First Page Critique: REB’S REVENGE, Chapter 1

Let us welcome Anon du jour, who has bravely submitted the first page of Reb’s Revenge to TKZ’s First Page Critique. Without further ado, let us proceed:

Reb’s Revenge

CHAPTER ONE

Farnook Province

Afghanistan

February 14, 2009

The early morning sky was overcast and there was a chill in the air as the school bus traveled down the rural dirt road that connected the village of Kwajha to the nearby town of Bagshir. The bus was carrying sixteen young Afghani girls from the village of Kwajha to the local school for girls in Bagshir. Recent threats by the Taliban had the bus driver on edge.

Farzana, a young Afghani woman who taught at the girl’s school, was driving the bus. Martha Rawlings, a young American woman who also taught at the school, was leading the children, ages eight to fourteen, in the song “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” The children were taking great delight in singing the song at the top of their voices.

When the Taliban had controlled Afghanistan, they outlawed the education of all girls. Since girls would no longer receive formal educations, there was no need for schools for girls and the Taliban destroyed the girl’s school that had been in the town of Bagshir.

After the Americans defeated Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and drove the Taliban underground, the girl’s school in Bagshir was rebuilt. At the Afghanistan government’s urging, families from the surrounding area started sending their daughters back to school again.

Then the Americans elected a new President who promptly announced that he was going to start withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. He went so far as to tell the world the dates by which he planned to pull the American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Taliban leaders—who had gone underground and were fighting an insurgency in Afghanistan—were overjoyed when they heard the news about the new American President’s military plans for Afghanistan. They knew that, if they bided their time, the Taliban would once again rule Afghanistan.

The school bus rounded a curve and the driver saw that there were two Toyota pickup trucks up ahead blocking the road. Several Afghan men armed with AK-47s were standing in the road signaling for the driver to stop.

As soon as the bus driver realized that the men were Taliban, she slammed on the brakes causing the bus to swerve out of control. The children stopped their singing and started screaming in fear. When the driver turned the steering wheel to try to get out of the swerve, she over-corrected and the bus flipped over onto the driver’s side and slid to a stop not thirty feet from the Taliban roadblock.

Hmm. Okay. Anon, you set up an interesting situation here. The execution of it is not without flaws, but it has possibilities.

Let’s start with a generality. Your narrative point of view ping pongs into and out of that bus several times within the first page.  Let’s keep it in the bus. You actually start to create an interesting mood here before things go slipping away faster than that poor bus and all of its passengers do. Let’s let Farzana drive the narrative and the bus for those first few opening paragraphs. I would hazard a guess that all of us know at least one teacher, so she’s going to be a sympathetic and a somewhat identifiable character. She is also right in the thick of things.  Let’s just focus on the inside of the bus for right now and the terrible danger these teachers and students are in.  I’m not suggesting that you eliminate the political backstory, but put that in later, at the beginning of your next chapter. Instead, let your third person narrative unfold from Farzana’s perspective as to the terrible danger those teachers and students are encountering as follows:

The early morning sky was overcast and there was a chill in the air as Farzana drove the school bus down the rural dirt road connecting the village of Kwajha with the town of Bagshir. She had grown up in this area and knew the twists and turns of the road, but she was still on edge. The Taliban had recently issued threats, and when they threatened, actions always followed.

Farzana noticed that the sixteen girls on the bus didn’t seem to be aware of the danger they were in. Martha Rawlings, the young American woman who had recently joined the school faculty, was leading them in a rousing version of “Old McDonald Had A Farm.” All of the girls, ranging in age from eight to fourteen, seemed to be having a good time, their exuberance for singing making up for what they might have lacked in ability.

Farzana looked at them for just a second in the bus’s rear view mirror. When she brought her attention back to the road…

..and so on and so forth.  Anon, I’d like you to watch the movie Dirty Harry, particularly the last twenty minutes or so where Scorpio hijacks a bus load of school kids and begins leading them in song. The kids at first seem to enjoy the diversion from the usual slog home, but they gradually get the feeling that all is not well. That’s what you want to do. Show that fear radiating off of Farzana, first as she exhibits her own worries as to what is ahead on the road, then how she feels as her worst fears are realized, then further as her inattention/nervousness whatever causes her to lose control of the bus and how she feels as she hears the sounds of the children screaming as the bus tips over and books go flying. Keep that going with whatever happens next, whether the girls are all herded off the bus and massacred — or worse — or a John Rambo type shows up and saves the day.

Also, Anon…you mention Kwajha and Bagshir twice in the first paragraph, and Bagshir as the locale of the school a few more times over the course of the first page. Once for each is sufficient to inform your reader of where the road goes and where the school is located. And once you give the bus driver a name — Farzana — you have personalized her, which is a good thing. Call her “Farzana” thereafter, rather than “the bus driver.”

Anon, you get research points for noting the Taliban’s love of Toyotas (I’d love to see a television commercial where a group of them sing, with rifles raised in the air, “Oh oh oh oh what a feeling! Toyota!” just before a 990 AeroVironment Wasp III vaporizes them all) (but I digress). And while your first page needs some work, what you submitted really makes me wonder what happens next in the world of Reb’s Revenge. One more thing…your first page made me realize that, if I get impatient when I get stuck on the highway behind a school bus, I’m being a jerk. It’s actually a privilege for me to have a school bus in front of me, taking kids to school, without having to worry about a vignette like you describe here. Thank you.

Readers and visitors…it’s your turn to comment. I will remain more or less uncharacteristically silent as you weigh in. Thank you in advance for stopping by and contributing.

 

5+

First Page Critique: DEATH BY PROXY

Good day to you all, and join me in welcoming today’s Anon, who graciously submitted the first page of their work in progress, DEATH BY PROXY, for critical reaction:

If a lawyer saves you from prison and gives you a job, you’ll do anything he asks.

               Which is why Tawny Lindholm was driving at a crawl through a January Montana blizzard, trying to find house numbers on condominium buildings. Whoever laid out Golden Eagle Meadows Golf Resort didn’t have much sympathy for pizza deliveries or a nosy middle-aged woman trying to find the unit where her boss’s father lived. A good six inches of fresh snow layered the street, with more heaped up on the curbs. She parked the Jeep Wrangler and crunched through white banks. Her booted feet shuffle-scuffed on what she hoped was the slippery walkway to the right condo.

               Icy bullets stung her cheeks and nose, penetrating the wool scarf. With a gloved hand, she thumped on the door. Waited. At nine-thirty in the morning, he should be awake. Thumped again. Waited.

At last, the door swung open. Inside stood a preview of what her boss Tillman Rosenbaum would look like in thirty years. Stoop-shouldered, but still way over six feet tall, lanky build, iron gray curls, snapping black eyes, jutting lower jaw, and a suspicious snarl for a greeting. “What?”

               Tawny smiled with as much warmth as she could manage at ten degrees. “Mr. Rosenbaum, my name is Tawny Lindholm. I wonder if I could have a few minutes of your time.”

