Action vs. Suspense

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

BREAKING NEWS: On the 15th of March, 44 B.C., a group of Roman Senators approached Julius Caesar while he sat on his golden throne, produced daggers and assassinated the emperor by stabbing him 23 times. His death paved the way for the Roman Empire and made his name a household word. Even now, Beware the Ides of March still carries a dark warning. Hopefully, everyone made it through the Ides of March unscathed.

A similar event occurred on the Ides of March, 2016. Yesterday, Barnes & Noble put the final kibosh on the future of the NOOK by giving customers a week to salvage their purchase content. NOOK sales decreased 33% for the quarter. Digital content sales were down 23%. Device and accessory sales down 44%. Online sales declined 12.5%. Kindle is now and always was the undisputed Lord Of The E-readers. And one Amazon to rule them all.

And now this.

I’ve found that one of the mistakes beginning writers often make is confusing action with suspense; they assume a thriller must be filled with it to create suspense. They load up their stories with endless gun battles, car chases, and daredevil stunts as the heroes are being chased across continents with a relentless batch of baddies hot in pursuit. The result can begin to look like the Perils of Pauline; jumping from one fire to another. What many beginning thriller writers don’t realize is that heavy-handed action usually produces boredom, not thrills.

When there’s too much action, you can wind up with a story that lacks tension and suspense. The reader becomes bored and never really cares about who lives or who wins. If they actually finish the book, it’s probably because they’re trapped on a coast-to-coast flight or inside a vacation hotel room while it’s pouring down rain outside.

Too much action becomes even more apparent in the movies. The James Bond film “Quantum Of Solace” is an example. The story was so buried in action that by the end, I simply didn’t care. All I wanted to happen was for it to be over. Don’t get me wrong, the action sequences were visually amazing, but special effects and outlandish stunts can only thrill for a short time. They can’t take the place of strong character development, crisp dialogue and clever plotting.

As far as thrillers are concerned, I’ve found that most action scenes just get in the way of the story. What I enjoy is the anticipation of action and danger, and the threat of something that has not happened yet. When it does happen, the action scene becomes the release valve.

I believe that writing an action scene can be fairly easy. What’s difficult is writing a suspenseful story without having to rely on tons of action. Doing so takes skill. Anyone can write a chase sequence or describe a shoot-out. The trick is not to confuse action with suspense. Guns, fast cars and rollercoaster-like chase scenes are fun, but do they really get the reader’s heart pumping. Or is it the lead-up to the chase, the anticipation of the kill, the breathless suspense of knowing that danger is waiting just around the corner?

Do you like the anticipation of action more than the action itself?

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What Scares YOU?!

spider

Photo (c) Copyright 2015, New Media Investment Group.

It is almost Halloween. The Just Born Candy Company (the fine folks who bring us Marshmellow Peeps!) have Ghost, Tombstone, and Pumpkin Peeps (as well as some pricey limited edition flavors) out right now. They don’t have Spider Peeps. I consider that to be a good thing, for the reason set forth below.

Long time TKZ visitors will recall that I have blogged on the topic of fear and what scares you and me. Given that we are approaching Halloween, I thought that we might visit it once again, giving our more recent visitors a chance to weigh in as well. Fear is a great inspiration for writing. Take what you fear most and write about it, spinning the topic out to its worst case scenario. I have three major fears: 1) spiders, 2) spiders, and 3) spiders. I apparently have some notoriety in this regard as, when one does a image google of me, a couple of pictures of spiders appear within the montage of America’s Most Wanted posters. How nice. I also don’t care much for heights or closed-in places. Put me in a spider-filled coffin suspended fifty feet in the air and you might as well kill me. In fact, if I’m ever in that position, please do. I spray the interior and exterior of my house twice a year with an insecticide called Suspend (and a tip of the fedora to Carl Causey, husband of author Toni McGee Causey, for that suggestion!) but, as this article in the Friday morning news demonstrates, the spiders in my house and their homeslices have merely withdrawn and are regrouping on a bridge in Columbus, five to ten thousand strong, planning a flank attack even as I type. I’m waiting for you, demon spawns, with a sprayer full of Suspend and cleated boots and a twelve-gauge shotgun. I don’t care what the guy in the video in the article says, about how interesting they are, or how their fangs aren’t sharp enough to pierce the skin of a human being. Is he nucking futs? He’s gonna let one of those things get close enough to you to determine whether or not its fangs will break your skin? Not me.

