Ways to Beef Up Conflict & Mystery – First Page Critique – Whatever Tomorrow Brings

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

 

For your reading enjoyment, we have the first 400 words of an anonymous author’s work in progress. I’ll have my feedback on the flip side. Please provide your constructive criticism in your comments.

***

Dad and I arrived at Houston’s Medical Hospital as an orangy-pink sun dipped below the horizon. We hurried across a parking lot the size of a football field, the October breeze lifting wisps of my ash brown hair as we headed for the warmth of the building.

In the elevator, Dad punched the button for the third floor while I rubbed my hands together. We began our ascent with a jerk that made me latch onto Dad’s arm, and then I felt my stomach drop. Just what I needed.

We greeted Mr. and Mrs. Garrett in the visitor’s waiting room. After catching up on the latest news regarding Slate’s condition, I walked alone to Room 316. Rounding the nurses’ station, a concoction of hospital smells assaulted my nostrils: alcohol, chlorine, undefinable cafeteria food, and floor wax. Lovely. I leaned against the wall for a few moments, my hand on my empty and now queasy stomach, before continuing down the hall.

Finding the door to Slate’s room closed, I took a moment to smooth my hair, powder a shiny nose, remove an errant eyelash threatening to slide under my blue contact lens. Then I knocked.

“Yeah.”

I peeked in. “Hi.”

Slate Garrett sat propped up in bed, two pillows behind his back. His velvet brown eyes were dark. “Did you hear?”

I nodded and walked towards him. Lindell High’s all-state linebacker would’ve looked ridiculous in his pale hospital gown under other circumstances; but his blackened left eye, busted lip, and the white bandage behind his left ear took all humor out of the situation.

“Three games into my senior year, and this has to happen. Benched for the rest of the season. No college scholarship, no playing for the Longhorns, no more football. Ever!”

I could almost hear his heart breaking. I blinked back tears.

His own eyes watering, Slate reached for the glass on his nightstand and drank from it.

I feigned interest in his room while we both tried to regain self-control. His gold wristwatch and an opened package of malted milk balls lay on the nightstand beside his bed. A chair stood in the corner, a football resting on its cushion.

I walked over and touched the stiff, stained laces. “What’s this doing here?”

“Game ball from Friday night. Like I want it now.”

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – Depending on what genre this novel will be, the opening could start earlier with the injury on the field and more action. Or it could start with the young woman narrator rushing to the hospital, leaving the reader to wonder what is happening and who will be there. I prefer more action than the way this story starts so the reader is drawn into the novel by elements of mystery and the emotions of something about to happen. Even in the case of a romance, mystery elements still have their place. Readers want to be sucked into a story with anticipation of what will happen. This particular story reads like a romance or maybe a Young Adult (YA)/New Adult with younger characters that could grow into their early twenties. Who doesn’t love a good sports story with the struggles of a romance mingled between the lines? Sign me up, but let’s take a look at where to begin.

Genre & Elements of Romance – If this is a romance or YA, don’t rush a scene between a girl and a boy. Add layers to their relationship. The sexual tension, even if it’s only one way, can pull a reader in.

Be sensitive to eye contact or touches or the hyper awareness of the girl who has feelings for a guy who may not notice her. Does she see his skin flushing with color? Does she have heat rising to her cheeks? Pay attention to the details and only put in enough to not slow the pace, but make everything count. She’s dying to get into the hospital room, but she takes the time to primp and fix her hair. Nice touch, author.

But I would recommend adding more awkward tension from her point of view. I can feel a good foundation of it here, but there can be more. She’s walking into his hospital room alone. How well do they know each other? Are they only friends? Does she want there to be more? Since she didn’t run into his arms, I’m assuming they aren’t boyfriend/girlfriend.

Milk the unrequited love aspect and have her tentatively walk into a dim room. Set the stage better by making the room dark with him brooding and her looking for his glances through shadows where he may not want to face her. Have patience when building layers into a scene. If this scene takes place at dusk (as mentioned in the first paragraph), why not change the time to add mood to this intro? It would add to the tension if she’s pressuring her father to drive faster. Make it start to rain. Readers will wonder why she’s pushing her dad. The lights and the darkness and the treacherous weather can add to the mystery of where they’re going.

If you have her eventually rushing into a hospital, stretch out the intro with the build up of tension without telling the reader what’s happening. You will have them hooked as she steps into a shadowy room with an injured guy unable to look her in the eye. Maybe he’s in a private room and staring out the window. Is it raining? Make it moody. Have the stage set for what’s happening from her side. A good setting can really add to a scene.

Where to Begin – The way this story begins, the author is “telling” the reader what is happening, rather than creating an opener with more action and tension and conflict. Conflict is KEY. Start with action and add mystery elements without explaining what is happening and why.

Conflict – Does the injured boy expect to see her? Does he want her to be there? Only the author can answer these questions, but the story is completely under the control of the writer. I would recommend more conflict as she steps into the hospital or into his room. Are his parents surprised she’s there, but don’t say anything? When she finally steps down the long corridor and pushes open his door, what would he say to add conflict and tension right away?

“I told you not to come. You never listen.”

OR

“Come to gloat? Get out.”

Opening – Below is the first 2 paragraphs. It “tells” where she and her dad are going. Although there is a sense of urgency, that tension could be better. Any tension is deflated when she brings up the color of the sunset and talks about the time of day and brings up the hue of her own hair. This is a short cut for new authors to tell the reader this is a girl and the color of her hair but there are better and more natural ways to do this. Have patience. Make this opening about the action and stick with it.

The tension in this opening feels contrived because the urgency is forced and watered down.

Dad and I arrived at Houston’s Medical Hospital as an orangy-pink sun dipped below the horizon. We hurried across a parking lot the size of a football field, the October breeze lifting wisps of my ash brown hair as we headed for the warmth of the building.

In the elevator, Dad punched the button for the third floor while I rubbed my hands together. We began our ascent with a jerk that made me latch onto Dad’s arm, and then I felt my stomach drop. Just what I needed.

In this next paragraph, the author does more ‘telling” rather than “showing.” Again, the tension is soft and deflated when the author uses phrases like “after catching up on the latest news regarding Slate’s condition.” The author launches into the sights and sounds of a hospital, which detracts from any emotion this girl is feeling. It’s too clinical and matter-of-fact. She would be more focused on counting the room numbers and looking for his room. She’d be thinking of what she would say. Will she be welcomed? Don’t tell the reader. Show her apprehension without answering any of the questions she raises in her worrying.

We greeted Mr. and Mrs. Garrett in the visitor’s waiting room. After catching up on the latest news regarding Slate’s condition, I walked alone to Room 316. Rounding the nurses’ station, a concoction of hospital smells assaulted my nostrils: alcohol, chlorine, undefinable cafeteria food, and floor wax. Lovely. I leaned against the wall for a few moments, my hand on my empty and now queasy stomach, before continuing down the hall.

Suggested Start – I can’t know what the author’s intentions are for this story. I can only suggest ways to make this more of a page turner and pique the interest of an agent or editor. As I’ve stated under the Genre & Elements of Romance heading, I would start with more action. Regardless if this is romance or not, action will pique the reader’s interest more than this opening does. The elements of a good story are here, author. We just need to massage and tweak to add more action and conflict.

1.) Make the drive to the hospital more about the girl pressuring her father to drive faster. Don’t explain why she wants him to do it. Add tension with the darkness and rain coming down.

2.) Have her rushing into the building, not waiting for her father to park. She stops at a nurse’s station in the ER. Her stomach is doing flip flops. She looks for other familiar faces while the nurse asks questions she doesn’t want to answer. She’s not family.

