This first page critique takes us back in time and back to the Old Country – Ireland. Let’s take a look at this offering. After the critique, I’ve made some comments. What do you think?
Ireland 1240 AD
Eoin kicked the fallen oak’s trunk in disgust. He raised his face to the sky and loosed a stream of curses at the dark clouds. The reply came in a torrent of heavy rain drops that slapped his face like a thousand tiny fists, forcing him to turn his eyes back to the massive tree that that’d crushed the stone wall and let his sheep escape into the next farm. His father, Aengus O’Dowd, would have demanded his neighbor Finn return the lost sheep. But Finn hated Eoin, sole survivor of the fever sickness that had recently claimed both parents and his sister. According to tradition, if Eoin died Finn would have first right to claim the O’Dowd lands as his own. Therefore Finn counted Eoin’s recovery as theft, prevented him from becoming the wealthiest farmer in the county.
Lightning cracked in the sky, illuminating the twisted limbs like demon fingers reaching from the bowels of the earth to suck the remaining flicker of life from his Eoin’s weary soul. He tossed a scoop of mud over his shoulder and stabbed the blade back into the ground. The shovel jerked wildly as it glanced off a flexible tendril of root, slipped from his hand, and fell into the hole beneath the tree. It landed with a hollow wooden thump.
“What is this?” Eoin muttered as he stared down.
He jumped into the hole, mud splashing as he landed. He picked up the shovel and poked the metal blade into the soil probing for whatever it had hit. On the third jab he got the same hollow knock. He scraped soil away to reveal a smooth black surface, then dug until he found the edges of what appeared to be a large wooden box. Eoin soon freed it from its earthly tomb and heaved the chest up to the surface, climbing out after it. As wide as the length of his forearm and about two thirds that in both height and depth, sealed completely in pitch.
Night was falling. He carried the box into his house.
“Get away,” he hissed at the cat, who’d immediately gotten under his feet, “or I’ll step on you.”
Too exhausted to light a lamp he, he shrugged off his wet clothes, exchanging them for dry, dropped a peat log onto the embers in the fireplace and passed out on his mat nearby.
Elaine Viets: The author has a mystery here: Eoin has found a mysterious box under an uprooted tree. But there may be too much mystery in this first page.
Who is Eoin? How old is he? What does he look like? Is he a big man? Bearded? Muscular? Scrawny and overworked?
Eoin’s soul is described as “weary,” and Eoin recently survived a “devastating” fever. Has the fever left him weakened? Give us some hints.
Eoin’s sheep escaped. How many? If he’s a farmer, he knows exactly how many sheep he lost: two, five, six. Part of his wealth is gone.
Do we really need Eoin’s father’s name in this sentence?
“His father, Aengus O’Dowd, would have demanded his neighbor Finn return the lost sheep. “We have several names thrown at us in one paragraph: Eoin, his father and Finn.
What if you tried something like this?
Eoin’s father would have demanded his neighbor Finn return the lost sheep.
The paragraph raises more questions:
Why doesn’t Eoin demand Finn return the sheep? Is he afraid of Finn? Is he too weak? Is Finn politically connected? We should know.
Instead we’re told, “But Finn hated Eoin, sole survivor of the fever sickness that had recently claimed both parents and his sister. According to tradition, if Eoin died, Finn would have first right to claim the O’Dowd lands as his own. Therefore Finn counted Eoin’s recovery as theft, prevented him from becoming the wealthiest farmer in the county.”
Finn’s hatred shouldn’t keep Eoin from claiming what is rightfully his. Give us a good reason.
There’s too much writing about the weather. First, the rain beats down on Eoin’s face:
“He raised his face to the sky and loosed a stream of curses at the dark clouds. The reply came in a torrent of heavy rain drops that slapped his face like a thousand tiny fists . . .”
Then, “Lightning cracked in the sky, illuminating the twisted limbs like demon fingers reaching from the bowels of the earth to suck the remaining flicker of life from his Eoin’s weary soul.”
That’s a little overdone. Think about stopping the sentence after “demon fingers.”
There is excellent imagery here. I especially liked the discovery of the box. Well done! But how does Eoin feel about this discovery? Does he think it might have a treasure to make him rich? Will it bring more trouble? Has he heard rumors that something – or the bones of someone – were buried in this area? Show us his feelings.
When Eoin gets home, he bullies the cat. Is that deliberate? Do you want to make him less sympathetic? The page ends with a cliff hanger: Eoin is “too exhausted” to open the box. I’m not sure that works. Maybe you could have him faint from exhaustion.
Be careful of the typos.
You have an intriguing situation here, Author, and good imagery. Solve some of these mysteries and you’ll have a first-rate beginning.
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:
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.
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.
What feedback would you give this author, TKZers? Is the engaging voice enough to keep you turning the pages?
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.