There was a time during the past year when I was driving over that bridge twice a night, every night. No more. The current occupants are probably busily weaving the largest web you’ve ever seen, even as they chitter, “{{{wherrrzzz Joezzzz?}}},” ready to drop it on me as I drive by. It won’t happen. Obviously, I won’t be traversing that route until the temperature is somewhere south of zero and they are all curled up in a glare of ice. And those folks who are walking on the bridge to get a peek at what five thousand spiders — at least — look like? Unbelievable!

So what scares the living daylights out of you? Have you written about the topic of your (ir)rational fear? Do you plan to?

 

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Just One More Chapter

By Joe Moore

Welcome to 2015. All of us at TKZ wish all of you the best of New Years. From a writing perspective, I hope you produce your best work yet. And from a reader’s perspective, may you discover a new author that thrills you beyond expectations.

As some of you know, I write supernatural thrillers with co-author, Lynn Sholes. We are at the midway point of THE TOMB, book 3 of a series. It is the eighth novel we’ve written together. We’re often asked how two people can write fiction. It’s pretty much a mystery, but I’ve pulled back the curtain in a previous blog post to answer the question.

What I want to reveal today are some of the secrets and tricks we use to keep our readers turning the pages to our thrillers. It’s important to remember that these are the techniques we use; they may not be right for you. They might even make you feel uncomfortable, but our job is to write the best, most exciting story we can. Here’s how we do it.

Probably the number one technique is short chapters. And when I say short, I mean SHORT. With few exceptions, we try to max out each chapter at around 1000 words. Many chapters are only 500-700. Now you’re probably thinking: What can you do with 500 to 1000 words? Answer: Only tell what’s important. Leave out the rest. What moves the story forward or develops the characters? That’s the questions we ask. Then we write it in 1000 words or less.

Number two technique is to end every chapter with a cliffhanger. Leave the reader hanging. Give them a taste of what’s to come, then stop. Here’s an example—the last paragraph from the opening chapter of THE TOMB.

I grabbed the binoculars and searched in the direction of La Pampa for Marquez and his driver. They were standing in front of the restaurant with their backs to me; the colonel talking on his phone. If I called him, he would see my caller ID and no doubt ignore me. For all I knew he was giving the command to start the assault. I thought of blowing the car horn to attract his attention, but that would also attract the attention of the two targets in the restaurant. The same problem if I got out and started yelling for the colonel’s attention. My last option was the one I chose. I pulled up the right leg of my jeans and removed the Walther PPK strapped to my calf. Slipping out of the SUV, I moved at a quick pace to the door on the side of the building. I reached for the knob, determined to follow the most wanted man on the planet.

Technique number three is to keep them hanging. The next chapter should take them someplace else, probably the continuation of the cliffhanger from two chapters ago. The reader finishes the chapter, knows it’s late and she should be in bed, but takes a peek at the next chapter and sees it’s the answer to a previous cliffhanger. And it’s only two or three pages. What does she do? She reads just one more chapter.

The fourth trick we use is to ask ourselves what the reader thinks will happen next. Then we do something different.

Writing in this fashion creates fast pacing, dynamics, and the unexpected. I love to read books like that. And I like to write them. I want to be placed in a position where I have to read just one more chapter. And I love doing the same thing to my readers.

How about you guys? Any secrets and tricks you want to share?