               “You’re too old to be selling Girl Scout cookies.” The door started to close.

               “I’m not selling anything, sir. I work for your son and he asked me to—“

               “I have no son!” the bass voice roared.

               Tawny forced her smile wider. “Sir, if I could just talk to you for a few minutes.” Her teeth chattered. “I promise I won’t take up much time.”

               The old man glared down at her.

     Tawny had already felt that same rage from the son and learned to stand up to him. Would that work with the father? She met his dark angry eyes with a steady gaze. “Mr. Rosenbaum, your son is my boss and I know as well as you do that he’s a big pain in the ass. If I don’t do what he’s told me to do, he’ll fire me and, sir, I really need this job.”

The first page of Death by Proxy is actually very well done.  Anon, you have a future as a writer, but let’s fix that formatting. Let’s indent the first sentence of each of your paragraphs by five spaces, rather than what you have, and while we are at it double space each line. Also, old guys like John Gilstrap appreciate it when you increase your font size to 12, as I have done above. It makes your efforts easier to read, as opposed to the 9.5 you used originally.

That done, let’s take an overview of what we have. The substance is good. It’s very good, actually.  A lesser writer would have started by describing Tawny Lindholm as a middle-aged woman employed by an attorney who was walking up a driveway in the middle of a snowstorm. Anon tells us all of this in due course, but gradually. Anon starts with an intriguing sentence that raises a question for later — what sort of trouble was/is our protagonist in? — thus baiting the hook that tugs the reader into the story. The mood is very well set, indeed, with the description of the weather. Did Anon grow up in the Midwest? Death by Proxy sure reads like it. I love that “shuffle-scuffed” term. I had never encountered the term before, but I certainly know what it is. We here in flyover country learn at an early age how to “shuffle scuff” on an icy sidewalk or we develop callused posteriors. Anon also does a terrific job of hinting at the conflict between the father and the son. It reminds me of a joke about two guys on a camel and…anyway, it’s well done. I was honestly very disappointed when the page ended.

As good as the substance is, the form needs a little first aid. Fortunately, we’re looking at bandages instead of casts or sutures. I will note, Anon, that it appears you took the time to proofread. I couldn’t find any typos. There’s another good job well done.

Now let’s put the bandages, with a little Neosporin, on the abrasions. One element that sticks out, Anon, is that you seem to like using incomplete and fragmented sentences. You absolutely can and may use them;  they do have a place. Don’t overdo it, however. You’ve got several in your first page. If the rest of your manuscript is similar then I would recommend going through your story and changing four of every five fragments to complete sentences. Using too many of them interrupts the flow of your narration.

Here we go:

Paragraph Two:

— “Which is why Tawny Lindholm was…”

hmmm. “That was why…” would be better. You can and may use a conjunction to start a sentence, but it’s awkward here. You also want the tenses to match, rather than jumping from present to past tense within the space of a few words.

— “…sympathy for pizza deliveries or nosy middle-aged woman…”

For consistency’s sake — what Jim Bell and others who actually know how to teach this stuff would call “sentence parallelism” — you want to use “pizza deliverers” or “pizza delivery people” with “middle aged woman,” thus having “people,” if you will, on either side of that “or,” instead of an action — “deliveries” — on one side and a person on the other.

Paragraph Three:

— “ Icy bullets stung her cheeks and nose, penetrating the wool scarf.”

I love the elements of the sentence, but not the order of the clauses.  Those icy bullets — good description, Anon — penetrate the scarf — her scarf — first, and then sting her cheek and nose. Tell what happens in the order it occurs. “Icy bullets penetrated her wool scarf and stung her cheeks and nose.” (or “…stinging her cheeks and nose.”) Let’s also change the order of the clauses in the next sentence,

—“With a gloved hand, she thumped on the door.”

I’m a sick puppy, so I visualized Tawny holding a severed, gloved hand, bleeding profusely from the wrist, and using it to knock on the door. Switch the clauses and make it personal. “She thumped on the door with her gloved hand.” Or, better yet, “She knocked on the door, her gloved hand almost numb from the bitter cold.”

— “Thumped again. Waited.”

Try transforming these two incomplete sentences into one complete one:  “She thumped (or knocked) again and waited.”

Paragraph Four:

— “…in thirty years. Stoop-shouldered, but…”

Let’s use a colon to make the sentence fragment beginning with “Stooped shouldered” a part of the preceding sentence (I really like the set up, by the way, as it tells us not only what the father looks like but gives us an idea about the son, as well). How about “…thirty years: stoop-shouldered, but…”

Paragraph Five:

— “Tawny had already felt that same rage from the son and learned to stand up to him. Would that work with the father?”

Let’s call the “son” by his name — Tillman — once in while, or by his familiar title, “her boss.” Let’s also break the first sentence up a bit and then change the second sentence slightly to reflect that change, as follows: “Tawny had already felt that same rage from her boss. She had learned to stand up to it, and to him. Would it work with his father?”

Anon, this may seem like a whole slew of corrections, but please don’t be discouraged. Go back to what I said about being disappointed when the first page ended. Please keep going…and thank you for sending your submission to TKZ’s First Page Critique!

I will step aside at this point (for the most part). Are there any comments or questions from our friends out there?

 

6+

Strengthening Your Fiction The Ben Franklin Way

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

For those who advocate the free-form, no-study school of fiction writing, let me call from the grave an expert witness for the other side, one Benjamin Franklin. No slouch as a writer himself, Franklin was also a lifelong student of the art of living well.

In a letter to Lord Kames, dated May 3, 1760, Franklin wrote:

Most people have naturally some virtues, but none have naturally all the virtues. To acquire those that are wanting, and secure what we acquire, as well as those we have naturally, is the subject of an art. It is as properly an art as painting, navigation, or architecture. If a man would become a painter, navigator, or architect, it is not enough that he is advised to be one, that he is convinced by the arguments of his adviser, that it would be for his advantage to be one, and that he resolves to be one, but he must also be taught the principles of the art, be shewn all the methods of working, and how to acquire the habits of using properly all the instruments; and thus regularly and gradually he arrives, by practice, at some perfection in the art.

In Franklin’s autobiography, he sets out his method of moral improvement. He settled on thirteen virtues he wanted in his life: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity and Humility.

Next, Franklin printed up grids with the virtues in the left column, and rows of seven boxes, representing a week. He determined to concentrate on one virtue per week, and leave the other virtues to their “ordinary chance.” In the evening, he would look at the day’s page and assess how he did in the main virtue, while making a mark in those areas where he sensed he needed improvement. Here is what a page on Temperance looked like:

In this fashion, Franklin could go through all thirteen virtues four times a year. Business and sales folk have been using Franklin’s system for decades to improve their own performance. Not via Franklin’s virtues, but by determining their own areas of competence. These are called critical success factors (CSFs).

For fiction writers, I identify seven CSFs: Plot, Structure, Characters, Scenes, Dialogue, Voice and Meaning (Theme).

