First Page Critique – Brueghel the Elder (Pros/Cons of Using First Person)

We have another first page anonymous submission from an intrepid author. My comments on the flip side.

 

 

Brueghel The Elder

My name is Lucas.  Lucas M Steiner.  My friends of course never pass up the opportunity to use it.  “LUKE, I’M YOOR FAHTHER.”  I cannot describe in words how much I have come to loathe that line.  Don’t misunderstand.  I thought the movie was great—just like everybody else.  But after you’ve heard the same joke a thousand times the charm wears thin.  And invariably they say it as if they were the first person to have thought of it.  The last impresario of impish wit went so far as to put his head inside of a metal trashcan to get that much-coveted “voice of god” effect.  He then walked smack into the edge of a swinging kitchen door and landed square on his ass.  He leaned back against the wall and remained there the rest of the evening.  I don’t go to parties so much anymore.  Suffice it to say, the Force has not been with me.

 

​At one time in my life I thought things would be different.  At one time I thought I would be tenured, published, renowned, and happily on my way to a well endowed retirement by now. Instead I am here telling you this story.  Things didn’t work out as I had planned.  Who knew?
 

​I wanted to teach.  Specifically, I wanted to teach art.  During my post-graduate years at the school—you’ve heard of it but it doesn’t matter as they are all somewhat similar—I had the opportunity to teach an art history class.  Several, in fact.   I loved art.  I loved the making of it.  

 

I loved the history of it.  And I loved teaching it and if I was good enough and  lucky enough I may have imparted a little of that love to some of those previously unimpressed minds full of mush.

 

​My schedule was pretty agreeable.  It consisted of an hour and a half lecture twice a week and office hours on class days.  I taught a survey course—sort of a “greatest hits” list of the marquee masters.  The remainder of my time was spent on research.

 

 

My thoughts:

I love the intimacy of first person point of view. I became more aware of the effectiveness of this kind of narrative after getting hooked on Young Adult books, but recently I’ve seen more suspense authors (for adult crime fiction) doing this with success, so much so that I’m trying it myself with my latest project. It is very tempting to follow the stream of consciousness of a strong character to hear their story in your head, but an author should still be aware of what will entice a reader to stay tuned and keep turning pages.

 

Advantages of First POV:

1.) First person is easier to write (if you get the whole stream of consciousness thing going where you don’t filter yourself much) and it can help you flesh out the character – a good exercise even if you write in third POV.

 

2.) There is an immediate connection and intimacy to a first person POV voice. It is a blast to write. Even if you are writing in third and come across a bad writing day where nothing works, try writing your character’s diary and see what I mean. It can jumpstart your creativity.

 

3.) Writing in first person creates a clear perspective and a more linear plot involving the same character in every scene, but you better love that character—and make the reader love him/her too.

 

 

Challenges of First POV:

1.) If you choose to stay in first POV only, you must stick in the head of the character and plot the book from only things they can see. By doing this, you may give up some ability to manipulate your plot for mystery elements through secondary characters or foreshadow the workings of a villainous mind. Your character can only know what they have seen through your plot. This can be a limitation. I mix first with third POV to keep all my flexibility and tag the start of every scene where the main character is in first person so the reader can easily follow, but this method may not suit every author.

 

2.) The gender of the character can be a challenge if you do not identify your character, as the author did here with a name. He/she pronouns aren’t used, so you should find a way to indicate early on which gender is speaking before the reader gets too far along with an idea.

 

3.) The biggest challenge is not slipping into the “tell” mode, rather than the “show” mode in a first person narrative. This submission falls in that category where the lure of the narrator appeals for a while, but when nothing really happens in the critical first paragraphs, the reader’s mind may stray. Give the character something to do that will showcase his nature and attitude so the reader sees why he is a star in your story.

 

4.) Setting the scene can be a challenge in the first person. You have to “see” the surroundings and convey them through your character’s eyes, using the same attitude and flavor of their voice, without being obvious that you are “setting the stage” with an inventory or checklist.

 

Comments on the Submission:

1.) I tend to like a more distinctive first line to start a story, something more memorable, or something that might foreshadow what’s to come, or say something more about Luke than his first name.

 

2.) I was lured into the story for the first paragraph, but the weight of that paragraph (with nothing going on except one incident at a party and a Star Wars schtick on the perils of being called Luke) had my mind starting to drift toward the end. The last few lines of that paragraph were the first indicator that he was at a particular party and justify why he doesn’t go to parties anymore. It might be more interesting to me if Luke shared the reason he wasn’t a party animal, and how that might relate to the rest of the story as to why his life didn’t work out, but that could just be me.

 

3.) This intro quickly turned into back story dump. The author should focus on creating a “Defining Scene” for Luke by showing us who he is, similar to Johnny Depp in his Pirates movies. In that first scene, Depp does something that will be memorable while also revealing something of his nature. In one nutshell, a moviegoer will know who Capt Jack Sparrow is.

