Dialogue – Ten Ways to Make it Real

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Recently I’ve been writing characters with unique regional accents or characters that I’ve had to invent how they speak, because they are unlike any other character I’ve ever written. When you create a character like this, you have to work doubly hard to “see” them and “hear” them in your mind.

Listen to real conversations. I especially love eavesdropping on teens, but as writers it is fun to be a snoop and hear the way people express themselves and their cadence. People often speak in fragments and laugh at one word asides. They launch into a diatribe and get interrupted by someone else. How do they react? If they come from a large family, I have a pretty good idea how they would react. But if they are an only child, do they retreat until the blustery winds of a blowhard die down?

It’s important to not only hear authenticity, but to also visualize it, without losing the fluid flow, pace, or clear plot points conveyed. Fictional dialogue must have a point, too.

1.) How well do you know your characters?
• Does it take you some writing time to get to know your characters? A good exercise is to write your character in first person to take them for a test drive, to get a feel for who they are and what matters to them.

• Live in their skin for awhile. Imagine what they look like, what they would wear. Create a photo image board from internet searches to flesh them out –in posture, eyes, attitude, swagger, dialect, education, job, sense of humor, etc.

• When you have a good feel for your main character, pair them with other fictional sidekicks or antagonists who will argue with them or cause conflicts and friction.

• Be careful to minimize slang or poorly spelled words or lots of bad grammar. Readers might have a problem with dialogue that is difficult to read throughout a book, but a smattering of regional color can be just the ticket to setting your world stage.

2.) Imagine Playing Your Character on Stage
When I “hear” voices in my head (from my characters, that is), especially if I’ve written them with accents or attitudes, it is fun to act them out. Do this by reading aloud and embellishing with your thoughts on how they sound. Reading aloud helps catch edit issues, but it can also help you create a cadence suitable for your character and give you insight into who they are.

Whenever I do readings at book signings (which I LOVE to do), I really get into the reading and become the character. I sometimes have my attendees close their eyes to focus on the story and trigger their imaginations, forgetting that they are in a bookstore. Often you can hear a pin drop when I finish and you get the real reaction from those listening when they open their eyes and return to the present from where they’ve been. Who knows? Acting out your character can help you “see” them in your mind – how they move or do hand gestures.

3.) In action scenes or tension packed scenes, make the dialogue sound real.
As an author would shorten narrative prose to give the reader the feeling of tension, suspense, and danger, it’s best to use short, concise sentences to enhance pace. Each line is like a punch in the gut to give the reader a visceral reaction to the change in pace.

Some passages may have longer lines of explanation or technical plot essentials, but keep those to a minimum if you want pace to lead the way. An expert in a dangerous situation would not suddenly turn into Mr Wizard to explain everything. They might get impatient and find a quick example or way of speaking to get their point across, while showing their frustration. How do they react under stress will show in their dialogue.

A long back and forth with punchy short sentences can let the reader sense the mounting tension, but if it goes on too long, it can get old, fast.

Excerpt: The Darkness Within Him (Amazon Kindle Worlds)
When a startling vision triggered a memory Bram Cross thought he’d buried, an icy shard carved through his body The macabre and haunting face of his mother lurched from the pitch-black of his mind—her eyes, what she did.

No, I can’t do this. Don’t make me. He fought hard to stifle his childish, irrational refusal, but he had to say something.

“You’re an asshole. We shouldn’t be here,” Bram said. “Someone’s watching us. I can feel it.”

“Shut up. You’re paranoid,” Josh spat. “You said you’d come with me. Quit your whining.”

“Something’s not right.”

Josh stopped, dead still, at the mouth of the infamous tunnel. He stood on the spot where the mutilated, half-eaten bodies of dead rabbits had been found in 1904—killed by ‘Bunny Man,’ an insane prison escapee named Douglas Grifon. The bad omen made Bram step back, but too late. By sheer stupidity and bad luck, Josh had jinxed them both.

Josh glared at Bram as he reached into a pocket of his jacket.

“I brought insurance, courtesy of dear old dad. We’ve got nothing to worry about.” He pulled out a gun and grinned as if he had all the answers.

“Are you insane? Put that away.” Bram fumed. “I’m out of here. I didn’t sign up for this.”

Bram turned to go, heading back toward the car that Josh had parked at the trailhead, but his friend grabbed his arm.

“You’re not going anywhere. I’ve got the car keys. Man up, shit for brains.”

4.) Dialogue should intrigue and draw reader in. Don’t use it to explain or the lines fall flat.
Dialogue should enhance the action and add to the emotion and pace. If you take the time to explain an action, the dialogue will sound contrived. If you explain what the characters should already know, why are you doing it? Savvy readers know when the dialogue is meant for them and when it doesn’t add to the story, but detracts from it and slows the pace.

Think of endings where the villain goes through lengthy explanations to “tell” the reader what the book has been about. Old mystery formats are like this where Sherlock Holmes expounds on how clever he is by detailing “who done it.” If a certain amount of this is necessary, make it about a mind game between the hero and villain where they have a reason to “one up” the other with reveals, but keep it to a minimum and not at the expense of good dialogue.

5.) Interruptions can be good in dialogue.
Interruptions can focus a character, keep up the pace, or show a realistic way to direct the reader where you want them to do. Have your characters ask questions of each other to liven things up.

Excerpt – The Darkness Within Him
Ryker Townsend – FBI Profiler
After the kid undid the latch and the deadbolts, he opened the door enough for me to see the injuries he’d sustained in his fight with Mr. Whitcomb. Josh stared at me for a split second before he shoved the door closed, but I jammed my foot in the opening.

“Police. We just want to talk.” I pushed through the breach and he winced. “Are you Josh Atwood?”

He didn’t answer and backed into a small living room. Reggie and Jax walked in behind me.

“Hey, aren’t you supposed to show ID?”

I eyed Reggie and the detective indulged him with a show of his badge.

“But I didn’t invite you in.”

“That only works with vampires. Consider this a welfare check, Bueller.”

6.) Add tension in Dialogue by making your characters hesitate or stall.
Is one of your characters in charge or forceful? How does that manifest in the other character in the scene? Often dialogue is like a chess game where one person tries to outwit the other or get the upper hand.

