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+

What Writing Advice Would You Give to Your Younger Writing Self?

Many of you have been writing for a long while, been traditionally published through big and/or boutique houses, or self-published. All of these struggles have brought knowledge gained through experience.

For discussion – What advice would you give your younger writing self when you were first starting out? Knowing what you do now, please give your top 3 tips.

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+

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+

5 Key Ways to Balance Internal Monologue with Pitfalls to Avoid

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Attribution – Niki K (Wikimedia Commons)

John Gilstrap had an excellent post yesterday on Internal Monologue that resonated with me. He gave great examples of what works and what may not, with explanations on his sage reasoning. He certainly gave me things to think about in my own writing.

I tend to write in deep POV and very tight, with sparse narratives. This is especially true when I write my novella length stories for Kindle World, which is a great exercise in writing a tight plot and keeping the pace up.

In my full novels, I reign in my internal monologue and make it focused, with the character having a journey from beginning to end of the book, as well as a journey even within each scene, so I don’t repeat the deep POV thoughts.

On the FOR WRITERS resource on my website, I have a post titled – START WITH A BANG. If you scroll down to the “Ever thought about building an onion from the inside out?” sub-heading, you’ll find a section on how I let dialogue be the starting framework and how I layer in elements to fill out a scene. Internal monologue is vital to establishing my character’s journey and emotional growth and it’s something I focus on a great deal – even when I do my final draft read – but it’s the last thing I add to any scene, because I want to control it and isolate the journey to avoid pitfalls.

Despite my own methods, I greatly admire writers like Michael Connelly (particularly his Bosch series) where his mastery of his character’s internal views feel so authentic of an experienced war weary cop. He effortlessly brings in Bosch’s personal relationships and his workload to give a 360 view of this man’s life. That’s not an easy thing to do. It requires an intense knowledge of his character Bosch.

No matter how a writer learns how to craft internal monologue, it is easily one of the areas an author can veer off course and overuse…or under use, for that matter. Have you ever read a book that is all action, devoid of emotion or insight into the character’s internal battle and conflict? This is definitely a balancing game to get internal monologue to enhance your writing and make your stories memorable for readers.

Key Points to Finding the Right Balance for Internal Monologue:

1.) DIALOGUE – If you see your narrative paragraphs stretching out onto the page in weighty clumps, look for ways to make your internal monologue lean and mean by use of dialogue. This is something I have to pay attention to, even with my sparse style. Clever dialogue is a challenge, but it can be so much fun to write.

Plus, effective dialogue can help you pace your novel and tease the reader with red herrings or mystery elements, and not a plot dump of internal thoughts.

2.) LESS IS MORE – It’s easy to get carried away with every aspect of a character’s POV. The reader doesn’t need to know every logical argument for their action or inaction. People don’t think like this, especially in the heat of the moment in an action scene.

Have patience to let the story unfold. Too much internal thought can dry up pace and bore readers. The reader doesn’t need to know everything, especially all at once in a dump.

Also be careful NOT to repeat the same thought over and over. Repeating internal strife does not constitute a journey. It only reminds the reader that the author is searching for different ways to describe the same thing. Oy.

3.) TIMING – pick your spots when internal monologue makes the most sense. James Scott Bell wrote a great post on What’s the Deal on Dreams in Fiction where he talks about starting a novel with a character in thought, no action or disturbance. Resist the urge to bury your reader in internal monologue right out of the gate.

In addition, if your character is in the middle of a shoot out, that would not be the most opportune time to share his feelings on getting dumped by his girlfriend, not even if she is the one shooting at him. (Although I would love to read a scene like that.) To make the danger seem real, stick with the action and minimize the internal strife until it’s logical for the character to ponder what happened after.

Plus, if you spill the exposition too early, the reader won’t retain it as well as if you had waited for the right timing, when the reveal would be most effective.

4.) SHOW DON’T TELL – Once you get into the quagmire of telling a character’s POV, it’s too easy to get carried away with the rest of your book. If you can SHOW what a character is feeling, and let the reader take what they will from the scene, you will leave an image nugget that will stick with them. TELLING doesn’t have the same impact.

5.) ACTION & DIALOGUE DEFINE CHARACTER – These are the two areas where readers will most remember a book. Unless you’re into author craft and can appreciate the internal monologue finesse of John Gilstrap and Michael Connelly and many other author favorites, you probably may not remember how effectively the author used internal monologue. It’s like the color black. It goes with everything in such a subtle way that you may not notice it.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What tips do you have to share on how you handle internal monologue in your own writing?

2.) With the key points I listed above, do any of them pose a particular challenge for you?