 

4.) In writing first POV, an author can get so invested in their character, that they can’t edit  out what need to go to keep the pace moving. Therefore the actions of the character must dictate what’s important, with a peppering of the character’s thoughts added for seasoning/spice.

 

5.) The title needs work, but perhaps this is only a working title. Without knowing what the story is about, the significance of the title doesn’t stick with me.

 

What do you think, TKZers? Our daring author could use good feedback to help improve the intro.

 

 
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The Trilogy Trick – Guest Spot with Michelle Gagnon

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I am very excited to have Michelle Gagnon as my guest, but she is definitely no stranger to TKZ. Many of you know Michelle was a former contributor extraordinaire to our blog and I’m excited to hear her thoughts on trilogies and her latest release. Welcome, Michelle!

Don't Look Now HC C

Hi folks, I’ve missed you! So good to be back on TKZ.

With the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Hunger Games, trilogies are all the rage these days. In fact, when I first pitched an idea for a young adult novel to my publisher, they specifically requested a trilogy. I agreed, because hey, what author wouldn’t want to guarantee the publication of three more books? Besides, I’d written a series before. How much harder could a trilogy be?

The first one, DON’T TURN AROUND, turned out to be the easiest book I’ve ever written. The rough draft flowed out of me in eight weeks; it was one of those magical manuscripts that seemed to write itself.

I sat back down at the computer, confident that the second and third would proceed just as smoothly; even (foolishly) harboring hopes that I’d knock the whole thing out in under six months.

Boy, was I wrong.

Here’s the thing: in a regular series, even though the characters carry through multiple books (and occasionally, plotlines do as well), they’re relatively self-contained. In the end, the villain is (usually) captured or killed; at the very least, his evil plan has been stymied.

Not so in a trilogy. For this series, I needed the bad guy—and the evil plot—to traverse all three books. Yet each installment had to be self-contained enough to satisfy readers. 

Suffice it to say that books 2 and 3 were a grueling enterprise. But along the way, I learned some important lessons on how to structure a satisfying trilogy:

  1. Each book has its own arc. Well, that’s obvious, right? But what this really means is that book 3 can’t feel like a mere continuation of book 2. Even if your villain/evil plot spans all three books, you need to provide resolution at the end of each installment. This is a good place to employ what I’ve dubbed, “The Henchman Rule.” At the end of each book, someone needs to be held accountable; otherwise your hero/heroine won’t seem to be making any headway. And the best solution for this? Get rid of the main baddie’s number 2, his right hand man. My favorite example is the stripping of Saruman’s powers at the end of The Two Towers. Sauron must wait to be dealt with in The Return of the King, but his main wizard is handily dispatched by Gandalf (suffice it to say, I didn’t have much of a social life in junior high school). 
  2. Avoid “Middle Book Syndrome.” What I discussed above is particularly challenging in the second book of any trilogy. This is the bridge book, the one where the characters need to move forward in their quest, but not too far forward. Traditionally, this is also the book that concludes with your main character (or characters) beaten down, exhausted, and uncertain of the possibility of success. Which can be a pretty depressing note to end on, unless you also provide them with a key: something that will help them surmount obstacles in book 3. That key can be any number of things: more information about the evil plan, the villain’s only vulnerability, etc. But the main goal is to set the stage for book 3, while still wrapping up enough threads to keep your readers happy.
  3. Character arcs need to span all three books. In a standalone, the main character faces some sort of incident that jettisons her into extreme circumstances (ie: Katniss’s sister losing the lottery). An escalation of events follows: the character is forced to confront her own weaknesses, and to discover her hidden strengths. At the end of Act 2, the character is usually at a low point, facing potential failure. Then, in the final act, the character rises to the occasion and ends up saving the day. In a trilogy, these same rules apply: but the conclusion of each book corresponds with the act breaks. Example: at the end of The Girl who Played with Fire (#2 in the trilogy), Lisbeth is horribly injured; she needs to overcome that incapacitation in order to finally vanquish her father in book 3.
  4. Avoid information dumps. Always a good rule, but trickier with trilogies. While working on the final installment, I kept butting up against this issue: when characters referred back to earlier events, how much background information was necessary to keep readers from becoming irrevocably lost? In the end, I provided very little. The truth is, it’s rare for people to start with the third book in a trilogy; I’m sure it happens, but it’s the exception, not the rule. So what you’re really doing is giving gentle reminders to people who might have read the last book months earlier. Provide enough information to jog their memory, without inundating them. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but I’d recommend erring on the side of giving less, not more.

So those are my tips, earned the hard way. Today’s question: what trilogies (aside from those I mentioned) did you love, and what about them kept you reading?