When one character stalls or shuts down, and the conflict grows, that can read as very authentic. We all have little voices in our heads, especially when we are dealing with arguments or confrontation. Effective dialogue must have nuances like a dance choreography that flows naturally and reads as effortless. When the scene starts out, one character can suddenly change course. How would you reflect that? Conflict is always interesting.

7.) Cut out the unnecessary and keep your dialogue vital. No chit chat.
I often write dialogue first, like in a script, to flesh out the framework of a scene. Later I fill in the body language, action, internal monologue, but dialogue is vital to make the scene hold up. It’s what the reader’s eye will follow on the page. When I edit, I will tighten dialogue lines, especially in action scenes, to keep the lines flowing naturally.

8.) Punch up the dialogue with action or character movement in the scene.
Give the reader something visual to imagine as they read your scene. All dialogue scenes, where two characters sit at a table, can be mind numbing and boring. Make the scene come alive by giving them something to do, especially if it puts them at odds with each other. Make that action unexpected, like adding sexual tension in the scene below (excerpt from Elmore Leonard).

Even if you MUST put them at a table, give them something to do. I especially like body language where it’s obvious the characters are hiding something and have let the reader in on that fact. Or punch up a funny line with a physical habit to accentuate humor or give distinction to a character.

9.) Minimize tag lines and give characters unique dialogue so tags aren’t as necessary.
One of my edit reviews is looking at tag lines to eliminate ‘saids.’ I often replace a said with an action that attributes which character delivered the line.

Also keep in mind, if you have a number of characters in a scene, a well-placed ‘said’ can orient the reader and ID the character in a scene where it’s easy to get lost. Gender oriented lines can help distinguish characters, or the regional dialect, or even if one character has a certain type of humor. ‘Said’ is the kind of word that disappears in a reader’s mind, but if you string too many together, it’s like sending up a flare “NOTICE ME!”

10.) Reading authors who write excellent dialogue is important.
Real pros at dialogue make it look effortless. Get schooled. If an author makes dialogue work, try to understand why it works and how you can infuse that in your own style and voice. Here are a couple of examples:

 

Elmore Leonard Excerpt – From Out of Sight (U S Marshal Raylan Givens) – I can imagine this very visual scene with the sexual tension.

‘You sure have a lot of shit in here. What’s all this stuff? Handcuffs, chains…What’s this can?’

‘For your breath,’ Karen said. ‘You could use it. Squirt some in your mouth.’

‘You devil, it’s Mace, huh? What’ve you got here, a billy? Use it on poor unfortunate offenders…Where’s your gun, your pistol?’

‘In my bag, in the car.’ She felt his hand slip from her arm to her hip and rest there and she said, ‘You know you don’t have a chance of making it. Guards are out here already, they’ll stop the car.’

‘They’re off in the cane by now chasing Cubans.’

His tone quiet, unhurried, and it surprised her.

‘I timed it to slip between the cracks, you might say. I was even gonna blow the whistle myself if I had to, send out the amber alert, get them running around in confusion for when I came out of the hole. Boy, it stunk in there.’

‘I believe it,’ Karen said. ‘You’ve ruined a thirty-five-hundred-dollar suit my dad gave me.’

She felt his hand move down her thigh, fingertips brushing her pantyhose, the way her skirt was pushed up.

‘I bet you look great in it, too. Tell me why in the world you ever became a federal marshal, Jesus. My experience with marshals, they’re all beefy guys, like your big-city dicks.’

‘The idea of going after guys like you,’ Karen said, ‘appealed to me.’

 

John Steinbeck – Of Mice & Men

‘Tried and tried,’ said Lennie, ‘but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.’

‘The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard street and watchin’ that blackboard?’

Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile. ‘Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…’

‘The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?’

‘Oh, sure, George, I remember that now.’ His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, ‘George…I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.’ He looked down at the ground in despair.

‘You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ‘em here. Think I’d let you carry your own work card?’

Lennie grinned with relief.

For Discussion:

1.) What dialogue craft skills work for you? Any tips to share?

2.) What authors do you like to read for dialogue?

Vigilante Justice – $0.99 Ebook – Published by Amazon Kindle Worlds

 

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Dictate Your Next Book – Key Resources & Tips

Jordan Dane

@Jordan Dane

Have you ever considered dictating your next book or used voice recognition resources to dictate your book? I must admit that the thought of this scared me. I’m such a visual learner and have a process I’m comfortable with. I connect that comfort to my ability to craft a book, so the idea of messing with my comfort zone gave me the jitters. Here are some things to consider:

Dictating is free – If you’re uncertain about investing in this process, you can test the waters for free. Google Voice Typing and Google DOCs has a feature you can try. HERE is a link to the step by step instructions for Google. For other free apps, visit this LINK.

Voice recognition software has gotten better. (For MAC users, Google Voice appears to be a better option than Dragon/Dragon Naturally Speaking even if Dragon is made for MAC users). Dragon may be another software to try for PC users.) HERE is a list of top-rated recommended voice recognition software with feature comparisons.

Health Issues – For those concerned with carpal tunnel for your wrists or too much sitting, dictating can ease the strain on your body from long hours of sitting.

Dictating is much faster than typing the words, so less time needed for writing in a day and more effective use of your time when you’re in the process.

More writing and less editing – I am a big editor as I go. I hate leaving mistakes behind, so I have a rolling edit process. This could get more on the page faster and still leave edit time at the end of the day.

Dictating your book can allow you to do it using your cell phone (once you’ve set it up) and you can do this anywhere. No more excuses that “I have to go home to write.”

If cost is a concern, there are free apps or software readily available that won’t cost you a penny. You may eventually want to buy a microphone or acquire different software for voice recognition, but don’t let that be an excuse to not try it. Go for the free versions in your Google Play Store and dip your toe into something new.

TIPS to Enhance your First Dictation Try:

1.) Scene Ideas – We all know this, but think about staring at a blank page versus creating a short outline or list of ideas for a scene. Things will always go more smoothly if you have a notion of what you’ll write ahead of time. Take a few minutes to jot down ideas before you start.

2.) Error Time – Voice recognition software is not infallible and you may have additional issues with the dictation process. If you read the written results aloud, this could help find things like odd nonsensical words as a result of pronunciation or the software not capturing the words correctly.

3.) Take A Moment to Think – Before you leap into a sentence, take time to think through what you intend to say. Visualize what you want to say, before you say it. This could save correction time later and also prevent a muddled sentence. Practice will make it easier to dictate as you gain experience.

