From My Bookshelf: Early Writing Lessons

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Back when I decided I had to try to become a writer (even though I’d been told you can’t learn how to do it, that you’re either born a writer or not, and sorry, bud, if you’re not) I joined the Writer’s Digest Book Club. I had to see if I could learn, because the desire to write had come back into my life like a long, lost love.

Behind me in my office is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf stuffed with my beloved writing books, a goodly portion of them purchased from WD. I thought it might be fun, from time to time, to look back at the early lessons I picked up during my unpublished days. I’ll look not only at the books, but also the several binders of Writer’s Digest magazines which I devoured each month. The underlines, highlights and sticky notes are like an archaeological dig into the formation of one writer’s mind.

One of the first books I got from WD was Dare to Be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction by Leonard Bishop. Bishop was an old-school fiction writer in the naturalistic style of James T Farrell. He also did a lot of teaching and editing. I ordered the book because I thought, Wow, 329 keys! I better get cracking!

Something funny about the book—there is no order in the material. It’s a collection of short selections that hop around between plot and characters and scenes and openings and point-of-view and the publishing business and so on. There’s an index which categorizes the subjects for you, but I happily got out my highlighter and sticky notes and read the thing from cover to cover.

It’s so much fun to look back to see what stuck out to me. For instance, on page 39 I highlighted the section called Details of Setting, wherein Bishop writes, in part, “Details of setting should be incorporated into the activity of a character. When details are put down separately from the character, they either intrude, slow the pace, or take the focus away from the character.”

Bishop then, as he does throughout the book, gives examples of how to do it, and how not to do it. And boom! I had learned something about the craft of fiction that I could immediately put to work to make my stuff better. I learned it because someone taught it to me in a book.  

Take that, skeptics!

In the middle of Dare to Be a Great Writer I have a sticky note next to the heading Avoid Repetitious Settings. Bishop says, “When rewriting, be alert for a repetition of setting. This repetition quickly reveals that the writer has been lax in his use of invention or is uninformed about the time in which the characters are living. To avoid this, list the settings you have already used and determine how often you have used them.”

Apparently I got the message, because just the other day I was writing a scene in a restaurant. I moved the characters outside to a hot dog stand where there is more activity going on. And now I realize that move was probably put in my head thirty years ago by Leonard Bishop.

But even more interesting, to me at least, are my own notes scribbled on the blank flyleaves of Bishop’s book. I added 14 more “keys.” These were things that occurred to me as I wrote my own pages or when I noticed what another author did in a novel.

I even numbered them according to Bishop’s scheme. For instance, #330, my first note, says Turn the Cliché 180°. I jotted an example of a man and woman going fishing, with the man being skilled and the woman being clumsy. Switch the roles, I wrote.

#332 is Close Your Eyes When Typing. Especially good for description. Capture the scene.

My last note , #343, says: In first rewrite, take out as much info in opening chapters as you can, in order to make it move and be more mysterious. Fill in the info later. TKZ regulars will recognize this as my later formulation, Act first, explain later. It first occurred to me back around 1990!

What I remember most about Dare To Be A Great Writer is the excitement I felt every time I opened it up. I wanted to be a great writer. Here was a book that was filled with the how. I’d wasted ten years believing the Big Lie that you can’t learn to write fiction. This book dared to tell me I could.

So I did.

What is one of the earliest writing lessons you picked up? Where’d it come from?

21+

It Helps If You Can Write

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“For a long time now I have tried to simply write the best I can. Sometimes I have luck and write better than I can.” – Ernest Hemingway

There’s an old joke about a guy who gets paired with a priest for a round of golf. They hit the first green in regulation. The priest has a thirty-foot putt with a big break. He crosses himself and drains the putt.

The guy misses a five-footer.

On the next green, the priest crosses himself and nails a fifteen footer. The guy misses his.

Same story on the third green.

As they’re about to tee off on the fourth hole, the guy says, “Father, I noticed what you do before you putt. You think if I crossed myself I’d start making mine?”

The priest says, “It couldn’t hurt, my son.”

On the fourth hole the guy has a straight ten footer. He crosses himself, putts, and misses.

“So what happened?” he asks the priest.

And the priest says, “Well, it helps if you can putt.”

Which is how I feel about the whole how do I sell more books issue.

For many writers out there, unleashing a plethora of fancy marketing tricks is like crossing yourself. It can’t hurt. But to sell and keep selling, it helps if you can write.

The data backs this up. For example, BookBub recently put out an infographic based on a survey of their subscribers. Natch, most of them use BookBub to select new titles. But from there, two old reliables assert themselves as the largest slices of the book-buying pie.

The biggest factor is word of mouth. Overwhelmingly (and it has always been thus) people buy books they hear about from trusted sources. This usually means someone they know and can rely on, but also includes online communities such as Goodreads and well-trafficked blogs.

The other big slice is when an author someone has enjoyed in the past comes out with a new title. Once this happens a couple of times, the author has made a fan.

And how are fans created? By really good reads.

The $64,000 question (for those of you who remember the cultural derivation of that term) is this: What constitutes a really good read?

I am going to tell you.

It depends.

Thanks for stopping by!