Michelle_Gagnon_color_09_optMichelle Gagnon is the international bestselling author of thrillers for teens and adults. Described as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets the Bourne Identity,” her YA technothriller DON’T TURN AROUND was nominated for a Thriller Award, and was selected as one of the best teen books of the year by Entertainment Weekly Magazine, Kirkus, Voya, and the Young Adult Library Services Association. The second installment, DON’T LOOK NOW, is on sale now (and hopefully doesn’t suffer from “middle book syndrome.”) She splits her time between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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If it bleeds, it leads

Hosted by Joe Moore

Today I’m pleased to welcome back to TKZ my friend and fellow ITW member, Julie Kramer. Julie is an internationally published and award-winning crime author, and one of my favorite writers. Her latest thriller, SHUNNING SARAH (Library Journal starred review) was released yesterday and I hope you’ll grab a copy. Enjoy!

My fifth media thriller, SHUNNING SARAH, is out this week and I’m starting to think julie_pressmaking my heroine a TV reporter might not have been such a good idea. One of the general rules of novel writing is that your protagonist should be “likeable.”

But just the other day a Gallup poll said the public’s trust in TV news is at an all-time low, almost as low as Congress. I can understand those stats. After all, two networks, in their zeal to be first, recently flubbed coverage of the Supreme Court’s ruling on government-mandated health care. Another network took liberties editing audio of a 911 call in the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida.

Used to be, journalists were the good guys. America cheered TV shows like Mary Tyler Moore, Lou Grant, and Murphy Brown. And don’t forget, Superman’s day job was as a reporter for the Daily Planet. And Spiderman took pictures for his local newspaper. In Network, Howard Beale became a provocative folk hero for railing “I’m mad as hell and won’t take it any more.” And in real life, Woodward and Bernstein inspired a generation of investigative journalists, including me.

The tabloidization of mainstream media and the narrowing of the line between news and gossip have damaged the credibility newsrooms once took for granted. Are we heading back to the sensational days of yellow journalism? My heroine, Riley Spartz, sure hopes not.

kramer-sidebar3I hear from readers who continue to appreciate her as a character because she reflects the problems plaguing newsrooms across America. Her voice is cynical, yet principled as she chases ratings and villains.

I know from a career in the television news business that words can be weapons. Satire and deadpan humor help Riley cope as news budgets are cut and bosses demand 24-7 coverage. Readers tell me they don’t watch news the same way after reading my books. It’s like sausage and laws. You don’t want to watch how they’re made. And my former news colleagues sometimes wish I wasn’t quite so candid.

“Did you have to tell them ‘if it bleeds it leads?’” they ask.

But it’s important for my writing to accurately reflect the state of the news business, good and bad. Because I love news. I’m addicted to knowing who, what, when, where and why. And I honestly believe a free, objective press is one of the best things our society has going. I like it when reviewers praise my depiction of behind-the-scenes action in the newsroom – warts and all.

But what I really need is for the new HBO series, The Newsroom, to take off big and get viewers rooting for TV news again. Then maybe I could sell film rights, and Riley could make it to the big screen.

How big a role does a character’s profession play in what you write or read? And if you simply need to rant about the media, I won’t take offense. 

Investigative television journalist Julie Kramer writes a series of thrillers: STALKING SUSAN, MISSING MARK, SILENCING SAM, KILLING KATE and SHUNNING SARAH—set in the desperate world of TV news. Julie won the Daphne du Maurier Award for Mainstream Mystery/Suspense, RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best First Mystery as well as the Minnesota Book Award. Her work has also been nominated for the Anthony, Barry, Shamus, Mary Higgins Clark, and RT Best Best Amateur Sleuth Awards. She formerly ran the I TEAM for WCCO-TV before becoming a freelance network news producer for NBC and CBS. Visit her website at http://www.juliekramerbooks.com/

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Character Development

Today, our guest is my friend and fellow South Florida writer Nancy Cohen. Nancy is the author of 15 novels including futuristic romance and mysteries. For many years, Nancy and I have served as beta readers for each other’s work.

nancy-cohen I like to discuss story development because despite all the advance plotting we do, fiction writing still remains a magical process.  My agent is marketing a new mystery series proposal of mine.  Here are some insights on how the story developed.  It may help you with your own mystery.

I’d written the first 20 pages but then I came to a halt.  I was nearly to the point where I had to introduce the suspects, but I needed to know them better first.  I’d made a list of the people who were family or acquaintances of the victim.  Next, I gave them each a dirty secret so they all appeared to have a motive for murder.  The next step, and one at which my subconscious came into play, was to connect the suspects to each other.  This is when the story really starts to get more defined.  Think of the Milky Way and how the planets swirl in a big sweeping motion around the central core of our sun.  They start to condense, tighten, draw together.  That’s what happens in my head.  The story comes into focus. 