Bright Orange Moleskine Notebook–Short story development
Buff Flexible Moleskine--Novel (Formerly The Intruder) WIP notes
Orang/Red Moleskine Notebook–Novel (Untitled cozy–Yeah, gonna give that genre a shot)
Bright Pink Leuchtturm1917 Master Slim–This started out as my 2017 Bullet Journal, but it proved too large for toting around. The 5×8 version (top) fits nicely in any purse or bag. I consider this my Journal of As Yet Unrecognized Possibilities.
For somebody who only owned one non-spiral bound notebook six years ago–the Red HC Moleskine–I’ve certainly made up for lost time. What you don’t see are the notebooks for my last three novels, the Bliss House Trilogy, because I’ve archived them.
As a young writer, I wasn’t much of a journaler. I wanted to write, but I was too embarrassed to write down things that might look silly to other people and carried around my ideas in my head. Of course, journals are meant to be private. I have no idea who I thought would want to even peek at my journals. The words were hardly titillating, the ideas tentative and unpolished. It’s not like I kept money or passwords between the pages.
But now that I’m a woman of a certain age, journals have become critical tools. Not only do I have more pressing/interesting ideas, I also have a memory like a sieve. Journals are my full-body, writerly Spanx. They keep everything tucked in and looking, if not good, at least organized.
I’ve become very attached lately to the notion of ideas floating from writer to writer, looking for the right one to tell the story. It’s an idea I first read of in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. She talks about starting to write a novel that had been sort of pestering her–but she struggled, and it just wasn’t happening. So she temporarily shelved it. But then she talked to novelist Ann Pachett, who described her own work-in-progress. And the ideas were nearly identical. But Pachett’s book was going very well, and she later finished it and sold it.
By writing ideas down, I hope to tether them at least for a while. Collect them, live with them, let them nurture themselves with the attention I can give them. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone back to the pages of that Red HC Moleskin when I needed a quick idea fix.
Still, it’s a rather intimidating pile of notebooks. They don’t travel easily, and I’ve only recently gotten used to having the Bullet Journal always with me. For a while I tried an app called Wanderlist, but tapping reminders and notes into my phone makes much less of an impression on me than when I write things down. Then I forget to look at the app often enough.
Tell us how you keep track of your ideas and schedule. Do you journal? Or do you go the electronic route?
Today we welcome back to TKZ our friend and fellow ITW member, author Lisa Black. Enjoy!
By Lisa Black
Who hasn’t wanted to be a newspaper reporter at some point in their life? Chasing a big story, elbowing your way up to shady corporations, reluctant witnesses, crusading leaders? Living on coffee and take-out, your only uniform a pair of jeans and a worn leather jacket, with the ever-present notebook and pen in hand? Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable?
At least that used to sound glamorous to me. Now it just sounds exhausting.
But I still love newspapers. Reading the day’s edition, delivered to a box at the end of my driveway, over a cup of tea is my favorite part of the day. So when I decided to set the second Gardiner and Renner book around a large city newspaper, I knew it was the right decision.
I did a ton of research, but one book that was more fun than work is titled Gimme Rewrite, Sweetheart…. It is a compilation of memories of reporters for the two major Cleveland, Ohio newspapers from when Cleveland still had two papers. Like most cities it now has one and that one only provides home print delivery four days per week.
Reporters in a bygone era could be assigned to the police beat, and their schedule became dictated by the police radio which sat on a shelf for constant monitoring. Fires, traffic accidents, helpful dispatchers warning officers that they might need noseplugs for a week-old welfare check gave the reporters a quick summary of what the story might be. But of course they couldn’t really know until they got there.
Some other tidbits of information from this book:
You may wonder why stories are ‘buried’ near the obituaries. Editors have no way to know how many people will die on any particular day so they leave a little room open near the obituaries. Late-breaking stories are placed there because there is space, not because of any editorial decision.
A reporter got on the good side of some mobsters at their trial by stealing 20-30 year old photos of them from the newspaper’s archives. Giving each a photo and saying, “Look, this is you when you were, like, 22,” made him their new buddy and got them chatting.
Back in the heady days of large staffs, each paper had specialized writers. There were religion writers, aviation writers, medicine writers. At one point both papers had dog writers.
Game-changing stories don’t always have to be herculean, dramatic efforts. One reporter, with help from the hospital’s employees, simply wandered around a hellish psychiatric ward for a day. When the state governor read the story, he strengthened state regulations to improve conditions. Another reporter wrote a story on Savings & Loans soaking home buyer on fees (one of the practices which would cause the entire economy to crash in 2008) and wound up taking on the inimical Freddie Mac. But the local Congresswoman happened to be on the House Banking Committee and Freddie Mac happened to be asking the Committee to do an IPO. Freddie Mac wound up having to make information public and belatedly enforce its own rules.
Or smaller stories—a car dealership beloved in the area for its corny TV commercials ran a contest where they awarded a car to a worthy person. The college girl winner had a father recently disabled from a heart attack, but the car she won got two flats on the way home and the exhaust system fell off. A reporter wrote the truth. Luckily for the reporter the dealership didn’t advertise in the paper, so the paper ran the story anyway—the dealership sued, but the reporter won the lawsuit. The truth, it seemed, was still a valid defense.