4.) Edit in Layers – I have a rolling edit process and that would not change with dictating. I like to print out my pages and edit what I’ve written during the day, usually before I go to bed or treat myself to someone else’s book. But depending on your edit process, if you like to create a first draft and revised in a number of draft iterations, you may consider adding a pass through for dictation type errors or adding a ‘read aloud’ phase as another layer to check your work.

5.) Grammar should be double-checked. Since you will be using voice recognition software to insert punctuation, you will need to edit for something that might come naturally to you if you typed it. This could be included in a rolling edit process as I described or in one of your draft fixes. This LINK has a summary of grammar related commands provided by Dragon. To write a line of dialogue, you may have to dictate – new line, open quote, Hi comma Mark period. Why are you sleeping with my wife, question mark, close quote. It will take experience to get used to the punctuation commands, but if dictation saves you considerable writing time, it may be worth it.

Other Revision Tools to Consider for Dictating Projects:

1.) Scrivener – I don’t have the personal experience with Scrivener as others do at TKZ, but here are a few notes I found in my research of dictation. Scrivener’s BINDER, SPLIT SCREEN, and LABELS (for plot line regrouping) can help you arrange sections of your book for a more logical flow. Check the WORD COUNT column in the OUTLINER section to consider pace issues at a glance, if word counts per chapter are a concern.

2.) Checking for Filler Words – My first pass through on edits is to delete and eliminate unnecessary word and tighten sentences. Filler words happen more in dialogue when we speak, but since you are dictating, filler words can appear when you might not expect them because of the change in process. In my research I found reference to a macro that can help you identify filler words. For instructions on setting up this Macro, try this LINK. Overused Words check in ProWritingAid can help with this also.

3.) Check for Longer Sentences – When you dictate, you can create longer sentences without realizing it. As you say the words, you use TONE as you may dramatize your wording, but on the page, this does not come across (things like italics use or internal monologue for deep POV). You may find longer sentences when you dictate and may want to consider shortening some. Two resources that can help with analyzing for long sentences – Hemingway Editor for MAC or PC & the Sticky Sentences/Long Sentences check on ProWritingAid.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Has anyone used voice recognition for writing? How did it work for you? Pros and Cons?

2.) What are your thoughts on trying something new like this?

BOOK BIRTHDAY! The Darkness Within Him releases today – $1.99 Mystery, Suspense, Thriller Ebook 

It’s part of Paige Tyler’s Dallas Fire & Rescue Amazon Kindle World #DFRKW and a crossover with my Ryker Townsend FBI Profiler series (book #4).

SYNOPSIS – FBI Profiler Ryker Townsend is a rising star at Quantico, but he has a dark secret. When he sleeps, he sees nightmarish visions through the eyes of the dead, the last images imprinted on their retinas. After he agrees to help Jax Malloy with a teenage runaway, he senses the real damage in Bram Cross. Ryker must recreate the boy’s terror in painful detail—and connect to the dead—to uncover buried secrets in the splintered psyche of a broken child.

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Mystery Cliches: Are They Boring Your Readers?

By Elaine Viets

Are you writing cliches? Of course you are. We all do. Call them cliches or give them a Hollywood make over and claim they’re literary tropes, certain scenes and characters appear again and again in the mystery genre. We writers need to be aware of them. Masterful writers can turn tired scenarios into art. But in lesser hands, those same cliches can annoy readers. Here are a few cliches that real, book-buying readers have identified.

Cozies– The heroine looks at her body in the mirror and describes herself. This has been done again and again.

– The stupid detective who makes major errors no police officer would. Cozy heroines often need a reason to investigate the crime, and a stupid detective is the standard one. But I threw a book against the wall when a cozy heroine went back to the victim’s home and found her diary SITTING ON THE DESK IN HER OFFICE in plain sight and it just happened to have a major clue. Any police officer with a pulse would have taken that diary!

– The protagonist who is Too Stupid to Live and confronts the killer alone. I’ve seen this in all genres – even noir, where cops who should know better confront the killer without calling backup – but it happens more often in cozies.

– I used to pick up every “cupcake bakery mystery” and “knitting circle sleuth” book, but I found that they all opened with a description of the new woman driving into town thinking about how she just broke up with her fiancé, just sold her house, just quit her job, or just inherited the family shop, and how she’s starting over, yadda yadda.

– In one series, the writer starts every book with a scene of waking-up, feed-the-cat, think about what we do for a living, and the people we deal with as we shower. Every time we encounter a character we hear again the same basic spiel that was in book one about the back story of the character or location. We even have to hear about people’s nicknames and why they have them. This gets extremely tiring and I have to skip past it by books two and three.

Thrillers


– I’m tired of books that are always about lost artifacts that good guys race against bad guys to find. Too much detail and a predictable story line.

– This thriller was told in present tense, but then shifted between different time periods and different points of view. I couldn’t keep it all straight and jumped to the end. I don’t want to work that hard to stick with a book.

– Story jumped from city to city to city. The author didn’t set the scenes, just changed the place and dateline at the start of the chapter. I lost interest trying to figure out where it was.

– Ordinary minivan dads and moms suddenly develop SEAL-level skills to save their spouses and/or children. I know parents can perform extraordinary deeds to save their family, like lift up a car to save the baby from being crushed to death, but gimme a break! Or give them a background where they’ve been in the military or have some kind of special training.

– The nice guy hero with the psychopath friend who does all the killing and dirty deeds the good guy won’t do.

– My pet peeve is cardboard characters. Any mystery can have stock characters, but I think they’re especially common in thrillers, where character development is too often sacrificed for action. It’s a turn-off.

Chick lit

– Look, I know it’s a genre – chick lit mysteries – but I don’t always know I am downloading one until I listen to the setup (someone croaks or is croaked) and when the police come, the female protag suddenly notices how tight the sheriff’s shirt is over his manly pecs, and we are off! I have had several opportunities to call the police and never did I start sniffing their aftershave and swooning. Seems like every book with people of both genders in it, two opposite ones (usually) will immediately glom onto each other. Dunno – it’s kind of funny and kind of stupid.

– Don’t know about cops, but it has become apparent to me over the years that all firemen, no matter where they live, have to pass some sort of hunk test before they’re hired. The pizza delivery person has never been hot and interested in me nor has any auto mechanic ever offered special services. Very depressing.

