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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First Page Critique: Bringer of Chaos, Harvest of Blood

 

(Kirk Marsh, Getty Images. All rights reserved)

(Note from Sweet Joseph: Sorry that we are late this morning, TKZers! In absence of being able to determine why, I’ll chalk it up to a PICNIC (Problem In Chair Not In Computer) problem. Thanks for your patience.)

Greetings, TKZers, and join me today in welcoming Anon du jour who has submitted the first page of his work Bringer of Chaos, Harvest of Blood for examination:

 Bringer of Chaos, Harvest of Blood

At the end of Earth’s twenty-seventh century, genslaves, humanity’s genetic

creations, fulfilled man’s every desire. They rebounded from disease and injury as if

immortal. Bred to need no rest, labor-genslaves performed menial and repetitive tasks.

Mankind permitted enough intelligence to work, but not enough to aspire beyond their

station. Warrior genslaves possessed unmeasured strength and massive size. They

fought humanity’s wars, died so man didn’t have to suffer, and revived to fight again.

Healer-genslaves with skill in medicine designed cures for man’s diseases. Artists

created mankind’s beauty. Nurturers and teachers cared for humanity’s children.

Scientist-genslaves designed additional genslaves, to make man’s life even more

pleasant. All with genetic shackles of obedience, making them content to remain

subservient.

While humanity relaxed, secure in a position of power, genslave-scientists created a

new order of beings with free will. Did their creation arise from faulty programming,

or a desire for freedom? Unhampered by genetic restraints, these new creatures

took the name Ultra. Brains and brawn, they solved every problem, survived every

wound.

Untouched by disease and unthwarted by starvation, they beat the shackles of death.

They were immortal.

Immortality changed everything.

When Ultras demanded freedom, humans claimed them soulless, inferior,

unworthy, and undeserving of equality. Humans tried to silence them, and when

that failed, punished them.

The Ultras seized liberty by force. Emboldened by the Ultras’ success,

other genslaves rebelled.

Power tilted. Ultras made slaves of their former captors.

Yet among Ultras, leadership arose that considered humans redeemable. They

advocated human freedom and their own government. They sought an end to

galaxy-wide conflict. They sought peace to halt senseless death and destruction,

foster growth, and increase trade.

In 4536 AD, after centuries of war, Ultras and humans met to discuss a truce.

At the peace talks, the Ultras suffered betrayal at the hand of their own kind.

Captured, forced into cryogenic sleep, transported across the galaxy, abandoned

on a planet whose name meant ever living, a half-million woke in their eternal prison.

Too far out on the rim to be worth developing, Sempervia possessed few

natural resources. The scant supplies humans left would have meant starvation and

lingering death for mortals, but the immortal Ultras had no such mercy.

They survived.

For this reason, the first few years in Sempervian history are remembered as the Harvest of Blood.

Anon, I’m going to focus primarily on substance and a bit on form here, sometimes intermingling the two, so I would appreciate it if you (and those of you who are kind enough to spend a portion of your Saturday with me) would bear with me to the end. I hope that it will be productive for you.

Let’s begin with the title, which reminds me of one of those Swedish death metal records that Jordan Dane probably has in her record collection. It infers that your book would fall into the sword-and-sorcery subgenre, something like Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian or Fritz Leiber’s Gray Mouser. I expected demons throwing fire, beheadings, supernatural disembowelment, and other things which I won’t get into here. After reading your submission, however, it looks like you are shooting for a speculative history novel and series — a very interesting one — with some military elements thrown in, a book that a publisher such Baen,to name but one, does so well. The title really doesn’t reflect that. It’s somewhat of a misdirection.    I would change the title to something a bit simpler which gets your idea across, such as GENSLAVES: Volume One — Rebellion.

The big issue here, however,  is that what you have sent isn’t as a practical matter  the first page of a Chapter One. It’s not even really the first page of a Prologue. It is more of an outline for a future history spanning hundreds years which will provide the spine for a novel, or maybe even several novels. I think you have a terrific idea, but you don’t have the beginning of a story or a book yet.  You have a whole book you can fill, my friend, a whole book where you can show us what you envision as a future history instead of telling us.