If you were to set up a self-study program, concentrating on one CSF for seven weeks, in one year you will have covered them all––with three weeks to spare!

Improving just one of the CSFs is going to kick your fiction up a notch. But what if you improved on all seven?

What if your goal was to get 10% better in each? (I know there’s no way to measure that, but you will be able to feel it. So will your readers). If you did that, your writing would improve not just a notch, but exponentially.

If this concept is new to you, let me suggest that you start by regularly investing in craft books.

For plot and structure, modesty prevents me from recommending certain books, like Plot & Structure and Write Your Novel From the Middle. Collegiality, however, would have me alert you to Story Engineering by TKZ’s own Larry Brooks.

My favorite book on characters is Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress.

The best book on dialogue is How to Write Dazzling Dialogue. Modesty prevents me from naming the author.

Scenes? Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld.

Voice? Voice (I’m over the modesty thing).

Meaning or Theme: Writing a Book That Makes a Difference by Philip Gerard.

There are, of course, many other texts you can add to the list. I love books on writing. I still read them. And Writer’s Digest. My philosophy is if I learn just one new thing (or a slightly different take on something I already know) that makes my writing better, it’s worth it.

We also have a stunningly good archive on the craft here at TKZ, too.

And if you feel like making in-depth investment in instruction on all of the above, I can sheepishly recommend the video course Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down.  

Now, add to all that some of your favorite novels and authors who do these CSFs well. For example, when I want a refresher on dialogue, I might turn to Elmore Leonard or Robert B. Parker. For an action scene, I can whip out any of the Jonathan Grave thrillers by a fellow named Gilstrap. For voice, give me some Raymond Chandler or Ray Bradbury. Theme? To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye. Scenes that end so you have to turn the page? Early Stephen King.

Make your own list. Read those books again, or for the first time, taking notes on what the author does well. In my bookshelf in the garage (moved there so I could have more room for books in my house) is a big collection of paperbacks I devoured in the early 90s as I was learning the craft. They are filled with my pencil underlines and marginal notes:

Character sympathy!

Read-on prompt.

Mystery dropped in.

You still have pencils, don’t you? Use them!

And don’t forget movies. I use film a lot when I teach because some of the most important CSFs are complementary twixt film and literature.

Want to see a perfectly structured movie? You can’t go wrong with The Fugitive. how about a big theme wrapped up in compelling characters? Casablanca. Dialogue? Double Indemnity. All About Eve. Sunset Boulevard. A lesson in tension? Eye in the Sky (a recent favorite). The whole history of movies awaits you.

Finally, do some writing exercises that incorporate what you’re learning. Write practice scenes, experiment with voice, do several pages of nothing but dialogue.

And yes, right alongside your study, be writing your novels. When you write, write. Be loose. Don’t think too much. Be very careful about the demon perfectionism. Write your first drafts as fast as you comfortably can, leaving the CSFs, as Franklin did with the virtues, to their “ordinary chance.”

Then, when you edit, think about and apply what you’ve learned.

Repeat over and over the rest of your life.

Do that, and Ben Franklin, flying his kite somewhere near Alpha Centauri, will look down and smile.

9+

FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE: (No Title) by Anonymous

annalisa-and-colman2

Photograph (c) 2015 by Annalisa Hartlaub. All rights reserved.

 

Anonymous, on behalf of all the of TKZ family  I bid you welcome and thank you for submitting to our FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE and thus braving the constructive slings and arrows which may or may not be coming your way!

“Lyssa, come back!” the large, dark haired man shouted.  The woman had lured him into a hedge maze, but he suspected that was only to provide him with a false sense of security.  If the woman had survived this long, had done the things he suspected she did, there was no chance that she wouldn’t know his particular abilities.  He sighed, exhaling slowly and closing his eyes, hearing the voices on the wind as the plants themselves bent to whisper of her actions to him.  She was waiting at the center.  He hesitated, almost turning to leave but deciding that if he could not defeat this hack on his own grounds then he was doomed to fall on hers.  He strode forward, determined and defiant, the plants parting for his footsteps until he reached the end of the maze.

Lyssa saw the dwarf boxes part, a grin crawling onto her face.  She was laying on her back, her head towards the man that currently pursued her and her arms spread out to her sides, tilting her chin up to look up towards the man.  “Did you like the maze mister?  I know how much you love plants.”  She saw him hesitate again, only grinning wider, stretching comfortably on the grass.  Reaching this moment overjoyed her, the peak of her efforts, the climax of this story.  The man was reluctant, but he too had fallen to the strings that bound all living beings, and in a moment he would be no more than a mere puppet, a toy for her to toss away as she became bored with him.  Toys were never any fun after they stopped working.

He had loved her like a daughter.  He still did, but he needed to know what she was.  He continued his strong stride towards her, her words like needles in his mind, laced with that all too familiar giggle.  He snapped his fingers, the hedges moving like vines to snap around her limbs and hold her on the grounds.  She squirmed a little, but her grin did not waver in the slightest.  Was she so confident he would not kill her?  It would take only a moment like this, another snap, but he dared not imagine what the brambles would do to her if he did.

Anon, this is an intriguing opening page with an interesting premise. I like the pacing and was actually disappointed that I only had one page to read. That’s a good sign, especially for someone like myself who doesn’t read fantasy literature on a regular basis. Let’s keep that in mind as I review a few deficiencies which I think are readily remediable:

Names — Give the male character  a name at or very near to the beginning And since you have named the female character “Lyssa,” use her name rather than “the woman” as general rule. Repetitive use of  “the woman” and “the man” tends to depersonalize both of them; when we’re reading we want to get them in focus a little more clearly and naming them will do that.  often than not. And let’s use the term “dwarf boxes” — a terrific name — repetitively instead of “plants,” at least for a couple of pages. Drop little hints, like breadcrumbs through the forest of your story, each one describing the dwarf boxes so that by the third page or so we know that they are plants without telling us. Show, don’t tell.

Perspective — Let’s keep the perspective with the man for the first page or two. It changes here after the first paragraph and it’s a bit of a sudden jump. Shifting perspectives so early in the story and so quickly is a bit jarring, and doing so from paragraph to paragraph is a bit much. I’m seeing a little more of the abrupt shifting, probably for the reason of creating suspense, in published books these days but it usually takes place (much) later in the story. I recommend getting your story rolling — and I mean really rolling, like several chapters — before you start doing that if you do it at all. It appears that you are trying to create what I call a “Bugs (Bunny) and Elmer (Fudd)” scenario, as in Elmer sticking his hand down the rabbit hole saying “Now I’ve got you!” to which Bugs responds, “On the contrary! I’ve got YOU!” You can do this solely from the man’s perspective. He sees her smile, hears her question about the maze, and senses her confidence but is in turn confident in his own powers over the dwarf boxes to control the situation.