– The heroine has a sidekick friend who is either old, fat, or weird, wears wild clothes and behaves outrageously.

– I’d like a mystery where the characters are not over-the-top having sex with the detective and the ex and so forth, and they have to work to make a living.

Noir
– The protagonist’s wife/husband and child were killed in a car accident or a plane crash and the protag crawled into a bottle. Yes, I know that happens sometimes, but it happens so much in the mystery world I’d be afraid to let any family members board a plane or even drive to church.

– The hero is beaten unconscious in one chapter – kicked, pounded, bloody, broken nose and maybe other bones – and in the next is running around chasing the bad guy, without any damage.

So readers, what cliches turn you off?

FIRE AND ASHES, my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery debuts July 25. Pre-order the e-book for $3.99. It’s FREE for Kindle Unlimited. http://tinyurl.com/yawp64ku

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Interesting Publishing Trends to Watch in 2017

JordanDane
@JordanDane

I found these trends interesting and wanted to share them here at TKZ. As many of you know, I’ve been writing with author friends on various Amazon Kindle Worlds where they host/create a world and invite authors to write for their series. It’s been fun and I get to explore many topics and experiment with styles and research topics and lengths. Plus the group of launching authors share promotion and benefit from each other’s readerships when we cross promote. So given that, I thought you might like to explore these ideas for your writing goals.

Novellas, Anthologies & Co-Authoring – What makes this growing trend popular is affordability and the recognition of shorter attention spans. These shorter types of books are cheaper for authors to produce and affordable for voracious readers to buy. With people’s shorter attention spans, the shorter format is more convenient. The cheaper price point also allows readers to try new authors without busting the bank. Win/Win. As for anthologies, a group of authors can merge their resources to come up with a top-notch product and also save on production, distribution, and promotion costs that can be shared jointly. Multiply the aggregate authors combined reader base and it’s another win/win.

Changing Book Themes Influenced by an Evolving World – In my latest book (due out June 8th – Vigilante Justice) I explore the topic of conspiracy theories and immigration. I brainstormed my “what if” question on those topics and came up with a story that could’ve been ripped from the headlines. It’s a risk to attempt books on the edge of politics, which I leave out of the story. Instead I focused on the emotional human conflicts that were organic to such a story. Be aware of the realistic elements to our culture and society and the struggles we have to infuse them into your themes. You not only explore your own thoughts, but you can crystallize conflict in such a human way. Such themes may be the refugee crisis, climate change, LGBT issues, terrorism (both international and domestic), and drug addiction. As an author you could choose to write about the stark reality of these themes, or you could provide a Utopian escape for readers to find refuge. Give your world building a dose of reality or provide readers a panacea for what they see on TV or in the news.

Indie & Hybrid Houses – Today, authors have options on how to publish, whether it’s self-publishing or attempting to sell to indie or hybrid houses. The Big 5 Publishers are also an option, but the author would have to consider giving up creative control & handing over copyrights and still be required to promote. Many smaller houses are offering better royalty rates and could give the author a more collaborative approach with more control.

Audio Books – With the growing popularity of products like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, many consumers are gaining access to audio books in their homes, These can be techy types who liked controlling everything in their domain or older folks who (if they can remember Alexa’s name – insert my parents’ names here) like to be read a nighttime story. This kind of technology has enhanced the audio book market and authors can ‘self-publish’ their own audio book format through ACX.

For DISCUSSION:

Have any of you tried variations of these trends and found success? Please share.

Out for Blood $1.99 Ebook

After the Jaguar destroyed his world, former CIA operative Mercer Broderick targets the faceless cartel boss using the Equalizers as pawns in a deadly game to avenge the murder of his beloved wife and child. (Mercer’s War – Book 2)

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Show Your Baddie R-E-S-P-E-C-T to Make Them Memorable

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

By Hasaw öztürk – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58145267

It’s easy to focus on the main protagonists of our stories. Heroes and heroines usually pop up in our heads from the start, but have you ever been taken over by your bad guy or your femme fatale? In my latest series, Mercer’s War with Mr. January book 1, I’m obsessed with Keiko Kayakova. She is the devil personified, a remorseless killer, yet she constantly surprises me with her contradictions and what she truly cares about.

A great character is complicated and it can take time to develop them. Why not explore your antagonist with as much zeal as you would for your protagonists? You need to hear them in your head, maybe especially when they are their nastiest, or if they niggle your ear in the middle of the night. Flesh them out.

Questions to ask about your current work-in-progress:
1. What’s your villain’s back story?
2. Why did they turn out the way they did?
3. What motivates them in the present? What are their goals?
4. Have you explored gender for your antagonist? Would your bad guy be more frightening and unexpected as a woman?
5. Have you given them a chance at redemption in your story? Do they take it?
6. What makes them vulnerable? What are their flaws?
7. Have you created a bad guy or gal’s bible, like you did for your good guys and gals?
8. Does your bad guy/gal have virtues the reader might find it hard to argue against, like an extreme respect for the law or a need to establish order in a society he or she controls for the greater good?
9. Do they have an unexpected hobby?
10. In the vast sea of literary villains, what makes your antagonist stand out?

Villains want top billing and for their name to be first on the marquee. Have you shown them enough R-E-S-P-E-C-T? Even if you’ve already got a first draft, it’s never too late to add depth or bone chilling traits to your characters. A flat character on the page is never satisfying.

Don’t waste good villain potential by making your character a two dimensional cardboard cutout or a mere roadblock to your good guys. Dare to give them humor or a peculiar hobby or a back story that explains their motivation. Develop a conflict between your antagonist and protagonist that is deliciously enticing that makes it harder for the reader to choose sides.

Here are a few tips on how to get started:
1. The best villains are the heroes in their own stories. Make them real and worthy of their own story line. Develop them with the same care and don’t resort to making them obstacles in the way of your main characters. Even if they’re a train wreck, make the reader interested in what drives them or make them so diabolical that the reader will fear more for your good guys. Do they have a journey in your book? If they have a chance at redemption, do they take it? These types of questions can add depth.

2. Dare to make your villain an anti-hero in his or her own story, giving him or her solid motivation to perpetrate their crimes or cover their backsides. If your antagonist and protagonist are both thwarted by the same bad weather, for example, how do they each deal with it? Do their minds work the same? Of course not. Their reactions can shed light on how their mind works. Bend the norm. Think out of the box to surprise the reader, but that plot twist comes from knowing each of them as their creator.

