Writing is Rewriting

By Joe Moore

I just finished the first draft of my new thriller, THE BLADE, co-written with Lynn Sholes. This is our sixth novel written together; this one coming in at a crisp 92,500 words. Now that the first pass on the manuscript is finished, the rewrite begins. As E.B. White said in THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE, “The best writing is rewriting.”

Some might ask that if the manuscript is written, why do we need to rewrite it? Remember that the writing process is made up of many layers including outlining, research, first drafts, rewriting, line editing, proofing, more editing and more proofing. One of the functions that sometimes receives the least amount of attention in discussions on writing techniques is rewriting.

There are a number of stages in the rewriting process. Starting with the completion of the first draft, they involve reading and re-reading the entire manuscript many times over and making numerous changes during each pass. It’s in the rewrite that we need to make sure our plot is seamless, our story is on track, our character development is consistent, and we didn’t leave out some major point of importance that could confuse the reader. We have to pay close attention to content. Does the story have a beginning, middle and end? Does it make sense? Is the flow of the story smooth and liquid? Do our scene and chapter transitions work? Is everything resolved at the end?

Next we need to check for clarity. This is where beta readers come in handy. If it’s not clear to them, it won’t be clear to others. We can’t assume that everyone knows what we know or understands what we understand. We have to make it clear what’s going on in our story. Suspense can never be created by confusing the reader.

Once we’ve finished this first pass searching for global plotting problems, it’s time to move on to the nuts and bolts of rewriting. Here we must tighten up our work by deleting all the extra words that don’t add to the reading experience or contribute to the story. Remember that every word counts. If a word doesn’t move the plot forward or contribute to character development, it should be deleted.

Some of the words that can be edited out are superfluous qualifiers such as “very” and “really.” This is always an area where less is more. For instance, we might describe a woman as being beautiful or being very beautiful. But when you think about it, what’s the difference? If she’s already beautiful, a word that is considered a definitive description, how can she exceed beautiful to become very beautiful? She can’t. So we search for and delete instances of “very” or “really”. They add nothing to the writing.

Next, scrutinize any word that ends in “ly”. Chances are, most adverbs can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence or our thought. In most cases, cutting them clarifies and makes the writing cleaner.

Next, go hunting for clichés and overused phrases. There’s an old saying that if it comes easy, it’s probably a cliché. Avoiding clichés makes for fresher writing. There’s another saying that the only person allowed to use a cliché is the first one that use it.

Overused phrases are often found at the beginning of a sentence with words like “suddenly,” “so” and “now”. I find myself guilty of doing this, but those words don’t add anything of value to our writing or yours. Delete.

The next type of editing in the rewriting process is called line editing. Line editing covers grammar and punctuation. Watch for incorrect use of the apostrophe, hyphen, dash and semicolon. Did we end all our character’s dialogs with a closed quote? Did we forget to use a question mark at the end of a question?

This also covers making sure we used the right word. Relying on our word processor’s spell checker can be dangerous since it won’t alert us to wrong words when they are spelled correctly. It takes a sharp eye to catch these types of mistakes. Once we’ve gone through the manuscript and performed a line edit, I like to have someone else check it behind us. A fresh set of eyes never hurts.

On-the-fly cut and paste editing while we were working on the first draft can get us into trouble if we weren’t paying attention. Leftover words and phrases from a previous edit or version can still be lurking around, and because all the words might be spelled correctly or the punctuation might be correct, we’ll only catch the mistake by paying close attention during the line edit phase.

The many stages making up the rewrite are vital parts of the writing process. Editing our manuscript should not be rushed or taken for granted. Familiarity breeds mistakes—we’ve read that page or chapter so many times that our eyes skim over it. And yet, there could be a mistake hiding there that we’ve missed every time because we’re bored with the old stuff and anxious to review the new.

Spend the time needed to tighten and clarify the writing until there is not one ounce of fat or bloat. And once we’ve finished the entire editing process, put the manuscript away for a reasonable period of time. Let it rest for a week or even a month if the schedule permits while working on something else. Then bring it back out into the light of day and make one more pass. It’s always surprising at what was missed.