Literary elements — Some of the similes, metaphors and turns of phrase in the second and third paragraphs read as if you’re trying just a little too hard. You get an ‘A’ for effort, but sometimes the phrasing is a bit awkward. “Grin crawling on her face…” Ugh. I pictured a spider or something crawling out of the grass. Try something like “The corners of her mouth slowly turned upward.” Then there is“The moment overjoyed her, the peak of her efforts, the climax of this story.”  I’m not sure what that means. The story has barely started and you’re talking about the climax. “The words like needles in his mind…” again, it’s a simile that doesn’t quite work. It’s somewhat cringe-inducing.  I think it’s just a matter of overreaching, and while there are worse sins you could commit I recommend that you focus on telling the best story you can the first time through and then going back and judiciously embellishing your sentences. A great example of a metaphor of yours that works is in the final sentence of the second paragraph. It’s simple and we can all relate.

Relationships — I’m somewhat confused about the extent of the relationship between the two characters. The man knows Lyssa’s name, and indicates that he loves her like a daughter, while from her perspective he is “the man who currently pursued her.” Again, name the man, and you can clear up the confusion by having Lyssa either call him by name, addressing him as “Stranger,” or a bit of further dialogue that hints at their familiarity with one another.

Proofreading — Proofreading is always a must, and you did a good job here, Anon, for the most part. I spotted two mistakes in one sentence in the second paragraph.  “Did you like the maze mister” would read better as “Did you like the maze, Mister?” There are probably more, but possibly not. I need a second steady eye to review my work and recommend that you employ the same if you’re not doing so already.

Anon, all else aside, I like the conflict that you have set up by the end of the page: the two characters are confronting each other, the man seemingly having Lyssa at a lethal disadvantage for a reason that you have revealed, while Lyssa seems to have a yet-unrevealed advantage of her own. Again, I really wanted to see more of this tale when I reached the conclusion of your submission. Keep plugging away and let us know when your efforts are rewarded. And thank you again for submitting your work to our First Page Critique. With that, I shall step aside and let our readers make their comments!

2+

Crystallize Your Novel

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

When I teach workshops based on my book Write Your Novel From the Middle, I usually say that finding your “mirror moment” illuminates the entire book for you. It shows you what the story is really all about, from beginning to end––even if the novel is largely unwritten. So be ye planner or pantser, whenever you find your mirror moment, the path to your completed novel becomes a whole lot clearer.

autumn-imagoThere’s another word to describe what’s going on, and it came to me in an email from writer Bryan Wiggins. Bryan is a serious student of the craft (via Brother Larry Brooks, myself and others). His novel, Autumn Imago, was recently selected as one of only three books to launch Harper Legend, a new imprint of Harper One, a member of the HarperCollins family.

Bryan wrote:

In my story, my protagonist, Paul Strand, is a ranger in Maine’s remote Baxter State Park. Paul has turned his back on his nuclear family after it was shattered by the death of his sister, years before. Circumstances conspire to bring them to the park where Paul struggles between the isolation that has protected him from the wounds of the past and the intimacy that stands as his only chance for the healing that can make him whole. Paul battles those opposing forces throughout the book, but Middle provided me with a way to look at the central turning point in the story that helped me shape the “before and after” of his spiritual catharsis for maximum effect. That scene takes place during a rainstorm in a lean-to at the top of a mountain. There, Paul must decide whether or not to abandon his recovering addict-brother, or to give him the second chance that Paul doesn’t believe he deserves. The Mirror Moment helped me crystallize not only that crisis for Paul, but also helped me sharpen my larger narrative with the clear focus that helped earn the book a publishing contract with one of the “Big 5.”

I like that word, crystallize. It means to assume a definite shape. When Bryan’s character reached that decision point, he was looking at himself (as if in a mirror) and asking, What kind of person am I going to be? The shape of the story became discernable. That’s always a great feeling.

Bryan went on to say:

For a story structure freak like myself, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is to simply surrender to the organic power of writing when the muse begins to sing. But as an analytical writer at heart, I’m always looking for a sharp instrument that I can also apply more directly to my work. Your book has proven to be such a tool.

I love story structure freaks. But I also tell writers that when they write they shouldn’t think about “rules” or “guidelines.” Just write! (“…simply surrender to the organic power…”) But then, afterward, put on the analytical hat. Fix what you can, learn how to fix what you can’t (via craft books, workshops, editors, teachers) and absorb. I always come back to the golf analogy. Don’t think of the 22 most important tips about your golf swing as you swing! Just play! Do your thinking after the round. And if you keep messing something up, go visit a teaching pro.

What will happen is this: you’ll get all those lessons into your “muscle memory,” and they’ll be there for you next time you play (or write!) Bryan went on in his email about writing the second book in his planned trilogy:

As I’ve been outlining, free-writing, and scene-writing my way to the middle of this sequel, I’ve been conscious again of “the magical midpoint moment” of my tale that Middle illustrates. My goal in this novel is to craft a character who demonstrates the drive for success meant to resonate with my readers, but to also show how that force can corrode the compassion for others that should always temper such ambition. Middle has again pointed to a critical mid-manuscript turning point between two opposing forces in my story. In this case, it’s a critical choice Wolf must make about whether or not to propose marriage to his lifelong friend (the girl next door) not for love, but to advance his career. As Middle suggests, that vantage point is providing me not only with one of the big, dramatic beats of my plot, but a perspective for tuning the entire thrust of my story before and after that point for maximum dramatic effect.

Let me add that if you know you’re writing a trilogy, you can have mirror moments for each book, and one for the entire series. There are mirror moments in each of the Hunger Games books, and one big one for the trilogy (hint: it involves Katniss’ inner argument about whether to bring a child into the world).

So I thank Bryan for his email, and the chance to share some of his writing process. You might also be interested in an early blog post by Bryan when he felt “lost” writing his first novel, and how he fought through. It’s called “Eighty Thousand Mistakes.”

To sum up about crystallizing your novel:

  1. When you write, write.
  1. At some point, brainstorm your mirror moment. It’s subject to change, of course, but I think you’ll find one that feels right. Let it be your guide.
  1. Visit the Lead’s pre-story psychology in light of the mirror moment. Flesh out the moral flaw. Why is it there? What happened in the Lead’s backstory that made him this way? (E.g., Rick at the beginning of Casablanca. Why doesn’t he stick his neck out for anybody? Because he was betrayed (he thinks) by the only woman he ever truly loved.)
  1. Brainstorm the transformation at the end (wherein the character overcomes the moral flaw, or has grown stronger). Come up with a visual that proves the transformation. (One of my favorites is in the film Lethal Weapon. Riggs is suicidal, has been carrying around a hollow-point bullet to blow his brains out. At the end, he shows up at Murtaugh’s house on Christmas and presents the bullet—with a ribbon on it—to Murtaugh’s daughter. “Give it to your dad, okay? It’s a present for him. Tell him I won’t be needing it anymore.”)
  1. Finish the novel, let it sit for a few weeks, then start the editing process. What you’ll find is that the issues you have in re-write are not with the central story, but in how you tell it. In other words, because you went to the mirror, the story will have a definite shape. It will be crystallized. Now smooth out edges, deepen characters, sharpen dialogue, tighten scenes.

