Tips & Pitfalls to Writing in First Person – First Page Critique: Organization K

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Today we have the first 400 words of a novel entitled ORGANIZATION K. With it written in first person, I wanted to talk about using first person – benefits and dangers – as well as give our brave author feedback. My comments will be on the flip side. Enjoy!

***

Insane or not, I refused to let Victor assassinate me without a fight.

Exaggerating my daze, I meandered toward the locked exit of Bienveillance Hospital’s Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy. If someone opened the door carelessly, I’d flee. My pale, youthful skin crawled, and I scratched my stubbly cheeks. I was nearsighted and had discarded my glasses, so my surroundings appeared blurry. As I passed a couple staff members in white uniforms and neared possible freedom, blood pounded behind my ears.

An olive-skinned female orderly intercepted me. “Breakfast time, Max,” she said in German with a Turkish accent. She pointed over my shoulder and tapped her foot.

I tugged on my bleached-blond hair’s jagged ends. “Oh joy.”

My former best friend, Victor, might reenter the recuperation prison to murder me. He’d once failed to kill me there. Given my lingering madness, the personnel would disbelieve my claim. Besides, in my disgrace, maybe I deserved to die.

Clenching my teeth, I plodded into a corner of the main common room. The space’s pastel green paint, which matched my ward outfit, reminded me of vomit. Outside the lofty windows, October 2001 fog obscured the Berlin Television Tower. On clearer days, the landmark from ex-East Berlin resembled a giant lance impaling a cratered moon. As an earlier East German, an Ossi, Germany’s tallest structure inspired me to surpass my rivals.

A boyish patient with a fair complexion draped a blanket over his shoulders. Wordlessly, he wandered around the roomy area in sandals and hugged people. He approached me.

My body stiffened, and I crossed my arms. “Go easy on me, man.”

The stranger embraced me. His obliviousness to his bleak position repulsed me. Like pins and needles accompanied a hand waking from sleep, regaining sanity hurt, but the pain came with healing. He released me and strolled away.

At long tables, many fellow sufferers clanked their tableware, grating my ears. The reek of greasy food and disinfectant seeped through the air. My stomach churned.

I rushed into my spartan room and sprawled on the bed or paced on the floor. Zoned out, I stood facing the murky outdoors. The door opened behind me. Someone thumped their boots toward me and stopped. As I turned around, my spine tingled.

Victor waved at me, grinning. “Hey, Mega Max, how the hell are you?” he shouted in German with a slight Californian accent.

I swallowed hard.

***

FEEDBACK & TIPS

This anonymous entry has an intriguing premise of a man confined in a mental hospital with an assassin out to get him, but the way it’s written, it made me wonder if I could suggest ways to make it more effective to draw the reader in. The author is counting on the reader to be curious, but are there other nuances the author could add that would intrigue the reader more?

Tips to Writing in First Person

1.) Start with action – Instead of being in the head of a character as they passively begin a story, have them DO SOMETHING. Is this character really in action? He’s stumbling through a ward and on alert, but it’s more like he’s taking inventory of the setting for the reader to “see it.” The action is TELLING. We’re being told about Victor wanting to kill him. If he’s purely delusional, the first line feels like a cheat to the reader. By the second line, any tension or intrigue the reader might’ve felt is gone when the action goes nowhere.

It might be more effective if Max is agitated and feeling the effects of an unexplained drug, attempting an actual escape from an unknown location. Leave the reader wondering – escape from where? The reader can wonder if he’s a captive, a good guy or bad. Give the reader something to care about with his situation.

2.) Make the reader care – Since this is the start of the story, I know nothing about Max. Yes, he is in a precarious position and vulnerable with an assassin after him, but why should a reader care about him at this early stage? Has the author given enough to get the reader engaged? Rather than focusing on describing the setting of the hospital through Max’s head, why not target his mental state and show the reader how he is vulnerable. Make the reader feel like THEY are held captive with him. I don’t know where this story is going, but I don’t feel enough empathy for Max because of the author’s choice to keep the story superficial.

3.) Show don’t tell – As I mentioned, Max is telling us what he fears. He’s not showing us enough of his emotional state or his vulnerability. He’s too in control and the threat doesn’t seem real – especially since he is locked up in a mental hospital. I’m not buying his fear. The author hasn’t done enough to make me feel it. Since I don’t know the rest of the story, it’s hard to suggest how to rewrite this intro, but the author should make the reader feel the threat and not just tell it.

There are many ways the author TELLS through Max, but below are specific examples:

  • Insane or not, I refused to let Victor assassinate me without a fight.
  • If someone opened the door carelessly, I’d flee.
  • My former best friend, Victor, might reenter the recuperation prison to murder me. He’d once failed to kill me there.
  • Given my lingering madness, the personnel would disbelieve my claim.

4.) Make your character’s voice stand out – It’s a challenge to cram a great deal into 400 words, but why squander the opportunity with generic? I’m assuming Max is the main character. When he enters the scene, make him show why he has earned the storytelling role. Give him an attitude about what he sees and let the reader in on it. Give him color and make him memorable. Think about how movies portray main characters when they first walk into the scene. In the first minutes of Pirates of the Caribbean, Captain Sparrow makes a splash for moviegoers. That intro defines him for the rest of the film. Shouldn’t that be how books are written? It takes thought and planning on how to do this effectively.

Make each word count on what he says? Does he have an accent or a unique way of speaking? How does he express himself? The author controls ALL of this. Is Max a chameleon in appearance? Does he have skills that would make it hard to confine him in a hospital or anywhere? Is he charming or funny and can he talk himself out of any situation? If he’s a cynic, why not infuse his surly, sarcastic nature into his dialogue? Less internal thoughts, more dialogue with another character to set up a mystery?

5.) Use your character’s self-deception as an unreliable narrator to manipulate the reader into your mystery. How much are they delusional or unreliable? Is their self-deception in small ways or is the character completely unaware of the situation. With first person, the author has a unique perspective for plot twists and misdirection. Be patient and savor the moment to add mystery and intrigue.

DANGERS OF USING FIRST PERSON

First person is fun to write. It is very intimate if the author stays in the head of the character. The insights into the nature of the protagonist are alluring for an author. Even if you use third person for your book, it can be a great exercise in getting to know your character by writing a scene in first person to get a feel for their personality. But first person also has dangers. Here are a few:

1.) The reader is trapped inside the head of one character. Even if you mix the POV between first and third in your book, the first person character generally dominates the story. It could be a major turnoff for the reader if the character weren’t sympathetic or compelling.

2.) Don’t make the first person voice about YOU. Some authors have trouble distinguishing between their character and themselves. It can be limiting. It’s much more interesting if you don’t limit your imagination.

3.) Overuse of “I” & filtered words – In first person, it is important not to overuse the tedious sentence beginning with “I.” This leads to filtered words and sentences that diffuse the action through the character. It distances the reader from the action. For example:

Don’t:

I watched an angry crowd of protesters marching down the street.

Do:

The angry crowd of protesters marched down the street.

4.) Too much introspection can lead to telling and backstory dumps. Rambling internal thoughts can be boring, page after page. Give glimpses inside your character for insight or plot twists but get your character into the action with their attitude and color.

5.) First Person can be limiting plot-wise, especially if you only use first POV for the whole book. The plot is only seen through one set of eyes. It takes planning to make a plot work.