One suggestion — out of many possibilities — would be for you to start the first page of your novel on Sempervia, your exile planet.  Present it from the perspective of one of the Ultras on the planet who is either 1) hacking their way through a bunch of their fellow Ultras to get to something they need, 2) trying to stow away onto a rocket back to Earth or 3) escaping from a peril. Show us that Sempervia is a bad, lousy place to live, one where unicorns are eaten and recycled instead of worshipped. Show us that while dropping breadcrumbs of the history and the backstory through the narrative. Mix it up a bit, showing how the inhabitants of Sempervia survive on a day to day basis,  revealing what their short and long term plans are, and exploring how they got to be there in the first place, all the while sticking to that outline.

Maybe you have already done all of the above in pages two through six hundred of what you have written. That is all well and good; but you need to start the book off in a different manner, in order to pull a prospective agent, editor, or reader into it. Think of your first page — going to back to the spirit which your current title evokes — as the hook which pulls the eyeball of the reader into the story. Folks have short attention spans these days. You need to grab them and keep them before they pick up the television remote and start streaming the first season of Animal Kingdom.

If you want a relatively quick and excellent example of how to do something like this, see if you can get a reading copy of the Gold Key edition of the comic book MAGNUS, ROBOT FIGHTER 4000 AD by Russ Manning ( from the 1963 edition, NOT the relaunches that have been published since) in your local library’s graphic novel section. The first few panels of the story, if memory serves, quickly give the readers example of robots doing drudge work before Magnus suddenly shows up, and, after fleeing from the robot police,  uses martial arts to kick rivets and take serial numbers. Manning gradually informs the reader as to how people let robots take over more and more duties (like making coffee, checking people into  hotels, and taking orders at Panera Bread) to the point where robots are running things and human beings are becoming subservient without really realizing it. It isn’t your plot, but it does involve a future history, and Manning, bless his heart, shows us all how to tell a future history story effectively. If you want a longer example, check out E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen series, or Robert H. Heinlein’s future history series. The latter is particularly accessible.

I have a couple of other points of correction, applying to form:

— Science fiction readers love those new names for future objects. You should be consistent when you create and use them. You start off with “labor-genslaves” (hyphen) and then you mention “Warrior genslaves” (no hyphen) instead of “Warrior-genslaves” before returning to “healer-genslaves” and “scientist-genslaves,” the latter of which turn into “genslave-scientists.” Since you started with “(insert type of genslave here) – genslaves,” when naming your characters, follow that format throughout your first page, and indeed, your novels, and the ones that will come later in this ambitious future history.

— If the genslaves were genetically shackled to be obedient, thus making them content to be subservient, they aren’t going to be emboldened by the Ultras’ success. “Emboldened” wouldn’t be in their genetic programming any more than “obedience” is included in a cat’s genetic makeup, even as they watch the dog doing so and thus being allowed to stay another day, go for rides, etc. Just saying.

— The first time that you mention that the high-end genslaves “took the name Ultra,” set the name off, like so:  “Ultra” or Ultra. Just the first time.

I will now remain uncharacteristically quiet (for most of the day) while our TKZers offer their own invaluable insight. And thank you, Anon, for stepping up and giving us a reason to be here today!

 

 

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First Page Critique: Strangled by a Cloud

Welcome to this week’s first page critique – today we have the first page of a historical mystery/thriller entitled ‘Strangled by a Cloud’. As always, my comments follow.

Strangled by a Cloud

My part in the Tenant’s Harbor affair began on the last day of January in 1878. That morning I was at my usual station: peddling hand-penned calling cards in the lobby of one of Boston’s many hotels; this time it was Young’s, in the financial district. A dozen cards for a Harvard toff had already bought me a hearty breakfast; a dozen more – perhaps with some flourish – for a Court Street banker would carry me through the rest of the day.