One more piece of advice. Edit on hardcopy, not on a computer monitor. There’s something about dots of ink on the printed page that’s much less forgiving than the glow of pixels. And never be afraid to delete. Remember, less is always more.

How do you go about tackling the rewriting process? Any tips to share?

What Would You Want in Your Writer Bio?


JAMES SCOTT BELL was born August 10, 1912, in Arlington, Kansas. His father worked for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway, but quit in 1918 and moved his family of ten to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to work the oil fields. When Jim wasn’t in school or working odd jobs, he was reading Zane Gray, Edgar Rice Burroughs and pulp magazines like Black Mask.
When the Depression hit, Jim rode the rails to Los Angeles and got a job as a cub reporter for the Hearst newspaper, The Examiner. By day he tracked down stories of murder, fraud and corruption. By night, in his one room apartment on Bunker Hill, he pounded out short stories for the detective magazines. He was published almost immediately alongside such luminaries as Horace McCoy, Erle Stanley Gardner and Dashiell Hammett. When his crime novella, One More Lie, hit the racks, Jim garnered instant national fame. The story sold to MGM and became the classic 1941 film starring Joan Crawford and Robert Taylor.
Jim became one of the most sought after screenwriters in Hollywood and contributed as much as anyone to the post World War II film noir genre. He continued to put out suspense stories for the paperback original market and pulp magazines.
In 1952 Jim and Robert Mitchum got into a fight with two henchman of mobster Mickey Cohen, who had been bothering a cigarette girl at the Brown Derby. One of the thugs pulled out a .38 and shot wildly, hitting Jim just above the heart. At the hospital Jim refused sedation and insisted that a studio secretary be summoned so he could dictate the final pages of a screenplay due the next day. That script went on to win an Academy Award.
Jim kept up his prodigious output of short stories, novellas, full length books and screenplays right up to his death at the age of 99. He had just typed The End on a novel when his heart gave out. His last words were, “Don’t forget the mayonnaise.” 
Here is a picture of James Scott Bell in his office at Warner Bros. in 1947.
# # #
This flight of fancy is based on how I feelas a writer. I always admired the pros, the ones who could deliver the goods time after time. The writers who wrote to make a living and yet found a way to make their writing come alive.
What about you? If you could write your own writer biography, and it could be from any era, what would it look like? What sorts of books would you have written? Who would be in the movies based on your books?
This is not a  mere game. Use this exercise to focus on your long term goals as a writer. Ask yourself how your imaginative bio might inform your writing today.
Go ahead. What are some of the entries in YOUR writer’s biography?
NOTE: I wrote a little bit more of my philosophy of pulp fiction writing over on Rachelle Gardner’s blog

Where were you on the night of…

by Michelle Gagnon

I was recently asked to participate in an anthology whose sales will benefit one of my favorite non-profits, 826 National. If you aren’t familiar with the amazing work they do to promote writing among kids, be sure to follow the link and find out! They have programs in several major cities now, including SF, NYC, DC, Boston, Chicago, Michigan, & Seattle, and there are lots of opportunities to donate and/or volunteer.

Anyway, the basis of the anthology is inspired: they’ve asked a number of renowned authors such as Dave Eggers, Lauren Oliver, and Daniel Handler to submit alibis because, sadly, we’re all suspects in the murder of the world’s meanest editor.

Is that perfect, or what?

So I thought that today we’d do something a little different today. Submit YOUR alibi for the murder of the world’s meanest editor. The only rules are:

  • Brevity: keep it short, 100-200 words max (I’m looking at you, Mr. Sands)
  • Language: keep it clean, folks; after all, this is a family blog.

Other than that, be as creative/zany as you’d like.