SPECIFIC FEEDBACK ON SUBMISSION

1.) In general, I found the action uneven and a bit jumbled. Max goes quickly from wandering the ward, into a large day room until we make a leap to a dining room situation until there’s another quick shift into his room. It’s as if the author wrote a quick draft and forgot to fill in details. The author is more interested in describing the hospital than in setting up Max’s story. There’s no real action. The story is taking place in Max’s head by telling.

Here are some sentences where the scene transition was most confusing and had me re-reading. There’s no transition between spaces and the leap from dining hall to private room is too noticeable.

At long tables, many fellow sufferers clanked their tableware, grating my ears. The reek of greasy food and disinfectant seeped through the air. My stomach churned.

I rushed into my spartan room and sprawled on the bed or paced on the floor. Zoned out, I stood facing the murky outdoors.

2.) The author chose first person POV but certain passages & word choices didn’t feel like an internal thought. In an internal thought, Max would feel his skin crawl. He wouldn’t picture his skin as pale and youthful. He might tug at his hair, but not describe the bleached color and jagged ends, as if he were seeing from outside his body.

I’ve highlighted these examples below:

  • My pale, youthful skin crawled, and I scratched my stubbly cheeks.
  • I tugged on my bleached-blond hair’s jagged ends. “Oh joy.”

3.) In the sixth paragraph, the author diffuses the action with a diversion from Max as he looks out a window and sees a historical site. It’s brief, but coupled with all the other distractions, this is a passage that could’ve waited for later in the story.

On clearer days, the landmark from ex-East Berlin resembled a giant lance impaling a cratered moon. As an earlier East German, an Ossi, Germany’s tallest structure inspired me to surpass my rivals.

4.) Californian Accent? At the end, Victor comes into Max’s room and speaks in German with an accent. I may have to defer to others on what a California accent is. I come from Texas and know about a distinctive accent, but I wasn’t aware that California had a unique one. Are we talking surfer dude lingo? This reads as more author intrusion. The author is cutting corners to introduce Victor and let readers know he’s not a local.

SUMMARY

I didn’t make line by line corrections. I wanted the author to reevaluate their introduction by considering my questions for Max and rethinking how this story begins. Give Max more action and give him a distinctive attitude for his voice. Eliminate the TELLING and add depth to this introduction with elements of mystery. I’m pretty sure the author has something more in mind for a plot to fill a book, but this excerpt doesn’t leave me wanting more. Reading into the piece, I would imagine Victor is someone Max knows well. Hence, the nickname Mega Max. That would completely deflate any intended tension written into this intro. I would rather the author give us something real to wonder about. Thoughts?

FOR DISCUSSION

I would appreciate your feedback. I’m sure the author would love more voices weighing in, but besides line edits, let’s try something a little different. Let’s keep the basic premise the same, that Max is in a mental hospital and he fears Victor will kill him.

1.) How would you rewrite Max’s actions? What would you have him do? Think out of the box. Let’s brainstorm as a writing exercise.

2.) How would you make Max unique and give him more character and a more memorable voice?

4+

Where Am I? — First Page Critique

By SUE COLETTA

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

TITLE: Sonbgird

chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building. Below me, the slow curve of it swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below. Above me, it changed into a skyscraper. The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see. So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt.

Do it. Do it now.

I screamed at myself to move, but my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. Tingling my fingertips as sweat prickled my forehead.

Even if I didn’t believe I could, I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out. But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve on fire. The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast. He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bight brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate hair over her shoulder. It draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

The genre would be fantasy, I think. Full disclosure: this is not my preferred genre. As a reader, I’m drawn to stories that are logical or at least possible (think: The Martian by Andy Weirs). Brave writer, please remember this is one reader’s opinions. Perhaps others will see something I missed.

Let’s look at this opener in more depth. My comments are in bold.

TITLE: Sonbgird I’m guessing this is a typo and you meant to write Songbird, which I liked right away.

Chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. (first two lines drew me in—good job) I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

The previous two sentences I’ve read a gazillion times and I still can’t picture where I am. Is the MC standing in an empty culvert? If so, then how does wind blow his/her hair “up the side of the building”?

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The Sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building (excellent visual). Below me, the slow curve of it (of what, the walls or tunnel? In my mind a tunnel is horizontal, not vertical. If it is a vertical structure and s/he’s looking down into a tunnel-like pit, then you need a better way to set the scene. Also, whenever possible substitute the word “it” for the object) swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below.

“Sand” threw me. I’d assumed we were in a metropolitan area due to the word “tunnel,” so you need to ground the reader to where we are.

Above me, it changed into a skyscraper.

Again, what is “it”? And how did it morph into a skyscraper? Without some context, these details don’t make sense to this reader.

The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see.

That passage reaffirms a metropolitan landscape in my mind. Unless we’re in the desert outside Vegas or somewhere similar. See why it’s important to ground the reader? Don’t make us guess. If we can’t envision the surroundings, how can we fully invest in the story?.

So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt. Those two lines intrigued me. I’m thinking concrete smokestacks. Try adding more sensory details i.e. smoke plumed into an aqua-blue sky, tangoed with a lone cloud, and filled my sinuses with burnt ashes of sulfur (or somebody’s dearly departed — kidding. 😉 ) 

Do it. Do it now. Nice. I can feel the urgency.

I screamed at myself for my feet to move, but they wouldn’t comply my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. (try to decrease the sentences that begin with “I” while remaining in a deep POV). A cold rush of panic washed over me, tingling my fingertips, as sweat prickling my forehead (changed to show how to play with rhythm to create a more visceral experience. Just a suggestion. Your call on whether to keep it).

Even if I didn’t believe I could (could what? You’re trying too hard to be mysterious), I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair. This I like. It’s mysterious yet, as a reader, I don’t feel cheated—nicely done.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out (good visuals here). But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve was on fire (removed “I felt” to stay in deep POV). The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I still say the MC is in a horizontal culvert that’s hanging over a cliff of some sort. Regardless, please make it clear where we’re at. I shouldn’t still be guessing.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited. Whoa. The MC burst into flames?

I red-highlighted all the sentences that begin with “I” to make you aware of them. If this is intentional, and it may be, then fine, but be careful of overdoing it. Too many in a row can work against us.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast (this is a great way to weave in a tidbit of backstory). He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bright brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. This is a nit: whenever I read “eyes” instead of “gaze” in this context I think of disembodied eyeballs. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate-colored (added “-colored” so the reader doesn’t imagine real chocolate like I did on the first read-through. Some descriptive words are like that. Or choose a different way to describe the color i.e. deep brown) hair over her shoulder. It (Strands instead of “it”) draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

The first line indicates she has long flowing hair, then we find out she’s wearing a braid. Give us one solid image. When we’re not clear right away it causes confusion.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your work to TKZ. It’s been a pleasure critiquing this first page. I hope you found it useful.

Over to you, my beloved TKZers! Please add helpful suggestions for this brave writer.

3+

Lessons Learned from Writing True Crime

By SUE COLETTA

Have you ever considered writing true crime? With five days left of my deadline, I’ve finished the manuscript of Pretty Evil New England and am now just tightening the writing and gathering my photographs for the book. The hard part is behind me.

via GIPHY

While on this journey into true crime I learned a few lessons that might interest you.

Would I recommend true crime to new writers? The only honest answer I can give is, it depends.