3. Match or counter the skills between your antagonist and your protag. Where one might have an intellect, make the other one have a diabolical brute force that can overpower your hero in confrontations that showcase their strengths. Make them worthy of each other.

4. Escalate the tension between your antagonist and protagonist by making them have a relationship that used to mean something. Imagine your adversary is your own father or someone in a foreign country with the same ideals as you (except they are your enemy). If under normal circumstances, your two characters might be friends, what horrible situation will keep them apart and what makes things worse between them?

5. Give your villain a face. Don’t hide behind a secret organization or an evil entity? The Hunger Games would not be the same without President Snow. Silence of the Lambs would be FBI’s Clarise hunting serial killer Buffalo Bill except for the memorable diversion of Hannibal Lecter, her white knight.

DISCUSSION:
1. Who are some of your most memorable villains from your own work? Tell us how you made them memorable.

2. What literary villains have stood out in your reading and have those books influenced your writing?

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Key Ways to “Show” Your Character & Not “Tell” on Him – First Page Critique: Palm Beach Nasty

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

This photo makes me want to go on vacation. Let’s take a ride with Crawford, our character in Palm Beach Nasty, a 1st Page Anonymous Submission. Read and enjoy. My feedback follows:

ONE

It turned out Crawford really missed the murder and mayhem up in New York. Which was weird, since the whole reason he’d gone south was to get away from it all.

At age thirty-six, with a bad case of acid reflux, chronic cynicism, and acute burnout, Charlie Crawford had packed up his Upper West Side apartment and headed down to the Sunshine State. He decided on the Keys, the plan being to take up surfing, give the Jimmy Buffett thing a shot. But after three long months of listening to stoned-out beach bums in lame Hawaiian shirts oohing and aahing pretty average sunsets and duding each other to death, Crawford was ready to move on.

So he’d reached out to a handful of Florida law enforcement agencies, and when the Palm Beach Police Department made him an offer, he grabbed it. But almost a year into the job, no one had come close to getting knifed, shot, garroted, or even banged up a little. Christ, what he’d give for a nice facedown stiff, a little rigor setting in. Crawford was drawing a bunch of nowhere cases, which could best be summed up by the one he was writing up now.

It was late afternoon on Halloween, and a call had come in about a possible trespass up on the north end. The north end of Palm Beach was really two places, depending on the exact location. Obscenely rich or doing just fine, thanks. Spectacular houses on the ocean and Intracoastal that started at ten million dollars and went up from there. Or fixer-uppers, on postage-stamp lots at around a million. Recently a Russian fertilizer billionaire had plunked down a shade under a hundred mill for Trump’s monumentally ugly, but colossally huge, ocean spec house.

But despite that, the real estate market had been hit hard when Wall Street collapsed three years before and was still wobbly. Somewhere between anemic and soft, desperately trying to claw its way back to pre crash levels. One of the top brokers in town was whining about having a lousy year—4.8 million in commissions as opposed to over 7 million in ’07. And real estate lawyers quietly grumbled about fewer closings, but even more about a troubling new phenomenon: clients hondling them on their fees. And pity the poor builders, who had traded down from tricked-up ninety-five-thousand-dollar Escalades to basic Ford 150s.

FEEDBACK
Overview – There is an ease to this writer’s voice that I liked. This intro is written in a deep POV that is close to first person. I almost wish it was full blown 1st, to give the character more room to breathe. This character has opinions about everything, which would work for the intimacy of 1st person if the author can tighten the narrative (without too much meandering). Because of the mental meanderings, the pace is significantly slower with a lack of focus for the action or world building.

A good thing to note is that this author can hear the character and is willing to channel him. That’s not an easy thing to get and execute. Kudos.

But how can this author retain the good parts of the character voice, yet not slow the pace? A big part of this resolution is how to introduce a key character by SHOWING rather than TELLING about him.

HOUSEKEEPING:

Where to Start? – The author started with a back story dump, sharing where Crawford had lived in NYC with a subsequent stay in the Keys, then on to police work in Palm Beach. These are all things that can come out later with patience. At the start, it’s too much misdirection without a point. That puts us down to paragraph 4 to search for a place to start–at the body or crime scene and any interesting lead up to that moment–but we get a lesson in real estate and the Wall Street crash. Bottom line, we need a better place to start that can showcase Crawford and his personality, through his actions and his cynical dialogue or banter with his colleagues.

Passive Voice – There were too many uses of ‘was’ and ‘had’ to indicate a past time period, or hint of backstory. ‘Was’ is used 8 times and ‘had’ is used 9 times in 400 words of this introduction. These are words I try to minimize and correct in an edit. It indicates this story should start with the present action and minimize the backstory.

Missing words typos – These are hard to catch. As authors, we are too familiar with our own work and miss words that should be there if we don’t read more carefully or read aloud. Last sentence in 2nd paragraph – “…oohing and aahing AT pretty average sunsets…” (‘At’ is left out.)

But how can this author retain the good parts of the character voice, yet not slow the pace? A big part of this resolution is how to introduce a character.

Key Ways to SHOW your Character rather than TELL On Him:

Try introducing your character like some films do, with big character stars like Capt Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. Johnny Depp doesn’t merely walk onto the scene and speak his first line, he makes a big intro to SHOW who he is. In mere seconds, we know him and who he’ll be. It takes practice to do this for an author of fiction. I call this “The Defining Scene.”

So imagine who Crawford is when he’s first introduced to this story. Since I like the author’s instincts on voice, I wanted to ask open ended questions for a rewrite of this intro. I didn’t want to influence the author by rewriting it myself. Think of it as a homework assignment, a short exercise.

1.) He’s a transplanted New Yorker with a side trip to the Keys. I can see his NY accent coming through. Are there remnants to his Keys stay? What does he wear in Palm Beach as a former New Yorker?

2.) Crawford is cynical and opinionated. How does this affect his co-workers, the other cops. Is he liked? Does he like them? Is he a loner?

3.) What hobbies does Crawford have? Are these apparent? Does he let other people know about them? What does he dream about? Is he saving for a beach house or a boat? Maybe he works more than one job to save up for something he doesn’t want to share with anyone else. Why did he choose the beach again? Does he miss NYC?

4.) He seems to thrive on crime scenes, being in his element. How does that manifest? Is he overly detailed in his approach or almost too relaxed? Does he communicate on the scene or keep to himself? Does he have a partner? If so, is his partner the same or opposite? Do they get along or not? How does that work for them?