Then let people read it. Then fix it some more.

This is called growing as a writer.

Which, as the Geico commercials say, is what you do!

11+

Showing and Telling for Thanksgiving

kristy

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all! That said, I have to say that it is extremely inconsiderate of Abraham Lincoln to have scheduled a time-consuming national holiday near the closing stretch of everyone’s NaNoWriMo effort (I mean, the nerve!).  I do, however, have an entertaining suggestion to get you back on your creative track after you have finished dinner. It is also a very basic but extremely well done example of showing instead of telling.

Show, not tell. How often we hear those three words. We often find ourselves telling instead of showing, however, during our writing. It’s understandable because more it’s easier to write “Jack is tall” as opposed to “Jack was easy to spot. To say he looked like Gulliver among a roomful of Lilliputians would be an exaggeration, but not by much”  is harder, but it reads better and begins to set up the locale of your story. That isn’t the post-Thanksgiving creative jumper and example I was talking about, however; no, that would be a film titled Kristy, a slasher film for folks who don’t like slasher films.

Kristy is a very low budget holiday horror film (currently streaming on Netflix) that gets its money’s worth out of every production dime it spent.  The film stars Haley Bennett, who is currently prominently featured in the film adaptation of The Girl on the Train. If I were pitching the idea for Kristy I would call it “Die Hard goes to school.” The premise is fairly basic. A young woman named Justine unexpectedly finds herself alone on her small, rural college campus (but for a couple of  policemen) over the Thanksgiving holiday when she is unexpectedly pursued with great malice and bad intent by a group of masked individuals who insist on calling her “Kristy.” It’s a slow boil for the first half or so of the film, as we watch Justine bid her friends farewell and  go through the paces of studying, getting dinner from a vending machine, doing laundry, and some other mundane things. That first half is also the most important part of the movie, because we learn about Justine. I could tell you, but Kristy SHOWS you what she is studying and what one of her extracurricular activities is (two things that become very important during the second half of the film). Examples abound. The body language between Justine and Aaron, her boyfriend, during the short course of their post, pre-holiday boombah shows two people who aren’t quite on the same page of their relationship without a word being mentioned. Justine conveys compassion, courtesy, and angst with a sentence or a look; the long camera shots up the (initially) quiet and secluded dormitory corridors, with room doors cheerfully decorated create an atmosphere of solitude and loneliness. By the time that Justine attracts the attention of a group of murderous sleazoids when she makes a trip to a local convenience store we pretty much know that she is not the daughter of an Army Ranger who taught her everything she knew.  That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t know anything about defending herself. She just needs to apply what she knows to the matter of defending herself…if she can. If you pay attention to the first half of the movie, you’ll know what she can do, if the creeps don’t get her first.

Yes, there is violence during Kristy, but it’s not gratuitous (well, not entirely). While I wouldn’t let the youngsters watch it I wouldn’t let them watch Old Yeller, either. Kristy has a happier ending. Oh, and if you hate movies where a guy comes in and saves the damsel in distress you will absolutely love Kristy. The reason that I mention it here, however, is that it’s instructive in showing rather than telling, and entertaining too. The reason that I mention it now is that…well, it’s a Thanksgiving  holiday movie with a warm ending. Heh heh heh.

Again, Happy Thanksgiving, whether you take my recommendation or otherwise. Your turn now. What was your best or worst Thanksgiving? My best was in 2006 when my granddaughter was born. My worst was in 1994 when I set my kitchen on fire making dinner. You? And if you have had a Thanksgiving holiday like Justine, please share.

5+

What’s In a Name? A Lot, That’s What

One of my very favorite crowd-source exercises to throw out in a writing workshop is “Name the Man, the Restaurant, the Gas Station, and the Dog.” I make a long list of nouns and we have a free-for-all naming names. Usually I offer qualifiers like, “the preacher shouting on the street corner,” or “the only bar in town,” or “a vegetarian restaurant,” or “a dog owned by a pair of retired missionaries.” You get the idea. It’s an exercise that gets people talking, thinking, and laughing. But it’s also a great reminder of how important names are in fiction.

The right character and place names go a long way to create a universe. It doesn’t matter where on earth The Overlook Hotel is located: the immediate image is that of a hotel teetering on the edge of vast, dangerous space. East Egg and West Egg are two halves of a whole—the old rich and the nouveau riche, forever separated. The image is very simple, implying that the names were determined far back in history; East Egg is old and settled, West Egg is the place where the newly-arrived have to create their own society, just as the American western frontier was settled. Faulkner’s stories would not be the same if they were all set in Jefferson or Bedford County. Yoknapatawpha County is a name not easily forgotten.

There are so many incredible character names in classic fiction: Sam Spade; Ichabod Crane; Humbert Humbert; Major Major Major Major; Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Miss Haveshim; Bathsheba Everdene (could Katniss Everdeen be far behind?); Nick and Nora Charles; Ebeneezer Scrooge. (I culled several of these names from this list, but there are surely many more similar lists out there.) I’ll leave it to you to decide how these names work within their stories.

Every writer has to develop their own system for naming things. Research is critical. If you think you’ve come up with a great name, do a web search for it. It’s surprising how often I discover I’ve accidentally used the name of someone semi-famous. (In my first novel, my editor made me change a name because it was too similar to Liev Schreiber.)

Here are a few names I chose to use in my third novel, DEVIL’S OVEN, an Appalachian Frankenstein story, and why I chose them. I envisioned the novel as a kind of folk tale, and so I let my selections be very broad. I wasn’t worried about naming against type for effect. It’s a rural story, a kind of contemporary mountain fantasy.

Devil’s Oven is the name of the Kentucky mountain where the story takes place. The name had to be archaic and threatening, with a sense of mystery about it. The supernatural is not just suggested, but implied. And the oven part implies that things are created and tempered there over long periods of time.

Ivy Luttrell is the seamstress who not only makes clothes and does alterations for people in the area, but also finds the half-buried, dismembered body of a man on Devil’s Oven and sews him back together. (I know. But it works, I promise.) I liked the delicacy of the name, Ivy. Ivy the character is quiet and attractive and moves slowly but precisely. Ivy the plant winds itself over and through things, just like thread, and before you know it, it has touched everything. The last name, Luttrell, was a bit of a construct. The writer Daniel Woodrell is a friend of mine, and I liked the –rell ending. Luttrell has an antique, Appalachian sound to me. I have no idea if it sounds that way to anyone else.

Thora Luttrell is Ivy’s half-sister and is fifteen years older. Thora is large and plain and has a lot of health problems. She worked for many years at the DMV. I wanted her to have an old-fashioned, but very simple and unadorned name.

Bud Tucker is one of three men who are central to the story. Bud owns a trucking company, as well as a strip club in town. He’s a straightforward guy who works hard to hide his sensitivity. He wears his hair short and worries about intimidating people with his size. His father is Olney Tucker, a self-made coal baron. Olney’s name is pure country. Bud’s opposite is Dwight Yarbro, the squirrely guy who has come to the mountains because he no longer wants to deal with mid-level crime and criminals in the city. In his job as the strip club’s manager, he wears funky, elaborate cowboy shirts (I probably made a Dwight Yoakam connection here), and aviator glasses that make him look a bit like 1970s Elvis.