The truth is, this work isn’t for everyone. Writing true crime is a huge undertaking that requires months of intense research and deep concentration. Some days I swear my brain had caught fire from overuse. Seriously, it can be physically draining to live inside a real killer’s head for months on end, never mind five killers’ heads, or the victims and their families. At the same time, my passion and excitement for the project kept me racing to work every single day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

Please indulge me for a moment. I do have a point, but you’ll need context to understand what I’m talking about. When the publisher approached me about writing Pretty Evil New England, they asked me to include 10 +/- female serial killer stories.

But I didn’t want to write 10 short stories. What fun is that? If I was to veer out of my comfort zone (psychological thrillers and mysteries), then I needed to write a story that mattered, a story that readers could sink into, spend time in the story world, and experience a visceral thrill ride. What I failed to realize at the time was that the publisher’s idea would’ve been a cakewalk compared to my over-eager proposition. But hey, I was never one to shy away from a challenge. Why start now?

In my book proposal, I outlined the book in four Parts. Part I – III focused on one female serial killer at a time, with each Part dedicated to the subject’s case, all four Parts the length of a novella. In Part IV, I zeroed in on two female serial killers — one poor, one “lady of influence” — who committed almost identical crimes. They both claimed to experience visions and prophetic dreams, both murdered the people they loved most, and both stunned the public with their heartless crimes. Yet, after they were exposed as killers, the two women’s lives ran in opposite directions. Even more shocking were the outcomes at trial. So, Part IV became not only two intriguing storylines that intertwined but it shined a (subtle) light on fairness and equality.

Not conforming to the publisher’s original vision for the book was a risk, but I backed up my argument with facts from various sources that proved true crime readers prefer quality over quantity.

Lesson #1: When pushing for your own concept, you need to provide proof that your idea will be more profitable and enjoyable than the one posed by the publisher.

Once I found my five cases, I delved into research. Now, I had no idea what to look for, so I researched everything… life in nineteenth century New England, nursing requirements back then, forensics of yesteryear, how trials worked back then, the gallows… you name it, I researched the topic to death (no pun intended). I had no direction, except for my five ladies, two of which had practically no online footprint and one who had too many articles written about her, and many with conflicting accounts that didn’t align with my early research. Which is worse, actually. It’s much more time-consuming to wade through conflicting information than to research a bare bones case.

Lesson #2: Have a plan of attack. Meaning, before you start to research plan what you’ll need for the story, like dialogue and a sense of place.

Being a fiction writer helped a lot, because I viewed the cases from a storyteller’s point of view. The worse thing we can do is to just report facts. Boring! Instead, we need to find that perfect balance between journalism and engaging storytelling. But, and this is key, we cannot change or embellish to enhance the story.

What I discovered is, there are numerous ways to write true crime. Each of my four Parts are written differently. Why? Because no true story is the same. Thus, it’s our job to be able to adapt according to the case. For example, in Part I, I used the killer’s confession and dialogue to write scenes from her perspective, the victims’ perspectives, and the dogged investigators who caught her. Using a backdrop of the historical Eastern Heatwave of 1901 enhanced the atmosphere in a creepy way. Which brings me to…

Lesson #3: Look outside the case for a sense of place. What else is happening at that time, in that area?

Lesson #4: No amount of online research can replace real-world experience.

Even if we’re writing historical true crime, we still need to visit the crime scenes, grave sites, walk where the killer walked, visit the town, or the murder house, if you’re really lucky. In my research I stumbled across a third floor that was perfectly preserved from 1881. I walked where the killer walked (in Part III of Pretty Evil), I sat where the victims sat, I laid my finger on the ivory keys of their piano and perused their bookshelves. What an incredible find! It’s an experience I will never forget. If you’d like to see the photos, I blogged about it.

The most important lesson I learned was this. Before choosing a subject to write about, ask yourself, why does this story interest me? What is it about this crime that makes it unique?

We, as writers, need to be passionate about all our projects. For true crime writers, we need to be doubly sure, because we can’t change real life. The true crime writer lives with the case for a long time… many months, sometimes years. If the writer isn’t passionate about the story, chances are readers won’t care, either. Same goes for fiction. Hence why TKZ members have written umpteen posts on concept, premise, when to keep a story idea and when to trash it.

By the time I wrote the final sentence of Part IV of Pretty Evil, I couldn’t wait to go back to page one. I missed my “characters” from Part I-III. And now that I’m just tidying up the manuscript, I feel like I’m visiting old friends, even if they are psychopaths. 😉 Their stories are part of me now, and hopefully, will become part of my readers’ lives as well.

Have you ever considered writing true crime? If you already do, please share your tips.

 

PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs hits bookstores Sept. 1, 2020. Can’t wait!

 

9+

Key Ways to Lure Readers with an Opening – First Page Critique: Follow the Raptor

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Wikimedia Commons

My last TKZ first page critique for 2019. I want to thank all the brave authors who have submitted their novel introductions to share with our TKZ community. Although it’s never easy to hear criticism, no matter who you are, we grow as authors by taking risks. Kudos to all the courageous writers we have at TKZ–those who submit their work and those who offer constructive criticism. Thank you all.

***

From the airport, I drove north in a rental car toward Ketchum, and turned onto a small paved road that ended at an estate owned by a man who had offered to pay me handsomely for an assignment he wouldn’t describe over the phone. I announced myself to the intercom and the gates swung onto a flat curve of driveway. A big-guy checker piece in black answered the doorbell. He mumbled into an earpiece and jotted in a small notebook, a juxtaposition of the new and old. I noticed this because Tireia would notice, and lovers learn such habits from one another.

The big guy identified himself as Jonathan. He led me down a wide hall peopled by brass effigies and through double doors into the presence of a massive sandstone fireplace that loomed over curved and plush seating. The room was filled with paintings and statuary, rainforest plants, and stacks of oversized books on tables that looked as if they were laser-hewn from petrified wood. The drapes were open on floor-to-ceiling windows, displaying a lawn that flowed to sage-strewn foothills on this high-desert side of the road to Sun Valley.

Jonathan left and I wandered over to a Gainsborough-like portrait of a woman in a pleated gown that covered her feet. It was better than the other one on the same wall, of a high-breasted brunette in a print blouse, who sat in a thin chair and stared out of the 1940s at the viewer. She was familiar, and not being able to place her irritated me. The signature in the corner read, “Katherine March.”

Soft footsteps signaled the appearance of my trim and compact host. He sported a velvet smoking jacket and suede slippers, which made me grin.

“I’m Cassim Geyer,” he said.

“Reese Sapere.”

We shook hands.

“I assume you’ll be flying your plane home, Mr. Sapere, so I won’t offer liquor. Will tea do?”

“Tea? Yeah, OK.”

He went to the fireplace and pulled a bell cord, which delighted me only slightly less than the lovely young woman who soon appeared, in a short black skirt over a white blouse. Cassim requested the tea and sat down across from me. He flicked a bit of nothing from his slacks, looked up, and caught me regarding him.

“Tradition has its upside,” he said, “if you take it with a dollop of nonconformity.”

***

FEEDBACK

SETTING FOCUS IN INTRODUCTION – This introduction sticks with the action of what is happening. No real backstory. That’s a plus, but when the tedious description of the setting overtakes the narrative, the pace slows down to a crawl. The author hasn’t given me enough reason to care about the setting. I really don’t know where Ketchum is – in Oklahoma or Idaho? If the character had more of a colorful opinion, I might see the reason for the description-to showcase and give insight into the character.

A reader isn’t as much after the details of a setting, but more about atmosphere and mood.