As the clock and the thermometer waned and the clouds began to spit sleet, my mood soured:  I take days like this personally, as have the thousands with my surname since the days of Noah. To lighten my mood, I left the outer crust of the lobby and strode towards the warmth of the core – the front desk – where I was greeted with the welcome smile of my friend, Adam.

“Cold is it, Mr. Merryweather?” he asked

“As colde as eny froste,” I replied, in an ersatz Middle English tongue.

“Ah, Chaucer – very good, very good,” he said (Adam was also the hotel’s unofficial man of letters and always appreciated a well-placed quote from the Tales).

I pulled the hotel register at his hands my way.  Now and then I made a sport of guessing at the age, nationality, personality, or occupation of guests based on their handwriting. I traced my finger down the list of guests until I reached the name “Charles Goodword.”

“Now here’s a bad character, Adam,” I began. “I’m guessing a gambler by profession, maybe something worse…he’s about forty years old, broad-shouldered, perhaps five feet ten or eleven…stout…and mean.  You’ll want to be rid of him, and soon.”

“Mr. Merryweather, it’s remarkable!” Adam said, truly surprised.  “As to age and height and build, you are quite correct, sir, quite correct. But as to his character, you are very mistaken: he’s a clergyman, you know – here to preach for several weeks – the Benevolent Society for something-or-t’other is paying his board.”

“A clergyman, is he?” I asked, adding, “Well, he’s a thief to boot.  Humor me and send for him,” I said, handing him one of my cards.

Adam obliged and sent a valet to call on Mr. Goodword.  The valet returned swiftly, confirming that he had successfully delivered the card and invitation, with my compliments.

“You think he’ll come?” I asked Adam. He nodded in assent.  “We shall see,” I said, shaking my head. “We shall see.”

Overall Comments:

Overall this first page was cleanly executed with an initial voice and style emerging that I think is pretty engaging. It appears to be emulating a Sherlock Holmes detachment and narration which I think could work well. What it initially lacks, however, is a bit of ‘oomph’ to set our story in motion and build intrigue. It also teeters, I think, in terms of credibility (see my specific comments below), but overall with some editing this first page could be an effective one.

Here are my specific comments:

Credibility

I think in this first page we need more background regarding the main character, Mr. Merryweather, as I’m initially skeptical that a man who makes his living penning calling cards in hotel lobbies would be educated enough to quote Chaucer and have even peudo-expertise in handwriting analysis. I’m also a little doubtful that a front desk clerk would be even an unofficial ‘man of letters’ without a bit more background. I’d be more willing to believe all of this if we got a sense that either Merryweather is an educated man that has fallen on hard times or that he is deliberately masquerading as someone he isn’t. Likewise I need a little more to buy into the fact that Merryweather has uncanny, Holmesian powers of deduction based on viewing Mr. Goodword’s handwriting.

Oomph

I wanted a little more intrigue from this first page when it came to the set up re: Mr. Goodword. I was expecting the valet to discover his dead body! The pay off on the initial page wasn’t really there and I was also skeptical as to why a clergyman would be interested in meeting a man who penned calling cards (or why the main character thought if he sent the valet up with his card the clergyman would respond – to be honest I’m not sure I even believe a man who makes his living hand to mouth by making calling cards would present his own card to anyone).  I feel that on this initial page, more intrigue would set the story on a stronger footing and would entice readers to keep turning the page.

Minor editorial issues

There were a few moments where I was taken out of the story. The first was when the main character said ‘I take days like this personally, as have the thousands with my surname since the days of Noah’. I didn’t feel this reference worked, mainly because the name ‘Merryweather’ doesn’t exactly sound like a surname from biblical times. Perhaps a middle ages reference would be more appropriate but at the moment it sounds awkward. Likewise the reference to the ‘outer crust’ of the lobby sounds strange – even though I understand what the writer was trying to get at and how the main character moved to the ‘core’ of the lobby – It didn’t work for me in the context of this story. In addition, the clock and thermometer ‘waned’ didn’t seem quite the right expression either – as the clock ‘waning’ would surely mean going backwards if the numbers got smaller (?).