Some things don’t change.
It begins with the kind of bizarre death that makes headlines—literally. A copy editor at the Cleveland Herald is found hanging above the grinding wheels of the newspaper assembly line. Forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner has her suspicions about this apparent suicide inside the tsunami of tensions that is the news industry today—and when the evidence suggests murder, Maggie has no choice but to place her trust in the one person she doesn’t trust at all….
Jack Renner is a killer with a conscience, a vigilante with his own code of honor. He has only one problem: Maggie knows his secret. She insists he enforce the law, not subvert it. But when more newspaper employees are slain, Jack may be the only person who can help Maggie unmask the killer–even if Jack is still checking names off his own private list.
UNPUNISHED available January 31 wherever books are sold!
Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.
Well, it’s time. It’s Tuesday, Nov. 8 and you have to make a choice.
No…not that one. We here at The Kill Zone are fiercely apolitical, so what you do today in the privacy of your little curtain or cubbyhole is your business alone. I’m talking about more important choices today -– about your novel.
But first, let’s pause for a short break. I am PJ Parrish and I approve this message:
Shoot, I’d vote for this guy. He makes as much sense as anybody running today. Okay, back to regular programming.
When you sit down to write a novel, you may not realize it, but you will be — for the next six months to six years it takes you to finish — constantly making choices. Some of these choices will be as big and strategic as picking your characters and plot. Others will be tactical choices like grammar, word choice, use of imagery, punctuation, chapter length, even book length. These latter choices are all really important and we’ve covered all of these topics here at TKZ. But today, let’s hone in on the big choices.
Yes, we’ve covered these a lot here, too. But on this, ahem, really yuge election day, I think it’s a good time for review.
The Ten Most Important Choices You Make About Your Novel
1. Who’s story is this? This sounds simplistic, but you must be clear about who you are going to focus on for your readers to follow. Now usually (but not always), you want to chose a single protagonist, one main person who will be challenged, who will triumph (heroic) or fail (tragic), and who will be the central figure in the story’s plot arc.
Can you have more than one protag? Well, yes. But in my humble opinion, a dual (or multiple protag) book is harder to pull off. Why? Because unless you are really good at weaving the threads of plot and motivation, you will probably understand or even favor one protag over another — and readers will really miss that person when they are “off stage.”
I recently critiqued a manuscript whose author couldn’t make this choice. She had created four equal main characters, but none really captured my interest. I asked the writer why she had done this and she said that her “real” protag was her setting. I advised her to go read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
The “region of supernatural wonder” can be the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry or a bar in Cleveland, if you want. But we must have someone to care about, someone we are willing to follow for 300 pages.
2. Where am I? It surprises me how often writers neglect this. Yes, all fiction takes place somewhere, but unless you make that your setting come alive in your reader’s imagination, you are just moving characters against a cardboard backdrop. Do you need to “write what you know?” Not really. You needn’t have lived in Belle Epoque Paris to be convincing, but you need to do your homework and create not reality but verisimilitude (the appearance or being real and convincing). Do your homework (Guest poster Barbara Nickless had a good take on this yesterday.)
And establish your setting very early in your story. Readers need to know where they are from the get-go, and while you don’t want to slow things down in your opening chapter(s) with too much description, you need to begin setting your scene early. And no, hanging one of those pitiful little taglines on chapter one — QUANTICO, VIRGINIA — won’t cut it.
Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth.
That’s one of my favorite opening lines from Thomas Harris. He didn’t need a tagline, just those fabulous final five words.
3. What’s your point of view? So who is going to be your narrator? Sometimes, this can be a secondary character. Jay Gatsby is the protagonist of Fitzgerald’s classic, but the story is related by Nick Carraway. Most likely, your narrator will be your protagonist. So do you use first person or third person? Your choice. First-person is more immediately intimate because having your protag relate everything via “I saw” “I did” or “I thought” you establish a tight bond with the reader. But this is also very limiting as everything must be filtered through one prism. I think first is harder to write than third. Why? Because if you whiff on motivation, if you don’t grasp every nuance of your protag’s psyche, your narrator will feel flat. And if he’s boring, well, shoot…there goes the reason to turn the page.
Having trouble with this? Switch from first to third or vice versa. You may discover the plot you are dealing with demands the richer variety and complexity of a third-person vantage point. Or you might need multiple third-person POVs. Your protag may be doing a Diana Ross but she might need Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard backing her up.
Time for another break. I’m PJ Parrish and I approve this message:
I’d vote for that guy, too. He’s crazy but at least he’s honest. Back to your book:
4. What’s the best entry point? Let’s start with a premise: A rich teenage girl disappears from in front of a nightclub in London, snatched by a man re-inacting Jack the Ripper murders. A disgraced female cop who’s trying to reconnect with her own estranged daughter gets the case. Where do you start this story?
