POV.

What we find with this first page is a distance narrator. The following words in bold are all telling words and phrases. Remember, if we wouldn’t think it, our POV character shouldn’t either. Some writers have a difficult time with deep POV, which we’ve discussed before on TKZ. It’s one element of craft that we learn at our pace. One day it’ll just click. My hope is, this is that day for Anon.

When we tell the reader what’s happening rather than showing the events as they unfold, we’re robbing them of a vicarious experience and thus, they won’t be as invested in the story. Force them feel what our POV character is up against. If we don’t, the reader stays detached and it’s easy for them to put down the book.

Taken from the first paragraph, let’s reword into showing.

Telling:

He had been working late hours getting ready for PPC’s annual financial statement audit and he wanted to make sure everything was in order for tomorrow’s inventory count.

Showing:

In preparation for PPC’s annual financial statement audit, he’d worked ungodly hours. Everything must be perfect for tomorrow. If the inventory count was off even a fraction, he could lose his job.

See the difference? We’re now inside the MC’s head.

Let’s look at the same paragraph, last sentence.

Telling:

Although he had met with audit manager, Cynthia Webber, several weeks ago, he felt it was important he was at the office bright and early on inventory day. 

Showing:

Several weeks ago, he’d met with his audit manager. To say it didn’t go well was an understatement. For the last several days, he’d even beaten the crows to work, and their day started at dawn. The pesky buggers never missed an opportunity to raid the dumpster. What a mess they left, too.

Note the hints of environment as well as personality? Using deep POV allows the reader to get to know our MC a little at a time.

I’m including the next line for a different reason.

He looked at the angry mob of about 20 to see that they were throwing rocks at the building. 

The word “looked” in this context isn’t wrong, per se, but it is generic. Meaning, we have no idea “how” the MC is looking at the crowd below. By using a weak verb we miss an opportunity to show the MC’s reaction. Try “gaped,” which shows shock, “glared,” which shows aggravation or anger, “scowled,” which shows resentment, disgust, anger. Choose the word that best describes “how” the MC is staring at the crowd. Incidentally, don’t only concentrate on the eyes. A curled lip shows just as much disgust and paints a better picture.

2nd Paragraph

As he planted his cup back on his desk in its usual spot he thought he heard voices. Knowing he was alone in the office, he went to his window and noticed some protesters had gathered outside the front entrance. Feeling brave from his last four mugs of “coffee Royal”, he opened the window and shouted at the protesters.

Showing:

When he set the cup on the monogrammed coaster, one of the few things the ex-ball-and-chain hadn’t stolen, voices resonated below. Better not be those damn protesters again. For liquid courage, he poured another coffee royal, tossed his head back, and sucked the mug dry. (side note: I loved Jim’s coffee royal habit; my 90 y.o. Italian grandfather-in-law tipped quite a few in his day. 🙂 )

Jim shoved open the window. (Example of using a body cue instead of dialogue tag) “Get outta here, you granola-lovin’ hippies!” (Great dialogue. Good job, Anon!)

However, the following dialogue doesn’t work.

“This town wouldn’t be what it is today without this company. I bet half of you work for our subsidiaries and don’t even know it. Go find something better to do!”

The first line in the above passage is too on-the-nose. The second could work if reworded to sound more natural. Although, I’d rather see Anon use the dialogue to show us more of Jim’s personality. It’s precious real estate and shouldn’t be wasted by sneaking in backstory.

As Jim closed the window, he heard something thunk against the building. He looked at the angry mob of about 20 to see that they were throwing rocks at the building. He opened his window and shouted at the crowd.

“I’m calling the police!” 

Heard and see are telling words. The dialogue should come after the body cue, not on a separate line. Also, why have Jim close and reopen the window? Keep it open. If you need Jim away from the window, let him refill his coffee royal. Which also gives us the opportunity to show the reader how pissed off or frightened he is.

Rewritten:

Jim swiped the Crown Royal off his desk, and a pummel of tings blasted against the side of the building. He chanced a peek out the window. About twenty of the angry mob whipped rocks at the bricks, some even hit the new Prairie Pipeline Company sign. As CEO, he couldn’t let this behavior continue. Hidden by the window frame, his body flattened against the wall, his voice betrayed his confident front when it raised three octaves. “I’m calling the cops!”