3.) She sees Slate’s parents down the corridor and rushes to them, but stops when they stare at her without a greeting. If you want to add conflict, give them a reason to wonder why she’s there. Or if she’s a friend to their son, have them warn her that he doesn’t want to see anyone from school. “Not even you.”

Question to answer – You have to give the parents a reason why they are waiting in the hallway when their son is in a hospital room, alone. Why aren’t they in the room with him?

4.) Make the reader feel every step she takes toward his room. Take time to describe what she’s feeling without answering any questions. Don’t even talk about football until she sees him.

5.) Be patient with the body language, conflict and tension between them. He could be ashamed of something or feel like a failure because his future is shot. She could be wanting to hold him, but can’t. Make the reader feel every aspect of emotion in this opening scene.

Dialogue – Make every line of dialogue count. Below is the stripped out dialogue lines–isolated to highlight what is said without any description or movement. This is a good way to see if the lines sound chit chatty or if they carry enough weight that can add to the tension/conflict.

HIM: “Yeah.”

HER: “Hi.”

HIM: “Did you hear?”

HIM: “Three games into my senior year, and this has to happen. Benched for the rest of the season. No college scholarship, no playing for the Longhorns, no more football. Ever!”

HER: “What’s this doing here?”

HIM: “Game ball from Friday night. Like I want it now.”

I would recommend more substance be added. Give them a past that may set them at odds. Is she an old girlfriend? Is she dating someone else, but rushes to the hospital, unsure why she can’t get him out of her system? Is there relationship one-sided? Reflect that into the dialogue and make each line count.

“Why did you come? You made yourself perfectly clear where we stand. I don’t need your sympathy.”

Dialogue authenticity – The longest line of this conversation has him “telling” the reader that Slate is a high school senior and how many games he’s played. Both these characters would know that. Slate wouldn’t need to explain. It’s obvious the author is “telling” the reader what they should know, but it reads like a contrivance. Make this encounter about the emotion of what he’s feeling and her inability to comfort him. Is he angry and lashes out at her? If they used to date, is she now with the guy who injured him or the star quarterback of another team…someone with a future? Have patience with revealing the conflict but make the dialogue between them show the emotion of a troubled past or more of a conflict.

Characterization – I know this is only a short opening of 400 words, but what do we know of these two people? By not telling the reader about the narrator, the author could still show unique traits to pack this opening with a reason for the reader to care. Does she chew her nails when she’s tense? What is she wearing? Did she bother to change in her rush to get to the hospital? What does that say about her? Even little details sprinkled into these 400 words can add value into building who she is and why we should care. Maybe the author could clip out online images of what this character looks like. I love image boards to set the stage for the story and make the small details shine.

Housekeeping

What’s in a Name? – With the dialogue, there’s a good place to have Slate say her name – or maybe her father can share it when they’re weaving through traffic.

Gender – With this story being in first person POV, try to get the gender of the narrator into the first lines if possible. The reader wants to know.

Setting – In the action leading up to the hospital arrival, add landmarks or setting that allows the reader to get oriented into Houston, Texas. The author doesn’t have to provide the destination and the name of the hospital to set the location in Houston. As a Texan, I do love a good feeling of Texas in a story. Rush hour in Houston is a parking lot, for example. Depending on the time of year, the steamy heat could layer onto her skin as she races from the car into the hospital.

Summary – The author is very much aware of description for the sake of the reader’s senses. That’s good, but have patience with how to use that skill. Less can be more. Keep the character’s motivation and emotion real so the great descriptors don’t read as forced or contrived or piled on.

I focused on this being a romance, but if it’s not, my feedback is still worth considering. If this story is about head injuries in football, the additional conflict from the start would still work. Add more tension between these two people to allow the reader to develop a strong foundation in their relationship. If this is more about the drama of Slate’s recovery, I would recommend the author load up on the conflict to give this pair a journey that they may or may not survive in the end. Put them through the wringer.

There are good elements to this story and lots of potential with this premise and these characters. I want to know what happens and I would want to read more. Thanks for your submission, dear author.

Discussion

What other changes would you recommend, TKZers?

2+

Can Hypnagogia Improve your Fiction Writing? Find Out

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased from iStock by Jordan Dane

I really liked TKZ contributor Debbie Burke’s Feb 5th post “Eight Tricks to Tap into your Subconscious for Better Writing.” The mind is an interesting resource for writers. I’ve heard other authors say they dreamed a plot or how certain insights come to them while they sleep. I’ve personally had strange experiences in what I call “twilight sleep,” the realm between sleep and fully awake.

Many experts on dream studies say that dreams exist to help us solve problems we’re experiencing in our lives, or can help us tap into memories and process emotions. It’s possible that if you go to bed with a troubling thought – like a plot point that’s implausible or a character motivation that doesn’t feel right – sleep will allow your mind to come up with a resolution by the time you wake up.

Our own James Scott Bell has a term for this phenomenon. He calls the working brain at night – the boys in the basement. They don’t need to sleep. I’ve experienced this many times. That’s why I keep notepads near my nightstand or jot down ideas on my phone when they come to me after I wake up.

LUCID DREAMS 

Have you ever sensed you were dreaming INSIDE of a dream? You might’ve experienced a “lucid dream.” Research has shown that lucid dreaming is accompanied by an increased activation of parts of the brain that are normally suppressed during sleep. Lucid dreaming represents a brain state that falls between REM (rapid eye movement) deep sleep and being awake.

Some people who are lucid dreamers are able to influence the direction of their dream, changing the story, in a manner of speaking. While this may be a good tactic to take, especially during a nightmare, many dream experts say don’t force it. It’s better to let your dreams occur naturally.

HYPNAGOGIA

Hypnagogia is the transition between wakefulness and sleep. It’s what I call “Twilight Sleep” and it has nothing to do with sparkling vampires. It’s a state of mind where you may experience lucid dreaming.

In this state, you can tap into all the good ideas you have stored up, uninhibited by rational thought and insecurities. You’re open to all things. It’s how authors can go to bed knowing our manuscript has a flaw, but not knowing how to fix it. Our mind (or the boys in the basement) come to our assistance during the night when we are open to ideas.

Hypnagogia can also manifest in other ways, like when we may hear strange noises in our house–at the moment we wake up–and we KNOW someone has broken in. This could explain the monsters in our closet when we were kids or how we see dangers hidden in the shadows of our room. We’ve tapped into the primitive primal fear that animals experience where they trust their instincts (in order to survive) and react on pure reflex.

I have an experience like this and never forgot it. It happened in the afternoon while I was napping after a long exhausting day at work. I had the sensation that I was dreaming inside a dream, but I was certain someone was in the empty room with me. I even felt the bed move when they sat next to me. I got the sense they were staring down at me. I was so terrified (my body reacted with the fear – my heart raced and my lungs heaved) that I refused to open my eyes. I was so sure my nightmare would be confirmed. I sensed being touched, but still, I didn’t open my eyes. I never did. But I never forgot the feeling of abject, paralyzing fear and have written it into my stories.

Hypnagogia might possibly be one of the mind’s most vital tools for creativity and for tapping into the words to describe the high tensions or emotions we need to write a scene we may never had experienced personally.

How do we tap into Hypnagogia when we need it?

I believe it takes time to train our minds to open like this, but it could be a good exercise. I know that when I first started writing, I had to tap into my brain to hear dialogue from my characters and visualize each scene. Over time I got better at it. Now it’s impossible for me to be in public. I have no filter between my brain and my mouth. Have any of you experienced this? Oy. It can be a curse, but no regrets. I love how it works when I write–so worth it.

Some authors use image boards to trigger their imagination for the world they are creating, but what if you could tap into twilight sleep and manipulate ideas in your mind – to imagine them more deeply? Find a dark room in the afternoon and relax. Shut your eyes and clear your mind. I sometimes visualize numbers floating in the darkness behind my closed eyelids and count down until I am completely relaxed.