Bad starts: From victim’s POV: She wakes up, eats breakfast, has testy phone call with mom and later that night goes to nightclub. Cop’s POV: She’s sitting at her desk, thinking about her bad job and her lost relationship with daughter. From killer’s POV: he is watching girl exit the nightclub thinking about what he is going to do with her.
Why are these bad? The first is throat-clearing. Yes, you might want to establish sympathy for the victim but you can do this after she is gone or even in a few good tense ACTIVE moments in the nightclub. The second example is back story that should be dribbled in as the plot begins to unfold. The third example, while it sounds juicy, it has become a giant cliche. If you open this way, it must really be original, and you will then need to go back to the killer’s POV at other times in the book or the opening scene feels tacked on and artificial.
When considering where to start: Get in as late as possible but still be clear in what has already happened. Pick a moment where something is happening or about to happen, where a status quo is changing, where someone is about to be challenged.
Prologues? That’s a whole post in itself. I generally don’t like them because they are almost always mis-used. If you have one, cut it out and see if you can start your story in chapter 1. Betcha it works.
5. What does your hero want? Ray Bradbury said all you have to do is figure out what your hero wants then just follow him. Easy for him to say! Plumbing the depths of motivation is the key to creating characters who live on the page. I’ve written about this often because I think that once you, the writer, can answer this question, everything falls into place. It’s helpful to think of “want” as having many levels. In Silence of the Lambs, what does Clarise Starling want? Easy — to catch Buffalo Bill. But go deeper into her psychological basement:
To catch Buffalo Bill
To save Kathryn
To prove she can make it among the boys of the FBI academy
To impress her boss Bill Crawford
To make her dead father proud
To silence the lambs (her demons over being orphaned as an innocent girl)
Do this for your protag, then for your villain and everyone in your book if you can. Remember what Kurt Vonnegut said: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
6. What happened? This is simplistic, too, but needs to restated: Something has to go south fast. As you concentrate on character, don’t neglect story. Your hero needs an obstacle to overcome. As Stephen King says in On Writing: “In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.” You must create obstacles for your hero to overcome (Sheriff Brody in Jaws has not just a killer shark to hunt down but he has to deal with a dumb mayor, a rift in his team (Quint and Hooper) and he can’t swim. I love what sci-fi fantasy author Nancy Kress says about plot: “Fiction is about stuff that’s screwed up.”
Uh-oh…we gotta break again. I’m PJ Parrish and I approve this message:
I’d definitely vote for that guy, but I think Ted Cruz might gnaw him down to bones. Back to your choices:
7. What are you trying to say? Samuel Goldwyn famously said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Well, yeah, I sorta of agree with that. Especially since I just finished a mystery that was about meth addiction in Appalachia. It was good but after a while I just thinking, “enough with the drug thing. Who killed that old man?” The writer was so enamored with his message, it let the story go flaccid. However…
Great books are always about a theme. Herman Melville said, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” So Moby Dick is not just a fish tale. It is about man’s inability to know God. But merely good books also have something to say. You can hear the theme humming soft and steady beneath the clanging machinery of the plot. At its best, a theme has some sort of meaning to your protagonist, even in genre fiction. Which brings to mind Joseph Wambaugh’s quote, “It’s not how the detective works the case but how the case works on the detective.” This is a little facile, but here’s an interesting list of common fiction themes — everything from abuse of power to xenophobia.
8. What do I call this? Let’s talk about titles. I know, I know…you don’t want to because titles are hard. And if I know you, you’ve probably slapped something gawd- awful on your work in progress just so you can find it in your computer. But here’s the thing: A good title can make or break your chances out there. I’d go so far to say it’s the single biggest marketing decision you will make. A good title is a neon sign to your readers, not just luring them in but signaling in shorthand what your story is about. And maybe most important, a good title helps you, the writer, understand at a very basic level what your book is about. You need to think about this until your brain hurts. You need to wake up in a cold sweat at night over this. Don’t settle.
What makes for a great title? It’s pithy, it has promise. It’s a tease and a tell. It’s memorable, original, and easy to say. It boils your entire story down its essence and conveys its heart. This topic needs its own post to do it justice, so for now, just Google and read up on the good advice out there. Good titles: Hunger Games. The Last of the Mohicans. To Kill a Mockingbird. Bad: I can’t print most of them here. Click here.
Another break? Geez. I’m PJ Parrish and I’m getting tired of approving messages.
It’s all a blur but I am pretty sure I voted for that guy. I like his wife. Maybe she’ll run someday…
Back to your own choices:
9. What is my tone? This is important but sort of slippery to grasp. It’s important, however, because if the tone of your book is off, you’re going to have trouble selling it to agents and editors or, if publishing it yourself, finding your target audience. The tone is your attitude or feelings toward your subject matter. You convey this through your style, word choice, and through the personalities of your characters. If you’re writing for a genre audience, getting your tone right is important because readers have certain expectations. A reader looking for light romance suspense doesn’t want to open your book and discover halfway through that you’ve started out light and descended to a darker place. Likewise, if like me, you prefer darker fare, you don’t want to be misled in the opposite direction.