Notice how I slipped in the name of the company and his job title? Here isn’t as intrusive as the first line and we won’t risk overloading our reader with information before they get a chance to know Jim.

Last paragraph:

“Oooh, the police. We’re scared now!” one of the protesters sarcastically snapped back. By this point Jim was ready to take matters into his own hands. He was sick and tired of environmental protest groups showing up at the office and disturbing not only the normal course of business but also the time he put in after hours. It was almost as if they were stalking him. He just couldn’t understand why they would choose 7:00 pm as a time to protest. Then he remembered there was a benefit dinner happening at the University to raise funds to relocate the hundreds of thousands of birds that would be without homes if the new pipeline went ahead as planned.

First, cue the reader to who’s speaking right away. “Ooh, the police,” yelled the protest leader. Barry something-or-other. This wasn’t the first time he’d had run-ins with that loud-mouthed-loser. “We’re scared now!”

The next line is all telling and does nothing to further the plot — delete.

Rewrite the rest of the paragraph to hint at the story to come.

So damn tired of environmental groups disrupting the normal work flow, never mind the time spent before and after hours, something had to give. It was almost as if they sensed when he pulled into the parking lot. Had they planted cameras? Stalked him? Oh, maybe they attended the fundraiser tonight. Bunch of tree-huggers trying to find a way to relocate birds once PPC laid the new pipeline. If only these earthy-crunchy types could disappear. Vanished. Scraped off the planet like gum on a sneaker’s sole. But how?

He smirked. Murder might be an option.

###

Overall, there’s a lot to like about this first page. If Anon deepens the POV, s/he could have an intriguing story.

Jordan passed me the music challenge gauntlet. So, I’m including the inspiration behind Paradox, my killer in SCATHED, Grafton County Series, (release date TBA). #TKZMusicChallenge

Over to you, TKZers. What tips would you give to strengthen this first page?

 

6+

Do You See Your Character the Way Readers Do? First Page Critique: Rabya

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

For your reading pleasure, we have an anonymous submission of the first 400 words to a story titled – Rabya. I give my feedback below, but I also wanted to share this tidbit that the author shared on the inspiration for the story. In my own writing, headlines often inspire my novels and I love blending my research into fiction to add gravitas and authenticity.

FROM THE ANONYMOUS AUTHOR – Based on a true situation, RABYA is the story of how an American software engineer lands on the Terror Watch List because his live-in girlfriend, Rayba Salik, is Turkish. Does she have a secret?

***

Two minutes before take-off, Justin Karns twists side-to-side, trying to carve out room for his shoulders. The tall guy to his left has already commandeered the armrest. His manspread invades Justin’s space. The thought of rubbing knees with him across the Atlantic Ocean is creepy. If Justin doesn’t resolve this problem soon, he’ll be a mess for his big interview.

A few rows ahead, three seats sit empty. Though it’s verboten to move during takeoff, the seat should still be available in five minutes if everyone follows the rules. Yet, when the plane levels off—with the seat belt sign still lit—a man darts into the empty row. Justin pushes his call button.

“May I help you?” The flight attendant asks.

“Yes, please.” He glances at her name tag. “Kirsten, this row is way too crowded for three tall men. I’m six-foot and cramped. Imagine how these guys feel.” He flips his thumb to the left. “There was an empty row ahead, but someone just took the middle seat.”

She glances over her shoulder and then back without a word.

“Would you mind asking that guy to take the window seat so we could both be comfortable up there. Then my friend here,” Wilt the Stilt, “will have a place to stow his legs.”

“I’m sorry,” Kirsten says. “That is not possible.”

“Seriously? I fly international all the time. People always change seats.”

“There are new rules. Sorry.” She walks away.

When Justin can’t settle in, he calls her back. He considers name dropping his interview with Cruise Talon, the famous international consulting firm, but he’d sound like a braggart. He could hyperbolize his agony, but he’d sound like a wimp. Instead, he resorts to the truth. “I really need to change seats. My future depends on being rested.”
Her blue eyes turn icy. “I am sorry. Enjoy the flight.”