Okay, here’s what I mean: It depends on your genre, your voice, your professionalism. It means you are able to write a book that not only meets expectations, but in some way exceeds them.

In other words, not just the “same old.” Because we’ve got too much of that. It means adding your own special something to the story.

I think of the old pulp writers. Who were the ones who caught on and were able to sell issue after issue, book after book?

Raymond Chandler, who could write description and dialogue like a trench-coated angel.

Erle Stanley Gardner, who could create twisty-turny plots featuring the smartest lawyer in the world.

Robert E. Howard, whose voice was as big and bold as the Texas winds that raised him.

Max Brand (real name: Fred Faust), the most prolific of them all, who elevated the standard Western into something that reaches into the soul.

I could go on, and we all can create our own list of favorite writers. What they will have in common is storytelling ability and “something more” that resonates with us.

Marketing only gets you an introduction. It’s your writing that does the heavy lifting. Which is why I offer a free novella to those who want to sample my wares. That’s a fair exchange. It’s like an arranged lunch date. As long as I don’t have broccoli in my teeth, maybe a reader will want to read more of my stuff.

So to you writers just starting out, or are trying to get a foothold in the market—keep learning and growing. Yes, you’ll need to lay a marketing foundation (e.g. a website, a bit of social media presence).

But keep the main thing the main thing: Always strive to write your best and sometimes you’ll have good luck and write better than you can!

12+

Stuff That Takes Readers Out of a Story

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today is an open forum. I want to discuss my theory of speed bumps. Why do we writers seem a bit obsessive about things like point of view, “head hopping,” dialogue attributions and so on? Some might think, Hey, man, if you’ve got a good story, those things won’t matter so much.

Well, I think they do. Because if you’re enjoying a pleasant drive, but keep hitting speed bumps, the pleasure you might otherwise have enjoyed will be diminished. And if it happens a lot, you may decide not to take that road again (meaning, not buy another book by the same author).

We want our novels to be more than good. We want them to be unforgettable. A high bar indeed, but why settle for less? “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one,” the old saying goes, “but you won’t get a handful of mud, either.”

I thought about all this the other day when reading a thriller by a bestselling author. Four things bumped me out of the story. I’d like to see if you agree. I have tweaked the details just a bit because I’m not here to throw shade on a fellow writer. But I do want us to learn.

The novel is about a female police detective on the trail of a serial killer.

  1. Double Punctuation

So I’m reading along and come to this line:

“You mean she took all of them!?”

I blinked a couple of times to make sure I was seeing correctly. Yes, they were there, the two punctuation marks.

It jolted me because I don’t even think this was done in the old Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books. Where was it done? In comic strips.

But here it is, in a contemporary thriller. I think it looks amateurish. But maybe that’s just me. Would a reader really care?

What do you think?

  1. Unneeded Attribution for Italicized Thoughts

It’s not going to happen, she thinks. Not here, not ever.

There are several ways to give us the interior thoughts of a character. One of them is via italics. But the whole point of an italicized thought is so you don’t have to use a tag like she thinks or she thought.

It’s an unnecessary interruption and thus a speed bump. Sure, maybe it’s a little one, but why have any at all when it’s so easy to smooth them out?

  1. But The Rock Does It!

Now we come to the climactic scene. The cop comes home only to find the serial killer waiting for her, with a gun, and holding a hostage by the neck.

The killer shoots. The bullet hits the cop in her upper arm and propels her body backward into the living room wall.

You know how we see this in movies all the time? Like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson with a sawed-off shotgun and the bad guy’s body slamming into a wall or out a window or through a door.

Only problem: bodies don’t do that. Brother Gilstrap will back me up on this, but even with a shotgun blast to the chest a body falls downward like a sack of laundry.

But here we have a mere bullet from a revolver hitting an arm. I’m taken out of the scene because there’s no possible way for a body slam to happen.

But will readers notice? I ask you.

  1. Thrillus ex machina

You should be familiar with deus ex machina—Latin for “god from the machine.” It’s a term for something that happens to resolve the climax, only it drops in out-of-the-blue, unjustified. The protagonist is saved but the reader utters a great big “Come on!”

In some thrillers I’ve read there’s a kind of thrillus ex machina (apologies to Aristotle) at work. Suddenly the protagonist develops an instant set of skills or finds almost superhuman strength at just the right time. Or maybe there’s a suspension of physical or forensic reality.

So here we have our serial killer winging the protagonist while holding a hostage. The cop reaches behind her, with her left hand, for the service revolver she has holstered at the small of her back.

Then, using the hand she’s never practiced with, she fires off a shot and hits the killer’s right shoulder, inches from the hostage’s head.

Blood sprays from the wound.

The cop fires another round with her left, a perfect shot to the killer’s other shoulder, once again next to the hostage’s head.

At which point the killer passes out from shock and blood loss.

If I may: A bullet to the shoulder (or other soft tissue) does not cause a spray of blood.

Also, it’s hard for me to believe a trained cop would shoot with her unskilled hand with an innocent target exposed. But perhaps we can let that first shot pass. That she manages another perfect shot with her left, hostage still there, is too much.

Finally, someone doesn’t pass out from blood loss in a matter of seconds. A person needs to lose 3 to 4 pints of blood before they start to have oxygen issues.