The Set-Up:

On the night of Wednesday, October 5th, Mr. William H. Meany III, the famed editor of such works as, I HATE YOU ALL OVER and IT’S LITERARY FICTION, SO WE DON’T CARE IF YOU DON’T READ IT, was found dead in his home. That evening, Mr. Meany had played host to several reluctant authors, some of whom have spent decades under the brutal subjugation of his notorious “red pen of tears and shame,” a term that Mr. Meany not only coined, but copyrighted. It’s generally agreed that Mr. Meany was the author of the scandalous publishing blog, “I know what you did in your last manuscript,” which accused numerous famous writers of plagiarism, ghost writing, and improper use of gerunds, and was operated under the pseudonym “Nom de Plume Rouge.”

The police are currently requesting alibis for everyone present. It’s important that you be able to account for your whereabouts from 6:30pm that evening until shortly after midnight, when Mr. Meany was found facedown in a pool of blood, surrounded by the pages of a shredded manuscript. Rumor has it that he had threatened several of the attendees with revealing their deepest, darkest secret over nightcaps. He was murdered before making good on that threat.


First Page Critique: DISSONANT CHORDS

By Joe Moore

Looks like I’m first up with our first-page critiquing fun. Before I take on today’s submission, I wanted to pass on some good news for e-book publishing and local bookstores. A recent Authors Guild bulletin stated that Random House, the largest trade book publisher in the U.S., announced last week that it is adopting the agency model for selling e-books. For readers and authors concerned about a diverse literary marketplace, this is welcome news, a chance for online bookselling to avoid the winner-take-all trap. Random House’s move gives brick-and-mortar bookstores, many of which are now selling e-books but cannot afford to lose money on those sales, a fighting chance in the new print + digital landscape. To read the entire bulletin, click here.

And now for today’s first page.

Dissonant Chords

Professor Bridget Sutton heard the screams.

Light seeped in beneath the door, a faint glow visible in fragments between the huddled bodies around her. Parts of her bare legs were numb where the marble floor wicked away her body heat. Her open toed shoes offered no protection from the unheated air, as pins formed in her feet. She needed a bathroom. She wanted to stretch. She would shift her weight, remove the shelf knifing her back, but the trembling girl latched around her neck prevented her from moving.

The girl gasped for air, breaking the silence.

“Shh, shh, shhhhh,” she pressed her lips into sweaty hair, taking in the smell of unwashed scalp. Hot breathe buffeted her chest. When the trembling intensified, and it seemed the girl was going to jump out of her skin and run through the door, she pressed her cheek against the girls head and held her tight, overpowering the kicking and clawing. When it was over, the girl put her head back under Bridget’s chin, and her body went limp. Bridget worried that others would panic from the darkness, lose it from being restricted, feeling like easy targets and attempt freedom, and try their luck on the run. Afraid to speak, to betray their location, she kept her reassurances to herself, running down a mental list of why they were safer locked behind a door in a storage closet down a side hall at the back of the admissions office. The fact that only one guard was on duty, unarmed, left her discouraged.

Sand scraped her skin, adding to the discomfort she felt everywhere else. Even in the dark, she was aware that her skirt was off center, riding higher that was comfortable. Pulled to one side and unbuttoned by the outburst, her blouse stuck to her skin, the silk soaked through by the girls steady leaking. She adjusted nothing, even as her bladder succumbed to the pressure, her pain threshold breached, nothing any amount of kegels could have prepared her for. The relief was temporary. The disgust lingered.

One of the things we preach here at TKZ is the importance of conflict—drop us into the conflict right off the bat, whether it’s physical or mental, or both, and make us keep turning the pages to find out how it resolves. This sample contains plenty of conflict. A woman is hiding inside a dark storage room with what I think is a group of kids. There is obvious danger on the other side of the door and little protection from that danger. The discomfort for the woman and the kids is extreme. The child she is holding in her arms is either reacting violently to the danger or experiences some sort of seizure. There seems to be nothing good going on here, and the situation calls for the woman to give in to her lack of access to a bathroom. The last two sentences sum up the situation well.