You don’t want to fall asleep, so you might consider holding something that will wake you if it falls. Salvador Dali used to hold steel balls that would make a noise when they dropped. Thomas Edison used to hold a metal ball over plate tins that would cause a racket if he let them drop. Test what works best for you in this process.

Does it help to record your results immediately after? A nearby notepad could help solidify your ideas visually as you write them down. Try these sessions for a short period and make the most of them as you get better. I find that if nothing else, the quiet time is good for the soul.

Tips to Recall Your Dreams

If you are a sound sleeper and don’t wake up until the morning, you are less likely to remember your dreams compared to people who wake up several times in the night. Try these tips to improve your ability to remember your dreams:

1.) Wake up without an alarm. You are more likely to remember your dreams if you wake up naturally than if you use an alarm. An annoying alarm can shift your focus to turning the blasted thing off and away from your dream.

2.) Tell yourself to remember. If you want to recall your dreams and make a fully aware decision to do so, you are more likely to remember your dreams in the morning. Before you go to sleep, tell yourself that you want to remember your dream. It may take practice.

3.) Dream playback. If you think about the dream right after waking, it may be easier to remember it later. Which has worked best for you? Making note of it immediately after or is it better to have patience and recall it later?

SUMMARY – This may seem odd if you hadn’t considered it before, but if you’ve been writing for years, can you recall how much your imagination has grown since the beginning? How has your process changed over the years? Have you noticed the changes? As I write, I find it easier to tap into my imagination now than when I first started out. Like I said, my mouth has no filter, by design. This is a good thing as a writer. Not so much if you hang around normal people.

FOR DISCUSSION

1.) Has anyone experienced Hypnagogic writing? What were the results?

2.) Do you know anyone who has experienced dreams that they used in their writing? Has it happened to you? Tell us about it.

8+

Eight Tricks to Tap Your Subconscious for Better Writing

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

The subconscious is the writer’s superpower. Ideas, imagination, and inspiration live in that vast reservoir.

The goal is to open a channel between the conscious mind and the subconscious to allow free flow between them.

Like a physical muscle, the subconscious is a mental muscle that can be made stronger with exercise. Many writers don’t use it enough because they don’t understand its value or don’t know how to tap into its depths.

Creative Commons license

The mind is often compared to an iceberg—only a small part shows as “conscious” while the unseen majority is “subconscious.”

What is the subconscious? Novelist/writing instructor Dennis Foley reduces the definition to a simple, beautiful simile:

The subconscious is like a little seven-year-old girl who brings you gifts.

Unfortunately, our conscious mind is usually too busy to figure out the value of these odd thoughts and dismisses them as inconsequential, even nonsensical.

The risk is, if you ignore the little girl’s gifts, pretty soon she stops bringing them and you lose touch with a vital link to your writer’s imagination. But if you encourage her to bring more gifts, she’s happy to oblige.

Sometimes the little girl delivers the elusive perfect phrase you’ve been searching for or that exhilarating plot twist that turns your story on its head.

At those times, she’s often dubbed “the muse.”

The trick is how to consistently turn random thoughts into gifts from a muse. Here are eight tips:

#1 – Be patient and keep trying.

Training the subconscious to produce inspiration on demand is like housetraining a puppy.

At first, it pees at unpredictable times and places. You grab it and rush outside. When it does its business on the grass instead of expensive carpet, you offer lots of praise. Soon it learns there is a better time and place to let loose.

Keep reinforcing that lesson and your subconscious will scratch at the back door when it wants to get out.

#2 – Pay attention to daydreams, wild hare ideas, and jolts of intuition. Chances are your subconscious shot them out for a reason, even if that reason isn’t immediately obvious.

Say you’re struggling over how to write a surprise revelation in a scene. Two days ago, you remembered crazy Aunt Gretchen, whom you hadn’t thought about in years. Then you realize if a character like her walks into the scene, she’s the perfect vehicle to deliver the surprise.

#3 – Expect the subconscious to have lousy timing.

That brilliant flash of inspiration often hits at the most inconvenient moment. In the middle of a job interview. In the shower. Or while your toddler is having a meltdown at Winn-Dixie.

Finish the task at hand but ask your subconscious to send you a reminder later. As soon as possible, write down that brilliant flash before you forget it.

#4 – Keep requests small.

Some authors claim to have dreamed multi-book sagas covering five generations of characters. Lucky them. My subconscious doesn’t work that hard.

Start by asking it to solve little problems.

As you’re going to bed, think about a character you’re having trouble bringing to life. Miriam seems flat and hollow but, for some reason you can’t explain, she hates the mustache on her new lover, Jack. Ask your subconscious: “Why?”

When you wake up, you realize Jack’s mustache looks just like her uncle’s did…when he molested Miriam at age five.

Until that moment, you didn’t even know Miriam had survived abuse…but your subconscious knew. That’s why it dropped the hint about her dislike for the mustache. She becomes a deeper character with secrets and hidden motives you can use to complicate her relationship with Jack.

#5 – Recognize obscure clues.

This tip takes practice because suggestions from the subconscious are often oblique and challenging to interpret.

You want to write a scene where a detective questions a suspect to pin down his whereabouts at the time of a crime. You ponder that as you drift off to sleep. The next morning, “lemon chicken” comes to mind.

What the…?

But you start typing and pretty soon the scene flows out like this:

“Hey, Fred, you like Chinese food?”

“Sure, Detective.”

“Ever try Wang’s all-you-can-eat buffet?”

“That’s my favorite place. Their lemon chicken is to die for.”

“Yeah, it’s the best.”

[Fred relaxes] “But not when it gets soggy. I only like it when the coating is still crispy.”

“Right you are. I don’t like soggy either.”

“Detective, would you believe last night I waited forty-five minutes for the kitchen to bring out a fresh batch?”

“Wow, Fred, you’re a patient man. About what time was that?”

“Quarter to eight.”

“So you must have been there when that dude got killed out in the alley.”

[Fred fidgets and licks his lips] “Um, yeah, but I didn’t see anything. I had nothing to do with him getting stabbed.”

“Oh really? Funny thing is, nobody knows he got stabbed…except the killer.”

Lemon chicken directed you to an effective line of questioning to solve the crime.

#6 – Tiny details pay big dividends.

You’re writing a story about a woman, Susan, searching for her dead grandmother’s missing diamond. In the description of Granny’s garden, an empty snail shell appears. Seems kind of silly but it’s first draft so you leave in the detail. You can always cut it later.

In the second draft, you realize, when Susan was little, she and Granny used to collect snail shells.

Now Susan goes outside and picks up that empty shell you’d left earlier in the garden. The diamond falls out.

Before she died, Granny hid the diamond where only her beloved granddaughter would think to search because of her long-ago interest in snail shells.

Like the mustache mentioned earlier, you didn’t know the story needed that detail but your subconscious did. It planted the seed, sat back, and waited for you to recognize it.

#7 – Bigger problems need more time.

In my WIP (working title: Eyes in the Sky), an unseen mastermind is pulling strings to cause harm to the main characters. At page 100, that antagonist is revealed to the reader but remains unknown to the protagonists.

A beta reader suggested keeping his identity secret until even later to increase suspense. It was a great point but would require major rewriting.

For several weeks, I pondered the problem both consciously and subconsciously.

At last, my muse offered a different solution. The mastermind is still identified at page 100. But now suspicion additionally falls on a minor player. That secondary character has an even more compelling motive to harm the protagonists. I simply hadn’t recognized it until my subconscious brought it to my attention.