Here is where personal experiences come into play as well.  An acquaintance told me she sells an anti-aging product, and she handed me a flyer.  Cool.  One of my characters, a pharmacist, will be a snake oil salesman who markets a false product he claims is derived from water beneath the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine.  That’s where he lives, and I’d already planned to go there on a research trip.

Then I overheard a conversation in our beauty salon.  Marla Shore, heroine/sleuth of my Bad Hair Day series, would have been proud of me.  One lady spoke about how someone was running down ducks in her neighborhood and the cops were trying to catch him.  The police would arrest him on charges of animal abuse. I gave this nasty act to another one of my suspects.  It shows his perverted character.

For my people’s occupations, I used a book called The Fiction Writer’s Silent Partner by Martin Roth.  This reference is a great source of inspiration. It lists all kinds of things related to character background, plotting, slang, genre conventions, and more.

Once I had the bare bones of my suspects, I searched for pictures to represent them.  Here I plowed through my character file, where I keep photos I’ve cut out from magazines.  I wait for that “Ah ha!” moment when the person’s face matches my character.  This inspires the physical description and maybe adds more background on the individual’s personality. 

Each suspect gets a page in my notebook with their picture and a brief description.  The heroine/sleuth gets a full page with what I call my Character Development Tool. This includes physical traits, strengths and weaknesses, short and long term goals, dark secret, etc.  See Debra Dixon’s book: GMC: Goal, Motivation, & Conflict for excellent advice on this topic.  Besides the suspects and victim, then I have to develop the recurrent characters: the sleuth’s friends, family, colleagues, and love interest.  Book one requires laying the groundwork for the entire series.

Once the character development is done and the relationships defined, the plot takes shape.  Then I can write the synopsis.  At this point, the words are ready to spill out on paper.

Do you develop your characters before plotting the story or vice versa? Or are you a pantser rather than a plotter?

SilverSerenade Nancy J. Cohen is a multi-published author who writes romance and mysteries.  She began her career writing futuristic romances. Her first title, CIRCLE OF LIGHT, won the HOLT Medallion Award.  After four books in this genre, she switched to mysteries to write the popular Bad Hair Day series featuring hairdresser Marla Shore, who solves crimes with wit and style under the sultry Florida sun.  Several of these titles made the IMBA bestseller list. PERISH BY PEDICURE and KILLER KNOTS are the latest books in this humorous series. Active in the writing community and a featured speaker at libraries and conferences, Nancy is listed in Contemporary Authors, Poets & Writers, and Who’s Who in U.S. Writers, Editors & Poets. Nancy’s new release, SILVER SERENADE, is a sexy space adventure and her fifteenth title.

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Down the rabbit hole…and back

I’m ba-a-ack

First of all, thanks so much to Joe and the rest of the Killers (and our wonderful blog readers) for doing a great job during my absence by holding Open Tuesdays
I’ve been on “medical hiatus” for a couple of months. Here’s what happened: Back in May, I received an unexpected diagnosis of hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain). When the MRI confirmed the disorder, I instantly reframed a number of gnarly symptoms that I’d been suffering for some time. Before the diagnosis, I thought I’d been going through a number of garden-variety ailments (mid-life malaise, vertigo, migraines, clumsy gait, plus being out of shape), so it was shocking to discover that many of the symptoms were being caused by a plumbing problem in the brain (well, except maybe for being out of shape). 
I reacted calmly at first, but then total panic set in. I froze. I stopped almost all activities–driving, the gym, reading, writing, walking the dog…you name it. I went into the hospital for tests, and surgery was indicated. Then a complication set in (the last thing you want to hear when it comes to your brain), and the next round of surgery has been postponed until late August.

So now, here it is late July, and I’ve decided to unfreeze. I can’t change the fact that recovery is going to be a long haul, but I’m now forcing myself to resume some regular activities. First and foremost, I have rededicated myself to writing every day. I went a long spell without writing a single word. Concentration and short term memory is an issue with hydrocephalus, and for a long time, even the weekly blog post seemed an overwhelming task.
But that changed slowly. Like tiny songbirds of spring returning to a tree, I began resuming certain interests and activities. The first bird to return was reading. After a while, for inspiration, I started doing “writer’s reading,” which is when a writer reads books of the type he or she would like to write. Then I started jotting down notes on index cards. Next, I started triangulating on the story I’d like to be writing. (What if this happened, and then that?). Then one day I opened up my laptop and typed an opening paragraph. And so it has gone from there. 
So things are getting somewhat back to normal. It’s been an interesting challenge, trying to recover both physical and creative equilibrium. On the physical side I still have a ways to go, but I’m holding my ground on the creative side, which for me means continuing to write.

So thanks again to you all, just for being here today. And I’m wondering: Has there ever been a time when you’ve had to really fight to keep writing, due to physical or mental challenges, or your circumstances?


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