Perfect. Flight attendant on a power trip.

Justin stands up, stretches his body, and watches Kirsten return to the galley. A man on the aisle with a cop’s buzz cut smirks at him and reaches into his jacket, for what—a citation pad? He wouldn’t be so judgmental if he were stuffed into a row with daddy long legs.

Desperate to relax, Justin tilts back and waits for a chance to steal a piece of the armrest.

So, I’m the only one on this flight who can’t change seats.

FEEDBACK

TO LIKE OR NOT TO LIKE JUSTIN – My overall impression is that I’m not sure I want to be in Justin’s head for an entire book. If I were a reader picking up a book and reading the first page or so, how important is it for me to like him?

Some authors can pull off complex characters, where it’s not necessary for the reader to instantly like them. If the reader can be won over by the deeds of a complicated character, you have a major bond and great writing.

But in this short sample, Justin comes across as self-involved, arrogant, cynical to a fault, and inconsiderate. If this is a story inspired by real events, I would recommend shining a more sympathetic light on Justin. The author would be better off making this guy relatable from page one. Even if Justin is irascible, if the reader sees him in an uncomfortable situation that they have been through, the focus wouldn’t be on Justin’s worst traits.

HELP THE READER RELATE TO THE SITUATION INSTEAD – If the author plans on Justin being a challenging character with a prickly nature, I would recommend the author divert the reader’s attention from his unsavory personality to focus on his situation.

Who hasn’t endured a terrible flight where everything seems to go wrong? I would concentrate on the things that many readers would have experienced, then show Justin navigating those waters to see how he deals with things.

1.) Cramped seats
2.) A crying baby or two
3.) Recirculating air that doesn’t work
4.) Seat that doesn’t recline
5.) The interior of the plane feels like a sweltering oven
6.) Someone knocks his elbow on the aisle and hits the raw nerve of his funny bone
7.) Or a plane too small for good overhead bin space and he has to cram his carry on under the seat in front of him, leaving him no leg room.

(Can you tell I’ve had my share of really awful flights? I traveled on business when I was with the energy industry. Now my commute is from my bedroom to my home office. Sweet.)

If the author is going for the kind of characters featured in GONE GIRL – as seen through the eyes of a failed and bitter marriage of a husband and wife where both of them look guilty – then the voice attempted in this opener would pose a challenge to a reader who might like to relate to a main character. It’s a fine line to have an arrogant character still be likeable enough that a reader might want to eventually root for him. Finding the right balance in a character like that takes a deft hand.

A book that resonated with me and I highly recommend is PARANOIA by Joe Finder. This novel was made into a movie. Read the book. It’s a MUCH BETTER story. As you can see from the synopsis below (embellished by me), the author has borderline criminal, Adam, start his downhill spiral by doing a favor for a friend, a buddy of his who works in the warehouse. After he gets caught in a crime by his employer, Adam is given a chance to rectify his situation and do the right thing, but instead he takes the corporate ultimatum/blackmail and breaks the law to spy on another company. It’s a story of David versus Goliath.

In Paranoia, Adam Cassidy is twenty-six and a low level employee at a high-tech corporation who hates his job. He’s a real slacker with hustler, street smarts. When he manipulates the system to do something nice for a friend, he finds himself charged with a crime and corporate security gives him a choice: prison – or become a spy in the headquarters of the company’s chief competitor.

PRESENT TENSE – I didn’t see the point to writing this story in present tense, since more readers dislike it. Present tense is more likely to appear in YA where teen readers don’t have the bias of living most of their lives reading 3rd person, past tense books.

PLAUSIBILITY ISSUES – I found several issues wrong with this intro, just from a factual standpoint.

Call Button – Before Justin presses the call button, he makes a point to notice the seat belt sign was still lit. Yet once he presses his call button, the flight attendant pops up at the ready to serve. Things happen too fast in sequence for them to sound realistic.