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Obstacles, roadblocks and detours

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

When you write a story, whether it’s short fiction or a novel-length manuscript, there are always two major components to deal with: characters and plot. Combined, they make up the “body” of the story. And of the two, the plot can be thought of as the skeleton while the characters are the meat and muscle.

When it comes to building your plot, nothing should be random or by accident. It may appear random to the reader but every twist and turn of the plot should be significant and move the story to its final conclusion. Every element, whether it deals with a character’s inner or outer being should contribute to furthering the story.

In order to determine the significance of each element, always ask why. Why does he look or dress that way? Why did she say or react in that manner? Why does the action take place in this particular location as opposed to that setting? If you ask why, and don’t get a convincing answer, delete or change the element. Every word, every sentence, every detail must matter. If they don’t, and there’s a chance they could confuse the reader or get in the way of the story, change or delete.

Your plot should grow out of the obstructions placed in the character’s path. What is causing the protagonist to stand up for his beliefs? What is motivating her to fight for survival? That’s what makes up the critical points of the plot—those obstacles placed in the path of your characters.

Be careful of overreaction; a character acting or reacting beyond the belief model you’ve built in your reader’s mind. There’s nothing wrong with placing an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation—that’s what great stories are made from. But you must build your character in such a manner that his actions and reactions to each plot point are plausible. Push the character, but keep them in the realm of reality. A man who has never been in an airplane cannot be expected to fly a passenger plane. But a private pilot who has flown small planes could be able to fly a large passenger plane and possibly land it under the right conditions. The actions and the obstacles can be thrilling, but must be believable.

Avoid melodrama in your plot—the actions of a character without believable motivation. Action for the sake of action is empty and two-dimensional. Each character should have a pressing agenda from which the plot unfolds. That agenda is what motivates their actions. The reader should care about the individual’s agenda, but what’s more important is that the reader believes the characters care about their own agendas. And as each character pursues his or her agenda, they should periodically face roadblocks and never quite get everything they want. The protagonist should always stand in the way of the antagonist, and vice versa.

Another plot tripwire to avoid is deus ex machina (god from the machine) whereby a previously unsolvable problem is suddenly overcome by a contrived element: the sudden introduction of a new character or device. Doing so is cheap writing and you run the risk of losing your reader. Instead, use foreshadowing to place elements into the plot that, if added up, will present a believable solution to the problem. The character may have to work hard at it, but in the end, the reader will accept it as plausible.

Always consider your plot as a series of opportunities for your character to reveal his or her true self. The plot should offer the character a chance to be better (or worse in the case of the antagonist) than they were in the beginning. The opportunities manifest themselves in the form of obstacles, roadblocks and detours. If the path was straight and level with smooth sailing, it would be dull and boring. Give your characters a chance to shine. Let them grow and develop by building a strong skeleton on which to flesh out their true selves.

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Fire up Your Fiction with Foreshadowing

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

To create a page-turner that sells and gets great reviews, be sure to keep your readers curious and worried throughout your novel. That will keep them turning the pages. You can add tension, suspense, and intrigue to your story very effectively with techniques like foreshadowing, withholding or delaying information, stretching out the tension, and using epiphanies and revelations. (All discussed at length in my book Writing a Killer Thriller.)

Foreshadowing is about sprinkling in subtle little hints and clues as you go along about possible revelations, complications, and trouble to come. It incites curiosity, anticipation, and worry in the readers, which is exactly what you want. So to pique the readers’ interest and keep them absorbed, be sure to continually hint at dangers lurking ahead.

Use foreshadowing to lay the groundwork for future tension, to tantalize readers about upcoming critical scenes, confrontations or developments, major changes or reversals, character transformations, or secrets to be revealed.

Foreshadowing is great for revealing character traits, flaws, phobias, weaknesses, and secrets; building character motivations; and increasing reader engagement.