Here is an example of a more effective intro that paints a picture of setting, but it also reflects on the character and a darker mystery.

EXCERPT

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred introduces her room with details that not only grab us but hint at something dark:

A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.

If the action in this submission were better matched with the setting details, the main character might be more integral to the setting with hints of emotion or something more at stake. As it reads now, the setting descriptions are just an inventory of room furnishings. Below is a good example of how the author uses plain setting descriptions to stir feelings of foreboding in the reader and give insight into the female lead.

EXCERPT

Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion turns a simple setting into something ominous when the character realizes someone has violated her home and been inside. Can’t we all relate to being shaken at the possibility of a home invasion? This short description, that incorporates the details of a setting, gives insight into the woman living alone and the emotion she must be feeling.

Reaching for the bedside lamp, she stopped and withdrew her hand. The photograph of her father had been turned out to face the room. She touched it every night before she went to sleep. It was always facing towards her, towards the bed, not away from it. … In the darkness, what had felt safe before now felt frightening: the way the dressing-table mirror reflected the street-light through the curtains and the sight of the wardrobe door left slightly ajar.

 

MYSTERY – There are elements of mystery to this intro. Below are four I noticed, but not all of them are presented well.

Good Mystery Elements

1.) The character is paid handsomely for an undisclosed assignment. Why? This is a good mystery to drop at the start. Make the reader wonder what this guy does for a living. Good guy or bad.

2.) Who is Katherine March and why is she familiar to him? This is a good mystery. It’s intriguing and it has the potential for foreshadowing something to come. I like it.

Not so Good…

3.) What gender is the central character (male of female)? I have to wait until nearly the end of the dialogue where he’s called Mr. Sapere. Even the first name of Reese can be female. It’s not good to keep a reader guessing about gender, but this can be an easy fix if the author would introduce gender earlier.

4.) Who is Tireia? From the line – “I noticed this because Tireia would notice, and lovers learn such habits from one another.” There’s no attempt at an explanation, but why bring it up? This reads like a series with characters the reader should know. This kind of mystery will have the reader scratching their head and wondering why. I would find another way to bring this up later, but it’s not necessary in this intro. It’s only confusing.

LOCATION – I mentioned this earlier, but the reference to Ketchum could be in Idaho or Oklahoma or anywhere. A simple tag line would clear this up. Or the author could make a choice to make the setting clear from the start and make it memorable in short order, as in the excerpt below.

EXCERPT

Gabriel García Márquez, opening One Hundred Years of Solitude, introduces his village like this:

Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.

FIRST SENTENCE LENGTH – The first sentence is too long with too many unrelated details, that they get lost in the length. My instincts would be to make the character more colorful with a more memorable voice. Give him an opinion of his surroundings that reflect on him, as a protagonist. Make him more wary of who this new client is and why is the man so secretive about the assignment. The first sentence (below) is tedious, forgettable, and the last part of the mystery assignment almost gets lost at the tail end.

From the airport, I drove north in a rental car toward Ketchum, and turned onto a small paved road that ended at an estate owned by a man who had offered to pay me handsomely for an assignment he wouldn’t describe over the phone.

Also, in this submission, we learn at the very end of the 400 words (in the dialogue) that the protagonist is a pilot and must have rented a car from the airport. It’s seems odd that we have to wait until the end dialogue to discover that Sapere is a pilot. It’s a bit confusing that the new client knows more about Sapere than the reader does, after being in Sapere’s head.

MAKE DIALOGUE COUNT – For the first lines of dialogue, they are very anti-climactic and chit-chatty.

WHERE IS THE ANTICIPATION? – I would’ve liked to see the author have a build up of anticipation where the protagonist is curious about the man who wants to pay him handsomely yet couldn’t talk about the assignment over the phone. This is how you build on the mystery, when the protagonist is drawn in himself and searches for clues.

It’s obvious the man he came to see is someone he doesn’t know. I would think he would screen his jobs better. Wouldn’t he be more wary? Wouldn’t his mind be searching the grounds for hints of the assignment or who this man is?

SUMMARY – This author shows talent. There’s a good crime fiction start here, but this reads like a first draft. With some feedback and filling out of details to create more mystery and a sense of anticipation, this introduction could be more effective.

FOR DISCUSSION:

Please share your constructive criticism with this writer and with your TKZ family. We all have an opportunity to learn.

 

8+

Book Blurbs: The Good, The Bad, and The Hilarious

During the summer I had the distinct honor of blurbing a book. Not just any book, either. Larry Brooks’ new craft book, Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves. I love Larry’s (and Jim’s!) craft books, so I took my job seriously and did what any self-respecting writer would do… I Googled “How to Blurb a Book.” 🙂

The term “blurb” has amassed a number of meanings in the decades since it worked its way into our vocabulary, including a book description. But the true meaning of the word means a bylined endorsement from a fellow writer or celebrity that sings the praises of the book’s author.

There’s only two crucial steps to book blurbing.

Step 1: read the book.

Step 2: write whatever you liked about it.

That’s it. It’s not rocket science. The only way to screw up this assignment is to skip Step 1. Well, that’s not exactly true.

Don’t write the blurb to a fill-in-the-blank formula…

The Zero by Jess Walter

“Jess Walter’s The Zero is a tense and compulsively readable roller-coaster ride fraught with psychological thrills, unanticipated dips and lurches, and existential truths. The novel frightened and fascinated me in equal measures. Walter has written a neo-noirish masterpiece.” — Wally Lamb

This is also not the time to overwrite…

To The End Of The Land by David Grossman

“Very rarely you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling has opened in you that was not there before. David Grossman has the ability to look inside a person and discover the essence of her humanity; his novels are about what it means to defend this essence against a world designed to extinguish it. To The End Of The Land is his most powerful, unflinching story of this defense.” — Nicole Krauss

Nor is it the time to play with adverbs…

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

“To those who say there are no new love stories, I heartily recommend The Time Traveler’s Wife, an enchanting novel, which is beautifully crafted and as dazzlingly imaginative as it is dizzyingly romantic.” — Scott Turow

Although, if you’re as talented and creative as Jordan Dane, you might get away with adjectives…

“Riveting and haunting! Sue Coletta’s page-turning crime fiction is deliciously nuanced with delectable horror and dark humor. Unique and compelling characters make a sumptuous and satisfying meal. Save room for a decadent dessert of plot twists.”

Let’s not forget the blurb master, Gary Shteyngart, who blurbed the world’s worst books. Here’s a small sampling…

Eating People is Wrong by Malcolm Bradbury

“If eating people is wrong, I don’t want to be right”—Gary Shteyngart

Castration: The Advantages and Disadvantages by Victor T. Cheney

“The ballsiest book of the year”—Gary Shteyngart

Alas, I wasn’t that creative. I just told the truth…

“Larry Brooks has done it again!!! In Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves, Brooks delivers a clear, concise, easily digestible roadmap to make our stories work.

“From the initial story seed to concept to a fully formed premise, he walks us through each part of a four-part structure, with unwavering clarity. It’s the perfect craft book to help aspiring writers turn their writing dreams into reality and an excellent refresher for seasoned novelists.”

 

If you enjoyed Story Engineering or Story Physics, you will love Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves. Did I mention Robert Dugoni wrote the foreword?

While you’re stocking the toolbox, might I recommend another fabulous craft book? The Last Fifty Pages by James Scott Bell. Like Larry’s new book, it’s a game-changer.