Rather than withholding the identity longer, instead I beefed up the additional suspect to make the reader wonder which antagonist is the ultimate villain.

Tip #8 – Practice trigger activities.

Whenever a story gets caught in a corner, I go for a walk. I stretch out stiff muscles, breathe fresh air, and let my mind wander.

Before long, the solution pops up from my subconscious and I rush back to the keyboard.

Walking is my trigger activity. It works. Every. Single. Time.

That’s because, for years, I’ve conditioned my subconscious. Like a bell at a factory that signals the start of the shift, a walk signals my subconscious that it’s time to go to work.

Through experimentation, you can find a trigger activity that opens the channel between your conscious and your subconscious. It might be listening to music, reading, playing basketball, meditation, skydiving—what you do doesn’t matter, as long as it works for you.

Once you find your best trigger, use it whenever you need your subconscious to produce. The more often you use it, the stronger the reinforcement between the activity and the results.

Photo credit: Pixabay

 

That little seven-year-old girl wants to please you. She is happy to bring gifts as long as you keep encouraging her.

When the channel between the conscious and subconscious flows freely, the deep well of imagination bubbles up.

 

Your writing will show the difference.

 

TKZers, do you have favorite tips to access your subconscious?

 

Post script: recently Joe Hartlaub blogged about improving creativity by writing with a font called “Comic Sans.” Sounded pretty woo-woo but I always trust Joe’s advice so I tried it while drafting this post. It works. Thanks, Joe!

 

Debbie Burke is still trying to figure out the hidden meaning in the latest five-star review for her thriller Instrument of the Devil :

“Very easy to apply. Great instructions…Product works great just like the expensive ones you buy at the store.”

Whatever.

It’s available on Amazon here.

10+

Mystery Elements and Sass Are the New Black – First Page Critique-The Dangerous Dame

Jordan Dane

@jordandane

Don your fedora and breathe in the smoky air of a shadowy life when you read this anonymous submission of 400 words for THE DANGEROUS DAME. My feedback will be on the flip side. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

CHAPTER ONE

Ida Lucas was Hamilton’s answer to Mata Hari – a blonde bombshell who mesmerized the upper-crust gents in the Circus Roof at the Royal Connaught Hotel. Some folks said that her scandalous strip-tease rivaled that of Gypsy Rose Lee. One night with Ida was rumoured to cost you a King’s ransom and that, in the Hamilton of 1948, translated into a cool 100 simoleons. For the working man – two weeks pay. But the working man was the last guy Ida wanted to see.

She came to my attention while I was doing some leg-work for a local law office. And I didn’t find out until much later that there was a helluva lot more going on in this shady lady’s busy life than I’d ever suspected.

It was a fine spring morning when I entered the White Spot Grill on King Street downtown. Spiro shot me a dark look from behind the counter as he grunted a tray-load of dirty cups into an industrial dishwasher with a loud clank. The sharp tang of burnt toast hung in the air and I guessed that Madge was late for her early shift this morning.

The food here was nothing special and the coffee was so-so but it was close to my office. And don’t get me started about its owner.

“Don’t often see you in here, Max. Now that you’re a big-shot private dick with a fancy assistant and a secretary and all,” he said.

I’d met Spiro last summer when I opened my private detective agency on King Street, across from the Connaught, and right off the bat we’d developed a spikey kind of relationship. But with the ladies, of course, he was always the perfect gent – “Yes, Ma’am, right away, Ma’am. My, you’re looking swell today.”

I ignored his ‘big shot’ remark and slid onto the end stool at the counter. “A large carafe to go. If it ain’t too much trouble.”

He bounced his hard look off me but I didn’t react. Then he motioned with his head toward the rear of the café. “Bob said he wanted to see you if you came in. I told him –”

“Okay. I’ll be back in a minute.”

At the end of the row of booths, Spiro had rigged up a small table that looked like a cut-down student’s desk. It was low enough that my veteran friend, Bob, could use it while seated aboard his wheeled dolly. A brave soldier overseas, he’d lost both his legs on that godforsaken, stony beach in Dieppe on August 19, 1942 – a date forever seared into the memory of every Hamiltonian.

Bob was puzzling over a Daily Racing Form and scribbled something in the margin as I approached. He looked up, then parked his pencil behind his right ear. “Hi-de-ho, Max. How goes it?”

“Everything’s copacetic,” I said as I pointed to the paper. “Trying to pick me a winner at the Woodbine track?”

FEEDBACK

There is plenty to like with this submission and the ease of a voice that reminds me of old black and white detective movies. The attention to detail of the White Spot Grill and the guy filling in his race track form with a pencil is Bob, a WWII war veteran–the sights and sounds and smells are vivid and drew me in.

Time Frame & Setting – I would like to know what time frame this is written for. A simple tag description at the start would be a simple fix – What year and city?

Where to Start – Given the Noir voice of this submission, I liked the intro and got into the description of Ida Lucas, but that intro is coming from a character I’m not properly introduced to. The first two paragraphs are about Ida Lucas and I don’t know why because there is no link made to her and Max, the narrator. There doesn’t appear to be a connection that explains why the woman PI begins the story with her–plus there isn’t action to jump start this passive beginning.

My suggestion would be to start with the action of the woman PI walking into the White Spot Grill (3rd paragraph). I would rework the new introduction to be meatier with a mystery centered on the woman entering the grill alone, hinting at why she had come.

A simple fix:

BEFORE: It was a fine spring morning when I entered the White Spot Grill on King Street downtown. Spiro shot me a dark look from behind the counter…

AFTER: When I entered the White Spot Grill on King Street downtown, my high heels clacked on the black and white checkered linoleum and Spiro shot me a dark look from behind the counter. He grunted a tray-load of dirty cups into an industrial dishwasher with a loud clank. I felt like a porterhouse in a world of ground round.

Max obviously knows all the names of the people who work at the diner. Why not take the opportunity to introduce the narrator when she walks into the restaurant? All we know is her first name is Max.

If the author saved the first two paragraphs, those could be used later, once the reader understands why Ida Lucas is important to this rendezvous. As it stands now, the first two paragraphs are isolated (as to purpose).

First Person POV Gender – From the start, I pictured the voice to be that of a man, but it’s not until dishwasher busboy Spiro says “Yes, ma’am” that I realized the narrator is a woman PI. Even the nickname of Max doesn’t shed light on gender. If the author takes my suggestion of starting with the action of the woman PI making a mystery clandestine meeting at a low rent grill, adding words like “my high heels clacked on the sidewalk” or have Max put on lipstick outside. Or have Spiro be the only one who calls her Maxine and she rolls her eyes and has a snappy comeback.

SUGGESTION: “No one calls me Maxine, Spiro. Not even my mother. How many times do I have to say it?” Working as a single woman in a man’s world, I preferred the nickname, Max.

I stumbled over this – When Spiro is trying to get Max to check in with his boss, Bob, she acknowledges his request but says, “Okay, I’ll be back in a minute.” I didn’t get this line. It made me think Max had to get her coffee order back to her office and that she would return to visit with Bob when she could stay longer. I had to reread it a few times. Maybe the author meant that Max would come to the “back” of the restaurant after she gets her order. I would recommend the author clean this up and make the transition clearer.

Mystery Elements/Where to go from here – Does Bob get Max into a case involving Ida? I don’t know what to suggest since I don’t know where the story is going. To tie this in better and make the story start with a mystery, Max could be holding a note clutched in her hand, a cryptic message asking her to meet at the diner. She could recognize the handwriting, but the note isn’t signed. Or for added interest, the note could end with a compelling mystery line – something like “I’m sorry, Max, but I need to know this time.”

Bob could have tried a few times to trace the whereabouts of Ida for personal reasons. Max sees the cryptic note and she knows who wrote it. Her mind could flash on Ida and her reputation (where the author brings back the first two paragraphs without spilling the beans on why she makes the connection).