3.) Name a recent book you read where you noticed the author’s deft handling of internal monologue. (I would love to expand my TBR pile.)

11+

Note to Copy Editor

By John Gilstrap

After spending a year creating a story line and populating it with characters that I hope are interesting, it’s time to send my novel off to my editor, who will let me know, in blisteringly easy-to-interpret terms, where my efforts succeeded and where they fell short.  I spend as much time as is necessary to repair, prop-up or redesign the story difficulties, at which time I send the manuscript back to the publisher. At that point, I will have fulfilled my D&A (delivery and acceptance) contract element, and, not insignificantly, will get paid.

Just when I think I am done with the story–about the time when I am moving on to the next one–I get the copy edits back. For the most part, copy editors are freelancers, and they may or may not have any familiarity with my work, or even with the genre in which I write. It seems to me (and I say this with a huge amount of respect) that their primary skills are an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules of grammar, and the ability to process the tiniest of details. Combine those traits with a research instinct that borders on obsessive-compulsive, and the ideal copy editor is born.

And I need them. After 18 books, I’ve surrendered to the fact that I will never understand the true use of commas, that the proper use of the words “which” and “that” will be forever beyond my ken, and that I am unable to keep my characters from nodding or sighing too much.  I am wont to have characters sit after they have never stood, and close doors that have never been opened. It is the largely un-celebrated copy editors of the world who keep the reading public from knowing how unqualified I am to do the work that I do.

But sometimes, copy editors change stuff that shouldn’t be changed, and for that reason, as the author, I must approve or disapprove every alteration they propose. At times, knowledge of grammar gets in the way. An example that comes to mind is from a few books ago when the copy editor changed “Jonathan looked at the door the kid had just come through” to “Jonathan looked at the door whence the kid had just come.” While grammatically correct, “whence” is a word that has no place in commercial thrillers. The same copy editor took it upon herself to replace Jonathan Grave’s beloved Colt 1911 .45 with a pistol her research had told her would be more appropriate to his purposes.

Okay, that was a one-off horrible copy editing experience (over 300 proposed changes of which I rejected over 200), and I have it on good authority that she and I will never cross paths again.

The whole agonizing process is made even more agonizing by technology. In the good old days, copy edits came back as a stack of papers with red marks on them. It was actually kind of fun to sit in the lounge chair with a lap desk and either “STET” or approve the changes with a different-color pencil. Now, the copy edits come back as a Word file with Track Changes turned on. I am not allowed merely to reject a change, because that would make my copy different than the publishing house’s copy, and that would screw up the system.  Thus, if I want to reject a change or re-insert a deleted portion, I need to drop my cursor into the appropriate spot and retype.  A simple STET is no longer allowed.

What used to take only a few days now takes a couple of weeks. It’s that long a slog.

So, to ease the process, I took a step several books ago to limit the misunderstandings that might develop between the copy editor and myself. I developed a Gilstrap Style Sheet, which I insert between the cover page and Chapter One of every manuscript I submit.  I thought I’d share it with you.  (I’ve inserted some explanation in italics where I think my reasoning might not be obvious.)

NOTE TO COPY EDITOR: Stylebook notwithstanding, please note the following:

The possessive form of Boxers is Boxers’ (not Boxers’s).  This change does not affect any other names that end with S. (I’ve always believed that when people read silently, they’re really reading aloud without sound, and syntax counts.)

In every case, branches of the US armed services are always capitalized (e.g., Jonathan’s days in the Army; when Henry was in the Navy, etc.)  (Frankly, I’m a little shocked that this is not the convention.)

Consider landmarks within Jonathan’s office to be proper nouns and capitalized as such (The Cave, the War Room, etc.)

Please consider all weapons nomenclature to be correct as written. (e.g., Jonathan carries a “Colt 1911 .45”, even though the official listing might show the pistol to be a Colt M1911A1, and even though there are newer versions of the platform available.  These are very deliberate choices.)

When referencing calibers of weapons, all measurements are singular.  (e.g., an HK 417 is chambered in nine millimeter, not nine millimeters.)

References to federal agencies need no definite article.  (e.g., “He’s with DEA” is fine. He’s not with THE DEA.)

When Boxers or other team members refer to Jonathan as “Boss”, the word should be capitalized.

No semicolons, grammar notwithstanding.

Northern Virginia and the Washington Metropolitan Area are both proper nouns and require capitalization.

Please assume all dialogue to be correct as written.  Feel free to correct spelling and typos, but do not strive to make dialogue grammatically correct.

In dialogue, “Dammit” and “Goddammit” and “Goddamn” should be considered to be correct. (I’ve made an effort to reduce the profanity in my books, and to my eye, the one-word construction is less offensive. It could be that I’m just being strange.)