Too much? It felt a little heavy-handed. Sorry about that. I get so fired up over craft books. Jim and Larry’s teaching style really speaks to me. Can a writer ever have too many books on craft? Not in my world. What about yours?

 

7+

How to Enhance your Writing by Layering Your Scenes & Plot

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

When this blog posts, I will be JET LAGGED from my return trip to Italy. It will be my first full day back home, after a late flight on Wednesday. I hope to be coherent enough to participate with comments, but forgive me if I sleep in. (I will definitely post pictures of my adventure in a later post.)

***

In my last blog post on “Narrative Drive – Do You Have It?” – I focused on creating a page turner novel using Narrative Drive. As important as it may be to write a page turner (no matter what genre), it’s also important to have balance when you’re creating a world for the reader to love. Adding layers of character emotions, clear motives, interesting subplots that reveal morsels for the reader, and enriching the world the author creates can enhance the reader’s experience and give them something memorable.

USING LAYERS TO ENHANCE A SCENE:

This is my primary process of reviewing scenes after I write them. Yes, I look for typos and probably other things my mind is conditioned to look for (ie word repeats, crutch phrases, cliches, adverbs, passive voice, etc.), but below are my broad brush strokes in reviewing for layers.

FIRST EDIT – After I finish with my first pass as a scene, I go back to edit. My initial pass is to delete unnecessary words and tighten the sentence structure. After I get a stripped down version of the scene, I go back to why I wrote the scene in the first place and add on.

QUESTIONS TO ASK – What’s the purpose for the scene? Do I advance the plot by 1 – 3 plot points so that the scene is integral to the plot? Does my character have a journey through the scene from start to finish? How has he or she grown or been changed? Are things revealed that propel the scene forward? Are motives clear for the reader?

EMOTION – Whatever the purpose for the scene (ie to build on fear, or love, or tension or to add a mystery element), I try to add more layers of THAT. Make the fear over the top, for example. Create images to show a deepening love. Darken a feeling of grief. Intensify the action by ratcheting everything up to another level. I tweak things sparingly so I don’t slow the pace with more than I need, but almost every scene can do with a bit more. Use your judgement on how much to add.

GIVE GREATER INSIGHT INTO YOUR CHARACTER – Enhance the voice of your scene by using DEEP POV to show what’s happening inside your character’s head. This could be a display of emotions if your character is prone to swearing or it could be adding a more colorful VOICE of your character as he or she sees the scene unfolding in front of their eyes. Give them an opinion on what they are doing and show who they are to the reader. Review any scene to tweak it for a more colorful character punch.

ACTION – If there is action in the scene, make the character active. Don’t tell what’s happening. Have the character be in the thick of it. Also make sure you write the action in well-placed snippets of movement without overly describing it. That can slow the pace. Sometimes with action, less is more.

SCENE STRUCTURE – Does my scene have structure with a beginning, middle and end? Does my character know more by the end than at the start? is there a journey? Does the scene foreshadow something coming?

USING LAYERS TO STRENGTHEN YOUR PLOT:

In my book EVIL WITHOUT A FACE, I wrote five full plot/subplots that paralleled the main action. My primary protagonist, Jessie the bounty hunter, was the main driver. It was her story to tell. I had her soon-to-be love interest, Payton, be the uncle of a missing girl and showed what he did to find his sister’s only girl. The 3rd character was the missing girl Nikki. I didn’t want her to be a symbolic McGuffin for people to chase. I wanted to show how dark things got for her as she is abducted into an international human trafficking ring. I also had two other minor subplots involving a woman cop in Chicago, friend of Jessie’s and a mystery woman (Alexa) who brought help to Jessie as things escalated on a global scale. These three women would become my version of Charlie’s Angels on Steroids.

All these plots converged in a big scene in the middle of the book where their separate journeys collided in an action-packed scene with explosions and high-octane battles. The dark moment left them all stunned with the girl still missing and presumed dead. Once they started to work together, they found another way to hunt for the missing girl.

The only way all this would work? I had to make each subplot be integral to the main plot. Each character had different story lines and different motives for their involvement, but they were all chasing either the bad guys or the missing girl. Each added to the escalating tension with the time running out. It was a challenge to write, but I learned a lot and pushed my comfort zone.

MAIN PLOT – When you break down any book, there is a primary or main plot, but there can also be various subplots for the reader to enjoy. Life isn’t just one thing going on. Give the reader insight into the world you have drawn them into. The main plot is the core conflict that drives the plot.

SECONDARY PLOT – A secondary plot (subplot) should work parallel with the main plot to add escalating tension, conflict or mystery. This type of subplot should add complications to your main plot.

TERTIARY PLOT – If there is a third level subplot, this can be something of less substance, yet make it something memorable for the reader – something to give special insight into the character of your protagonist or that may titillate a romance. Think of a 3rd level plot as a CHARACTER ARC that adds color and texture. Although the 3rd level subplot may not be as driving as the main plot or secondary plot, it can sometimes capture the imagination of the reader because it’s fun or romantic, or a mystery.

For a 3rd tier plot, I once had my main character pick out the right puppy for a young woman who was a rape survivor. A therapy dog. A very emotional payoff for that subplot. It gave insight into HIS character and the puppy warmed the hearts of readers. It gave hope that the young woman would survive her ordeal.

WEAVE THEM TOGETHER? – If you are daring, make these 3 levels of plots work together, where the main plot drives the action, the secondary plot can be a plot device to escalate the consequences and shorten the timing of the main plot, and the 3rd plot can reveal the protagonist’s traits as things escalate.

Do they have time to find a puppy while they are saving the world? Do their internal conflicts and weaknesses add tension as the plot shifts (ie suicidal tendencies, aggravated illness, debilitating fears, temperament issues, or romantic involvements)? Test your character by abusing their weaknesses or personal conflicts. How do they deal with it? How does that struggle manifest throughout the main plot development?

Summary – I’ve often thought of layering as it pertains to one scene at a time, but when I researched this topic, I found layering can apply to plots. As I thought of my own writing, on how I devise subplots, I realized layering impacts the overall structure and makes the book more cohesive. Even themes can be enhanced with scenes and subplots that are woven into a story in a subtle way.

DISCUSSION:

Share your thoughts on your current WIP and the levels of plot/subplot you are using. What choices did you make on the structure of your story? (Even if you are a “pantser,” you should have a feel for this.)

 

9+

What’s Your Point? Figuring Out
What Goes Into Each Chapter

By PJ Parrish

I dunno, maybe this is going to sound simplistic to most of you, but I’m going to throw it out there anyway: What should go into a chapter?

I’ve been thinking about this since last week after reading Jordan’s excellent post on narrative drive. In the comments section, BK Jackson wrote this:

The one of these I fumble with the most is having a goal for every scene. Sure, it’s easy when they’re about to confront the killer or it’s about a major plot point or a clue, but what about scenes that just set the stage of story-world and its people? Sure, you don’t want mundane daily life stuff, but sometimes I write scenes of protag interacting with someone in story world and, while I can’t articulate a specific goal for the scene, it seems cold and impersonal to leave it out.

And Marilynn wrote:

Working with newer writing students, I’ve discovered that some write a scene…because they are trying to clarify the ideas for themselves, not for the reader. 