I would recommend adding mystery elements to draw the reader into this intro. The exchange between Max and Bob is too casual and chatty, with no tension or mystery to their interaction. Why not add something? Have the reader walk into Max’s life with a mystery she’s been working on with Bob. It would give more purpose to this introduction and the reason Ida Lucas will play a part.

More Sass – I think there is potential for Max to have sass throughout this novel. We’re only seeing the first 400 words, but I would like to see more of a hint of it in this brief opener. That’s why I added the line, “I felt like a porterhouse in a world of ground round.” This reads like a period piece and to have a woman working in a traditionally male career, Max would have to be over the top aggressive in order to get work as a private detective. She’d have to have guts and think out of the box just to compete.

I once researched women bounty hunters and the stories I found online and in newspapers on how they outsmarted the male fugitives (for higher bounty) are hilarious. I see Max street savvy and smart mouthed, able to talk her way through anything. Adding color to Max’s voice and her life could make the difference in setting this story apart from other novels.

Overview – There is a lot to like about this submission. I would definitely read on since I love police or PI procedurals. I love the author’s attention to the detail of sights, sounds and the reader’s senses. I’m also intrigued by the voice of the woman detective. Well done.

DISCUSSION:

What would you add, TKZers?

 

 

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TKZ Members Weigh In on Series Writing

By SUE COLETTA

Before the holidays, one of our beloved TKZers requested a blog post that offered helpful tips in series writing.

Rather than sharing only my views, I thought it’d be cool to gather advice from all TKZ members. That way, we’d be sure to cover the subject in more depth.

It’s a monster post, but it’s packed with fantastic advice. Ready? Here we go …

From Jordan Dane:

  1. Create a large enough world to sustain a series if it gains traction by planting plot seeds and/or character spinoffs in each individual novel. With the right planted seeds, future stories can be mined for plots during the series story arcs. An example of this is Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole PI series where his main character Cole is plagued by his past and his estranged father until THE FORGOTTEN MAN, a stellar novel in the middle of the series that finally provided answers to the mystery.

Crais often plants seeds that he later cultivates in later books. It takes organization & discipline to create these mysteries and track the seeds to save for later.

  1. Endings of each novel in a continuing series are important to readers if your book release schedule has long lags in time. A major cliffhanger can be frustrating for readers to discover at the end of a book before they realize the next novel won’t be released for 6 months to a year.

If your planned series isn’t limited to a certain number of stories (ie Hunger Games – 3 novels) where the overall story arc will be defined, an author might consider writing series novels that read as standalones with a tantalizing foreshadowing of the next story to hook readers. Creating an intriguing mystery to come will pique reader’s interest, rather than frustrate them with a huge cliffhanger they may have to wait a year to read.

See these tips in action in Jordan’s Mercer’s War Series.

From James Scott Bell:

  • Give your series character one moral quest that he or she is passionate about, to the point where it feels like life and death. For example, my Mike Romeo series is about the quest for TRUTH. This is the driving force for all he does. It gives both character and plot their meaning. A quest like this will carry from book to book.
  • Give your series character at least one special skill and one special quirk. Sherlock Holmes is a skilled stick fighter (which comes in handy). But he also shoots up cocaine to keep his mind active. Mike Romeo has cage fighting skills. He also likes to quote literature and philosophy before taking out a thug.

From Joe Hartlaub:

Sue, I love Jordan’s suggestions, particularly #2, about the works being standalones with a foreshadowing of what is to come. Who among us read Stephen King’s Dark Tower trilogy and got to the end of The Dark Tower III; The Waste Land to find the cast aboard a sentient, suicidal choo-choo heading toward oblivion? That was all well and good until we all had to wait six friggin’ years to find out what happened next in Wizards and Glass. 

  • I have one suggestion, which I call the Pop Tart model. Pop Tarts started with a basic formula; they were rectangular, were small enough to fit into a toaster, large enough to pull out, used the same pastry as a base, and started with a set of fillings and slowly added more and different ones over the years. So too, the series.
  • Design a character with a skill set consisting of two or three reliable elements, decide whether you are going to make them a world-beater (Jason Bourne), a close-to-homer (Dave Robicheaux), or something in between (Jack Reacher), and bring in a couple of supporting characters who can serve as necessary foils (Hawk and Susan from the Spenser novels) who can always be repaired or replaced as necessary. Your readers will know what to expect from book to book but will be surprised by how you utilize familiar elements.

From Laura Benedict:

The best series do a good job of relationship-building, along with world-building.

  • Give your main character …
  1. someone to love and fight for,
  2. someone to regret knowing,
  3. someone to respect,
  4. someone to fear.
  • Be careful about harming your secondary characters because readers get attached. If you’re going to let a beloved character go—even a villain—make the loss mean something.

See these tips in action in The Stranger Inside.

From Clare Langley Hawthorne:

Sue – I love everyone’s suggestions so far.

  • Add the possibility of exploring lesser characters like Tana French did in her Dublin Murder Squad series — each installment focused on a different lead character that we’d met as a lesser character in another installment. I thought she did this in a masterly way that helped enhance the series.

From Elaine Viets:

  • Murder thoughtfully and with restraint.

I went wild in my first novel “Backstab” in my Francesca Vierling series, and killed off a secondary character I could have used in other books — Lee the Rehabber. I had versions of Lee, but they were pale imitations.

From me: Rather than repeat previous tips, I focused on subplots and character development.

  • Whatever happens to your character in a series must be reflected in future books. Our past affects us. Take for example my Mayhem Series. In Book 1, Wings of Mayhem, Shawnee Daniels learns a shocking secret about her past. It’s a seed I planted for Book 3, but I couldn’t pretend she didn’t learn about it. So, in Book 2, I hinted at it (in the form of dialogue) to remind the readers who knew about it. At the same time, I needed to show how this secret affected Shawnee i.e. she become even more distrustful and broken.

In Book 3, Silent Mayhem, this secret explodes Shawnee’s life. It also became the catalyst for more secrets, a conspiracy, and an underlying mystery that ran parallel to the main plot. If someone read the books out of order, it was imperative that I let the cold reader know why and how this scenario was taking place without dumping the information in one chunk. Instead, we need to either sprinkle the (now) backstory in over time (a slow build toward the explosion) or use dialogue between two characters. I chose the latter, in the form of a confrontation.

  • Think of all potential readers. Do all aspects of the book make sense? Will they understand the subplot and character development without reading the previous novels? At the same time, have you hinted enough but not so much that you’ve ruined a previous twist? It’s a dance that can knot your stomach muscles, but we need to be cognizant of the cold reader who picks up Book 3 or 4 or 5, as much as the dedicated fan whose read all the books in order.

From Mark Alpert:

  • My favorite series characters are those who learn something in
    each new book. And this knowledge changes them, sometimes
    dramatically, sometimes more subtly, but always noticeably. Think of
    Harry Potter. He’s different in each book. It prevents the series from
    getting stale.

From PJ Parrish:

  • As you progress through your story keep a running chronology of dates and salient plot points that happen in each chapter. This is invaluable come rewrite time. You can consult the chronology and at a glance know where to find something in your plot. It also helps you keep track of the passage of time in your story.

Example from my own book:

CHAPTER ONE

Day 1

Jan 13, 2018

Louis shows up at church in Michigan ready to start new job on homicide task force. Introduce his boss, Mark Steele. Set up personality conflict between men and Louis’s fear, he has made Faustian bargain.

CHAPTER TWO

Day 2

Jan 14, 2018

First meeting of task force. They get assigned cold cases as tests. Louis picks “boys in the box” case.