Your chosen tone can be whimsical, humorous, gloomy, ironic, hardboiled, neo-noir, …you pick it. But you must be honest and consistent. Years ago, I wrote an amateur sleuth novel that I thought was peachy. It was roundly rejected, despite the fact I had a good track record with my current series. What happened? My tone started out light and wacky but veered toward the dark about halfway through. Two editors even used the same words in their rejection letters: “Loved the writing but it’s neither fish nor fowl.” I learned a lesson — I can’t maintain soprano when my true voice is contralto.
10. Do I finish this book or start over? No one can help you with this, but it’s something you have to ask yourself as you move along. Not every book needs to be finished. Some are exercises of sorts to help you learn. Others might be short stories instead of novels. And then there is the question of stamina and confidence. If you do believe in your story, then yes, you need to finish it. Even if it never gets published, it won’t be wasted effort. Every successful writer out there has unpublished manuscripts moldering in bottom desk drawers or lurking on old thumb drives. You need to finish something. Just for the knowledge that you can do it.
I’ll leave you with a telling quote from Erica Jong: “I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.”
Yes, you will. Don’t be afraid of it. It’s called being a professional writer.
And finally, one last break. I’m PJ Parrish, and I think this candidate speaks for all of us very weary voters out there:
In 2007, after twenty-five years as an emergency medicine specialist working in the ERs of busy inner-city level-one trauma centers, a personal health event ended my medical career. I’d worked briefly as a technical writer prior to medical school, but for the last eight years have been able to focus full-time on the study and creation of fiction.
The Kill Zone and its contributors have been a daily part of my writing life for years. I contacted Kathryn Lilley a few weeks back to share news of the release of the second book in my medical suspense-thriller series and mentioned my long-term involvement with TKZ. She suggested I guest blog and share how TKZ has influenced my writer’s journey. Specifically she mentioned that she believed my experience “would be inspiring to others, and spread cheer to my fellow bloggers!” I hope so.
Here are some ways TKZ has helped me on my journey from aspiring fiction writer to indie publisher of two well-received thrillers:
Instruction on craft
TKZ provides ongoing instruction on the craft of writing fiction that engages and sells.
James Scott Bell, Jodie Renner, PJ Parrish (Kris), Jordan Dane, Larry Brooks, and all the TKZ contributors regularly share the essence of their experience and hard-gained knowledge. I realize I’m preaching to the choir when I identify that the writing instruction presented on TKZ is ninja-level. The TKZ bloggers are the faculty of an online academy. Note: many of most useful posts are organized by topic in the TKZ Library (click HERE or on “TKZ Library” in the banner above).
Philosophy, support, and guidance
All readers here know the writer’s life can be tough at times. Self-doubt, frustration, discouragement, and disappointment are all part of the journey. I’m certain the honesty, humor, and sage counsel of TKZ’s “usual suspects” has assisted many a writer get over the rough spots. It has definitely helped me.
First page submission
By 2012, I’d been a TKZ follower for years and felt as if I knew the faculty and their personalities. I’d missed the submission deadline for the initial and subsequent “First Page” critiques and regretted having lost out on the great opportunity.
In 2012, I submitted on time. My mouth went dry on April 12, when I saw that TKZ emeritus John Ramsey Miller had rendered the critique of my work. JRM was a particular favorite of mine and, among his traits is a no-BS, flame-throwing honesty. I approached his critique with fear and trepidation. His favorable response to my submission gave me a lift unlike any I’d experienced in writing to that point. It is a treasured memory in my TKZ history.
The comments beneath the critique provided education on the varied and subjective nature of opinion/review – “dang excellent,” “this is brilliant,” “it’s not without problems,” “I’m hooked,” “wouldn’t have hooked me in any way,” etc. This provided additional education on the realities of writing.
Years back, a TKZ guest blogger presented an article on craft that blew me away with its content and clarity. I learned that the writer, Jodie Renner, had edited two of Joe Moore’s novels. Jodie became a TKZ regular for a few years, and followers benefitted from her many outstanding articles on craft as well as her three writing guides. I did even better – after her guest piece, I was able to convince Jodie to work with me, and we have collaborated on both of the books in my series. She is amazing as both an editor and a friend – another major personal and professional benefit of my involvement with TKZ.
James Scott Bell and the TKZ faculty
I can’t recall if I discovered James Scott Bell first and it led to TKZ or the reverse. The discovery of both was definitely a boon to my writing development and career. JSB’s savvy, humor, enthusiasm, and guidance on both craft and the writer’s life is special and representative of the warmth, wisdom, and generosity of the TKZ faculty, both current and past. I attended Jim’s outstanding “Story Masters” seminar with his teaching partners, Donald Maass, and Chris Vogler, where I learned a great deal while laughing often (JSB could do stand-up comedy).