Overall, I found the sample intriguing but a bit over-written. Since I don’t know what type of danger the woman and the others face, maybe it’s appropriate. But there is a great deal of mixed visuals coming at me here, some of which are strong on their own but as a whole, seem to work against each other. But again, I don’t know the whole picture.

For instance, I get the impression that she is in the storeroom with children and yet we are in an admissions office with a professor. So are these college students or kids?

The woman smells sweaty hair and an unwashed scalp. I think that should be the other way around—hair doesn’t sweat, scalps do. Most people wash their hair, not their scalps. Does that mean that the girl is dirty and unkempt? That’s another reason I’m picturing children, not college students.

I’m not sure what “as pins formed in her feet” means.

Why is sand scraping her skin? Is there sand scattered across the cold marble floor?

The woman’s blouse became unbuttoned by the outburst. Could that be said better, such as the blouse was yanked open rather than the slower, more calculated action of unbuttoning?

Word choice is vital.

I’m sure that all my questions would be addressed if I had the opportunity to read the next few pages. And I’d definitely keep reading if I had the chance. All the elements of tension, suspense, conflict, danger and mystery are present. I think this first page reads like a first draft with great potential but in need of a rewrite. I don’t think it’s ready to be submitted to an agent or editor yet, but it’s a good start. What do you think? Would you keep reading?

THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8, 2011.
(The Phoenix Apostles has) “so many twists and turns that you won’t have time to catch your breath!" — Tess Gerritsen, New York Times bestselling author of ICE COLD

So you wanna write a book

By Joe Moore

It seems like every time I meet someone and they learn that I’m a writer, they always comment that they had often thought of writing a book, too. Sometimes I think the prospect of being a published author may be the number one goal or dream of everyone who has ever been excited by a good novel. It’s natural to think, “I could do that.” And in reality, they can. But most don’t or won’t. Why? Because the dream far exceeds the labor. Like most specialized occupations, the average would-be author will remain in the dreaming stage. Few proceed to the next step: actually sitting down and writing a publishable, contemporary work of fiction.

But for those that really want to take the next step, here are a few tips on getting that novel “inside us all” onto the page.

First, become an avid reader with the eyes of a writer. Read as many novels as you can get your hands on. But try to read from a writer’s viewpoint. Read for technique and style and voice. Keep asking questions like: Why did the author use that particular verb? Why is the writer using short, choppy sentences or long, thick description. Cross genre lines. The genre you wind up writing might not be the one you first imagined. Reading other’s work also can be inspiring. It is a source of ideas and helps to get the creative juices flowing.

Next, know the marketplace and write for it. The end product must be sellable. This goes back to being familiar with your chosen genre. You may love westerns, for instance, but they can be way down the sells chart and not a good choice for a debut author. Having said that, any story in any genre can be a hit if it’s built on strong characters. Always remember that your characters make your story, not the plot.

A third tip is to be true to yourself. Don’t try to push against what you feel in your heart and soul when it comes to your story. This may sound like the opposite of the previous tip, but that one deals with the business side of writing, this one the emotion. Beyond understanding the market, realize that if your heart is not in the words, the reader will know it. You can’t hide your lack of love for your writing.

Another tip is to have proper training. Being a devoted reader is only a portion of the task. I’ve had the opportunity (or drudgery) of reading many first-time writer’s work. It’s astounding how many people simply don’t know how to write. I’m not talking about style or content. Forget coming up with a cool plot or unique cast of characters. I’m talking about constructing a sentence with proper use of grammar and punctuation.

If you’re still in school, make sure you give your writing classes as much attention as possible. After all, they teach you the tools of your trade. If you’re out of school or later in life, consider taking some adult courses in basic English and perhaps in creative writing. They won’t teach you how to write a bestseller but can help you get your thoughts down on paper properly. Consider it a refresher course. Some colleges and universities offer degrees in writing. This is by no means a requirement to writing a novel, but it’s always a direction to go if you feel the need. And don’t forget attending writer’s workshops, conferences and joining a local critique group. Workshops are usually taught by pros; conferences have lectures and topic panels dedicated to strengthening your skills; and critique groups offer a new, fresh set of eyes to help improve your work.