From Debbie Burke:

  • If your character is in a happy marriage/career/friendship, destroy that; if he is an orderly homebody, drop him into an unfamiliar, unpredictable universe he can’t escape from; plunk her into situations she would never enter voluntarily but must b/c of circumstance. Whatever your characters’ personal comfort zones are—physical, mental, psychological, spiritual—yank them out of it and throw them into conditions they have never encountered before. Keep them off balance, straddling an earthquake fault.

From John Gilstrap:

  1. Remember that successful series thrive as much on character as they do on plot—perhaps even more on character than on plot.  So, make that protagonist as interesting and unique as you can.  I would argue that the world might not need another divorced ex-cop with a drinking problem and anger issues—unless your take on the old trope is somehow unique.
  1. Take your time when building the world in Book #1.  Plant seeds in that first outing that will allow for plots in the future.  In No Mercy, the first entry in my Jonathan Grave series, I intentionally seeded his world with details that might (or might not) bear fruit for future novels:
  • His substantial wealth comes from his father’s illegal activities;
  • Said father, Simon Gravenow, is serving a life sentence in prison;
  • Jonathan Grave donated the mansion that was his childhood home to St. Kate’s Catholic Church so that it could serve as Resurrection House, a residential school for the children of incarcerated parents;
  • He is intensely loyal to his friends as they are to him;
  • And more.
  1. Know the intended tone of your series.  Yeah, okay, you’re writing a thriller, but what kind of ride do you intend to give your reader?  This is important because those readers will come to expect a certain consistency from book to book.  The Hunger Games trilogy, for example, is relentlessly dark because everyone we care about is miserable.  Jim Bell’s Romeo series, on the other hand, is lighter in tone without sacrificing any of the thrills.  That tone—that voice—is important to the reader.

***

Amazing advice, right? I don’t know about you, but I’m bookmarking this puppy. A huge thank you to my fellow TKZ members!

For discussion …

Do you write a series? Writers, please share any tips we might have missed.

If you haven’t branched into series writing, are you considering it?

Do you prefer to read a series or standalones? Readers, please share your views!

 

7+

Creating Characters: You Can Always Start With the Car

 

Stock photo via GoDaddy

 

So. You’re ready to create a character.

What does your character look like? Eat? Worship?

Do they exercise? Do they jump up on boxes and grunt, or are they a mall walker?

What high school did they go to? Freak or geek, prom king/queen, or regular Jane?

Do they color their hair? Clip joint, or fancy salon?

Gluten-free? Dairy free? Pescatarian?

Do they eat creamed corn? Do they look at porn? (Obviously I went for the rhyme there.)

Shoplifter, despite having millions?

Boxers, briefs, thongs, or commando?

Tampons or pads?

401K or under the mattress?

Acid reflux, heart palpitations, heartbreak of psoriasis?

Wrist watch, pocket watch, no watch, sundial?

Fast talker?

Lousy lover?

De-canterer of wine before guests arrive to hide how cheap they are?

You figure out all this stuff before you sit down to write, right? If you do, congratulations are in order. You’re about a hundred steps ahead of most writers—Okay, when I say most writers, I mean me, at least.

I envy writers who spend lots of time defining their characters, then put them onstage with ready-made conflicts. You bought me briefs instead of boxers? Are you even my wife?!

Goodness knows I torture encourage my writing workshop participants with character-building exercises. It’s a lot of fun, especially when they begin to see their character as something more than a mannequin with brown eyes, curly dark hair, a cruel mouth, and wearing a nose ring and expensive jeans. You only have to look around you to see that there is no such thing as a generic human. Family members make excellent character models, and the nice thing is that they rarely recognize themselves—Particularly if the character is unlikable. And there’s nothing like taking revenge on a dreaded former coworker or high school frenemy by putting them in a book.

Sometimes all your imagining will be for naught when it comes time to get into writing the story. Thriller and other genre writers don’t necessarily have the luxury of languorous character development because the action tends to move fairly quickly. This is where series characters really shine. A series gives a writer many opportunities to grow and deepen their personalities and habits. At the moment I’m reading Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike novel, Lethal White. Strike is a solid, well-defined character whose enormous, damaged body looks amazing in a well-tailored suit. And I think he likes squash soup? Okay, maybe I made that part up, but he’s not too shy to engage in a bit of dress-up roleplaying behind closed doors with his current girlfriend. Seriously, I could not have made that up.

I rarely did even minimal character sketches before I started using Scrivener about six years ago. Its template is on the minimalist side, with blank spaces for a character’s role in the story, physical description, occupation, mannerisms, internal conflicts, external conflicts, and background. This approach gives you plenty of latitude, without driving you crazy. I confess, I don’t often even fill these templates out completely. BUT I am one to go back and fill them in as I write the book. I like for the character to surprise me. It’s also extremely useful to keep track of all those details, like when two of your characters hook up and you’re not sure what color your heroine’s eyes are.

If you ever get stuck, I have a simple fix. Decide what sort of cars (if any) your characters are driving. Americans often express their personalities via their cars, and we all have ideas about what kind of people drive a particular model.

The protagonist of The Stranger Inside, my suspense novel that’s coming out the first week of February, drives a Mini-Cooper. Kimber isn’t quite forty, and she likes the option of being able to drive away with speed when she wants to escape her problems.

There really is no wrong way to design your characters, as long as you’re telling the story they want to tell.

What’s your process for creating and defining characters? Tell us about a favorite character that you created.

3+

Tips on Writing a Domestic Thriller

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

image purchased for use by Jordan Dane

Domestic/psychological thrillers have found greater traction since Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL & THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins. James Scott Bell’s YOUR SON IS ALIVE is a great example of a domestic thriller. Laura Benedict’s upcoming book THE STRANGER INSIDE is a novel I can’t wait to read. I’ve pre-ordered it and you can too. Release is coming Feb 5, 2019.

These books remind us that readers are drawn to “reading what they know” but with a twist. The domestic thriller brings terror into the home/life of an average family or allows readers to see what might be held secret behind a family’s locked doors.

This seems like the ultimate terror, to set a story inside anyone’s house, but it can keep your writing sharp and focused on tough subject matter. Maybe your story will hit too close to home, making it a challenge to write.

Keys Factors for Writing Domestic/Psychological Thrillers

1.) Set your domestic thriller in familiar settings. Give the reader comfort until they realize your novel doesn’t take place in Mayberry. Set your story in a small town, on a commuter train, in a home with a family who could live next door to you, or create a situation that seems harmless at first until it escalates into a terrifying tale. Much like Stephen King is partial to turning everyday objects into nightmares–I’ll never use a turkey carving knife again–it’s important to think through an effective setting that lulls the reader into a false sense of security until you pull the rug out.

2.) Make your story hinge on familiar subjects. I’ve suggested a few below, but I’m sure you could come up with more that could be turned on its ear with escalating tension. Use your own personal experiences to discover what might touch your readers.

  • A marriage that doesn’t need much to send it over a cliff
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Neighbors from Satan
  • A clandestine love affair
  • School rivalry/Helicopter moms competing against each other
  • Parenting – Lots of possibilities
  • Family relationships
  • Boyfriends/Girlfriends/Jealousy

3.) Now ask yourself the critical question of “what if…” What are the worst plot twists that could happen in the world you’ve created? Think WAY out of the box. Use a dartboard to add some unpredictability to your brainstorming.

4.) Make your character(s) real. Imagine people you have known, but elevate them into a major player’s role in your story. It helps to start with the familiar to make it real, but then your character would take on his/her own journey. Remember, your characters need to be real and not supersized into movie star status. Take “every man or every woman” and force them to step into an horrendous plot. Make your starring character(s) believable.