Rules on Changing Seats – I took issue with Justin expecting the flight attendant to settle his seating problems. Any flight attendant is there for safety reasons first, but pushy Justin expects her to fight his battles by intervening. But to compound the issue, he argues that he flies international “all the time” and people change seats. (Why he argues only about international flights and not domestic too, I have no clue.) The attendant tells him there are new rules and changing seats is not permitted, yet the whole incident that started this argument was that a guy changed seats and was allowed to stay. That’s a logic problem that readers would see, like I did, and not take the story seriously. The whole argument comes off silly. Justin is being belligerent and the attendant is being overly mean. (Most flight attendants are very accommodating.)

Justin has options – Justin has the option of asking the man who has the row to himself if he can share the seating with him. When he chooses to force the attendant to intervene, he comes across as weak and a whiner. If the objective is to give a voice to Justin that sets the stage for the entire book, I would recommend the author take a harder look at how Justin should appear in his debut moment of first appearing on the page. Is he a victim or is a jerk who’s asking for it? Does he have poor judgment or is the Cosmos teaching him a lesson in humility? The author could go anyway with this. I suggested drawing the reader in by putting Justin in a situation where the reader can relate to a terrible flight and a seriously bad day, but there are other ways for the author to go. We simply don’t what the author has in mind. As a reader, I would put this book down, however. Justin hasn’t won me over to turn the page or buy the book.

As an author, you have control of ANYTHING in the story, but the fictional world should be consistent or must seem real to the reader, in order for them to suspend disbelief and read along.

NITPICKS – Word choices and pop culture references are important and should fit the character if the story is from his or her POV.

1.) Do guys really use the word “creepy” to describe man-spreading and knocking knees with a guy sitting too close? That sounds like the word choice of a victim or a word that a woman would use. Similarly, the line below makes Justin sound childish and unwilling to even try to rectify his own problem. Not a very mature response for a guy traveling across the Atlantic for an international job with an elite employer. Anyone in this position would be assertive, a negotiator, and a charmer.

So, I’m the only one on this flight who can’t change seats.

2.) How many readers would get the reference, “Wilt the Stilt”? Wilt Chamberlain played from 1959 to 1973. Justin strikes me as a younger guy who might reference an NBA player currently playing. Another example of a description that stands out as odd to me is – Daddy Long Legs. My parents would use this. Pretty ancient reach back.

3.) By calling attention to Justin’s internal thoughts on his options (see below), the reader gets unfavorable thoughts planted about Justin that the author may not intend. By his actions, he’s already an acquired taste. Why add fuel to stoke the fire?

He considers name dropping his interview with Cruise Talon, the famous international consulting firm, but he’d sound like a braggart. He could hyperbolize his agony, but he’d sound like a wimp.

TITLE – Rabya may be a working title, but it wouldn’t make a good published title in my opinion. Using the woman’s name might also limit the cover design to feature the woman, when the story is truly about Justin and the calamity of his life. When I don’t “feel” the title right away, I start writing down alternatives and make a long list before I settle on one. Get feedback from beta readers.

DISCUSSION
1.) What do you think of books written in present tense, TKZ? Am I the only one without my 3-D glasses?

2.) What feedback would you add for this courageous author?

 

Since P J Parrish had to throw down the guantlet by adding music to the end of her post this week, I’ve included this link & dedicate the song to the character in this submission. Justin is having a very bad day. #TKZMusicChallenge

 

 

Fiona’s Salvation $1.99 Ebook Novella

Can she survive the truth of what really happened to her?

2+

Tips to Include Pets in Fiction

By Sue Coletta

I love writing pets into my stories. Not only is a great way to show a killer’s soft side, but they’ve become important family members for my main characters. In my stories, I’ve used a Rottweiler, English Mastiff, St. Bernard, a calico, tabby, and all-black cat, pet crows, and a black bear.

I’ve even borrowed a friend’s Bulldog, but I felt so responsible for him, I couldn’t include him like I’d originally planned. God forbid I returned him emotionally scarred from the experience. It’s much safer to create a fictional pet.

Need a way to show your character’s quirky side? Include a bearded dragon, snapping turtle, boa, tarantula, or exotic bird.

Is your character adventurous? Give him a pet moose, lion, leopard, or tiger to love. How ‘bout a pet elephant? When writing about pets let your imagination soar.