Again, I’m not here to throw stones at this author. It’s doggone hard to end a thriller in a way that’s satisfying and unpredictable. Perhaps an A-list writer can get away with thrillus ex machina from time to time. It probably won’t put a big dent in the ol’ fan base.

But why risk any dents at all?

The floor is open.

15+

What’s the Deal on Dreams in Fiction?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Check out this first page from a brave author:

The house alarm is screaming out, not the early-warning beep but the piercing you’re-totally-screwed-if-you-don’t-move-now squeal. I don’t know how long it’s been going off, but it’s too late for me now. The searing oven-blast heat within the four corners of my bedroom. The putrid black smoke that singes my nostril hairs and pollutes my lungs. The orange flames rippling across the ceiling above me, dancing around my bed, almost in rhythm, a taunting staccato, popping and crackling, like it’s not a fire but a collection of flames working together; collectively, they want me to know, as they bob up and down and spit and cackle, as they slowly advance, This time it’s too late, Emmy—

The window. Still a chance to jump off the bed to the left and run for the window …

The author is Mr. James Patterson (along with his co-writer David Ellis). The novel is Invisible. Mr. Patterson is “brave” for choosing this opening gambit, for later on in the scene we learn the above is only a dream!

And that simply isn’t done.

At least you would think so if you’ve spent any significant amount of time around writers talking writing. Surely at least once a week, in some critique group somewhere, someone is uttering, as if citing stone tablets, that you must never begin a novel with a dream. Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One (Writer’s Digest Books), is unequivocal:

Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character’s merely dreaming it all. Not unless you’d like your manuscript hurled across the room, accompanied by a series of curses. Followed by the insertion of a form rejection letter into your SASE and delivered by the minions of our illustrious postal service.

Les brings up a practical matter. If you’re submitting to an editor (remember the old days of the SASE?) and you pull the dream-opening thing, it’s almost certain he or she will consider your manuscript amateur hour.

But what do readers think?

The aforementioned Mr. Patterson, it may be safely said, is unequaled in his ability to gauge the pulse of the reading public. He has at least one other novel, Maximum Ride, that opens with a dream. (And last time I checked, Mr. Patterson’s manuscripts are not being returned.)

So what’s the actual deal on opening with a dream?

I don’t like it. There! That settles it.

Okay, just my opinion, folks. But it always feels like a cheat to me to get me caught up in the action, only to have the character wake up.

In all fairness, however, I’m hyper aware of craft. Most readers are not.

Maybe they don’t care in the slightest.

Let me make a subtle yet critical distinction here. One of the most famous openings in literature is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.

Here we have the first-person narrator telling us about a dream. That’s not the same as the “dream fake-out”—beginning with intense action that turns out not to be real.

Practically speaking, then, if you’re a writer seeking a traditional book contract, I would counsel you not begin with a dream, for the reason Edgerton suggests. Most editors won’t go for it.

If you’re self-publishing, you have the choice.

I’d still advise against it.

Here is my further thought on dreams in fiction: Unless dreams are an integral part of the plot (e.g., a character has recurring, prophetic dreams), I would suggest limiting yourself to using a dream only once, if at all.

For what purpose? To show the emotional state of the character at some intense point in the book. Or to reveal backstory that is affecting the character’s psyche. I would also make sure the reader knows up front it’s a dream, as in the beginning of Chapter 15 of The City by Dean Koontz:

Eventually I returned to the sofa, too exhausted to stand an entire night watch. I dropped into a deep well of sleep and floated there until, after a while, the dream began in a pitch-black place with the sound of rushing water all around, as if I must be aboard a boat on a river in the rain …

Another option is to eschew a dream sequence altogether, and simply have the character describe the dream and how it is relevant. Thomas Harris does that in the aptly titled The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling is a young FBI trainee tasked with extracting clues from the notorious killer and creative chef, Hannibal Lecter. Lecter trades her clues for intimate details about her life. At one point Clarice tells Lecter about the haunting memory of being at her uncle’s ranch, when she was ten, and hearing the screaming lambs being led to slaughter. And how she still dreams about it.

Lecter tells her that’s why she’s obsessed with catching Buffalo Bill. She thinks it will stop the lambs from screaming. It leads to the moving last line of the book:

But the face on the pillow, rosy in the firelight, is certainly that of Clarice Starling, and she sleeps deeply, sweetly, in the silence of the lambs.

To summarize my take:

  1. Don’t open with a dream fake-out.
  2. Use dreams sparingly (like, once) unless it’s an integral plot element.
  3. Let the reader know up front it’s a dream.
  4. Consider characters talking about a dream rather than giving it to us as a scene. Just make sure the dialogue has conflict or tension. (For example, the character doesn’t want to talk about the dream, but the other character drags it out of her, as in The Silence of the Lambs.)

Now it’s your turn, O Writer and (especially) O Reader. What do you think about dreams in fiction?

 

12+

Review Your Fiction Fundamentals

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Things change.

For instance, as of January 1, recreational marijuana use is legal in California. I can’t help but wonder how this is going to affect our traffic problems. I think I know: Now, more than ever, California drivers will seldom leave a turn unstoned.

Ba-dump-bump. Thank you. I’ll be here all week. Tip your waiters on the way out.