Finally, once you’ve finished the first pass through your manuscript, the real work begins: rewriting, editing, polishing, and finishing. There’s nothing that will turn off an agent or editor quicker than an unpolished manuscript. There are tons of books available out there on how to self-edit your work. And getting others to take a look at it will help to reveal possible problems you missed. Edit, revise, edit, revise, repeat.

There’s a saying that everyone has at least one book inside them. But writing a book is hard. It takes firm commitment and dedication. Let your story out, but do it by following these logical steps. Skipping one of them usually results in frustration, disappointment and a half-finished manuscript collecting dust in the bottom of a drawer.

So what about you guys? Is this how you managed to finish your first book? Were you able to skip a step and jump right to a publishing contract and advance check? Any other tips to pass along to first-time authors?

THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 2011
"Bold, taut, and masterfully told." — James Rollins

Thinking about Theme

theme (Small) We often discuss the different elements of writing fiction here at TKZ. Topics such as plot, narration, characterization, dialog, and point of view are just a few that come up now and then. But a topic that’s not touched on as often is theme. Theme is usually a global statement on what a book is about. Theme goes beyond plot by conveying the message that supports the structure of the story. In many instances, it expresses a lofty idea usually revolving around human emotions or life in general.

A good starting point in determining a book’s theme is to first establish its subject or topic. This is normally expressed in a one-word description such as love, revenge, jealousy, fear, deceit, betrayal, etc. The theme can then be found by turning the subject or topic into a short, focused statement.

So for instance, if the subject of a novel is fear, the theme could be fear exposes the true nature of an individual. If the subject is revenge, the theme could be by taking revenge, you become just like your enemy. If the topic is betrayal, the theme might be that betrayal only hurts the ones you love.

A book’s theme can teach or preach. The former is preferred. No one wants to be preached to. But we all desire to build upon or confirm our beliefs. The theme can address “big” issues such as the meaning of life. Or something more manageable like crime doesn’t pay.

Whatever the theme, all stories have them. How well they come across without being “in your face” relies on the skill of the author.

What is the subject or topic of your favorite book(s)? And what was the theme? Did you feel the writer was teaching or preaching? How about your own work? Do you knowingly have a theme before you start writing?

Coming up short with word count

By Joe Moore

“I’ve cut this rope three times and it’s still too short.”

image Despite the corny old carpenter joke about miss-measuring, it’s something that does happens from time to time when writing a book. You’re under contract to deliver a 100k-word manuscript and your first draft is 10k short. What do you do? Do you “pad” the writing—go in and add a lot of stuff just for the sake of word count. Padding usually involves “staging” or additional extraneous actions by your characters as they move around the “stage”. But doing it too much will call attention to the padding and wind up getting sliced out by your editor. Intentional padding is not the answer. But there are some legitimate ways to increase word count without bloating your story.

One suggestion is to build up your story’s “world” by conducting additional research and adding a few bits and pieces of atmosphere throughout. Let’s say your scene takes place in Miami Beach. Your character is having breakfast on the balcony of her hotel room overlooking the Atlantic. Without slowing down the story, add a few lines about the history of the hotel. Since most of the hotels on Miami Beach have been around for decades, certainly something might have happened years ago at the same local that could reflect on or be pertinent to the story’s plot or situation.

Another method is to utilize your character’s five senses. Are you making good use of them? Sitting on that balcony, your MC must be able to smell the fresh sea breeze and hear the gulls calling from overhead. Or she notices the ever-present container ships slipping along the horizon in the Gulf Stream. Could be that she can feel the film of salt coating the arms of her chair. How does her freshly squeezed OJ taste? You don’t want to use all 5 in every scene, but engaging the senses is a great way to expand the prose and take advantage of an opportunity to further develop your character.

The skill in expanding a manuscript is to do so without appearing to pad the writing. And you want to avoid going down a new rabbit hole and suddenly winding up with too many words such as introducing a new subplot. Always consider the two basic criteria for any additional words: they must either advance the plot or further develop the character. Otherwise, they don’t belong.