Fit the pet to a specific character to cue readers about their personality. By using well-thought-out animals, it can say a lot about who they are, where they live, or even, their state of mind. It’s also fun to juxtapose. Give a tattooed biker a Chihuahua or toy poodle. Readers will love it!

A few things to keep in mind when writing pets into fiction…

If you kill the pet, you better have a damn good reason for it, a reason readers will understand.

For example, not long ago my husband and I watched John Wick. [SPOILER ALERT] I fell in love with the Beagle puppy his dead wife sent from the grave. When the bad guys murdered the dog I almost shut off the movie. If my husband hadn’t begged me to keep watching, that would’ve been it for me. Turns out, this moment kicked off the quest (First Plot Point in story structure). Not only is it an important scene, but if it didn’t happen there’d be no story. See? Understandable reason why he had to die. John Wick would not have gone ballistic over a stolen car. The puppy was the only thing left he cared about. It had to happen.

The safer option is to not harm the pets.

Why Does the Character Have That Specific Pet?

As I mentioned earlier, you need to know why the character chose that pet. Is he lonely? Does a couple use their pets to fill a maternal/paternal need? Are you using that pet as a way to show the character’s soft side? Does the pet become the only one who’ll listen to their fears, sorrow, or hidden secrets? In other words, for an introverted character, pets can assume a larger role in the story so your character isn’t talking to him/herself.

As the writer, you need to know why that dog, cat, bird, lizard, or bear is in the story and what role they play. Does a K9 cop track criminals? Did your criminal character train a horse to be the getaway driver? Does the killer feed his pet hogs or gators human flesh? Knowing why that fictional pet exists is crucial.

What’s the Pet’s Personality?

Animal lovers know each pet has his/her own personality. If you’ve never owned the pets you’re writing about, then I suggest doing a ton of research till you feel like you have. For example, while writing Blessed Mayhem I needed to know how crows communicated and how people could interpret their calls. What separated a crow from a raven, what they felt like, what they smelled like, what foods they enjoyed most. In order to make the characters real I spent countless hours of research into the life of crows. I even went so far as to befriend a crow of my mine. Turns out, Poe was female. It didn’t take long for her to bring her mate, Edgar. When they had chicks, they brought them too. It’s turned into a very special experience (story for another time).

What Does the Pet Look Like and How Does S/he Act?

First, you must know the basics … their markings, voice, breed, habitat, diet, etc. Then delve deeper into the expressions they make when they’re happy, content, sleeping, aggravated, and downright pissed off. Every animal has their own unique personality, mannerisms, and traits. Evoke the reader’s five senses. Don’t just concentrate on sight. By tapping into deeper areas, our fictional pets come alive on the page. A scene where the hero or villain cuddles with a pet can add a nice break from the tension, a chance to give the reader a moment to catch their breath before plunging them back into the suspense.

Plus, pets are fun to write.

Does the Basset Hound snore so loudly he keeps the rest of the family awake? Is he now banished to the garage at night? Does the German Shepherd’s feet twitch when he’s dreaming? Does the Mastiff throw his owner the stink-eye when he can’t reach his favorite toy?

Let’s talk dogs. They do more than bark. Use their full range of grunts, moans, groans, happy chirps, and playful growls when your character plays tug-of-war. For cats, nothing is more soothing than a purr rattling in their throat as your character drifts asleep. Soft claws can massage their back after a brutal day.

Years ago, I had a pet turkey who used to love to slide his beak down each strand of my hair. This was one of the ways Lou showed affection. I’d sit in a lounge chair with a second lounge chair behind me, and Lou would work his magic till I became putty in his beak. He knew it, too. After all that hard work, I couldn’t deny him his favorite treats.

Symbolism and Locale

Need an already-creepy area to become even more menacing? Have vultures, eagles, or other carrion birds circle overhead. Use coyotes’ eerie chorus of howls. Crickets and tree frogs symbolize a desolate country milieu or swampland.

Dead silence also works well, but sometimes you need that extra oomph to evoke the correct emotional response. Anyone who’s ever spent time outside, in the dark, with only wildlife around for miles, can tell you their calls have a way of raising all your tiny body hairs at once.

Ever hear a Fisher cat? Their cries sound like a baby being slaughtered. This the best YouTube video I could find, but around here they’re even more sinister. When a Fisher cat screams it’s a tough sound to ignore.