I’ve found writers often struggle with this. It’s as if they just start writing, trying to figure out what the heck is happening, then they just run out of gas. End of chapter. But that’s not how it should go. No, you don’t need to outline, but you really need to stop and ask yourself questions before you write one word: How do you divide up your story into chapters? Where do you break them? How long should each chapter be? How many chapters long should your book be? And maybe the hardest thing to figure out: What is the purpose of each chapter? Or as BK put it, what is the “goal?”

Again, this sounds simplistic but it’s not simple. How you CHOSE to divide up your story affects your reader’s level of engagement.  The way you CHOSE to chop up your plot-meat helps the reader digest it.  The way you CHOSE to parcel out character traits helps your reader bond with people. And the way you CHOSE to manipulate your story via chapter division enhances — or destroys — their enjoyment.

For some writers, this comes naturally, like having an ear in music. But for many of us, it is a skill that can be learned and perfected. So let’s give it a go.

First, do we even need chapters? Marilynne Robinson doesn’t use them. James Dickey’s To The White Sea is one big tone-poem. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road uses a couple dots instead of chapter headings, perhaps to emphasize the in media res feeling of a long journey. (I was so pulled into that book I didn’t even notice it didn’t have chapters!) But most of us mere mortals probably need to break things up a bit.

Why? Chapters give your reader a mental respite. Chapter breaks allow the reader to digest everything that’s happened. They also help build suspense for what is yet to come. If you divide them up artfully instead of willy-nilly.

Maybe it’s helpful to think of each chapter as a dramatic island. (I wrote a whole blog about this a couple years back). Then build bridges (transitions) between them. Or think of each chapter as a mini short-story. Each chapter, ideally, has its own dramatic arc — a beginning to pull the reader in, a middle with meat, and a kicker ending that makes the reader want to turn the page.

But first, ask yourself this about each chapter: What do I want to accomplish?

The first chapter is sometimes the easiest.  We talk about this all the time here, especially in our First Page Critiques. To review: For crime fiction (if not all good fiction, in my humble opinion) an opening chapter should establish time and place, introduce a major character (often the protagonist or villain), set the tone, and at least hint at some disturbance in the norm. (A body has been found, a gauntlet thrown, a character called to action). Yeah, we get all that, right?

But, as BK said, things tend to fall apart after that. The deeper you get into your story, the harder it becomes to articulate what needs to happen within each chapter. For those of you who outline, maybe it’s easier. But I’ve seen even hardcore outliners lose their way. When you sit down to write, sometimes, it just pours out in this giant amorphic blob, until, exhausted, you just quit writing. End of chapter? No, end of energy because you didn’t pace yourself.

So, before you start a chapter, STOP.  Sit there and think, really hard, until blood beads on your forehead. Don’t write a word until you can answer this question:

What do I need to accomplish in this chapter?

Some other things to help you home in on chapter “goals.”

Write a two-line summary before you start each chapter. For a revenge  plot, you might write “In this chapter the reader will find out villain’s motivation for killing his brother.”  Or in a police procedural you might write: “In this chapter, Louis and Joe put together the clues and realize Frank isn’t the killer.”

Look for ways for every chapter work harder, to have secondary purposes. Main purpose: “In chapter four, Louis goes to the UP to find evidence on the cold case of the dead orphan boys.” But also in that chapter: “The reader gets some background on Louis’s years in foster care.”  (character development plus resonates with lost boy theme) Also: “Add in good description of the Upper Peninsula.” (Establishes sense of place and underscores desolate mood.”)

Maybe this is what BK was asking for — how to make those later chapters more muscular. As you go deeper into your plot, keep looking for layers you can add, ways to make each chapter have secondary “goals.”

Use physical tools. Don’t visualize your book as a continuous unbroken roll. Think of it as a lot of little story units you can move around. Think Lego blocks, not toilet paper. Some writers draw elaborate story boards. I’m told there is software for this, but Kelly and I are Luddites. We write the salient points of each chapter on Post-It notes that we color code for POVs and move them around on a big poster board. Vladimir Nabokov wrote chapter notes on index cards and shuffled them until he found a chapter sequence that made sense.

How do you keep your chapters from just petering out? Again, you have to THINK about this before you write. Here’s another tip: Look for logical breaks in your narrative for your endings. Such as:

  • Change of place. Say, you move from New York City to London
  • Change in point of view.  From maybe your protagonist to the bad guy.
  • Change in time. (a couple hours or a couple years depending on your story)
  • Change in dramatic intensity.  Say you just wrapped up a big mano-a-mano fight. The next thing that happens is having your hero recovering and thinking about what just happened. That might be a great place to start a new chapter.  It goes to pacing: Follow up an intense action scene chapter with a slower chapter that allows the reader to catch their breath.

By the end of each chapter, you should resolve at least one thing.  A car chase ends. A victim dies. Two cops figure out a major clue and decide to act. One character tells another something important about their background.  When you end a chapter, you want to send your reader a clear signal that what they just read is important. One trick I love: End a chapter just before the climax of a significant story arc: This is a classic trick of the thriller and mystery novel. You lead your reader right up to the edge of a tense moment then you end the chapter.  They have no choice but to turn the page!

I wish I could remember who said this: A good chapter ending does two things — it closes one door and it opens another one.

Whew. Enough already, you’re saying. I hear you. Okay, let’s move on to some easier stuff.

How long should your chapters be? I wrote a whole blog on this a while back, but if you don’t want to go back and read it, here’s the short answer: As long as each chapter needs to be.

It’s a matter of style — your style.  But, if you are following the idea of a dramatic arc for each chapter-island, the answer should come organically. As you move through your story, you might want to try for a consistency in length — be it 200 words or 2000 words. Why? I think it helps your reader get a sense of your style and pacing. But don’t sweat this too much. If you are moving along at a steady pace of say 1500 words per chapter and suddenly one comes out at 5000 words, you might want to go back in and look for a logical break in your narrative or action.  You might find, with judicious rewriting, that you’ve really got two tight chapters instead of one long one.

Okay, I’m running long again. One more question:

Should you use chapter titles? Lots of writers love these, especially fantasy and YA writers. I’m on the fence about them. I’ve never used them, but for one complex book, we did have three “books” that had titles. When chapter titles are witty, they can be great because they provide hints about what to expect within the chapter. But if they are mundane or obvious, they are just annoying and pretentious.

One story I heard was that before the release of one of her Harry Potter books, JK Rowlings refused to divulge any plot points. But she released three chapter titles — “Spinners End,” “Draco’s Detour,” and “Felix Felicis” — just to tease readers.

Here’s some of my favorite chapter titles:

“Down the Rabbit-Hole.” Chapter 1, Alice in Wonderland. So great it has become a modern metaphor, especially in politics.

“I Begin Life On My Own Account, And Don’t Like It.” Chapter 11, David Copperfield. Didn’t realize Dickens had a sense of humor.

Rick Riordan might be the chapter title king. Here are six from just one novel:

“I Accidently Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher”
“I Play Pinochle with a Horse”
“I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom”
“We Get Advice from a Poodle”
“A God Buys Us Cheeseburgers”
“I Battle My Jerk Relative”

But here’s my all-time favorite from Ian Fleming’s Live And Let Die, chapter 14:

“He disagreed with something that ate him.”

And that is a good place to end.

 

8+

First Page Critique: Singularity Syndrome

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer has submitted their first page for critique. I’ll see you on the flipside. Enjoy!