5.) Give your characters flaws that could prove to be fatal. It’s a balancing act to pick vulnerability that doesn’t make them appear too weak. Give them insecurities they can overcome in a believable way, without making them whiners. Force them to face their insecurities. Are they capable of overcoming their worst fears? Give them a chance to do it. Will they? Dig deep with a journey for your character to survive through your plot. They must struggle to gain ground or appear that they never will. Nothing trite will work here. It must seem insurmountable. I found a great resource for character flaws – 123 Ideas for Character Flaws

6.) Unreliable narrators are gold in this genre. What if your main character doesn’t know what going on? Use it. Are they so paranoid that their very nature can’t be trusted? Great plot twists can abound with the use of unreliable narrators or unreliable secondary characters. Once the readers starts to question what’s going on, you have them hooked deeper.

7.) Bend those plot twists. In order to play with the minds of your characters, you must get into their heads and mangle their reality. It’s not easy to write and set up a major plot twist, so plan ahead and let your imagination soar. Sometimes you will know the plot twist that will come at the end – the big finale twist. Other times you can filter unexpected plot twists through the novel at key intervals to escalate the stakes & create key turning points that take the plot in different directions.

8.) Don’t be afraid to SCARE your readers. Make their skin crawl with the anticipation of something bad about to happen. Titillate them with the build up and add twists to keep the tension going. What would scare you? Picture times you might have told ghost stories around a campfire and what made you jump. That adrenaline rush is what you want to give your readers. I often like to walk the edge of the horror genre, but these days, books are written with multiple genres to tell a good story. Don’t be afraid to add elements of horror or mystery to your suspense thriller.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Share your current writing projects & genre. What has got you excited in 2019?

2.) Have you read a good domestic thriller lately? Please share the novel and the author.

7+

First Page Critique – Zip & Millie: Siberian Adventure

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

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

Zip&Milly: Siberian Adventure

Russian train – courtesy of Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Let’s get to work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s one way the page could be rewritten:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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Key Ways to Give a Mystery Room to Breathe – First Page Critique – The Good Neighbor

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased by Jordan Dane

I can’t think of a better way to settle in for Thanksgiving and the holidays than with a little murder among neighbors. For your reading enjoyment–and for your constructive criticism–we have the first 400 words of THE GOOD NEIGHBOR, submitted anonymously by a gutsy author and follower of TKZ. Read and enjoy. My feedback will be on the flip side.

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The unusual heat wave which persisted over parts of New England, long after forecasters had predicted an early end to summer, gave many of the residents an irritable disposition.

The nights didn’t bring much in the way relief to the sweltering New Englanders, who looked forward to the cooler winds from the North by this time and the promise of fishing for those by Maine’s coastline.

Tonight at 12 Rillington Lane, Kennebunk, Kaitlyn O’Donnell struggled with the heat. She tossed, turned, rolled over, then repeated it all once more.

The blending of the weather, the cicadas and that infernal scraping noise—what the hell is that, anyway?—guaranteed sleep would not come tonight.

Frustrated, she threw the thin cotton sheet back and jumped out of bed.
A half-moon in the cloudless sky enabled Kaitlyn to see without the aid of electricity and she shuffled over to the window of her bedroom on the second floor.

The scraping, it sounded like it came from…

The neighbor’s backyard.

From her vantage point Kaitlyn spotted a light in the neighbor’s yard. She assumed a battery-powered lamp.

Silhouetted against the low-light, a male figure busied himself with a shovel.

Next to the hole he dug were two oblong objects encased in a light-colored fabric.

They were the length of —

Oh, my God. Bodies, he’s burying someone!

Kaitlyn’s eyelids flared as she stared with disbelief into her neighbors yard.
The neighbor stopped digging moments later and stood erect. In a deliberate motion, he turned to face the O’Donnell home.

He’s staring at me, oh my… he’s staring…

Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins.

Kaitlyn threw a cotton nightgown over her head and ran barefooted to the hallway. “Dad, Dad,” she called.

Bursting into her parents bedroom at the end of the hallway seconds later she called again. “Dad, wake up, there’s something’s—”

The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty, the top blankets thrown on the floor but the light colored sheets were missing.

She remembered the two object wrapped in light cloth in the neighbor’s yard.

A heavy banging on the front door echoed through the O’Donnell home.

“Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…”

FEEDBACK:
Aspects of this author’s style are vivid and have set the stage for the creepiness of this introduction. The voice here has promise, but there is a feeling that the story is being rushed toward the end and the author resorts to “telling” what is happening, which diminishes the tension and pulls the reader out from inside the head of Kaitlyn. I promise you, anonymous author, that if you truly stay in the head of this horrified kid, your readers will feel the tension and may suffer a rash of goosebumps if you take your time to set up this scene through Kaitlyn’s senses.

Also, it is not recommended to start stories with the weather. Plus, the Point of View (POV) in the first line (and in other spots) is omniscient and not from the main character. This is most evident with the weather description “gave many residents an irritable disposition,” rather than focusing on Kaitlyn’s perspective of HER being irritable with the pervasive heat.

The next line is clearly not in Kaitlyn’s POV either.

“The nights didn’t bring much in the way relief to the sweltering New Englanders, who looked forward to the cooler winds from the North by this time and the promise of fishing for those by Maine’s coastline.”

But without a major rewrite, let’s take a look at how we can use the bones of the author’s story and shuffle sentences to allow the focus to start and remain with Kaitlyn.

STORY SHUFFLE:
In this intro, the author states the physical address of the house where Kaitlyn lives, but doesn’t include the State of Maine until later, after a reference to New England (a region of six states). The reader could be oriented with a quick tag line at the top of the scene to list the town and the time of day. I like using tag lines to anchor the story and reader reviews have mentioned that they like this. In a book by Tami Hoag, she used the dropping temperatures in Minnesota during the hunt for a child exposed to a deadly winter. The added tension of knowing the weather could kill the child became an effective use of tag lines that made an impression on me. So this story could start with the tag lines:

REWRITE INTRO SUGGESTION

Kennebunk, Maine
After Midnight

A full moon cast an eerie shadow of an Eastern White Pine through Kaitlyn O’Donnell’s open bedroom window that stretched onto her walls. The swaying gloom played tricks on her mind and teased her fertile imagination. When the hot night air gusted, the spindly branches of evergreen bristles scraped the side of her house like clawing fingernails, grating on her frayed nerves.

The sixteen year old girl struggled with the unusual heat that smothered her skin like a thick, dank quilt. She tossed and turned and fought her bed sheets, struggling for any comfort that would allow her to sleep. Even if she could doze off, the annoying rasp of cicadas rose and fell to keep her on edge.

Sleep would not come–not tonight. Not when something else carried on the night air.

With sweat beading her arms and face, Kaitlyn tossed the sheet off her body and sat up in bed. Without thinking, she slid off her mattress and wandered toward the open window, drawn by an odd sound that caused the cicadas to stop their incessant noise.

In this new opener, the point of view is clearly in Kaitlyn’s head and her senses show the story of her restlessness and how her mind plays tricks on her. In her current state, she could’ve imagined what comes next.

TELLING – In the action that follows, the descriptions seemed rushed to me and the author resorts to “telling” what is happening, rather than showing. The following sentences are examples of “telling” or POV issues or rushing the story.

She assumed a battery-powered lamp. (It’s not important that the lamp is battery operated. No one spying on their neighbor at night will wonder about batteries. Keep it real and stay with the mystery and tension.)

Oh, my God. Bodies, he’s burying someone! (Give time for her to see shapes and describe them. She’s only watching from the light of one lamp and the neighbor is in silhouette. How well could she see the bodies? But in this case, the author gets impatient and has Kaitlyn “tell” the reader what’s happening.