If your character is camping or lost in the woods, ground the reader with the songs of nature and a crackling fire.

Near a lake, use water lapping against the shore.

Listening to nature and animal sounds can also be a great way to trigger the muse.

Consistency

If your characters are snuggling with a pet in the first few chapters, then you must include them in later scenes as well. Otherwise, the home environment won’t ring true. Where’d the dog go? He was in Chapter Three and now, he’s gone. What happened to him? Animal lovers will notice his/her absence.

If your villain is killed and you’ve gone to great lengths to show how much he loves his dogs, then make sure the reader knows what’ll happen to those dogs after his death. Did your hero just orphan them? Or did the villain write them into his will? Maybe he or she has a family member that will care for the dogs. The tiny details matter. Think of it in terms of yourself. If you own an African Gray, then chances are s/he will outlive you. What provisions have you set in place for his/her care after you’re gone? Same goes for fictional pets.

Aging Pets

Everyone ages, even fictional pets. Sometimes the years aren’t kind. Does your dog character limp from arthritis? Then you can’t let him charge out the door with a spring in his step. He needs to lumber into a room. He’s slower than your younger animal characters. His muzzle now has gray. Around the eyes are graying too. Maybe he takes medication for achy joints. By including the aging process readers can relate. We’ve all had older pets, and it broke our hearts to see them age. Unfortunately, your fictional pet needs to age. We can prolong this process, but we need to at least show them slowing down. By doing so, we can also show the emotional angst it causes our character to see them this way.

The Day-to-Day

Does your fictional dog have a favorite squeaky toy? Does your cat like to get high on catnip? Maybe s/he knows where your character stashes the bag, and every time they leave the house the cat gets wasted. Maybe your character goes to the local butcher every Saturday to buy the family dog a bone. If your fictional dog is panting in the summer heat, please give him a bowl of water to cool off. Whatever you do, don’t lock him inside a car in ninety-degree heat.

Ever see a dog drunk on apples? It’s hilarious! Let your fictional dog eat fallen apples, then show him stumbling back to the house. How about peanut butter? Peanut butter and animals can be a winning combination. Does your fictional cat walk on the counters? Does your fictional dog beg for food at the dinner table? On the sly do your children characters slip bacon to him? How ’bout cauliflower, and even the dog spits it out. You get the picture.

Have fun with your fictional pets. I do. They’re some of my favorite characters to write.

 

What are some ways you’ve used pets in your writing? Have you ever created an exotic pet?

2017 winner of #RBRT Readers’ Choice Award in Mystery/Thriller. Available in paperback and ebook. Look inside HERE.

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What Do Tom Turkey and Writing Have in Common?

by Sue Coletta

Photo by Andrea Reiman on Unsplash

Clare’s recent post got me thinking about craft and how, as we write, the story inflates like a Tom turkey. If you think about it long enough and throw in a looming deadline, Tom Turkey and story structure have a lot in common.

Stay with me. I promise it’ll make sense, but I will ask you to take one small leap of faith — I need you to picture Tom Turkey as the sum of his parts, constructed by craft. And yes, this particular light bulb blazed on over the Thanksgiving holiday. We are now having spiral ham for Christmas dinner. 🙂

But I digress.

Story beats build Tom’s spine (hook, inciting incident, first plot point, first pinch point, midpoint, second pinch point, all is lost, second plot point, climax). The ribs that extend from Tom’s spine liken to the equal parts that expand our beats and tell us how our characters should react before, during, and after the quest.

Broken into four equal parts, 25% percent each, we call this the dramatic arc and it defines the pace of our story.

  •             Setup: Introduce protagonist, hook the reader, and setup First Plot Point (foreshadowing, establishing stakes); establish empathy (not necessarily likability) for the MC.
  •             Response: The MC’s reaction to the new goal/stakes/obstacles revealed by the First Plot Point; the MC doesn’t need to be heroic yet (retreats/regroups/doomed attempts/reminders of antagonistic forces at work).
  •             Attack: Midpoint information/awareness causes the MC to change course in how to approach the obstacles; the hero is now empowered with information on how to proceed, not merely reacting anymore.
  •             Resolution: MC summons the courage and growth to come up with solution, overcome inner obstacles, and conquer the antagonistic force; all new information must have been referenced, foreshadowed, or already in play by 2nd plot point or we’re guilty of deus ex machina.