I intentionally avoid parentheses and single-quote marks in dialogue. Please do not insert them.

As a rule, I dislike exclamation points, and use them sparingly. Please avoid inserting them.

Any thoughts out there about the editing process in general, or copy editing in particular? Any items you think should be added to or removed from the personal style sheet?

Happy New Year, by the way! (Notice the exclamation point.)

 

9+

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

 

 

4+

With Help from Jeffery Deaver, Let’s Rock This First Page Critique!

Posted by Sue Coletta

Greetings, TKZers! Another brave writer has submitted a first page for critique. Rather than nitpick, I’ve approached this one a little differently. My comments are below. Hope you’ll weigh in too.

1st Page Critique

 

“Coming Home”

“Did I tell you I knew your father?”

John put on his best fake smile and nodded. “Yeah, you mentioned it when I first came in. You played football together?”

Ralph continued, “Yeah. Hank was one hell of a lineman. In our senior year against Haynesworth, he knocked their quarterback six feet into the air and…”

John couldn’t help but tune out. He’d heard the stories of his dad’s glory days retold hundreds of times with varying degrees of exaggeration. It happens when you live in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. It’s even more common when your father died becoming a local hero. It was bad enough when he was a kid, but ever since John returned home after flunking out of college last month he ran into people every day who felt the need to explain their connection to his father. He knew the story of every guy his dad had ever met or arrested and every woman he dated in high school. He just didn’t expect it during a job interview.

“…the refs decided we would get the point, the crowd went crazy. That victory carried us through the rest of the school year, but I don’t think that quarterback ever walked right again.”

John struggled to picture the large man sitting across the desk playing football. He couldn’t imagine this guy lifting anything heavier than a bowl of gravy since his beet-red face was sweating from the exertion required just to have this conversation. The man had to have had help squeezing his butt between the arms of that old wooden office chair which creaked horribly every time he moved.

John pushed to get the conversation back on track. “Pops, ur…sorry, Poplawski said you were looking for someone to start immediately.”

“The sooner, the better. Jim just walked out on us. No notice or nothin’. He came back from his shift one day last week and took his uniform off right here in this office. Said ‘this job doesn’t pay enough for this kind of shit,’ threw his clothes on the floor and drove home in his skivvies. Can you believe that? Left me in a pinch. I had to go out on his calls for the rest of the week.”

* * *

Overall, I liked this piece. Loved the voice too. With a few tweaks, I think this could be a strong first page. Brave Writer has given us a peek into the main character’s background without resorting to a huge info. dump. Paragraph four dances on the edge, but not so much that it pulled me out of the story. We have a sense of who John is and some of the difficulties he’s had growing up in his deceased father’s shadow. Life in a small town isn’t easy, and that’s clear.

I’m a sucker for snarky characters, so I loved this line:

He couldn’t imagine this guy lifting anything heavier than a bowl of gravy since his beet-red face was sweating from the exertion required just to have this conversation. 

It may read better if you broke it into two sentences, but I’d rather concentrate on the bigger picture.

What this first page is missing is a solid goal, something the MC needs to achieve more than anything. Sure, he’s applying for a job, but it doesn’t seem like he cares if he gets it. Why, then, should the reader care? Our main character must be in a motivated situation with an intriguing goal or problem to overcome.

The writer may want to save this piece for later in the story, even if it’s used on page two or three, and instead draw us in with a more compelling goal. Or, show us why this job interview is so important to John. Without the job, will he lose his house? Not have food? Is he trying to escape this small town for some reason?

Also, I’m not a fan of opening with dialogue unless it’s used for a purpose. For example, to raise a story question or to intrigue the reader. Dialogue, especially when used as an opening line, needs to sparkle (I’ll show you what I mean in a second). Without context and grounding, we risk disorienting the reader.

Let’s look at an example of dialogue that works as a first line and adds conflict to the entire first page. Maybe it’ll help spark some ideas for you.

The following is from The Burial Hour by Jeffery Deaver. For clarity, my comments are in bold, the excerpt italicized.

“Mommy.”

“In a minute.” 

Bam! Right off, we feel the tension mounting. 

They trooped doggedly along the quiet street on the Upper East Side, the sun low this cool autumn morning. Red leaves, yellow leaves spiraled from sparse branches.

Mother and daughter, burdened with the baggage that children now carted to school.

In five sentences the author has grounded us in the scene. We’re right there with the characters, envisioning the scene in our mind’s eye. Without even reading the next line we can sense the urgency of the situation. Plus, we can already empathize with the characters.