To make Crawford memorable, the author gets a ‘first shot’ at a reader’s first impression. How would the author set the stage?

Below are some things to keep in mind.

  • Devise this crime scene for Crawford to shine or standout. Is it particularly morbid? Has he seen cases like this before? Does he bring NYC bagels and coffee? How does he react versus how others do? Set the stage for Crawford.
  • Give him something to do that will show the reader who he is. When others are turning away, he’s unusually attentive to details of the corpse. Does he have any idiosyncrasies at the scene, like how he treats the victim? Does he notice a stray cat in an alley with a possible clue when no one else does?
  • Make this scene about Crawford and focus on him. Let the reader know how he ticks, his values, his likes and dislikes. Carry these things through the book to take the reader on a journey.
  • Focus on Crawford’s character, more than plot, to give the reader a sense of him in this intro. If the author can devise a way to jump-start the plot (as in the murder scene), then you’ll get two birds with one stone.
  • Build on the energy from the Defining Scene. The reader will make an investment into Crawford going forward.

DISCUSSION:

What feedback would you give this author, TKZers? Is the engaging voice enough to keep you turning the pages?

Mr. January Available NOW! $2.99 Ebook

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

3+

Characters Need Redemption – First Page Critique – Angie’s Ruin

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

http://flickr.com/photos/60058591@N00/2369412952

I have a first-page critique for your consideration today. Please read and comment. My feedback is on the flip side.

***

“I can’t do this anymore I hate you. Listen to me, I really do hate you. You prick”

Angie screamed those words and cried them at the same time, it was a horrible indescribable sound but Danny didn’t seem to care.

“Well if you hate me so much then pack your bags and leave, but I’m keeping the kids, do you hear that THEY ARE MINE NOT YOURS, MINE, so go on sod off. No one likes you anyway, you waste of space”

She started to cry, uncontrollably a solemn weep that seemed to come from a place, no, a pit so very deep inside and below it could have been hell. Sitting in her new kitchen, with her beautiful babies upstairs, this man, if he actually qualified as a man was trying to finish her off altogether. He acted and spoke like a child but he was 37 and the love of her life.

They had been childhood sweethearts, next door neighbours and nobody had ever understood her like Danny. The crack the prostitution, the gambling, the shoplifting even the trafficking. All those years ago…It was another life.

Look, she new she wasn’t perfect. But Danny understood why, Danny understood her and now he was gone or he may as well have been.

He didn’t love her, he didn’t want her anymore and she felt done with love, with life with everything, it was all too much. So, she pulled herself up from the manky chair she was slumped in, her favourite velour chair that was once red, ready to go upstairs and pack up her life.

“I never loved you, you stupid, pathetic cow” Danny laughed the words in her face as if she was nothing, as if they had never had anything together, as if she was dirt under their wheelybin. PIG, she shouted in her head, because she didn’t have the energy to say it out loud, he had drained her that much, HE WAS WORSE THAN THE DIRTIEST MOST DISGUSTING FILTHY SHIT INFESTED PIG.

“You had better go right now” he said “Sharon’s coming round.” She’s been desperate for me to tell you and now I’ve done it. Why did it take me so long, he laughed, laying on the floor watching telly, to kick someone as ugly, stupid and pathetic as you out?”

FEEDBACK

I had a tough time with this submission. The lack of punctuation, the overabundance of run on sentences, typos, and writing craft issues made it a hard read. My biggest concern was for the main character of Angie. I found her overly aggressive without vulnerability. I didn’t find her redeemable in this first peek. It’s a fine line to portray real emotion in a scene, like fighting, if a writer doesn’t connect the reader with the character’s redemption and a humanity the reader can relate to. I’ll have suggestions on this below, but let’s look at basics first.

In order to submit to an editor or agent, or even self-publish, an author must know basic grammar and punctuation rules to submit a clean copy. Otherwise it would be too easy for the industry professional to reject it before they get a paragraph into it. Below are my more detailed thoughts.

Run On Sentences – Examples:

First sentence is a run on with poor punctuation.

Example 1: “I can’t do this anymore I hate you. Listen to me, I really do hate you. You prick”

Rewrite 1: “I can’t do this anymore. I hate you. Listen to me. I really do hate you. You, prick!”

Use of Internal Thought:

Example 2PIG, she shouted in her head, because she didn’t have the energy to say it out loud, he had drained her that much, HE WAS WORSE THAN THE DIRTIEST MOST DISGUSTING FILTHY SHIT INFESTED PIG.

An author should follow rules on punctuation to make the work easier for readers, who are quite knowledgeable on basic grammar. In the above example, it is one LONG run on without any punctuation. The overuse of CAPS isn’t necessary to indicate screaming. If the author picks words that ‘show’ the action, the reader will get it.

Rewrite 2:

‘Pig!’ she shouted in her head. Angie had lost the energy to say it out loud. Her husband had drained her that much. ‘He’s worse than the…’ (Break apart the run on sentence and single quote the internal monologue or italicize it. Personally, I find Angie too harsh and unlikeable. Anytime there is name calling, even if it’s in a character’s head, it makes them unsympathetic for me, as a reader.)

Typo:

Example: Look, she new she wasn’t perfect. (Knew, not new.)

No Setting:
Setting can be a big help to add color and depth to this scene of domestic abuse. What is the setting in this story? Has she been cooking all day and he shows up late and drunk? Does she keep a neat house or a sloppy one? Depression can enter into this and her house could be indicative of her emotional state.

Focus on Angie’s Vulnerability:
Unless the author envisions Angie as vulnerable and shows it, the character’s yelling and cursing in her head doesn’t make her sympathetic. If she starts out this way and the whole story is centered on an unlikeable character, a reader will not keep turning the pages. I’m not suggesting a back story dump, but at least in a solid intro, the author must show Angie as vulnerable and scared of her husband’s anger or vulnerable to his betrayal.

1.) Show her cower when he gets in her face, yelling. She physically shakes and reacts to his abuse that the reader knows has been happening over a long time.
2.) Have her concerned over kids hearing or neighbors.
3.) Have Angie show emotions of hurt and betrayal when he finally admits he’s having an affair.
4.) What does she looks like? Her appearance? Does he make her feel worse by pointing out her looks?
5.) Has he ever hit her? A victim of physical abuse acts differently than Angie does in this scene.