Tom Turkey is beginning to take shape.

Characterization adds meat to his bones and interesting, conflict-driven sub-plots supply tendons and ligaments. When we layer in dramatic tension in the form of a need, goal, quest, or challenge, Tom grows skin. Obstacle after obstacle, conflict after conflict, he sprouts feathers. Utilizing MRUs — Motivation-Reaction-Units; for every action there’s a reaction — sets our story rhythm. They also aid us in heightening and maintaining suspense.

When we use MRUs, Tom Turkey fluffs those feathers. Look what happened. He grew a beak.

Providing a vicarious experience, our emotions splashed across the page, makes Tom fan his tail-feathers. The stakes add to Tom’s glee, and he prances for a potential mate. He thinks he’s got the goods to score with the ladies. He may actually get lucky this year.

Then again, we know better. Poor Tom, he’s still missing a few crucial elements in order to close the deal.

By structuring our scenes, Tom grew an impressive snood. See it dangling from his beak? The wattle under his chin needs help though. Hens are shallow. Quick, we need to imbue the story with voice.

Ah, now Tom looks sharp. What an impressive bird. Watch him prance, all full and fluffy, head held high, tail feathers fanned in perfect formation. Stud muffin.

Uh-oh. Joe Hunter leveled his shotgun at Tom. We can’t let him die before he finds a mate. We need to ensure he stays alive. But how? We’ve given him all the tools he needs, right?

Well, not quite.

Did we choose the right point of view to tell our story? If we didn’t, Tom could end up on a holiday table surrounded by drooling humans in bibs. In other words, we’ll lose our reader before we even get a chance to dazzle them with Tom’s perfect structure.

We also need narrative structure. Without it, Joe Hunter will murder poor Tom. We can’t let that happen!

Narrative structure, by the way, is almost impossible for me to define (maybe one of our craft teachers will weigh in here). I call it the “oomph” and I know it when I write it. I also know when it’s missing. Have you ever started writing a story but it didn’t have that certain something? The story was just … meh. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but it didn’t sizzle like it should for some reason.

Yeah, so have I. Those novels are now trunked. Without the oomph, the story doesn’t work. We need the oomph — aka narrative structure.

Tom needs narrative structure, too, if he hopes to escape Joe Hunter’s bullet. He also requires wings, in the form of context. Did we veer too far outside of our readers’ expectations for the genre we’re writing in? Did we give Tom a heart and soul by subtly infusing our theme? Can we boil down the plot to its core story, Tom’s innards? What about dialogue? Does Tom gobble or quack?

Have we shown the three dimensions of character in order to add oxygen to Tom’s lungs? You wouldn’t want to be responsible for suffocating Tom to death, would you?

  •             1st Dimension of Character: The best version of who they are; the face the character shows to the world;
  •             2nd Dimension of Character:  The person our character shows to friends and family;
  •             3rd Dimension of Character:  Our character’s true character. If a fire broke out in a crowded theater, would she help others or elbow her way to the door to save herself?

Lastly, Tom needs a way to wow the ladies. We better make sure our prose sings. If we don’t, Tom could die of loneliness. Do we really want that on our conscience? No! To be safe, let’s review our word choices, sentence variations, paragraphing, grammar, and the way we string words together to ensure Tom lives a full and fruitful life. Don’t forget to rewrite and edit. If readers love Tom, he and his new bride could bring chicks (sequels or prequels) into the world, and we, as Tom’s creator, have the honor of helping them flourish into full-fledged turkeys.

Aww … it looks like Tom’s story will have a happy ending after all.

Over to you, TKZers. Is Tom Turkey missing anything? What would you name his mate?Can anyone define narrative structure in a more craft-appropriate way?

Want to meet more feathered friends? The antagonist in BLESSED MAYHEM has three pet crows, Poe, Allan, and Edgar. The Kindle version is on sale for a limited time.

Blessed Mayhem by Sue Coletta

 

 

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