James Scott Bell’s enthusiasm, professionalism, and support of other writers is characteristic of my experience with TKZ.
I’m not certain I can inspire TKZ followers, but I can unequivocally recommend ongoing participation. The return on investment is astronomical – how can you beat free writing wisdom? TKZ is a writing travel guide that is updated daily for those who seek excellence.
I share Kathryn’s hope that her fellow bloggers/faculty will feel cheered. These people deserve to feel good about themselves. The hours, effort, and imagination invested in creating the daily posts are considerable. Despite receiving little in return, they share their knowledge and support every day.
Thank you to TKZ faculty, current and past, for your continuous commitment to helping writers. Your efforts are, and have been, a special part of my writer’s journey. I’m certain there are many among the TKZ faithful who have benefitted as I have.
I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to share my appreciation today.
Do you have examples of how TKZ has helped you on your writer’s journey? Please share in the comments below.
Nerve Damage, the first book in my medical suspense-thriller series, was released in 2014. The response has been excellent, with more than 200 five-star Amazon reviews, wonderful personal comments from discriminating readers, and glowing independent book reviews.
Hard to Breathe, the second installment in the Drake Cody suspense-thriller series, is now available.
ER doctor and medical researcher Drake Cody has a past no physician is allowed to have. When an injured woman presents to the ER with a report of a fall, Drake reports to police his suspicion that her powerful businessman husband is guilty of domestic violence. Within hours, Drake’s medical license and the rights to his breakthrough experimental drug are threatened.
Murder, billion-dollar intrigue, and corruption involving the most powerful elements in healthcare threaten Drake’s career, those he loves, and his life. Can the law deliver justice, or will it abandon him?
“Intense and highly entertaining. Combs’ writing grips you from the first chapter and never lets go. Very cinematic and intense. Speeds the reader from chapter to chapter at a breakneck pace. Hard to Breathe is a terrific book.” – Laura Childs, New York Times best-selling author
Nerve Damage and Hard to Breathe provide an insider’s exposure to the blast-furnace emotions of critical care medicine and the high-stakes “business” of healthcare and its mega-dollar temptations.
Both books are fast-paced, intense, twisting thrill rides involving individuals you care about and medical realities that affect us all.
Some years ago I had the chance to meet and listen to the late Stephen J. Cannell. Cannell was, of course, the television wunderkind who created such shows as The Rockford Files, Baretta, The A-Team, 21 Jump Street, and others. He wrote at least 450 filmed television scripts. The guy had a Midas typewriter.
In the 90s he started writing crime fiction, then a series of books featuring LAPD detective Shane Scully.
So Cannell was on this panel with Robert Crais and T. Jefferson Parker. Someone asked him a writing question, and Cannell said something to the effect that he always asks, “What’s the bad guy doing?”
Even when the bad guy wasn’t “onstage,” Cannell would be pondering: “What’s the bad guy doing?”
It’s a great question! We writers seldom give the offstage players any mind. I’ve written before of the power of the “shadow story.”What’s the bad guy doing? is one of the key questions to ask in that regard.
Note: you don’t have to be writing about a true “bad guy” to ask this question. It applies to any antagonist.
Let’s say you were writing the novel that became the movie The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones (in reality the movie was based on the hit 1960s TV series starring David Janssen, created by Roy Huggins). In the movie Jones plays U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard. He’s not a bad guy. He is in fact a good guy who happens to be tasked with nabbing Dr. Richard Kimble and sending him back to Death Row.
Let us further suppose that you were writing the novel in First Person or Limited Third Person POV (where you stay with one character’s perspective throughout). You would be in Kimble’s head as he comes home to confront the one-armed man who murdered his wife. Then would come the trial and Kimble’s wrongful conviction.
Next, the prison bus mishap, the train crash, the escape! Then Kimble struggles through the night with his wound and his prison uniform. And you’d come to the next morning when he sneaks into the rural hospital to dress his wound, get some civvies, shave, and get out of there without being noticed.
All very tense. Good job, novelist!
Finally Kimble gets out of the hospital, but not before he is recognized by a wounded prison guard from the bus. To keep the guy quiet Kimble pushes an oxygen mask on his face. And as the paramedics rush the guard inside, Kimble tells them to let the attending doctor know the guy has a puncture in his upper gastric area.
Which causes one of them to ask, “How the hell does he know by looking at him?”
Kimble then hops in the ambulance and takes off.
Nice scene, there, writer! The opening act has been awesome!
But then you come to your project the next day and can’t figure out what to write next. If you’re a pure pantser, of course, you can write about anything. So you do a scene where Kimble falls into a giant hole that spits takes him back in time to the Battle of Little Big Horn. There he tries to save as many wounded as possible until…
Oh bollix, you think. I wish I’d done some outlining! And I wish I knew why I keep using the word bollix!
Ask the Cannell question! “Hmm, what’s my antagonist doing while Kimble is at the hospital?”
The nice thing about the movie is we get to see it. We cut back to Gerard at his command post, making plans. We see what kind of team and resources he has assembled.