A more vulnerable Angie would have me turning the pages, even if the fighting gets ugly. I would root for her to get out of the house or find a way to get out from under an abusive husband.

DISCUSSION:
What do you think, TKZers? What would you add? Would you keep turning the pages?

4+

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

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

FEEDBACK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I worked in a dentist’s officer.

USE OF HUMOR IN BOOKS

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

Excerpt from Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl intro:

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

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

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

“Super-duper sorry,” she said.

What the hell happened?”

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

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

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

“I got a date,” she explained.

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

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

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

WAYS TO ADD HUMOR

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

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

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

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

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

DISCUSSION

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

 

5+

Balancing Action with Voice – First Page Critique of Urban Patriot

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Purchased image – Croco Designs for Jordan Dane website

Hello, my fellow TKZ warriors. I’m busy cranking on the daily word count of my next release, but I have, for your consideration, an anonymous submission from a daring author and member of TKZ. The first 400 word intro to: Urban Patriot. Enjoy and join me on the flip side for my feedback and please provide your own thoughts in your comments.

Urban Patriot

Choosing a side is dangerous, especially when it comes to politics and you’re African American from a Jewish background, that is, everybody wants to either recruit you or kill you for something. When I was getting high – on life – shit was easier, the only people interested in you were those like you unless they had their own plans which everybody in tinsel town had. One minute you’re relaxing with a naked woman’s bare legs laying on your lap and the next someone throws a stack of $100 bills in at you and says there’s more where that came from, you’re gonna love it.

Instead of letting me deal with my fate on the streets of Chicago, at 15, mom got spooked and sent me off to California to join the father I’d never met and who turned out to be a bigger jerk than the Chicago idiots I was sent away from. Which wasn’t half bad until the thrill of finally meeting him caused me to want to live with him. Grandfather and Mimi took me in where we had a small swimming pool, my own bedroom, and took me on vacations with them. Hell, I even had an allowance. Quite a step-up from sharing a 3-bedroom apartment with five siblings, a single mom, and abusive step-father.

Dr. Anita Daniels, my uncles and aunts American Socialist Party affiliation’s caught my attention like a shiny new car and what they stood for was everything I’d felt being a Black Jew living in America. Working Socialist political campaigns and African American activist activities taught me a lot, to stand-up for myself and expected the worse from people. Encounters with White Supremacists, the police, and Politicians broaden my horizons to the point of rage and cunning calm.

In a sense, I guess my past prepared me for a life of risks, questionable alliances and an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Especially when my wife was shot and left for dead at the airport terminal as we arrived stateside from a five-year extended stay in the Middle East, I wanted nothing more than to personally smoke that bastard of New President and burn his administration to ground. But that opportunity would come much later if only I’m I am strong enough to do it.

“Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded as I leaned over the counter asking the clerk “where is she, is she alive” “I am sorry sir, I don’t have that information” the clerk replied.

“We must leave now Mr. Anderson; your accommodations are waiting” The agent snapped. “This is bullshit” I snapped back, “I’m going anywhere until you I get some information about my wife.” “We’ll explain everything to you later, but you’ll never know unless we get going.”

The agent was already holding the glass door open as I turned toward him, stepping into the hall he whispered: “We’re all just a bunch of bureaucrats following orders – you know that.”

FEEDBACK

Overview – The strong edgy voice drew me into this introduction. It read like a diary and appeared to be set in an alternate reality or a future America. It intrigued me. But the submission starts with lots of backstory and ends with the action of what’s happening in this opening scene. Once I learned that a man’s wife had been shot and left for dead, I wanted to stick with the action. The question of why a federal agent is ushering him away and not telling him anything about his wife intrigued me far more than the backstory that could’ve come later to fill in the gaps as the story progressed.

Housekeeping – By now, you guys know how I feel about embedding dialogue within a paragraph, but this submission goes a step further and not in a good way. Dialogue is embedded and often lines from 2-3 different people.

Example of 3 different people talking in one short paragraph – “Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded as I leaned over the counter asking the clerk “where is she, is she alive” “I am sorry sir, I don’t have that information” the clerk replied.

There’s also very poor punctuation which drives me crazy. Missing commas at end of dialogue lines (ie “Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded), the use of double quotes where a single quote should be (ie “I don’t give a fuck” attitude), and missing punctuation like in the example above where there should be question marks (ie “where is she, is she alive” or the lack of a capital letter to start those questions.

Editors and agents would be turned off at seeing so many errors in the first 400 words. Don’t give them a reason to say NO.

Stick with the Action – The meatiest part of this intro was embedded inside a paragraph and almost treated too dismissively. The words ‘when my wife was shot’ should have been the focus.

In a sense, I guess my past prepared me for a life of risks, questionable alliances and an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Especially when my wife was shot and left for dead at the airport terminal as we arrived stateside from a five-year extended stay in the Middle East

This submission seemed flipped backwards to me, in that the action was toward the end after all the backstory. I would suggest focusing on the shock he must be feeling at seeing his wife hurt or dead, then don’t let him find answers as he’s dragged away by the agent. Below is my suggestion for a rewrite. I tried to stick with what the author had written, but just re-ordered it and added more of his shock at the start.

I had her blood on my face and my hands. I couldn’t get the image of my wife out of my head. They must’ve left her for dead at the airport terminal. That’s the only thing I could figure. One minute, we were on the tail end of a five-year extended stay in the Middle East, the next we were stateside. This should’ve been home. How could this happen…here? I wanted nothing more than to smoke that bastard of a new President and burn his administration to the ground.

“Follow me,” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded.

I had to know what happened. I leaned over the nearest counter and found a reservations clerk with enough sympathy to care.

“Where is she? Is my wife alive?”

The federal agent yanked my arm and forced me to keep in step as he hauled me through the gathering crowd.

“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t have that information,” the airline clerk called after me.

 “We must leave now, Mr. Anderson. Your accommodations are waiting.” The agent picked up his pace and dragged me with him.

“This is bullshit. I’m not going anywhere until I know what happened to my wife.”

“We’ll explain everything to you later, but we have to go. Now.”

The agent held a glass door open and pushed me through it. When I stood my ground and faced him, he whispered, “We’re all just a bunch of bureaucrats following orders. You know that.”

I clenched my fists and fought a blinding rage.