Let’s read on …

Clare was texting furiously. Her housekeeper had—wouldn’t you know it?—gotten sick, no, possibly gotten sick, on the day of the dinner party! The party. And Alan had to work late. Possibly had to work late.

As if I could ever count on him anyway.

Ding.

The response from her friend:

Sorry, Carmellas busy tnight.

Jesus. A tearful emoji accompanied the missive. Why not type the god-damn “o” in tonight? Did it save you a precious millisecond? And remember apostrophes?

“But, Mommy.” A nine-year-old’s singsongy tone.

“A minute, Morgan. You heard me.” Clare’s voice was a benign monotone. Not the least angry, not the least peeved or piqued.

first page critique

Can you see why this 1st page works? The goal is clearly defined and the main character needs to achieve it. The snappy dialogue between mother and daughter creates conflict. The voice rocks, and the scene hooks the reader. We need to read on in order to find out what happens next. More importantly, we’re compelled to turn the page. Questions are raised, questions that need answers. And that’s exactly what a first page should do. Don’t let us decide whether or not we want to turn the page. Grab us in a stranglehold and force us.

Over to you, TKZers. What advice would you give to improve this brave writer’s first page?

8+

Is Your Inciting Incident Strong Enough? – First Page Critique – The Edge

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

For your reading pleasure, we have the first 400 words of a novel submitted by an anonymous and brave author. It takes guts to share your baby with others on a public forum. I’ll provide my feedback below. Please share your constructive criticism in your comments.

The Edge

Naomi white-knuckled her steering wheel, working to stave off a panic attack as she drove eastbound on Route 50 toward Annapolis and the sanctuary of home. She’d flicked off the radio, as there was nothing but hurricane talk, so she didn’t even have that to distract her.

Where is the person I used to be? Or did I just think I was once someone different?

She focused on calming her breathing. The last thing she wanted was to have an all-out panic attack in full view of other post-work commuters while hurtling down the highway at seventy miles per hour. Her mind conjured a vision of losing control of the car and sailing off the side of the road into the trees. Then it skipped to crossing the median and into oncoming traffic, a reversal of what had happened to Wolfe’s late wife. Such thoughts and visions had to be beaten off with all the will she could muster.

“Get… a… grip,” she hissed, teeth clenched. Picture home.

She steered by rote, brushing aside more creeping mental images of passing out or having a heart attack—which only served to feed the anxiety. Inhaling, exhaling, one breath at a time, she slowly recovered some sense of control. Tension eased and her shoulders dropped. Calmer, her thoughts now turned to mulling over the day’s biggest challenge: the point at which she’d had to put on a neutral face while quashing down her humiliation.

Her phone rang, interrupting her thoughts. She tapped her hands-free device. “Hello?”

“Hey. How’s it going?”

Despite the blasting artificial chill of the car’s AC, warmth flooded her face and neck at the sound of Wolfe’s voice—and the news she had to tell him.

“I’m okay,” she answered, keeping her tone even.

“Uh oh. What happened?” His laconic voice belied an intensity and intelligence she admired, and which she believed many people didn’t immediately appreciate.

“I didn’t get it. I guess they just don’t see me as a leader. Sorry I didn’t call you earlier. I confess I was licking my wounds.”

He was silent a moment. “I’m sorry to hear that. You know they made a mistake in not giving it to you, right? Did you at least throw something at the person who got your promotion?”

“Clint got it. I guess they think he’s more qualified. Things work out like they’re supposed to, I hear.”

GENERAL COMMENTS

Before I give my feedback, I wanted to share my thoughts on where to start a novel. Since I am a thriller/crime fiction writer, I tend to start with a body or an act of violence or action that will change my protagonist’s life and tip it like a first domino colliding with others. An inciting incident disrupts the status quo and stirs things up in an intriguing way for the reader. It jump starts the story arcs and kicks off the plot to take its course.

An example of this is found in the first Hunger Games book where the inciting incident is a ‘district’ lottery drawing that forces Katniss into taking the place of her little sister in a fight to the death broadcast on a futuristic television show. That incident is a punch to the emotional gut of the reader who MUST turn the page to find out what happens.

But what if your inciting incident isn’t that dramatic? What can you do to strengthen your opener? 

Point of No Return – One benchmark for a solid inciting incident is that the protagonist can’t retreat once it starts. There should be a point of no return where the hero/heroine is forced to step out of his or her comfort zone and head into the abyss, to take a risk they hadn’t seen coming or that forces them into confronting their worst fears. It’s the author’s job to set the stage for the reader to discover why the hero or heroine deserves a starring role.