Other things don’t change. Grant is still buried in Grant’s Tomb (isn’t that a marvelous coincidence?)

And the foundations of great fiction remain solid and true.

You still need a character and you still need a plot. A plot is the stuff that happens to a character that forces him into a battle requiring strength of will. If you don’t have those elements, you don’t have a story. You might have a slice of life, or a character study. You might even have an “experimental” novel, which is also defined as a novel no one reads.

So know your fundamentals.

But also realize that conditions around you change, which may require applying the fundamentals in a slightly different way.

Case in point: The Golden State Warriors.

Basketball fundamentals include dribbling, shooting, passing, setting screens, playing defense. A coach figures out ways his team can do these things to create high-percentage shots and stop the other team from doing the same.

In the “old days,” the ideal offense was designed around a dominant big man, like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, or Shaquille O’Neal.

But things have changed because of a couple of kids named Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. These are the two guards on the Golden State Warriors, and they are the best three-point shooters I’ve ever seen. They have made the Warriors the pre-eminent team in the NBA by virtue of their ability to score from twenty-five feet or more.

Now, common sense would tell you that a fifteen-foot jumper has a better chance of going in than a twenty-five footer. And you’d be right. But sports has been taken over by analytics, and the numbers say that a three-point shot, even at a lower percentage, has a higher overall value than a two-pointer. You can look it up.

What’s happened as a result is that the NBA has become three-happy. A big man doing battle below is no longer seen as essential to a championship. Indeed, it may be a liability. If you’re a seven-footer these days, you’ve got to be able to fling the rock. Broad and bulky has been replaced by lean and lithe (e.g., another Warrior, Kevin Durant).

The antiquated notion of trying to get close jumpers, layups and dunks has given way to schemes designed to spring shooters outside the arc. The same fundamentals (passing, screens, shooting) are in play, but applied in a different way.

Which brings us back to fiction writing.

A hundred years ago, the standard point-of-view for a novel was omniscient, often with the authorial voice intruding into matters, as in the opening pages of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900):

When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility. The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye. Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms.

You almost never see this style today. Hemingway—the Steph Curry of his day—exerted tremendous influence in the 1920s by way of character-centric minimalism (the very opposite of what Dreiser did, above).

By the 1990s, the trend was toward immersive (or deep) POV, which keeps author voice out entirely (unless that voice is itself the point of the novel, e.g., Tom Robbins, Douglas Adams).

It also used to be common—even expected—to have adverbs attached to dialogue attributions. For example, here are some clips from a single page in a1929 novel, The Stray Lamb by Thorne Smith:

“Off again, major,” Sandra said resignedly . . .

“Not a scrap of evidence left behind,” Mr. Long optimistically informed the party . . .

“That depends,” answered Thomas consideringly . . .

Ack! Do that now and your book is likely to be set aside contemptuously.

So … what are the current conditions for the writer of fiction? We all know attention spans are shorter and demands for our time and money louder and more pervasive. Which means getting and holding the attention of the reader from the jump is a major challenge.

The fundamentals are still there to help you, by focusing on the crucial questions:

  • Is your POV consistent and immersive?
  • Is your dialogue crisp and compressed? Can it stand alone without being propped up by adverbs?
  • Is your structure solid? When your book starts to “drag,” do you know why and how to fix it?
  • Are your scenes organic? Do they all have a connection to the overall plot?
  • Do you know how create “jump off the page” characters?
  • Are you aware of the “speed bumps” that interrupt the fictive dream?

We’ve talked about goals and resolutions this week on TKZ. A good thing for the new year. This is my gentle reminder to include craft study on your list. That way, even if you live in California, your books won’t go to pot.

What’s something you’ve recently learned about the craft of writing that is serving you well? What’s an area you need to revisit and shore up?

14+

Failing the NaNoWriMo Test

So this November I tried for the second time to complete NanNoWriMo (for those unfamiliar with this, it represents an opportunity/challenge to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November). Although I never publicly launched a new novel or attended any of the social writing events in either attempt, I did start both challenges with the intention of trying to see if I could knock out a 50,000 word draft in a month. Turns out, I can’t…

This post isn’t really about my failed attempts but rather what I learned about my own writing process as a result. While I think NaNoWriMo is a great exercise for many writers it (obviously) didn’t turn out to be the best for me. In both of my attempts I was in the early stages of a new project and I thought it might be a way to overcome the dreaded internal critic and kickstart my project into high gear. Turns out my creative process just doesn’t work that way…Here is what I learned:

  1. I write quickly anyway. With determination I always finish my projects and the deadlines I set with my agent provides motivation (and fear) enough for me to push through to the end of the first, second, third and fourth (or more) drafts. That being said…
  2. The first 50-100 pages for me are critical. I have to get these right or I cannot (and I mean cannot!) move forward. I often spend the first month or so on these pages alone – making sure they are written, edited, rewritten and re-edited to my satisfaction. NaNoWriMo helped me realize and understand this – the 100 page mark was the exact point in both drafts where my brain froze at the thought of continuing on without fixing what I knew was wrong.
  3. This second failed NaNoWriMo test enabled me to come to grips with the hows and why’s of point # 2. It’s all about the voice. If I don’t get the voice and characterization correct, everything I write from that point forward feels inauthentic and forced. In this last attempt, I found myself going through the motions of writing scenes to satisfy the NaNoWriMo word requirements until eventually my creative process shriveled up and died…until I went back and started working through the voice in the first 100 pages…
  4. Word targets freak me out. I don’t do well focusing on a target number of words to write per day or week.  As a plotter I do much better with setting goals in terms of chapters and scenes than focusing on the number of words. I will often lay out an outline and move along that trajectory until I come to a point where I have to go back, reread everything and make course corrections as necessary. NaNoWriMo taught me to make peace with this…and also to realize that…
  5. Although my internal critic can be a pain in the bum it’s also what helps me craft the voice that I need to move forward with my novel. It was the same with last year’s project (which, by the way, resulted in a novel that is currently out on submission, so my NaNoWriMo failure isn’t all that bad!).
  6. Finally, I realized that I need to trust, accept, and love my own particular creative process.

So, although I think NaNoWriMo is great for kickstarting other people’s writing – I need to accept it isn’t for me. Undertaking the challenge, however, has helped me realize that I have to honor my own creative process and since mine (so far at least!) usually results in a completed novel, then it’s a process that ultimately works:)

So TKZers, are any of you doing the NaNoWriMo challenge this November? How does it work for you and your creative process?

10+

First Page Critique: THE ARCANISTS

Artwork by Jean-Louis Grandsire, courtesy pixabay.com

Good morning, my friends, and thank you for visiting us at The Kill Zone today. Please join me in welcoming Anon du jour, who has bravely offered a submission entitled The Arcanists to our irregularly scheduled First Page Critique!

The Arcanists

“Remember, this isn’t a bust, so no ruckus,” he said.

“Sure.”

“I mean it.”

“Sure.”

“If things get tight, drop out.”

Grim waved behind her and strode toward the Gasping Grouse.

Not far off, a foghorn warded ships into port. A train rattled, tracking, like a harried squirrel, along the rails overhead.

Grim hunched her shoulders, shoved her hands in her deep pockets.

As she pushed past the wooden doors, a sulfur cloud of smoke and unwashed flesh wormed into her nostrils, wringing water from her eyes. She should have been used to this by now, but that didn’t stop her from wanting to cover her face with her sleeve.She kept her eyes low as she snaked between the bar and the tables, past rows of cardsharps and washed up sogs who didn’t know when to give in.

She found the informant gazing into a full tankard at the end of the room.

 

Grimhorn liked to settle her accounts with a lamb’s smile and a loaded spell deck in her overcoat pocket. The smile came free of charge. The deck was insurance.

You could never know many aces an informant was hiding in his vest, and Grim didn’t give two lashings if things got messy when they refused to pay up.

She leaned into the shadow of a brick wall and turned her collar up against the cold. Across the road, smoke and steam poured from the gaslit hub of the Gasping Grouse. Tonight’s quarry was a dream merchant with a penchant for fraud.

Grim’s partner, Gravehound, stood by as Grim flexed her mechanical left arm. He tossed his cigarette onto the cobblestone and stamped it out with his boot.

“Rusty gears?” he asked.

Grim shook her head. “Steelshifter’s metal. It don’t rust.”

“That isn’t cheap. How’d you get your hands on it?”

Grim smiled.

“You’re a piece of work,” Gravehound said.

“Don’t I know it.” Grim pulled a leather glove over her metal fingers. The steelshifter had fitted her just a week ago but the arm suited her almost as well as if she’d been born with it. And it had only cost her one month’s pay—after she’d bartered him down a little.

“I’m going in,” she said, patting the deck beneath her wool coat.

Gravehound clutched her arm.

She glanced back. His hair shone silver in the darkness, making him look far older than his twenty odd years.

 

Anon, The Arcanists appears to me to be aimed at the steampunk audience. Steampunk is not a genre that I reflexively reach for when looking for something to read, but a good story is a good story. Unfortunately, there are what I consider to be a couple of major flaw in your first page.

— Your story structure needs some work. You need some transition between the first section and the second sections of your story on this page. The transition 1) will connect them the sections and 2) advance the story.

Specifically, your first page is divided into two sections by a large paragraph break. These two sections appear to me to be alternative beginnings in a way.  They don’t really seem to connect and thus the story does not really advance. The first section begins with a person who we eventually learn is named “Grim” talking to… someone…for a few moments before Grim goes into a tavern called the Gasping Grouse and approaches an informant. Like Achilles chasing Zeno’s tortoise, however, they never quite meet up, at least on the page. We don’t know what the informant told Grim either generally or specifically in this section, and we don’t learn later. 

There is a paragraph break and things resume.  The second section has Grim, who we learn is also known as “Grimhorn,” and her companion, who we are now told is named “Gravehound,” once again standing outside of the Gasping Grouse. Grim is about to re-enter the establishment (apparently) with the intent of getting her quarry, who is referred to as the “dream merchant.” The section ends.

The first section should include some interaction between Grim and the informant, where the latter reveals where the dream merchant is, as well as a sentence or two indicating that Grim is leaving the premises. This will help you to advance the story to the second section. You can begin the second section with Grim and Gravehound discussing what she is going to do to apprehend the dream merchant and proceed accordingly.