Title:  Singularity Syndrome

It was just the kind of case I like. Someone was sipping data from Hurgle’s supposedly leakproof data cloud. Hurgle wasn’t an especially evil corporation—just average evil. So, I didn’t mind taking their coins to send sniffers loose in the data streams. I found the leak and plugged it for good with a worm that trashed the sneak thieves’ servers. They never knew what hit them, and my client and I never knew who they were. But that didn’t matter. They’d be back, or someone else would. The universe holds an infinite number of crackers.

It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water.

Then she called. And reminded me what kind of case I really like.

The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video. A woman with long scarlet hair, glossy in the style of years ago. She was beautiful, with lines around her eyes that showed she liked to smile. But not smiling now. Of course not. She wouldn’t be calling me if she had anything to smile about.

“How can I help you?” I’m the Finder, that’s what I do, so it’s obvious. But it helps them to start from the beginning.

“I’m worried about my husband.”

“He’s missing?”

“No.”

“Then what?”

A small crease furrowed her lovely forehead. “His behavior has changed.”

“How so?”

“He’s lost focus.”

“Is he dangerous? Accident prone? I’m not clear why you’ve called me. Why not a psychiatrist?”

“We run a business together. A significant company. He’s got some strange ideas, and they’re impacting our business.”

“If this is some corporate drama, I’m not interested.”

“I know about you.”

“Then you know I don’t care about the corps.”

“Unless it interests you.”

“And why would it?”

“I think his brain has been hacked.”

Okay, she was right. That was interesting. “His brain has been hacked or you just don’t like the way he thinks?”

“I don’t like the way he thinks, but it’s more than that. He’s not thinking the way he used to.”

“People change.”

“Yes, they do.” She let the silence draw out and so did I. I could be silent much longer than most people.

* * *

Excellent first page, Anon! The writing is crisp, exciting, and has an engaging voice. The dialogue is punchy and quick, sounds natural and believable. The MC’s personality shines through. There’s a solid goal and conflict, and you’ve dropped us into the story at an ideal place and time. I liked this opener so much, I wanted to keep reading.

Even without you having to tell the reader, we can assume the MC is male. We also get a good sense of who he is—a highly skilled white hat who works for a government agency in a specialized field (my guess is a cyber-tracker). That’s a lot of information that you subtly infused into this first page without clobbering us over the head with backstory. Well done! His name would be nice, but I’m willing to wait. See what good writing does? It tells the reader we’re in capable hands. If I didn’t learn his name for another ten pages, I’d still be content to go for the ride. Try to slip it in earlier than that, though. 🙂

Let’s see if we can improve this first page even more.

It was just the kind of case I like[d] add the “d” to stay in past tense here. Someone was sipping data from Hurgle’s supposedly leakproof data cloud. Hurgle wasn’t an especially evil corporation—just [an] average evil. So, I didn’t mind taking their coins to send sniffers loose in the data streams. I found the leak and plugged it for good with a worm that trashed the sneak[y] thieves’ servers. They never knew what hit them, and my client and I never knew who they were. But that didn’t matter. They’d be back, or someone else would.

The universe holds an infinite number of crackers. I brought this line down for greater impact; also, because you’ve switched to present tense, which isn’t wrong, btw. In this context, the statement still holds true. 

It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima [the Parrot, Altima, and I] sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water. Use the pronoun “I” when the person speaking is doing the action, either alone or with someone else. Use the pronoun “Me” when the person is receiving the action, either directly or indirectly. — courtesy of Webster’s Ask the Editor

Then she called. And reminded me what kind of case I really like. This line is redundant. Instead, I’d rather see you tease the reader here. I don’t know where you’re going with the story, but perhaps you could add something like: The woman that rocked my world, and not necessarily in a good way.

The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video. A woman (if you decide to use something similar to my example above, then change this to [There she sat,] with long scarlet hair, glossy in the style of years ago. She was beautiful, with lines around her eyes that showed she liked to smile (how ‘bout using “laugh” instead of “smile” here to avoid repetition, since you use “smile” at the end of this paragraph?) But not smiling now. Of course not. Not now, of course. (one sentence is tighter than two 🙂 ) She wouldn’t be calling me if she had anything to smile about.

“How can I help you?” I’m the Finder, that’s what I do, so it’s obvious (last part is unnecessary). But it helps them to start from the beginning.

“I’m worried about my husband.”

“He’s missing?”

“No.”

“Then what?” (This seems out-of-character. He’s nice enough to let her “start from the beginning,” yet here he seems agitated. How ‘bout: “Then… I’m not sure why—”)

A small crease furrowed her lovely forehead (normally I’d ding you for “lovely” because it’s a non-visual word, but here, it works to show he’s enamored with the caller). “His behavior has changed.”

“How so?”

“He’s lost focus.”

“Is he dangerous? (why would losing focus automatically make him think “dangerous”? Don’t tell us; you’ll ruin the intrigue. Just give us a hint in the right direction.) Accident prone? I’m not clear why you’ve called me. Why not a psychiatrist?” (I would delete this last question. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it. It just feels… misplaced. *shrug*) 

“We run a business together. A significant company. He’s got some strange ideas, and they’re impacting our business.”

“If this is some corporate drama, I’m not interested.”

I’d love to see her stumble over her words. “It’s not. It’s just that— What I mean is, I know about you.” “I know about you.”

“Then you know I don’t care about the corps.”

“Unless it interests you.”

“Exactly. So, lay it on me. ’Cause as it stands now, I gotta tell ya, so far this sounds like a waste of valuable time and resources.” (I added to the dialogue to increase tension. Your MC is about to hang up when the caller drops a bomb i.e. brain hack) And why would it?”

“I think his brain has been hacked.”

Okay, she was right. That was interesting. (Is a brain hack something that happens every day in your story world? If not, he needs a bigger reaction. Even if it’s as simple as confusion: Whoa. Wait. Huh?) “His brain has been hacked or you just don’t like the way he thinks?”

Both I don’t like the way he thinks, but it’s more than that. He’s not thinking the way he used to.”

(Add a lame half-shrug or another body cue that shows indifference). “People change.”

“Yes, they do.” She let the silence draw out and so did I. I could be silent much longer than most people. (Delete the last line. It adds nothing. How ‘bout something snarky instead? “If she thought she could out-silence me, she obviously didn’t have the first clue about me.”)

All in all, you did a terrific job with this opener, Anon. I really enjoyed it. Be sure to let us know how things progress with your story. So far, I’m intrigued!

Over to you, my beloved TKZers. Would you keep reading? Please add your suggestions/comments of how you might improve this first page. Do you like the title? Why/why not?

 

 

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Interview with Larry Brooks

 by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Today, I’m delighted to talk with former TKZ contributor, Larry Brooks, about his new craft book, GREAT STORIES DON’T WRITE THEMSELVES, with a foreward by mega-bestseller Robert Dugoni. Larry’s book launches on October 8, 2019, published by Writer’s Digest Books. 

Welcome back to the Zone, Larry! 

DB: You’ve written three successful books on fiction craft–Story Engineering, Story Physics, and Story Fixeach with a strong emphasis on the architecture of story structure. What new ground are you digging into for this latest book?

 LB: Each of my writing books sought to bring clarity and order to what one might call the conventional wisdom of writing a novel, which is anything but clear. Within that so-called conventional wisdom there is legitimate imprecision, alongside unfortunate confusion born of contrary interpretations and polarizing preferences. Because of this, there remains a high degree of risk and a frighteningly high frequency of failure. Over 96 percent of novels submitted by agents are rejected at least once. That’s not exactly irrefutable statistical proof that the conventional wisdom serves everyone well.