When I looked back at Devil’s Oven for location names, I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t get more creative than House of Waffles for a waffle house. But then, it does sound a bit against type. A bit pretentious. I only wish I had called it Twyla’s House of Waffles, or Junior’s House of Waffles.

Bud’s strip club is called The Twilight Club. I liked that the name sounds quaint, as strip clubs go. Bud is not a vulgar man, and even though he has opened a strip club, he doesn’t want it to be tacky.

The man that Ivy sews back together is a handsome devil named Anthony. She knows this because it is tattooed on his broad torso. And, yes, he has Mob connections. Sometimes you just go with the stereotype.

Choosing names involves a lot of research and a little magic. Here’s a link to a random name generator, which is a particular kind of magic. I’ve played with it some, but have found it works best for ancillary characters. You have to let it throw up a lot of possibilities if you already have the character sketched out in your head.

I prefer to target names a bit more closely. Here’s my list of qualities in descending order of consideration (always subject to change).

 

–Gender

–Character’s age

–Physical appearance

–Time period

–Location

–Family traditions

–Social class and cultural traditions

–Cultural ethnicity

 

Very occasionally a character will present herself with a first name, but rarely with a second. I spend a lot of time on baby name websites. But the true gold is on the Social Security website, which lists the most popular names by decade for the past 140 or so years.

Names go in and out of fashion, and you can get a feel for what will work as you go through the lists. I’ve also spent time looking at old English documents online, seeking out historical names. Let me make this easy for you: John, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward were very popular for a long, long time..

Social norms change constantly, and it’s important to make sure your characters reflect the world they live in. Pick up any number of pre-WWII novels and you’re liable to find yourself in a minefield of racial and cultural insensitivity.

You can, of course, name your characters and setting anything you like. You are in control, and if a name sounds right to you, you are certainly within your rights to use it. But tread carefully. Keep in mind that no given reader will share your exact cultural background and values, and if you give a character a name that evokes an unpleasant event or stereotype—and the use of it is not a relevant subject in the story—you’ll alienate readers, and rightfully so. That is, if your story even makes it into print. I’m not talking about political correctness, but common sense. If you want to engage readers, you have to meet them at least halfway.

A name carries a lot of weight. If it’s done right, and subtly, it will instantly telegraph important information about the character or location, or even the story’s tone. Sometimes I feel like I’m running a computer program of names in my head, checking possibilities against all the variables. Because I want each name and place to come out exactly right. Don’t make the reader think twice.

What are your tricks for finding the perfect character and place names? What are some of your favorite names in fiction?

 

Laura Benedict’s latest novel is the suspense thriller, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel.

1+

First Page Critique: The Elf Prince

legoelves_character_336x448_farran

Image (c) Copyright 2016, The LEGO Group. All rights reserved.

THE ELF PRINCE

I stepped through the mirror and into the Elven city.  I knew my mother was alive was determined to find her.  If anyone could find her it was the elves; their powers of divination equaled no other.  Compared to the other worlds I’d visited this one was one of my favorites.  Everything was done by magic so the air was clear and clean.  Everything was lush, colorful and the air hung with magic.  The Elves were friendly people; waving to me as I passed.  I continued until the palace came into sight where I stopped and stared in awe.  It seemed to shimmer with rainbows in the light.  Once I got closer I realised that the palace was made of crystal, the sunlight refracted off the many facets and created a rainbow aura around the whole building.

Elven guards flanked the doors as I approached.  Everything about them screamed otherworldliness.  Perfect faces under perfect sapphire eyes, perfect brown hair and perfect bodies.  Everything was so perfect.  The guards didn’t look at me as I approached, but reached out in synchrony and opened the double doors.  The inside of the castle wasn’t crystal as I expected but stone.  I could feel the effects of heavy magic and suspected the stone was changed from crystal.  I continued down the hall and soon came to the throne room.  These doors were opened by another pair of guards.

“Shoes off please miss.”  One guard said.  I slipped off my sandals and stepped into the throne room.  The Elf Prince was lounging in his throne.  He looked different than the others.  His face had a regal edge, his eyes were the color of emeralds and his hair was silvery blonde. He wore all black, contrasting with the pale of his hair and skin.  From across the room his eyes pierced mine.

“You’re looking for your mother.”  His voice was deep and musical.

“How did-” I stopped.  The Elves were masters at divination.  Of course he knew.  “Can you help me?”  I asked, walking up the lush carpet to the throne.

“I could.  But will I help you?”  He watched me calmly.

“Well will you?”   His green eyes watched me with detached amusement.  The Prince stood and strode towards me until we were practically nose to nose.  I looked up, his eyes sparkled as he leaned down and whispered into my ear.

No.” 

 

Let us start with a disclaimer: I read very little fantasy. My interest in the genre is limited to the so-called horror sub-genre, and from there to Turkish and Spanish horror films (I’m not making a recommendation, by the way). So it is that when one mentions the word  “elf” I am generally not interested unless the name “Keebler” is in front of it.  I do know a bit about the contemporary popular fantasy genre, however, and have tried to base my critique on that knowledge. If anyone out there believes that I am too tough or flat out wrong in my First Page Critique of “The Elf Prince” by Anonymous du jour please step right up and say so.

That said, I felt while reading the first page of “The Elf Prince” as if I was in one of those westerns where the cowboy is riding a horse which is out of control, eventually causing the rider (me) to fall off with his foot caught in the stirrup, resulting in his being dragged along until he could bring the steed under control. I am aware that it is part and parcel of fantasy novels to drop the reader in medias res from the first page. When I did read fantasy, back in the day, books like Dune  and Lord Foul’s Bane did exactly that.  I didn’t feel dropped here so much, however, as I felt dragged at warp speed through a field of stones. What I think we’re looking for as readers is to be tugged into the narrative. Here, within the first page, the protagonist arrives in a different world/city populated by elves and within (apparently) seconds goes to the castle where she’s ushered in and given a ‘no” to her plea to help her find her mother before she even asks. Whoa!

My best advice — the short version — is to blow this first page up ( including the title)  and start over. It is what is known in the real estate business as a “tear down,” meaning that you’ve got a great lot but the old house on it does not pass building codes. It’s easier to tear it down and build a new house than to remodel it.