— The second major flaw — and to my mind, the larger — is that what you have Grim doing makes no sense at all. If you go into a place to talk with an informant — particularly a crowded bar (you don’t go into a crowded bar to talk to an informant, by the way) — and the informant tells you that your target is at the bar, you don’t leave and then go back inside to get your target. If I go into a bar and talk to an informant who tells me, “Aye, the dream merchant is sitting at the bar, right over there, and is well into his cups!” and  then I leave, re-enter, and  grab the dream merchant, everyone, including the dream merchant, will know that my informant told me that he was in there. That’s a good way to lose an informant, not to mention one’s own eye. For your story’s sake, either put the dream merchant at another location (as revealed by Grim’s informant) or have Grim wait outside of the Gasping Grouse for the dream merchant and follow him for a couple of blocks before nabbing him.  

—  A third problem: when you begin a piece with two major characters having a conversation with each other you should name them both immediately. That way you get both characters established so that the reader will 1) have a better idea of who is saying what to whom and 2) begin to form a picture of those characters. You can then begin fleshing the characters out in the opening pages of the story.  You might also mention Grim’s  mechanical arm (even though you can’t flesh it out, heh heh) in the introductory paragraph. It sets Grim up as a badass from the jump.

There are a few other problems but those items are the story killers. All is not lost, however. I like the names and descriptions of your characters and the tavern (the Gasping Grouse is a terrific name for a dive bar) as well as your manner of describing the scenery. You set up mood and tone very well. It’s your substance and structure that need some work. Keep plugging away, Anon!

I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically quiet and open the floor to all who are assembled and inclined to comment. Thank you, Anon, for your submission.  Keep moving forward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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First Page Critique: CROSSROADS

Welcome, Anon du jour, welcome, to our Saturday morning installment of FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE! We have here the beginning of a work titled CROSSROADS, so let’s cue up either the Sailcat album, Neil Young’s Comes a Time LP, or Cream’s Wheels of Fire to provide some background music and proceed:

 

Crossroads

Kelli Wade speeds along the 405 at night, wears her chopped jeans, favorite silk T, coffee-with-cream Chanel jacket, and cowboy boots.  She threads her way between a bus and rusty Toyota, leaning on her Harley.  Blonde hair streams straight out behind her; her helmet strapped to the side of the seat, unused.  Tears streak the sides of her face, momentarily blurring her vision of the dark traffic.

He was sleeping with that waitress-whore!  Did he think I wouldn’t find out?

She has keyed his car, front, back and both sides, before riding away from her ruined relationship.  And this, after getting word that Jackie, her college roommate, has been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer.

“Up yours!”  The rage in her voice blends with the deep-throated growl of the cycle’s engine.  Kelli skids off the exit ramp, swallowing back her pain and pulls up behind the Taft Building.  She chains her bike to a fat drain pipe and takes the service elevator to the sixth floor, shoving open the double doors of Sunset Investigations.  Did he think I was stupid, or didn’t he give a shit about my feelings?

She sits down hard behind her desk, alone, surrounded by darkness.  To keep her mind off murder, she begins to sort through stacks of paper, invoices, and case reports.  The normal day-to-day function of her job.

She takes a deep breath.  Is there’s any wine left in the fridge?

Dawn leaks in through the window blinds, sending streaks across the polished floor.  Other operatives of the agency begin to arrive to work, including her mother.

 

I’m predisposed to like CROSSROADS, Anon, because from the jump I liked Kelli Wade and how you are developing her from the jump. You get several things right. Naming your protagonist right out of the gate is a great move. You also put the reader in the moment from the first sentence by using the third person present narrative style. I especially like how you show your readers without telling them that Kelli is in Los Angeles: Taft Building + Route 405 + rusty Toyota (that sounds like award-winning author James Scott Bell’s hooptie to me!) = Los Angeles. Additionally, you show that Kelli does not take betrayal lightly. Revenge may be dish better eaten cold, but it’s pretty tasty in the heat of the moment, too. You paint a very clear picture of your character’s appearance and personality within just a few paragraphs, yet we don’t feel bombarded with information. That’s part of good pacing. The additional element of Kelli working with her mother is a nice touch as well.  More on that in a second.

Those are the positive elements. CROSSROADS needs to be cleaned up just a bit in a few places.

FIRST PARAGRAPH:

— First sentence: Kelli hits a tiny speed bump. She should be “wearing her jeans,” rather than “wears.” The third person present narrative is a good choice, but it has its pitfalls. I think you want a gerund there as opposed to a verb given that she already “speeds” along. Oh, and while you are at it: tell us the model of the Harley Kelli is riding. Enthusiasts love that information.

—  Third sentence: Let’s change that “her: her” to something else. I like to avoid using the same word twice in a row. And let’s get rid of that semi-colon. Here’s one way: Blonde hair streams straight out behind her. She has a helmet, but it’s strapped to the side of her seat, out of the way.

THIRD PARAGRAPH:

— First sentence: “She has keyed his car” …let’s change that to “She had keyed his car” since it takes place in the past, even if it’s just a few minutes ago.

— Second sentence: While we’re at it, let’s do the same thing and change “has been diagnosed” to “had been diagnosed” for the same reason.