What about you? Have you ever come up short on contractual word count? How did you expand the story without it becoming blotted or obviously padded?

One-page critique of Bullet’s Name

By Joe Moore

We continue our one-page critique project at TKZ with an anonymous submission called Bullet’s Name.

August, 1937

It was just after eleven on a Sunday morning when God-fearing people were in church and reprobates were sleeping in from reprobating all night.

Jasper Green was waiting for me in a rundown colored roadhouse a few miles outside Salisbury, North Carolina. I parked the well-worn Ford sedan that I’d rented three days earlier for ten bucks a day from a less-than-honest car dealer in Charlotte. I parked just shy of sparkling Dodge coupe with a Carolina plate.

The front door stood open so I crossed the porch and walked into the dim interior. The water-stained ceiling undulated gently like the surface of the ocean. The pine floors were worn paper smooth and the place smelled of spilled beer, cigarette smoke and a hint of a shallow piss pit out back. Some of the dark-brown floor stains looked like residue from blade work.

Green sat like a king with his back in a corner, his black hair pomaded to his narrow skull like sun-baked paint. His right hand was under the table, his dusty brown eyes reflected amused disinterest. A young negress, with a lithe body that gave turned a simple cotton shift into an elegant gown, was delivering a bottle of whiskey to his table when I came in and she looked at me like I was tracking in a dog turd.

In a welcoming gesture, Jasper Green smiled disarmingly and raised his chin to invite me over. When I got to the table, he pointed at the chair opposite and said, “Sit down and take a load off, buddy.”

I would recommend that the writer proofread the work before submission. Even if this is a rough first draft, the writer could have taken a few seconds to make sure this single page was clean and devoid of errors. There are words missing: “the” or “a” before the word “sparkling”, and extra words that don’t belong: “gave” just before “turned”. We are told twice in a row that “I parked”.

Regarding the writing, there’s nothing wrong with using metaphors, similes and strong description to create atmosphere and sense of place. But in this example, there are way too many. Some are confusing and some just don’t work. I don’t think using the verb “undulated” is a good way to describe a ceiling unless you’re drunk on your back staring up at it.

I would bet that beer drinkers love the smell of beer. I would even bet that they would have no issue with the aroma of spilt beer. I think what the writer meant was the odor of spilled beer from a week or a month ago—the smell of stale beer.

I assume the dark stains resulting from “blade work” mean blood spilled from past knife fights. That almost works, but for me it was too obscure.

I would suggest changing “colored roadhouse” to “negro roadhouse”. In today’s politically correct mindset, colored does not have the impact that negro would.

I’ve heard of people described as having a narrow face or even a narrow head, but a narrow skull doesn’t quite put a vivid picture in my mind. Word choice is so important. The word skull, for me at least, has a totally different connotation than head. And is pomaded the right word choice for this setting? The first page may not be the best time to send your reader running for a dictionary or the writer trying to exhibit an extended vocabulary. Remember that you are establishing your voice from page one.

From across the room, the main character could see that Jasper’s eyes were a “dusty brown”, a description I find somewhat attractive for a person the writer is trying to paint as a dark or questionable character.

The sentence that starts with “A young negress” lacks proper punctuation. It also paints a contradiction. This “lithe” girl who turns rags to royalty when it comes to her wardrobe suddenly is assumed to think in terms of turds. A complete turn-off for me.

An overall comment: you cannot describe a character into being good or bad. This can only be done through their actions and reactions. This submission tries to use description to do the job. It may be a sign that the writer doesn’t “know” the characters well enough yet.

Summary: proof read, use economy of words—less is always more, use proper punctuation, and start a story at the moment of impact where the main character is tossed out of his or her comfort zone. Chances are, an agent would not read beyond this page.

What about you? Would your read on?

Download FRESH KILLS, Tales from the Kill Zone to your Kindle or PC today.