That said, those who claim “there are no rules” are only adding to the noise and confusion. Frustration resides in the grey area between rules and principles, and between the separate contexts of process versus product. So much of what we hear and read about “how to write a novel” connects to process (how your favorite author does the work may or may not be a process that works for you). This leaves the realm of product – what a novel consists of, the criteria for efficacy, and how to know if you’ve come anywhere near close enough to meeting those criteria as largely untended ground. It’s as if the unspoken common courtesy suggests that you can write anything you want, any way you want, and you’ll be fine… if you “just write.”

That 96-percent failure statistic proves this to be false. My new book – “Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves: Criteria-Driven Strategies for More Effective Fiction” is process-neutral, yet it culls out and assigns specific criteria for each and every element and essence of a novel across the entire structural, dramatic and character arcs involved. No matter how you get there.

Too often writers don’t know what they don’t know, while believing they do know enough, or what they think they know is unimpeachable. My new book seeks to shrink the gap between those extremes.

DB: Sounds like an ambitious goal. Can you give us an example?

 LB: Sure. When was the last time you heard anyone at a writing conference – a speaker, teacher, agent or even another writer in an elevator, tell someone that their story idea isn’t strong enough? Never happens. And yet, as much as half of all rejection connects to story ideas that are derivative, vanilla and flat, that are lacking the raw grist of what makes a story work. Ask any agent or editor how many of the story ideas that cross their desk excite them, how often this happens, and this truth will be verified.

But it’s not just the story idea that matters. Whether it’s the core premise, the opening scene or sequence, the first plot point or the midpoint or the way the character and her/his core quest is framed… all of it becomes more accessible and effective when developed and evaluated in context to criteria that are universally applicable to that specific element.

 DB: Where did the germ of the idea for Great Stories come from?

 LB: I pondered that 96-to-4 failure rate, and decided there had to be a better way forward. After writing three books on storytelling that began exploring this sad truth, the subsequent question of “now what?” wouldn’t let me alone. How and why are those 4-percent of submissions that succeed better than the 96-percent that aren’t working as well? What are the common denominators of that?

My favorite writing tip is this: scenes work best once we understand the narrative expositional mission of the scene, in context to what came before and what comes next. This is why we rewrite and revise, to get closer and closer to that optimal form. From that epiphany, I came to realize this is true for all of the structural, thematic and aesthetic elements of a great story, at all levels. We are either searching for our best story, or we are polishing (optimizing) scenes toward that standard. That said, too many writers aren’t writing toward a standard at all, they are simply writing down what seems to be available in the moment of creation. They are just writing.

The more we understand the available criteria that will apply to a story that reaches the high bar of optimal efficacy, the sooner and more blissfully we will arrive there. That objective became the mission of my new writing book.

 DB: What’s the most important concept or lesson you hope to teach writers with your new book?

 LB: You don’t have to guess, nor do you have only your instincts to inform your choices. Your story choices can be informed by the criteria that will apply, one way or another, to the determination of what works and what doesn’t. These criteria apply within any and all writing processes, readers don’t give two hoots how the writer got it done. What does matter is the degree to which our choices align with what readers want, expect and have learned to recognize as emotionally resonant, thrilling and rewarding. That’s what talent really means: the consistent ability to land on the best possible ideas, and then make them shine on the page. When either of those outcomes happen—they are different core competencies, by the way, meaning we need to develop our craft on two levels, as storytellers and as scene writers—they are always framed by criteria that explains why they work. The book defines, explores and verifies over 70 separate criteria that apply within 18 specific facets or locations within the entirety of a novel’s narrative arc.

 DB: What’s next on Larry Brooks’ “To Do” list? Is there a new thriller simmering on the back burner?

LB: I promised my wife I’d write her a love story, and in my mind the best love story is a thriller, because so much is at stake… stakes being a key criteria in any genre. Setting it in France won’t hurt, either.

Thanks for having me back here on The Kill Zone. I can be reached through my website, www.storyfix.com, where you can learn more about this book and any of my other work, including my fiction.

Larry Brooks

~~~~~

Thanks for sharing the inside scoop with us, Larry.

I, for one, will be looking forward to your love story thriller!

Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves is available for pre-order at:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

~~~~~

TKZers: Do you have questions for Larry about his new book and/or story structure?

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An Amazing Research Resource for First Responders

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Happy July 4th! I’m grilling and celebrating with my family. I hope you all have plans. It’s a time to celebrate the birth of our nation. Freedom does not come free. 

***

When I think about what makes our country great, I think of emergency first responders who are on duty 24/7/365. It takes a special kind of person to protect the public-from EMTs to firefighters to police.

While working with another author, I found a great resource that I thought TKZ might find useful as a resource for first responders. The show primarily focuses on two EMT teams in New Orleans, but other groups come into play, too. Look on HULU for season 2 – 4 of NightWatch which follows the most dangerous shift time from 9pm to 3am. For those of you not streaming HULU, Season 1 is on A&E and those episodes are available at this LINK.

WARNING: This is graphic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen what EMTs see firsthand as they arrive on scene, for example.

From a writer’s perspective, what I found most interesting is:

1.) Fast paced action with stories well-told. Not sure who writes or directs/produces this series, but it is extremely well done. It’s a good reminder of how to show action scenes with the author craft principle of ELLE – Enter Late, Leave Early.

2.) Dialogue is tight. The scenarios are not staged so the treatment must be the first priority. Quick medical lingo between EMTs is carried on without explanation. You see the action as it happens, but when there is time to narrate, the EMTs share what’s medically happening and why they are doing it. You get to see how each case affects them.

3.) See inside first responders’ heads – EMTs (and other first responders) share their thoughts as they come onto the scene, as in what they expect to find. Often, they are surprised and have to react quickly. Dispatch details can be sketchy. The compassion of these people is striking. They are patient and calm amidst chaos and their first priority is for the patient. They calmly talk to them, reassure them, and do whatever it takes to keep them calm. Sometimes the emergency isn’t about a medical solution and more of a human resolution. It’s all there.

4.) You get to see what dispatch communicates to first responders and how they locate the scene with the GPS equipment they have on-board the vehicles.

5.) You see how the first responder teams work together. One of my favorite teams is a man and woman EMS unit. You can see the camaraderie and the banter while they are driving to a scene, but they jump into action and work intuitively with each other. You also get to witness how the other services work with them. Good stuff.

6.) New Orleans as a Venue – My newest series is set in New Orleans and this series is very helpful to get oriented. I make notes and check each location on an online map to see the streets and how it’s oriented in the city.

7.) Local Dialects & Speech Patterns for Emergency Teams – It’s been helpful for me to hear the speech patterns for first responders (especially in New Orleans) but the banter and emergency jargon and official dispatch lingo/code is authentic.

8.) Medical Lingo & Equipment – For the EMTs, they discuss what equipment they have on “the truck” and how it can assist different patients. They’re proud of their service and what they carry on-board. You also get to see what happens in an emergency and what they have to clean up after they drop the patient off at the hospital.

This series is addictive. I find it helps me get  my head into the writing I am doing, since it takes place in New Orleans, but this series is fast-paced and authentic.

DISCUSSION:

What other movie or TV resources do you use to add authenticity to your writing?

No One Heard Her Scream – Ebook Reissue Now Available (in print soon).

Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2008 – Mass Market

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