I also found it odd that Mr Merryweather would call Adam by his first name but Adam didn’t reciprocate, but called him the more formal ‘Mr Merryweather’ in return. I’m assuming they are on the same social level and know each other well enough (as Merryweather calls him a friend) so the formality of Adam’s response doesn’t seem to ring true.

Also when Adam says: ‘ But as to his character, you are very mistaken’,  I feel that this should be either ‘very much mistaken’ or just ‘mistaken’ (‘very mistaken’ sounds weird to me).

So TKZers, what comments do you have for our brave submitter today?

 

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Raising Social Issues in the Cozy

Please welcome Judith Newton to the TKZ. Today, her guest post is about raising social issues in cozies, based on her experiences writing Oink: A Food for Thought Mystery. I look forward to reading your comments and feedback!  Clare

Raising Social Issues in the Cozy

by  Judith Newton

I became interested in mystery sometime in the 1990s when I began reading Tony Hillerman, whose sleuths are two Navajo policemen. What I liked about Hillerman’s books was that they dealt with social issues—the ongoing colonization of Native peoples—and that they presented stories from the points of view of people on the margins. I was especially drawn to Hillerman in the 1990s because I saw myself as living on a different sort of margin at my university. I was director of women’s studies, the faculty of which I had worked to make half women of color, and I and my program had formed deep personal connections with faculty in the four ethnic studies programs.

This community building took place, however, just as a newly prominent national development (often referred to as “the corporatization of the university”) had begun to make our already marginal positions less secure. With its ever greater focus on profit, my university administration was threatening to defund our programs. In the end, I am happy to say, the administrations’ very efforts to do away with women’s and ethnic studies prompted the faculty in these programs to form an even more tightly-knit community and to fight successfully for our survival.

When I began to write Oink, I followed Hillerman in making my main characters people on the margins of the university, faculty in women’s and ethnic studies, but the biggest issue I faced in outlining the novel was how to write about their issues so that a general audience would want to read about them.. I was aware that puzzles and unsolved crimes keep people turning pages and that within different mystery genres there were additional inducements to reader engagement. Hillerman, of course, uses elements of the thriller. Guns booming in the dark always kept me reading. But I wanted a different feel for my novel, which would have a lot to say about the value of caring community both for our lives and for political resistance, so I turned to another genre, that of the cozy.

Cozies are characteristically set in a small and valued community. By making one of the most valued communities in Oink that of a political coalition I gave this convention a political twist. Many cozies also involve food and come with recipes. The presence of food usually affirms pleasurable connection among the characters, a connection that is then extended outward to the reader through the inclusion of recipes. In Oink the same is true, although there the major connections being affirmed are among those resisting the university’s turn toward competition, self-interest, and profit. The inclusion of recipes pleasurably invites the reader into this alliance.

In Oink, moreover, as in the history on which it was based, gathering around food is one manifestation of a larger organizing impulse based upon “working on the relationship” through multiple acts of friendship, love, and support. This is a strategy which black women had already employed to organize grassroots communities during the Civil Rights Movement and it reappears in Oink among the women characters in particular.

The cozy’s quirky, often, female sleuth and its characteristic humor are also present in Oink and serve a related purpose. According to J. K. Gibson-Graham, our repertory of tactics for getting people together should include playfulness and humor, which can toss us on to the terrain of new possibilities. By fusing playfulness and humor with a story of struggle, I aimed to attach a sense of optimism and possibility to political resistance.

By merging Hillerman’s focus on social issues and marginal points of view with the conventions of the cozy I could write about some of the difficulties for people on the margins in the university and in the nation while also immersing the reader in experiences of connectedness, love, humor, and pleasure, experiences which I hope will keep the reader reading and which I identify both as ways to live a more fully human life and as crucial to effective struggles for social change. In a way I hadn’t anticipated, the continuation of these values seems ever more critical to our time.

  • What do you see as the advantages of or the difficulties in using cozies or other kinds of mystery to address social issues?
  • Are there particular cozies with a social issue or political theme you have read and enjoyed?
  • Does exploring social issues even belong in a cozy?
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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.

 

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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?

 

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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.

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