First Page Critique

By Joe Moore

ITW_Award_black_72dpi Yesterday, the nominees for the 2010 ITW Thriller Awards were announced. Congratulations to our Kill Zone blogmate, John Gilstrap! His thriller NO MERCY was nominated for Best Paperback Original. This is a great honor and we all wish John the best of luck in taking home that award next July.

This past Sunday, Jim posted a blog about the importance of the opening pages of a manuscript submitted to an agent or editor. He pointed out some common pitfalls that new authors make, and which ultimately can result in rejection. Clare continued the theme on Monday by listing additional sins committed by first-time writers. And yesterday, Kathryn invited our visitors to submit the first page of their manuscript for a free critique. Unless otherwise requested, the authors will remain anonymous. So to start things off, here’s our first submission and my critique, page one of the manuscript THE CASSIOPEIA EFFECT

Marcus had never seen a dead body before. No, that’s misleading. He had seen a dead body—two of them in fact. That came with burying his wife and daughter eight years earlier. What he’d never seen before was a dead body lying in the streets. It was common enough in the part of the city he found himself living, where the homeless turned up dead from time to time, but up until a few moments ago, he’d been lucky.

It seemed his luck had changed. Whatever streak he’d been riding was coming to an end at an alarmingly fast rate. In the last twenty-four hours he’d lost a small fortune to his bookie, been given a notice of eviction from his apartment, and crashed his computer. Now there was a dead guy leaning against his car. It really didn’t surprise him, though.

For him, Good Luck came and went like a five dollar whore giving head while parked next to the curb. Bad luck, on the other hand, was like a bad love affair he couldn’t put an end to. No matter how many times it left, it always showed back up knocking at his door. All the other stuff had been Bad Luck knocking; finding the dead guy next to his car was it breaking down the door and rushing back into his life.

Marcus stepped off the curb and walked to his car and the waiting dead man. The filthy trench coat, ripped pants, and mismatched shoes left little doubt that the guy was one of the many homeless who wandered the streets. The amount of blood splattered across the car door made it pretty apparent the homeless guy was dead. But Marcus was still going to check. There was no way he was going to let a man die if there was still a chance to save him. He already had to live with too many things he wasn’t proud of and wasn’t about to add another.

Careful to avoid the blood pooled on the oil stained pavement, he knelt down next to the body, pulled back the collar of the coat with one hand, and with the other, checked for a pulse. Nothing. Whoever he had been, he was nothing but dead now. Marcus’ eyes played over the strange pattern of blood spray on the car door as he tried to decide what to do next.

There wouldn’t be any calls to 911 or the police. Moving him off the car and leaving him in front of his building for someone else to find wasn’t an option either. He didn’t need a dead guy connected to him in any way. What he could do, Marcus decided, was take him a few blocks where he’d be found and, hopefully, get the burial he deserved.

One of the main issues raised in Jim’s post on Sunday was what he called “Exposition Dump”. Unfortunately, that’s what we have in this example—the first 3 paragraphs contain a great deal of backstory with little “here and now”. This information should be saved and revealed later.

The best method for a reader to get to know a character is through their actions and reactions. Telling me about the bad luck Marcus has had does not engage me emotionally or spark my interest.

But all is not lost. In addition to cutting back on the “telling”, the writer might want to consider shifting the story into first person. Doing so could cause the reader to be pulled up close to the character and perhaps have a bit more feelings for Marcus. Here’s an example.

The first couple of sentences read:

Marcus had never seen a dead body before. No, that’s misleading. He had seen a dead body—two of them in fact. That came with burying his wife and daughter eight years earlier.

Now, here it is in first person:

I’d never seen a dead body before. No, that’s not true. Eight years ago, I had to bury my wife and daughter. But this was different.

Suddenly, the scene questions that pop into the readers mind—questions that were weak before—are now personal and tantalizing. The most intriguing: What happened to his wife and daughter? The straight exposition didn’t cause me to consider the questions in the same manner.