So back to the hospital. You’re thinking about what Sam Gerard is doing. You imagine him at the crash site, with his team gathered around him. Then one of his people runs up and says, “Hey, we just got a report. Kimble stole an ambulance!” What would Gerard do next?
Order a chopper! Let’s move!
Which gives you the idea for the next scene in your novel. Kimble looks up and sees he’s being chased from the air!
Way back when I was first trying to learn this craft of ours, and writing copious notes on what I learned, I jotted this down: Most of the craft of fiction is knowing what questions to ask at what time.
I still think that’s a pretty good insight. And What’s the bad guy doing? is a darn good question.
Okay, maybe not ALL, but your choice of verbs can make or break a scene. Have a look at a recent chapter or short story you’ve written. Check the verbs in particular. Maybe even highlight them. Are some or a lot of them bland, vanilla verbs like came, went, arrived, approached, walked, ran, or looked?
Do you have a heavy, tired, or angry character simply walking when he could be trudging or clomping or stomping or plodding? Or an old or ill or exhausted character walking who should be limping or shuffling along? Make the conceited or over-confident guy swagger or strut and the lawyer stride into the courtroom. And be sure your drunk, stoned, or injured suspect is staggering, lurching, wobbling, meandering, or shambling, not just walking. Or perhaps someone is running when sprinting or racing or darting or dashing or fleeing would better capture the situation and her mood.
Of course, sometimes an ordinary character on a regular day is just walking or jogging. But when you need to bring the character and scene to life and add tension (which is most of the time), use all the tools in your toolbox to create sensory impressions for the readers and engage their emotions — make them worry.
If you’ve got a character looking at something or someone, consider whether they really are just looking. Or are they actually peering at something? Or observing or studying or examining or inspecting or scrutinizing it? Or perhaps they’re covertly spying at a group around a campfire. Or maybe they’re glancing around them or catching a glimpse of someone. Or glaring at another person in anger. Or squinting into the distance under the glaring sun.
Be sure your words, especially the verbs, capture the mood you’re after.
And don’t prop up a weak, overused verb with an adverb. Instead of “She walked quietly,” say she crept or she tiptoed or she sneaked or she slinked along the wall.
For a whole chapter on finding just the right verb for every scenario, check out my award-winning writing guide, Fire up Your Fiction, chapter 21, “Choose Words That Nail It.” Subtopics include People in Motion, Words for “Walked,” Replacements for “Run,” and Different Ways of Looking. (Lots of other great stuff for writers in there, too!)
Let’s add a bit of urgency to the sentence below by changing up the verbs:
The NCIS agents drove to the scene, then went to the back of the vehicle and pulled out their equipment.
Here’s one possibility:
The NCIS agents raced to the scene, then hurried to the back of the vehicle and grabbed their equipment.
Note how changing just three verbs can amp up the scene. You could probably charge it up even more.
Are you accidentally sabotaging your scene by choosing a verb that gives entirely the wrong impression?
Make sure none of your verbs are actually working against the scene, undermining the effect you’re after. Do you inadvertently have characters strolling or ambling or slouching at tense times? Or leaning back during an argument? Be sure not to use shuffling for the walking of someone who isn’t old, sick, weak, or very tired.
Remember that tension and conflict are what drive fiction forward, so unless you’ve got two lovers taking a romantic walk, don’t have your characters strolling along when they should be hurrying or hustling or darting in and out, glancing around and behind them. Relaxed, easygoing verbs aren’t going to get your reader’s pulse quickening and make her want to turn the page to read more.
Also, think about the difference between a smile and a smirk and a sneer. Don’t have a character sneering when they’re just smirking. Sneer means “to smile or laugh with facial contortions that express scorn or contempt.” So if you have buddies disagreeing or teasing each other, you might use smirked, but don’t use sneered. Save that for someone nasty.
There are a lot of nuances for showing a character looking at someone or something. The verbs glare, glance, scan, peer, study, and gaze have quite different meanings, for example.
Do you have characters glaring when you mean gazing or staring or studying or scrutinizing? For example,
Brock glared at the intruder with the gun, eyes wide with fear. He shifted his stare to Gord, mouthing, “Help.”
“Glared” doesn’t go with “eyes wide with fear.” Glared is for anger. Maybe “stared” here? And “shifted his gaze”? Or maybe:
Brock’s eyes widened with fear at the intruder with the gun. He shifted his gaze to Gord, mouthing, “Help.”
How about eyes squinting when there’s no bright light?
At the funeral, the widow caught Adam’s glance and squinted her eyes in accusation. She no doubt held him responsible for her husband’s death.
I’d say “narrowed her eyes” or “glared at him.”
Watch for “happy” verbs that have sneaked into your story at tense times.
Have any happy, carefree words or dreamy imagery somehow slipped into any of your scenes at tense moments? If your two young protagonists are running for their lives in the woods, don’t mention the birds chirping or the brook babbling or the leaves dancing in the breeze. Keep all your imagery scary and ominous – darkness, nasty weather, treacherous terrain, a howling wolf, or whatever.