Foreshadowing also adds credibility and continuity to your plot. If events and changes are foreshadowed, then when they do occur, they seem more believable and natural, not just a random act or something you suddenly decided to stick in there. For example, if your forty-something, somewhat bumbling detective suddenly starts using Taekwondo to defeat his opponent, you’d better have mentioned at some point earlier that he has taken Taekwondo lessons, or else the readers are going to say, “Oh, come on! Give me a break. Suddenly he’s Jackie Chan?”

But for every hint you drop, make sure you follow through later in the novel. Be sure not to drop in what seems like a critical piece of info or object, but ends up not foreshadowing anything. Readers will feel deceived and cheated. (For more on this, Google “Chekhov’s gun” or see my book.)

Also, do be subtle about your little hints. If you make them too obvious, it takes away the suspense and intrigue, along with the reader’s satisfaction at trying to figure everything out.

Some ideas for foreshadowing:

Here are some ways you can foreshadow events or revelations in your story:

Show a pre-scene or mini-example of what happens in a big way later, for example:
The roads are icy and the car starts to skid but the driver manages to get it under control and continues driving, a little shaken and nervous. This initial near-miss plants worry in the reader’s mind. Then later a truck comes barreling toward him and…

– The protagonist overhears snippets of conversation or gossip and tries to piece it all together, but it doesn’t all make sense until later.

– Hint at shameful secrets or painful memories your protagonist has been hiding, trying to forget about.

Something on the news warns of possible danger – a storm brewing, a convict who’s escaped from prison, a killer on the loose, a series of bank robberies, etc.

– Your main character notices and wonders about other characters’ unusual or suspicious actions, reactions, tone of voice, facial expressions, or body language. Another character is acting evasive or looks preoccupied, nervous, apprehensive, or tense.

– Show us the protagonist’s inner fears or suspicions. Then the readers start worrying that what the character is anxious about may happen.

– Use setting details and word choices to create an ominous mood. A storm is brewing, or fog or a snowstorm makes it impossible to see any distance ahead, or…?

– The protagonist or a loved one has a disturbing dream or premonition.

– A fortune teller or horoscope foretells trouble ahead.

Make the ordinary seem ominous, or plant something out of place in a scene. Zoom in on an otherwise benign object, like that bicycle lying in the sidewalk, the single child’s shoe in the alley, the half-eaten breakfast, etc., to create a sense of unease.

Use objects: your character is looking for something in a drawer and pushes aside a loaded gun. Or a knife, scissors, or other dangerous object or poisonous substance is lying around within reach of children or an assailant.

Use symbolism, like a broken mirror, a dead bird, a lost kitten, or…

~ A no-no about foreshadowing:

But don’t step in as the author giving an aside to the readers, like “When she woke up that morning, she had no idea it would turn out to be the worst day of her life.” We’re in the heroine’s head at that moment, and since she has no idea how the day is going to turn out, it’s breaking the spell, the fictive dream for us to pass out of her body and her time frame to jump ahead and read the future.

~ Don’t like to plan your story out first? Just go ahead and write your story, then work backward and foreshadow later.

If you hate to outline and just want to start writing and see where the characters and story take you, you can always go back through your manuscript later and plant clues and indications here and there to hint at major reversals and critical events. Doing this will not only increase the suspense and intrigue but will also improve the overall credibility and unity of your story.

And remember to sprinkle in the foreshadowing like a strong spice – not too much and not too little. If you give too many hints, you’ll erode your suspense. If you don’t give enough, readers might feel a bit cheated or manipulated when something unexpected happens, especially if it’s a huge twist or surprise.

And again, the operative word is subtle. Don’t hit readers over the head with it. Not all your readers will pick up on these little hints, and that’s okay. It makes the ones who do feel all the more clever.

For more techniques for adding conflict, tension, suspense, and intrigue to any genre of fiction, check out Jodie’s book, Writing a Killer Thriller.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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What Can Go Wrong?

by Joe Moore

A huge Happy New Year to all my TKZ friends and blogmates. May 2014 be the best year ever for all of you.