He’s staring at me, oh my… he’s staring… (Same issue of “telling” the reader. In the dark and shadows, Kaitlyn might only see his body turn toward her. She can’t possibly know that he’s staring at her. But the author should consider giving the neighbor a reason to turn, like the sound of Kaitlyn calling for her dad. Her voice and an open window could allow the sound to carry. Kaitlyn’s sense of urgency could get her into trouble before she realizes she’s alone in the house. Much scarier.)

Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins. (Kaitlyn might have a rush of chilling goosebumps caused by an adrenaline rush in the sweltering heat, but the cliched “ice water through her veins” isn’t the best word choice.)

The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty, the top blankets thrown on the floor but the light colored sheets were missing. (Would Kaitlyn notice in the shadowy room that her parents light colored sheets were missing? A scared kid would notice her parents were gone, but never do an inventory of their bed sheets.)

She remembered the two object wrapped in light cloth in the neighbor’s yard. (Here, Kaitlyn even makes a big deal of tying the light colored sheets to what she saw in her parent’s bedroom. Not remotely realistic. By rushing the ending, the author has given up details and mystery elements, like whether there is blood spatter on the walls and bed or signs of a struggle. Two people being accosted in the middle of the night by a neighbor would surely leave signs of a struggle. And–how did the neighbor get into the house? Why didn’t Kaitlyn HEAR anything if she couldn’t sleep? This intro needs work to make it more plausible.)

THE RUSHED ENDING – The ending is especially rushed. A vital part of suspense is the element of anticipation (something Hitchcock knew well). As an example of this – picture a teen babysitter creeping toward the front door with every movie goer screaming at the big screen “DON’T OPEN THE DOOR!” Once the door is open, the tension is deflated and everything becomes known. To keep the tension building, add some level of detail to build suspense.

A heavy banging on the front door echoed through the O’Donnell home. (The neighbor presumably invaded Kaitlyn’s house to attack her parents or take them to bury in his yard. Why is he knocking this time?)

“Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…” (I don’t believe it’s necessary to have the neighbor say “It’s your neighbor.” He doesn’t need to give his name, because she would know it. So the dialogue here is a bit cheesy and definitely “telling.” Another question – if the neighbor killed her parents, why stop at them? Why not take Kaitlyn too?)

KEY WAYS TO GIVE THIS MYSTERY ROOM TO BREATHE

There’s not enough plausible motivation for this rushed story. If this is a mystery, the details that are not addressed deflates the suspense in a big distracting way. How did the man take her parents from their bed? Why didn’t she hear any struggle? Are their signs of a struggle in the bedroom?

The author has a good deal of fixing that needs to occur to make this intro believable. Key ways to give this mystery room to breathe – suggestions for improving this introduction (besides the ones I wrote about above):

1.) Have Kaitlyn awaken from a drugged stupor – was she drugged or did she take cold medicine to help her sleep that could’ve distorted her take on reality or stopped her from being aware of a struggle?

2.) Had Kaitlyn’s parents been next door at a party with the neighbor and never returned home? Maybe the intro could take place the next morning when she realizes her parents never came home. Their bed is unmade. No breakfast. She rushes to the neighbor’s house and he’s not home or lies to her about when her folks left. “They went straight home, honey.”

3.) Have her file a police report with no clues on how her parents disappeared and the cops are skeptical. She begins spying on the neighbor – as in REAR WINDOW. This plot has been done before, but the idea is to create a compelling mystery that readers care about. A teen alone to deal with her missing parents.

4.) Give the girl a handicap where she is wheelchair bound and reliant on her parents for care. Who would she go to for help?

5.) Make Kaitlyn a suspect in the eyes of the police. Maybe she is a rebellious kid who’s been suspended from high school for fighting. What has given her a big chip on her shoulder?

6.) Grow the Suspect List – After this rushed intro, where would the rest of the book go? If the author made a bigger mystery of whether the neighbor is involved at all, there could be others who had motive to eliminating her parents. A fun way to create and sustain a mystery is to reveal others with motives as the story unfolds. Make a list of 4-5 individuals who are equally guilty looking. Maybe even the author doesn’t know who the real killer is until the last minute. I did this in my debut book NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM. I literally could’ve flipped a coin on which one of my 5 suspects could be guilty and I loved not knowing myself. But most importantly, having more than a crazy neighbor (who admits to guilt on the first page) allows the story plot to breathe and twist and build to a climax.

FOR DISCUSSION:

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

2.) Can you suggest other plot twists than the ones I listed in my summary?

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Make Your Characters Memorable

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

From Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever noticed that as a writer, you rarely can sit back and simply enjoy watching a TV show or a movie without thinking about plot or character development or pace? As authors, we “see” how the writers disguise plot twists or change direction. We may see behind the curtain of the Wizard of Oz, but on those rare occasions when you can forget you’re a writer and utterly enjoy the show, that’s when you truly are watching something special.

So the next time you watch a memorable movie or TV show, observe the traits of the main characters, the ones you can’t take your eyes off of. What makes them unforgettable? For most of us, it’s not the high-octane action that sticks in our heads. It’s usually what makes that character human, something we can relate to.

Here are some ways to make your characters memorable:

1. Add Depth to Each Character—Give them a journey

• With any journey comes baggage. Be generous. Load on the baggage. Give them a weakness that they’ll have to face head-on by the climax of the book.

• Make them vulnerable by giving them an Achilles Heel. Even the darkest street thug or a fearless young girl with magical powers should have a weakness that may get them killed and certainly makes them more human.

• Whether you are writing one book or a series, have a story arc for your character’s journey that spans the series. Will they find peace or love, or some version of a normal life? Will they let someone else into their lives or will they be content to live alone? Will a villain have a chance at redemption? Do what makes sense for your character, but realize that their emotional issues will cloud their judgment and affect how they deal with confrontations. By the end of a book, they should learn something.

2. Use Character Flaws as Handicaps

• Challenge yourself as an author by picking flaws that will make your character stand out and that aren’t easy to write about. Sometimes that means you have to dig deep in your own head to imagine things you don’t want to think about, but tap into your empathy for another human being. You might surprise yourself.

• Stay true to the flaws and biases you give your characters. Don’t present them to the reader then have the actions of the character contradict those handicaps. Be consistent. If they have strong enough issues, these won’t be fixed by the end of the book. Find a way to deal with them.

3. Clichéd Characters can be Fixed

• If you have a clichéd character, you may not need to rewrite your whole story. Try infusing a weird hobby or layer in a unique trait/quality that will set them apart. Maybe the computer nerd writes porn scripts for a local indie film company or the jock writes a secret blog under a girl’s name giving advice to teens on love and romance for the local paper. When that hobby is surprising and unexpected, that’s what will shine about the character and that’s what editors will remember.

4. Create A Divergent Cast of Characters

• Portray your characters in varying degrees of redemption—from the innocent to the “totally vile” characters.

• As in real life, not everyone is good or bad. They are a mix of both.

• Sometimes it’s great to show contrast between your characters by making them do comparable things. How does one character handle his or her love life versus another character?

5. Flesh Out your Villains or Antagonists

• Villains or antagonists are the heroes to their own stories—Spend time getting to know them.

• Give them goals.

• Give them a chance at redemption—will they take it?

• Give them a unique sense of humor or dare to endear them to your reader.

• The better and more diabolical they are, the more the reader will fear for the safety or well-being of your protagonist.

At the end of a TV show or a movie or your next book, characters that linger in your head are a gift that can help your writing. Examine what works in movies or TV shows as an exercise to tapping into your own creativity.

For Discussion:

1.) Do you have any personal tips for making your characters memorable?

2.) What characters have you been drawn to and find hard to forget – in TV movies, or books? Why have they stuck with you?

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