FIFTH PARAGRAPH:

— First and second sentences: These aren’t really incorrect but I’d like to see them a little shorter and tighter. Let’s use all verbs and make a couple of other changes. As things stand right now,

“Kelli skids off the exit ramp, swallowing back her pain and pulls up behind the Taft Building.  She chains her bike to a fat drain pipe and takes the service elevator to the sixth floor, shoving open the double doors of Sunset Investigations.”  

Let’s change that to

“Kelli skids off the exit ramp. She pulls up behind the Taft Building and chains her bike to a fat drain pipe. A service elevator takes her to the sixth floor, where she swallows her pain and shoves open the double doors to Sunset Investigations.”

SIXTH PARAGRAPH:

— The next issue is a question to which I honestly don’t know the answer. It seems as though most businesses store their files and send their bills electronically.  Would a contemporary private investigation agency use stacks of paper or would Kelli be poring over files on her computer? I’ve converted almost entirely to e-billing, electronic documents, etc. That brought me up short, if only momentarily. Of course, if the book’s “present” is before 2007 she is almost certainly pouring over paper. It’s a minor quibble.

SEVENTH PARAGRAPH:

— “Is there’s any wine” should be “Is there any wine”…but I suspect that you know that, Anon. Otherwise, good proofing all the way through.

EIGHTH PARAGRAPH:

—Dawn leaks in…so…we’ve already been told that Kelli arrived at night, but was it really night or really, really early in the morning? I would like some sort of sense of how long Kelli has been sitting in her office before morning comes. This can be handled in a few words earlier in the text to give us some idea of what time of night Kelli arrived at the office.

— I like the surprise of Kelli working with her mom, but it’s a reveal that you might leave for just a little later. Or not. Also…as CROSSROADS is presently written… how does Kelli know that her mom has arrived? Is Kelli’s office door open and she sees her? Or is the door closed and she hears her? There are all sorts of ways that you can address this and you can do it by showing, not telling. As is in:

Three knocks rattle Kelli’s office door. Only one person in the office knocks like that. “Come in, Mom,” Kelli sighs.

These suggestions are made in the spirit of making a good first page better, Anon. I like the setup and I like your character. Please keep going with both.

I will now strive mightily to be uncharacteristically quiet while our friends at TKZ today offer their own observations and comments. Thank you so much, Anon, for submitting CROSSROADS to First Page Critique! And please don’t forget to circle back and let us know when we can see the rest of CROSSROADS!

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First Page Critique: SOME KIND OF DEAD

Photo by Marks Polakovs. All rights reserved.

Welcome, Anon du jour, welcome to The Kill Zone! Thank you for submitting Some Kind of Dead, your masterpiece in progress (and I mean that sincerely) to our First Page Critique:

Some Kind of Dead

By the time the dark blue BMW made a second pass past the bar, Andy Weber pegged them for amateurs. Unlocking the door he had just secured, he ducked back into the bar, keyed the alarm pad and then grabbed the cut-down Remington 870 that Gus kept below the register. Cops called it a “street sweeper” for good reason. Checking through the window for the car, he slipped outside and stood in the dark shadow of the doorway. As the sedan slowly rounded the corner at the far end of the block to make a third pass, Andy was ready for them.

The car drew even with the front door. Two mini-mag machine pistols began to emerge from the open back window on the driver’s side and Andy started unloading on the slowly moving car. First, the driver, to immobilize the vehicle, then the two passengers in the rear…one, two, three, and it was over just like that. The dead driver’s foot had jammed the accelerator. The Beemer, accelerating rapidly, entered the intersection against the light, right in the path of a fast moving gasoline tanker. The truck driver tried to avoid the car but he overcorrected and jackknifed the trailer, slamming into the BMW.” The tanker wasn’t as lucky. After hitting the car, it slid sideways through the intersection. The driver could see what was coming and jumped out, rolling to a stop. The tanker turned over, exploding in a ball of flame, engulfing three cars in the fireball. The driver stood, dazed, in the middle of the intersection.

Andy, satisfied that no one else was coming for him, picked up the ejected shells and returned the street sweeper to its rightful place under the bar. Resetting the alarm, he locked up and started off down the street, away from the carnage he just created. Tomorrow he would have to remember  to clean the shotgun and pay Gus for the three shells he used. “Amateurs”, he whispered to himself as he walked down the street.

 

This is simply terrific, Anon. I am predisposed to to love this anyway,, given that it sits solidly in my favorite literary genre — crime noir — but even after looking at it as critically as I could I found very, very little here with which to quibble. You draw the reader right in, hold their interest, create the proper dark mood and have the requisite mayhem and explosion which readers these days tend to expect right from the…well, from the first page. It reminds me of the paperback crime novels that I cut my reading teeth on back in the 1950s and which I read to this day. That said, I have a few things to mention in the hopes of making a terrific opening page a perfect one:

1) First paragraph:

— Let’s get everything parallel in the first sentence. The car goes around the block and Andy pegs “them” for amateurs. Who is them? Let’s change that to “By the time the dark blue BMW made a second pass past the bar, Andy Weber pegged its occupants for amateurs.”