Let’s do that. After the dust settles and the smoke clears we’ve still got the land, and the idea for a story. I suggest, Anon, that you do the following:

Begin by naming things and people. Science fiction and fantasy authors love to come up with exotic titles and words.. Make a list of your characters and give them names. Do the same for the places. “The Elven City” doesn’t cut it. Give it a name. Do the same with the palace. If the palace has guards they’ve undoubtedly got some sort of military hierarchy with titles to match. Those two guys who brought the narrator in probably have a title, like “Garda” or something. Use it.. Give the prince a name, and his throne a name as well. You could make a game of it (…did I really say that?). And who is your narrator? You can drop that into the text quite easily (see below). Since the elves are so smart they’ll be greeting her by her name since they already know it, correct? And what do the Elves call themselves? Do the elves call themselves elves? Do they have different name for themselves? Do they have a term for human beings that can be used in polite company?  I suggest that you avoid calling them “elves” for a bit. You don’t have to explain what each term is; your readers should, if you’re doing your job, be able to pick it up in context. I’ll reference Dune. I had no idea who the Bene Gesserit was at first, but it all gradually became clear. 

Next. I was very confused as to whether our narrator had been to the Elven City before. She seemed familiar with it, but she was describing the elves as if seeing them for the first time. Clear that up. A sentence will do it. One way would be “It looked the same as it did on my previous visits, (insert description of weather and streets here). Or, if it’s her first time, say so.

Also: as you tug us through the narrative give us more detail concerning what the narrator sees. Let her stop and smell the roses. What are the elves doing? Are they selling cookies from market stands or flying through the air on hoverboards? Are they tending to plants or crops? Are they playing with their children? Are they committing acts of mayhem or robbery? Tell us a bit more about what she sees. It will help you to “grow the book” and help your reader visual things as well.

Personal taste: I don’t like the mirror thing at all. How does one control it?The narrator mentions going to other places while using it, but I was wondering how she keeps from winding up in, say, Hammond, Indiana when she wants to go to Louisville, Kentucky, or finds herself in Columbus, Mississippi when she wanted to go to Columbus, Ohio. She might as well be flying. I think that this may be a problem later in your story, so I would solve it at the beginning by getting rid of it.

The narrator states that the elves have perfect eyes, perfect hair, and perfect bodies. What does that mean? Are they all five-feet seven, pleasingly plump and always wearing a winning smile? A term like “perfect” to describe someone can mean many things to many people. Maybe you could describe them as wonderfully crafted sculptures, come to life” in addition to the specific descriptions you do give. And use this as an opportunity to describe your narrator, and how her appearance compares and contrasts with the elves.

Proofread, and get someone else to look it over for you.  There is a grammatical error in the second sentence of the story (where did that “and” go between “alive’ and “was”?), a punctuation error in the seventh (common instead of a semi-colon), and they continue from there. You also use the word “everything” to begin two consecutive sentences. Use it in the first and combine the two sentences. And…if  your narrator and the prince are nose to nose, she doesn’t have to look up at him and he doesn’t need to lean down to whisper in her ear. I am not a proofreader; for every one I find in my own work a fifth grader can find six more. Check your work over as best you can and then get a proofreader to go over it again and again.  

In closing, let me give you an example of some of the elements I’m discussing. There are any number of ways to begin this story, but try this on:

Prince Quaffa stared directly at me and said, “No, Sarah Quinn.”

I had come too far, and expended too much effort for too good a reason to hear a negative answer.I wasn’t going to be brushed off or refused by anyone, not even the royal  Johnny Winter lookalike who stood in front of me. Getting angry, however, wasn’t going to help. I checked myself, took a breath, and tried again. “Your Highness, the abilities of the Huldufolk —”

“Don’t. Call. Us. That.” Prince Quaffa didn’t raise his voice, but it  sounded as if it was coming from the bottom of a well.. His green eyes — so different from the sapphire color of his subjects — sparked with an anger that replaced the shine of aamusement they had exhibited a few seconds before. “We hate that term worse than ‘elf.’” He clenched his fist and struck his chest, whispering fiercely. “We are the Lowenpick, you stumpig!”

“We don’t like being called stumpig,” I replied, trying to keep my voice even.

What the foregoing does is hold the action in one place while telling you just a bit about two the characters and creating immediate conflict. You can spread outward from there. Let Sarah plead her case, and have Quaffa explain why he won’t help. After Sarah leaves Quaffa’s presence and walks through the city, have her describe it and the people a bit. Who knows, maybe she’ll encounter an el…er, member of the Lowenpick who will take pity on her and assist her, using those powers you hinted at in your original first page. Or not. I am sure that our readers will have other ideas and suggestions. Please check them all out, Anon, and take heart. Be not discouraged, but encouraged: continue telling your story. And thank you for submitting your first page to The Kill Zone.

Readers, what say you? I’ll be checking up on things throughout the day but will keep my comments to a minimum..

 

6+

First Page Critique — ORIGINS: JOHN SPARTAN (1965)

molon-labe

Let us welcome our Anonymous du jour today, who has bravely and graciously submitted the beginning of ORIGINS: JOHN SPARTAN (1965) for our First Page Critique:

Father Angelo was lost in a good book and a glass of wine. A fire crackled in the fireplace sending shadows dancing across the walls and ceiling. The winter storm shook the windows and wind howled as lightning tore at the dark skies. It was a bad night to be outdoors. But indoors it was safe, St. Luke’s shrugged the east Virginia storm off like a knight in dark armor.  Clad for battle and standing ever vigilant. The Old Brick Church had been standing since 1820.

A knock at his door interrupted his reverie of times past and he called out, “Come in.” Thomas, the resident groundskeeper cradled a sodden bundle in his arms. A basket wrapped in oilskin. Thomas looked like he was confused so Father Angelo motioned him over to the desk as he cleared a place for him to set the bundle down.

“I heard a knock at the vestry door on the south wall Father.” said Thomas. “When I opened the door this was sitting on the stoop. There was no one to be seen. I called out but no one answered me. They left him to us.”

Father Angelo’s eyes widened as he arched a brow, “Him?”

“Yes Father, a baby boy.” said Thomas.

Father Angelo carefully pulled the flap aside and the bluest eyes he had ever seen gazed back at him. The child was swaddled in rough burlap and wool blanketing. He noticed a card in the folds and pulled it out to read it. The card was hand written in precise Greek lettering,ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ.

“What does it say Father?” asked Thomas.

“Molon laveh, it means ‘Come and take it’ in Greek” Father Angelo explained. “When the Persian King Xerxes demanded King Leonidas of Sparta to surrender their weapons at the Battle of Thermopylae King Leonidas replied, “Molon lave! Come take them!”

As he watched the infant he realized the child was not crying but gazing back at him. He sensed an intelligence in the child. There was no fear, only a keen curiosity.

“What do we do Father? How will we take care of him?” asked Thomas

“It appears our little Spartan has planned ahead.” said Father Angelo as he lifted the baby from the basket. Layered inside was bundle upon bundle of US money. More money than he had ever seen in one place.

“Holy cats Father! That will surely keep the little man in milk and diapers!” exclaimed Thomas.

Both men jumped when a white gold ring dropped from the swaddling and rang out in the purest tone as it bounced across the desk then settled into a lazy circle before stopping. The ring was engraved with more Greek symbols inside and out.