The way this story started, with the intimacy of a diary, makes me wonder if this intro could stand with the action of violence, but drift back to where it all began, like the way movies begin with something horrific and back into what led up to it. If that’s not this author’s intention, I would suggest peppering in the backstory later when appropriate. I really do like the edgy voice and the ‘tude.

Names Matter – A federal agent by the name of Kelly made me think this was a woman. It wasn’t until near the end that the author lets us know the agent is a man. This is a bit nit picky, but it jarred for me to realize I had a wrong image in my head. Also, if the name Kelly will be through the whole book, that is a lot of time for the reader to forget this is a man. I also fought with another famous name – Kelly Clarkson, the singer. Her name is too similar to Kelly Carlson, the agent in this intro. I would reconsider the name.

Read your work aloud – Even with the edgy voice, there is a flow and cadence issue and typos where it reads as if the author made changes but didn’t catch all the words. If you get in the habit of reading your work aloud, you will find areas where you stumble over the words. Those are lines you should consider revising to make them flow better. Here are two examples where reading aloud would’ve helped to catch the typos:

But that opportunity would come much later if only I’m I am strong enough to do it.

“I’m going anywhere until you I get some information about my wife.”

Use of tags in dialogue – I noticed these following a dialogue line – demanded, snapped, snapped back. A whole book of words to replace a simple ‘said’ can be distracting, but in Elaine’s recent post on “The Burning Question: He said, She said,” she makes a good case to minimize even neutral tags like the word ‘said.’

Setting – I wanted to know more about where this scene takes place. I can only assume it’s at an airport terminal but the writing is too sparse to get a good sense of where this happens, especially when it starts with a backstory that mentions Hollywood’s Tinsel town and Chicago. Setting can place the reader there and trigger images in their minds. It’s important to ground the reader into imagery that enhances the emotion or action of the scene. For example, if the federal agent has to whisk this guy away and dodge travelers hauling luggage or airport security rushing toward the place where the attack on his wife took place. This kind of setting or world description could add pace and emotion to what’s happening.

On Tuesday, P J Parrish had an excellent post on Your Story as Sculpture: What to Leave In, What to Leave Out. It detailed some solid information on sparse writing (similar to this submission) and how an author should think twice about what to delete and what to keep. Check it out.

DISCUSSION:

What was your reaction to this introduction, TKZers? Did it grab you? Would you turn the page?

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

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The Burning Question: He Said, She Said

By Elaine Viets

Every author uses he said or she said. Many of us believe a simple said is better than four-dollar words like “opined” or “uttered.”
Recently, something my editor said made me rethink my own use of said. She said I didn’t need to use he said or she said with every paragraph. She’d been reading the first chapter of Fire and Ashes, my November 2017 Angela Richman Death Investigator mystery. My editor wasn’t against getting rid of all saids – just the ones where it’s obvious who is speaking.
In this excerpt, Angela has been called out to a fatal fire at Luther Ridley Delor’s mansion in mythical Chouteau Forest, Missouri. At age seventy, the Forest financier created a major scandal when he left his wife of forty years for Kendra Salvato, a twenty-year-old manicurist. Luther gave Kendra an engagement ring with a diamond bigger than Delaware, and swore they’d marry as soon as he was free. Now his mansion is burning. Someone inside has died, and the firefighters are about to bring out a body. Nobody knows if it’s Kendra or Luther. Here’s the first version that sparked my editor’s comment:

Hastily dressed gawkers gathered in the cul-de-sac outside the burning house. Angela stood next to a scrawny-legged bald man in blue boxers and sandals, and tried not to look at his pale, flabby chest. She knew him: Ollie Champlain. Ollie lived on stale bar snacks and martinis at the Forest Country Club.
“Woo-eee!” Ollie said. “You can almost smell the money burning. That’s Luther’s house.”
“Don’t be disgusting,” said a worried woman clutching a long baggy plaid bathrobe. “The smell is horrible.”
Angela silently agreed. She caught the toxic stink of melting plastic mixed with the stomach-turning stench of burned meat and hair. The flames were eating the victim’s body.
Ollie refused to be shamed. He acted as if the fatal fire was staged for his entertainment. “Look at the firefighters taking axes to that bay window,” he said. “I can hear the corks popping in that thousand-bottle wine room.”
“Hmpf,” Plaid Bathrobe said. “The way Luther drinks, I doubt if he could keep a thousand bottles.”
“He was definitely pissed tonight,” Ollie said. “I watched him stagger home with his little Mexican cutie. Kendra had to help him inside the house. It was fun watching her in that tight white dress. Luther was too drunk to walk into his house, much less run out of it. Jeez, I hope that’s not her burning in that house. What a waste of a fine p–”
Plaid Bathrobe glared at him. He said “– a fine young woman. He’s a shriveled old coot. I hope she gets out alive.”

Now take a look at the same section after a said-ectomy.

Hastily dressed gawkers gathered in the cul-de-sac outside the burning house. Angela stood next to a scrawny-legged bald man in blue boxers and sandals, and tried not to look at his pale, flabby chest. She knew him: Ollie Champlain. Ollie lived on stale bar snacks and martinis at the Forest Country Club.
“Woo-eee!” Ollie said. “You can almost smell the money burning. That’s Luther’s house.”
“Don’t be disgusting.” The worried woman next to him pulled her baggy plaid bathrobe tighter around her pillowy middle. “The smell is horrible.”
Angela silently agreed. She caught the toxic stink of melting plastic mixed with the stomach-turning stench of burned meat and hair. The flames were eating the victim’s body.
Ollie refused to be shamed. He acted as if the fatal fire was staged for his entertainment. “Look at the firefighters taking axes to that bay window. I can hear the corks popping in that thousand-bottle wine room.”
“Hmpf.” Plaid Bathrobe clearly disapproved of Luther and Ollie. “The way Luther drinks, I doubt if he could keep a thousand bottles.”
“He was definitely pissed tonight. I watched him stagger home with his little Mexican cutie. Kendra had to help him inside the house. It was fun watching her in that tight white dress. Luther was too drunk to walk into his house, much less run out of it. Jeez, I hope that’s not her burning in that house. What a waste of a fine p–”
Plaid Bathrobe glared him into changing his words. “– a fine young woman. He’s a shriveled old coot. I hope she gets out alive.”

What’s your opinion? Is this a case of the less said, the sooner ended?

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