The second point I need to make is that if Marcos is the main character (and I have no idea if he is or not), I don’t like him very much. Why? He shows bad judgment. He’s into $5 whores, illegal gambling, and not willing to at least call the police—even anonymously—to report what he’s found. He quickly comes to the decision that for his own best interests, he should gather up the dead man and dump the body in another location. Granted, we don’t know why he would react this way, but having a number of negatives with little positive doesn’t make for a very likeable character. The reader needs to feel something for the character pretty much from the start. All I feel about Marcus is negative.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing objectionable about a character with those attributes as long as there’s a reason for the reader to sympathize with him and respect or at least understand his judgment. Right now, there’s nothing here I was able to latch on to.

I like to use my “Dirty Harry” example of how to establish a reader/viewer and character relationship fast. The first scene of the movie, Harry helps a little old lady cross the street. Then he goes into a coffee shop that’s being robbed and blows the bad guy away. I like Harry right from the start even though I know he’s rough around the edges, dangerous, cocky, and kind-hearted.

The truth is that most manuscripts get rejected by the end of the first page—or at least the first couple of pages. This is reality. No agent is going to persevere for fifty or a hundred pages in hopes that things might get better. And no reader will either.

What I’ve expressed is my personal opinion. If I were an agent or acquisition editor, I would probably reject this manuscript and move on to the next one in line.

So what do you think? After reading the first page, are you compelled to read the second page?

Download FRESH KILLS, Tales from the Kill Zone to your Kindle or PC today.

Foreshadow and Backshadow

By Joe Moore


A few weeks ago we discussed flashbacks and how they allow writers to convey backstory while the scene usually remains in the present. It’s a common technique in the writer’s toolbox for filling in the important history of a character or other elements in the story.

sign1 Today’s post is about foreshadowing, a technique that also deals with time. Most writers are familiar with it although few know about a companion technique called backshadowing. Both work well when used discretely.

Let’s start with foreshadowing. It’s the planting of hints and clues that tip off the reader as to what may come later in the story. For example, a character who is destined to die in an automobile accident 10 pages from now could complain about the unusual icy condition of the roads as the weather gets worse.

This technique can add dramatic tension by building anticipation about what might happen later. Foreshadowing can be used to generate suspense or to get across information that helps the reader appreciate future developments. Foreshadowing can also help make believable what might otherwise be outlandish or extraordinary events. For instance, if something in a character’s background is foreshadowed (she’s afraid of heights), then the reader will be prepared when a set of circumstances occur that cause a character to panic while standing on a roof.

There are many types of foreshadowing including direct, subtle, atmospheric, and global.

Direct foreshadowing is just that; a direct piece of information that is revealed to the reader about a future event.

Her plan was to pick the lock on the rear entrance, disable the alarm and disconnect the camera feeds before grabbing the jewels.

Subtle foreshadowing is not so obvious. It can be small crumbs of information that, when added together, help believability.

He reached for the red coffee cup but hesitated, knowing that particular color always meant failure.

Atmospheric foreshadowing usually deals with the elements surrounding the character and how they might reflect a mood or situation.

She crouched behind the wall and watched the clouds move across the moon and blot out the stars. The darkness would bring death.

Global foreshadowing is usually found right up front, either at the beginning of the book or the start of a chapter.

It never occurred to him that by the end of the day, he would shoot and kill five people.

So if that’s foreshadowing, what the heck is backshadowing?

It’s usually an event that has already occurred but affects the future. A Salem witch is burnt at the stake on page 15, while hundreds of years and many pages later, a woman comments that her new Salem, Mass apartment has a lingering burning smell.

Another common use of backshadowing is to start the story with the ending, then shift back to the beginning with the reader in full knowledge of the outcome but no idea how it all happened.

That’s how I wound up dead on a beautiful fall evening. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up and start at the beginning . . .

The reader doesn’t have to spot the foreshadowing or backshadowing when they occur, but they should be able to see their significance later.

Do you use either or both in your writing? Can you think of other types of foreshadowing and how they’re used?

Download FRESH KILLS, Tales from the Kill Zone to your Kindle or PC today.