Find the “happy” or “comfy” verbs that are subtly dissipating the tension in the scene below in a crime novel:
They pursued the getaway car on a dark, lonely country road. Lights from farmhouses twinkled in the distance. Up ahead, they saw the car spin out and crash into a tree. They pulled up behind it and got out. Tony shone his flashlight into the car. The windshield was fractured. Bits of glass sparkled throughout the inside, and steam rose from the damaged engine.
Yes, “twinkled” and “sparkled” normally have positive connotations, so they counteract the tension you’re trying to build in a scene like this.
Similarly, don’t use casual, relaxed language in a stressful situation:
Johnson and Fernandez parked their cruiser at a distance, then jogged at a comfortable pace to the scene of the crime.
Best to not use words like “comfortable” or even “jogging” at a time of stress. Choose words that fit the anxious mood and tone of the moment better.
Or if someone is about to face a harsh boss, be reamed out about his behavior, and likely fired, avoid detracting from the tension like this:
“You can go in now,” the secretary said, holding the door open for him. He found himself in a comfortable outer room with a stunning view, several armchairs, a bookcase, and a sofa against a wall. A large oak door stood closed on the far wall.
At such a tense time, it’s best not to add anything comfortable or any obviously positive words like “stunning.” That dissipates the tension at a time when you need to keep building it. Besides, the guy isn’t thinking about the view or the comfy furniture at this moment!
Here’s an example from a different book, describing the actions of a nasty villain about to shoot someone:
Before: He smiled. (doesn’t sound very nasty)
After, revised by the author: His mouth was twisted in a cruel smile.
So what’s the takeaway from all this? Don’t overdo the bland, boring verbs, or your scenes will be bland and boring. But if you’re looking for a unique synonym and you’re not 100% sure of the nuances, look each one up in the dictionary so you don’t have your character sneering when you mean smirking, or squinting when you mean peering or glaring.
Your turn. Share some possibilities in the comments below if you feel like playing.
How would a bunch of SWAT team members move after a few miles when training on rough terrain in bad weather?
How would two carefree little girls move around the playground?
How about two top contestants on Dancing with the Stars? How are they moving across the ballroom floor?
How about a more vivid way to say “took” or “carried” something?
Dear friends and blogmates. Today I am retiring as a regular TKZ blogger. After 8 years of posting writing advice and tips, I have run out of things to say—you now know as much as I do about the mysterious black art of writing novels. It’s been a good run. I’m happy to announce that my friend and TKZ emeritus, John Gilstrap, will be returning to take over my slot every other Wednesday. John is a great thriller author with tons of advice and insight to share with all the Zoners out there. I wish John success and I thank all of you for the kind words over the years. Keep writing and keep coming to TKZ.
I’ve killed a lot of people. I’ve shot down a fully loaded commercial airliner, set Moscow on fire, infected thousands with an ancient retrovirus, massacred an archeological dig team in the Peruvian Andes, assassinated a Venatori agent, killed a senior cardinal along with a Vatican diplomatic delegation, murdered the British royal family, and even brought down the International Space Station. I know I’m responsible for more deaths–I just can’t remember them all.
So I confess, I’m a killer.
It’s not always easy. Some of these people I really cared about. The dig team members were likable folks except for the chief archeologist who got on my nerves. I didn’t mind seeing him bite the dust. I really grew to like the Venatori agent, but he wasn’t doing what I wanted him to do, so he “slipped in the shower”. And the British Royals? Well, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But being a killer comes with the territory when writing suspense thrillers.
In real life, death is serious. Whether it’s by natural causes or violence, it’s not to be taken lightly. If the deceased is a loved one or friend, the emotional impact can be staggering, even debilitating.
But there’s a different level of death that we all come in contact with every day that rarely causes us a second thought: Long distance death.
Several hundred passengers drown in a ferry accident off the coast of India. Thousands are trapped in an earthquake in China. Millions starve in Darfur. A Russian jet crashes and kills all on board.
Do we care? Of course we do, but unless those victims were family or friends–unless we have an emotional connection with them–we only care for as long as it takes to turn the page of the morning paper or switch channels.
In developing our main fictional characters, it’s vital that the reader care about them enough to show emotion. Whether they’re heroes or villains, the reader must love or hate them. Neutral is no good.
And that’s a problem I see all too often in books, movies and TV shows. Sometimes I just give up reading or watching because I don’t care enough to care. The characters may be interesting but they get buried in the plot (or CGI effects) to the point that it doesn’t matter to me if they win or lose, live or die. And that’s the kiss of death for a writer. The wheels come off the story and the book winds up in the ditch.
I utilize long distant deaths in my books because I write high concept thrillers that span the globe–what some have called telescope stories rather than microscope stories. I need long distance deaths to support the big threat. But when it comes to the main characters, they better be worth caring about or the wheels just might come off.