How many more mysteries can my heart take tonight? Father Angelo wondered as a bolt of lightning hit just outside followed by a deafening thunder clap. Both men were visibly startled but, the baby simply gazed outside at the ferocity of nature’s fury. There was no fear, only a keen curiosity.

Father Angelo crossed himself as he breathed a prayer.

 

All right, TKZers. Let’s begin with some general and positive comments. Anonymous gets points here for immediately setting time and place. I’m always surprised at how many authors don’t and make the reader work for it. There is also some good, even impressive, pacing here. I never had the sense that the narrative was flying off in two or three different directions or that too much was being introduced, nor did I feel that things were dragging at any particular point. Anonymous takes a familiar incident — a baby left at a stranger’s door — and plays with it just a bit here. My interest was piqued, and it still is. I hope Anonymous keeps going with this story. I really wanted a second page to pop up.

Are there areas for improvement? Sure. There are a couple of speed bumps — as opposed to potholes — in the narrative which slow things down just a bit (as opposed to breaking the story’s axle) and which can easily be fixed. There are also a couple of other problems which are easily correctable with a proofreader and a dictionary. I additionally have a suggestion for an addition which might make the story more interesting. Let’s proceed.

SPEEDBUMPS: These occur in the first paragraph, interestingly enough. The sentences for the most part are terrific but they’re (mostly) in the wrong order. ORIGINS were a movie the camera would be cutting in and out of what I am assuming is Father Angelo’s rectory (we’re never really told). Remember the opening lyrics to the song “Let It Snow.” It begins by telling us that it’s frightful outside but delightful inside. If you reverse those, it doesn’t work quite as well. I suggest taking the readers by the hand and leading them from outside to inside. While doing that, tell us just a bit about where “inside” is, and, oh yeah…don’t use the same noun twice (“storm”) in this short paragraph. I’m suggesting something like this, with my additions in boldface:

St. Luke’s shrugged the east Virginia storm off like a knight in dark armor. The building known as The Old Brick Church had been standing since 1820, clad for battle and standing ever vigilant.The winter squall  shook the windows and wind howled as lightning tore at the dark skies. It was a bad night to be outdoors, but indoors it was safe. A fire crackled in the fireplace of the rectory den, sending shadows dancing across the walls and ceiling, while Father Angelo relaxed, lost in a good book and a glass of wine.

Also…Anonymous, please frame the scene, just a bit.  please tell us if it’s snowing or raining. It can do either during the winter in eastern Virginia. As those of us in Ohio know well, it can lightning and thunder during a snowstorm. Please also describe the rectory den or living room where Father Angelo is relaxing.  Thomas is later going to be directed to set the bundle on “the desk.” What desk? Have Father Angelo direct Thomas to a large antique rolltop desk, a partner’s desk, or something/anything like that so that we can get a better sense of what the scene look like.

Errors — Some proofreading is in order. Take it from the World’s Worst Proofreader (me). I’m counting several, most involving the omission of a comma where there should be one. The most obvious ones occur when Thomas is speaking to Father Angelo. “I heard a knock at the vestry door on the south wall, Father,” “What do we do, Father?” and “Holy cats, Father!”  to name but three. There are others, involving missing commas, misplaced commas and a run-on sentence or two. Get someone to proofread for you with special attention to punctuation. Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, Thomas does not say “Father” too often. It was as common in the 1960s to say “Father” in every sentence directed to a priest as it is to say “SIR!” in the Marines.

molon laveh, molon lave, molon labe: I don’t want to get into a “you say tomato, I say tomahto” discussion but Anonymous spells “molon labe” two different ways here, “molon laveh ” and “molon lave”. The correct English spelling in English is “molon labe.” The pronunciation in attic Greek would be “molon labe” with a hard ‘b’; in modern Greek it would be “molon lave,” which may be what Anonymous is trying to convey.  Spelling aside, I think that Father Angelo would correctly use the attic Greek pronunciation, given that he was describing Leonidas’ response to Xerxes, which was spoken well over two millennia ago. Also, Anonymous should be italicizing “molon labe” in the manuscript. Did I spend too much time on that? Maybe, but there are folks out there who will climb straight up your backside over that particular error. Anonymous gets points for spelling the phrase correctly when using Greek lettering.

— Anonymous uses sentence fragments occasionally. I think that these are stylistically deliberate, rather than grammatical errors. Cormac McCarthy, to name but one, utilizes fragments to great effect. These would be fine, all other things being equal, I found them to be a bit of a distraction but that says more about my own preference than anything else.

Suggestions — Consider a Prologue, describing how Little John would up on the church doorstep. Give us a bit of insight into the thoughts of the person who left him there. You can also describe how really, really, frigging cold it can get at night during a Virginia winter.

— There’s no need to go overboard at all on this but perhaps a bit of a description of Father Angelo and Thomas would be in order. I had no problem visualizing either, since I was practicing Catholic during the time period, but some of the readers might.

— St. Luke’s is a real church in a real place. You may want to consider using a fictitious church with a different name in a similar location which people might recognize as St. Luke’s but which won’t be specifically identified as St. Luke’s. That way you can avoid having a notice of excommunication nailed on your door!

Thank you, Anonymous, for submitting your work. Be not discouraged, but encouraged. This story has good bones and you have a great sense of pacing. I also detect a great story on the way. I hope you’ll let us see it when it’s complete. Good luck!

As for our readers: does ORIGINS: JOHN SPARTAN pique your interest? Were you disappointed that there weren’t more pages? Do you have any additional suggestions?

 

3+

Character and Conflict

Now that they are in middle school (OMG!) my boys have begun analyzing books in their language arts classes in terms of the classic three-act structure. As part of this they have been identifying and discussing the nature of character and conflict. Now, we here at TKZ have often talked about the need for characters to be placed in conflict to give a book both momentum and purpose. In the mystery and thriller genre usually the nature of the conflict is critical to the plot (without conflict there’s no rising tension or action). Nonetheless, it’s been interesting to observe my own kids analyzing their class book in terms of the nature of the character conflict involved. They have to categorize this conflict in terms of:

  • Character vs. character
  • Character vs. nature
  • Character vs. society/community
  • Character vs. self

In many books a degree of conflict may exist on all of these levels, but I realized, while discussing these elements with my boys, that it would be a useful exercise for me to undertake on my own WIPs – mainly because, if I couldn’t nail down the conflict in my own draft yet, perhaps I didn’t really have as good handle on my character or the plot as I thought.

Even though I am an outliner, I rarely I go through the exercise of analyzing my own book in terms of the character conflict involved – I just assume I know what it is as I piece all the elements together. It’s only when something goes wrong, that I take a step back and try to analyze where things may have gone adrift. Sometimes the issue/problem is that I haven’t articulated in my own mind the true nature of the character conflict involved. Luckily, taking that step back means I can usually resolve the problem:) However, I do think when beginning any new project it doesn’t hurt to ask the question in the first place.

So TKZers, what about you? Do you take the time to identify and analyze your character conflict while your writing or do you go with the flow? How would you characterize the  conflict for your main character in your current WIP?

3+