— Wow, those guys really were amateurs. I know grade school cub scouts who could pull off  a better ambush than they attempted. I’m puzzled as to why they didn’t shoot Andy on the second pass. I assume they didn’t see him, even though he saw them. How about showing that to your readers like so (there are many different ways to this): “By the time the dark blue BMW made a second pass past the bar, Andy Weber pegged its occupants (see above) for amateurs.Gus’s doorway was the perfect place for observing without being observed. Andy had been able to clock the car’s occupants as they played two games of urban ring-around-the-rosy without their having a clue that he was watching. Unlocking the door…

2) Second paragraph:

— Let’s break up that compound sentence. Like so: “Two mini-mag machine pistols began to emerge from the open back window on the driver’s side. Andy stepped quickly out of the shadows, unloading on the slowly moving car.”

— …“ against the light, right in the path…” How about “…against the light, into the path…” instead?

— “The driver could see what was coming and jumped out, rolling to a stop.” I generally think of cars, rather than people, rolling to a stop (or when I’m driving, rolling through a stop).  I’d suggest this: “The driver could see what was coming and jumped out. He hit the ground and rolled until he ran out of blacktop.” Or something like that. There are a few different ways to write it.

3) Third paragraph:

Andy, satisfied that no one else was coming for him, picked up the ejected shells and returned the street sweeper to its rightful place under the bar. Resetting the alarm, he locked up and started off down the street, away from the carnage he just created. Tomorrow he would have to remember  to clean the shotgun and pay Gus for the three shells he used. “Amateurs”, he whispered to himself as he walked down the street.

You use the word “street” three times in the same short paragraph. Let’s eliminated the first and third ones. For the first, call the street sweeper a shotgun; as for the third: when Andy whispers “Amateurs” we already know he’s walking down the street because you just told us. You could end that paragraph with “Amateurs,” he whispered.”  (see below) and it would be just fine.

4) There are also a couple of typos:

Second paragraph: “ The car rolled twice, and came to rest on what was left of its tires.”  I suggest striking the comma in the sentence “ between “twice” and “and.”

Third paragraph, last sentence: Let’s stick that comma after “Amateurs” after the ‘s’ and before the final quotation mark.

Thank you again, Anon, for submitting this first page of SOME KIND OF DEAD. I sincerely cannot wait to see what follows. I will now sit back,  attempt to stay uncharacteristically quiet, and let our TKZ audience hold forth.

 

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Empowering History?

In a recent lecture, Hilary Mantel, the bestselling author of the historical novel, Wolf Hall, berated her fellow female writers for what she considered ‘falsely empowering’ their female characters in their work. This lecture, detailed in an article by The Telegraph newspaper (see link here), raises an interesting issue for any historical fiction writer, or indeed any writer incorporating the social, political or economic landscape of a particular time or place. Characters, after all, must be viewed within a frame or context – even when that appears to weaken rather than empower them.

Mantel’s major concern is with some (unnamed) female writers who retrospectively make their female characters look stronger or more independent than they would have been during a particular historical period. “A good novelist,” she argues, “will have her characters operate within the ethical framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers.” Fair enough – even though implicit within her statement is a criticism of predominantly female authors she obviously believe falsely attribute ’empowering’ characteristics upon their historical characters (even though I’m sure authors of both genders have been guilty of the same!). I also think Mantel’s criticism fails to address the expectations in the current book/publishing market and the demands for a more nuanced approached to historical fiction.

Many writers want to uncover forgotten voices in history – to give  a voice to people whose stories may not have been sufficiently examined in traditional historical textbooks or fiction. They also want to give readers a connection to these people – making them relatable as well as consistent with their time period. This can often be no easy task – as Mantel herself points out, many modern readers would find the beliefs and opinions of many historical figures unpalatable. That doesn’t mean, however, that writers shouldn’t be allowed to explore the commonalities that bind people together. No one, after all, would really want to immerse themselves in a world in which the characters have little or no redeeming features. Likewise, I think many women today would want to read historical fiction that relegate female characters to being weak, uninteresting or dull. In many ways it was the desire of readers to connect with female characters of the past that has created fiction that aims to have ’empowered’ female characters.

So how should a writer approach the delicate balancing act of appealing to modern readers, presenting an intriguing and relatable character, and yet remaining true to a historical period/place or social milieu? This is where Mantel could perhaps have been less strident and more forgiving of the challenges facing historical (as well as other fiction)  writers. With my own work, I know I want to portray strong characters even though I remain mindful of the social, political and economic constraints they would face during the time period I’ve chosen. To be honest, I’m not sure many editors would be interested in a completely ‘unempowered’ female character…it would certainly be a difficult book proposal to sell!

For me, history is not something that needs to be ‘revised’ in my fiction, but equally well, I want to explore the depths of my female characters that make them relatable to modern readers. I worry that Mantel’s view implies that somehow writers simply aren’t doing their homework even though the balancing act is a far more delicate one (in my opinion).

So TKZers, do you agree with Mantel that some writers have been guilty of falsely empowering their female historical characters? How do you approach the task of developing your characters against the context/landscape of their time period? If you are a reader of historical fiction, which do you value more, complete historical accuracy or characters who, despite the era, are still relatable?

 

 

 

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