HERE is a link to a plotting method I’ve posted on my website under my FOR WRITERS section. It features the “W” plotting method and mentions the point of no return.

To Go Forward, You Sometimes have to Step Back – Ask yourself, what is my story about, the main thrust of the plot? Let’s call that a demarcation line. Now step back to a point where you find your protagonist, living in relative obscurity. What will drive him or her into stepping toward that demarcation line? What will stir, incite, or force them into making a move they might not otherwise? Then ask what would make that move a one-way trip? What is their point of no return, line in the sand moment? Picture a burned out mercenary, living as a hermit in the jungles of Venezuela, when a nun running an orphanage crosses his path. Their meeting may not be the point of no return, but when the villain in your story makes it his business to force the mercenary’s hand (threatening the children or the nun), the anti-hero takes action and can no longer live in obscurity. He’s forced to give up his life of anonymity and face his demons in order to do the right thing.

Questions to Ask About Your Inciting Incident to Make it Stronger:

1.) Review your current WIP for your inciting incident. Does it propel your protagonist (or even your antagonist) into your plot arcs?

2.) Is the inciting incident big enough to sustain a novel or propel it forward in a meaningful and realistic way? Are there enough building turning points to make it a journey?

3.) Are the stakes high enough to make the reader care?

4.) Does the inciting incident influence or jump start the main story question for your plot?

5.) Can your hero or heroine retreat from the inciting incident or is it significant enough to force a change into a new direction? In other words, do you have a legitimate point of no return where they are forced to cross that proverbial line in the sand?

FEEDBACK

I generally liked that the author started with Naomi white-knuckled behind a steering wheel, knowing there is a hurricane headed toward Annapolis (although Naomi quickly deflates that tension by wanting the distraction of the radio over ‘hurricane talk’). I looked up the area and hurricanes have hit this part of the country with devastating results in loss of lives.

But the minute Naomi retreated into her head, asking where her old self had gone, it was a head fake into a different direction that stutter-stepped into the next paragraph. In paragraph 3, there is more faked or forced emotion that takes place in her head, with an emphasis on “telling” what she’s feeling. The fabricated suspense of imagined car accidents and panic attacks are quickly deflated when Naomi gets a call and she says, “I’m okay.” The imaginary incidents reminded me of Calista Flockhart in Ally McBeal where her inner thoughts were more exciting and dramatic than her real life, but those were done with dark humor and dancing babies as her biological clock ticked down.

I had to wonder, as an aside, where Naomi could drive 70 mph on a packed commuter highway. It’s hard to tell if the other cars are stopped and she’s the only one careening across the lanes and through trees, since the action only takes place in her head.

I don’t know if the author intended for the reference to the death of Wolfe’s late wife by car accident is intentional and a foreshadowing. Let’s hope so, but I was confused by the description “a reversal of what had happened…,” deciphering between Naomi’s imagination and what might’ve happened to his wife. That description forced me to reread and I still didn’t understand.

In the dialogue we learn that she has lost a job promotion to someone else, Clint, and she seems to accept it like a worn welcome mat. The reader doesn’t know what she does for a living either. It’s hard to relate to Naomi or get invested in her life with an opener that is more about misdirection.

The author is capable of writing a suspenseful scene. There are good parts to this submission if the author can stay focused on visualizing the fictional world through Naomi’s eyes and how her emotions manifest in her body or her senses (showing rather than telling), but when the narrative drifts to imagined car accidents, fake heart attacks or passing out at the wheel, these descriptions read as ‘over the top’ and forced emotions as more of Naomi’s story is revealed about her losing a promotion to Clint, a co-worker.

Since we don’t know from this limited 400 word submission which direction the plot will go or what genre this is, we won’t know if Naomi is a mild-mannered woman capable of hiring a hit man to take out Clint to get her promotion or doing that job herself with hours spent at a gun range. Or did the author intend for this to be a taste of Naomi’s world until the hurricane hits and she discovers what’s really important in her life? We simply don’t know.

I think the author would have a more compelling start if the contrived emotions were stripped from this intro and we get to know more about Naomi and care about her. There’s a lot of pressure to getting a lot packed into 400 words, but this intro could orient the reader into Naomi’s world with the hint of foreshadowing where the story will go. It doesn’t have to be all action and suspense when the story is a drama about a woman’s struggle to find balance in her life and how she makes a dynamic change to make to happen. How would that story look?

Maybe Naomi has been hit in the teeth by losing another promotion to a better candidate because she is overlooked at every turn, but the impending hurricane forces her out of her comfort zone and she confronts her demons that change her forever. I would read that story.

 

DISCUSSION

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

2.) What tips do you have for finding the right place to start your story? 

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