Back in June of 2012, I posted a TKZ blog called Magic Words and how using them can be one of the best methods for kick starting your story ideas. The words are: “What If”. I’m sure that almost every story written probably started with those two words. What better way to get the juices flowing than to start with what if? I consider this a “story level” technique.

Today I want to suggest a “chapter level” exercise. Four words that can help create tension, suspense, conflict, and character-building. They are: “What Can Go Wrong?”

As you’re about to start a new chapter, even if you know what needs to happen, pause for a moment and ask yourself what can go wrong in this scene. Chances are, whatever answer you come up with will give you the opportunity to ratchet up the suspense and thereby keep the reader’s interest. Here’s a recent example of how I used this technique.

In my latest thriller THE SHIELD (co-written with Lynn Sholes) I was to draft a chapter in which my protagonist, her ex-husband, and a Russian colonel who had taken them prisoner, were flying in a 2-engine prop plane from Port Sudan inland across the Nubian Desert to a secret military facility. The outline which Lynn and I constructed about a year ago called for this journey from point A to point B. The only purpose of the chapter was to get to point B, the secret military facility. If I had drafted the chapter sticking strictly to the outline with the flight comprising of light banter between the three and the mention of a few landmarks passing below, it would have been short and dull, almost surely unneeded. The reader would have skipped through it to get to the “good stuff”.

So before I began, I asked myself what can go wrong in this scene that would lift the suspense and conflict, and even give me an opportunity to build character. My answer: what is the worst thing that can happen to an airplane? It crashes. Why would it crash? Well, that area of North Africa is known to be a dangerous place with anti-government rebel and al-Qaeda training camps. So what causes the crash? It’s shot down by shoulder-fired rockets from a rebel encampment.

Keep in mind that the outline calls for the three to get from point A to point B. This is the beauty of outlining: you can still reach your goal but taking an interesting detour can improve the story.

To increase the tension—although the three manage to survive the crash—the rebels are now coming after them. And how about the character-building aspect. My protagonist manages to save the life of her Russian captor when she could have easily left him behind to burn up in the wreckage.

In asking what can go wrong, I managed to turn one chapter into three, prolong the conflict, build character, and still fulfill the plot outline by getting all three to their destination.

As writers, whether we write by the seat of our pants or create a solid outline first, we must never pass up an opportunity to improve our stories. Asking what can go wrong often helps.

How about my friends at TKZ—ever use this or similar techniques in story building? After all, what can go wrong?

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Choices and Crises Show True Character

Today I welcome our guest blogger, Becca Puglisi, to TKZ. Becca is an instructor and author specializing in character-building strategies for writers. Enjoy her tips and advice.

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I’ve recently become addicted to Showtime’s Sons of Anarchy. Thanks to Netflix, I was able to watch the first four seasons in an becca1obscenely short period of time. One of the things that makes the show so compelling is the sheer amount of pressure that the characters are under. It honestly never lets up, and, against all odds, it keeps getting worse.

One of the most interesting characters is the protagonist’s mother, Gemma. She’s incredibly flawed, but she has great strength, too. I find myself rooting for her despite her seeming determination to train wreck her own life and everyone else’s in the vicinity. This makes me wonder: how do the writers present such a complex character so believably? I mean, how can a woman be controlling and submissive, manipulative and nurturing, loyal and selfish—and all of that come through to the audience without it being contradictory or off-putting? In thinking about how to write complicated characters well, I’ve realized that crises and choices are hugely important.

Choices usually come with an element of time. The character is able to slow down, think things through. This is invaluable in a story setting, where the reader is privy to the character’s thoughts, because thoughts reveal truth. Characters, like real people, are usually not 100% honest with others when it comes to personality. They hide flaws, disguise them as strengths, and mask unwanted traits with more desirable ones in an effort to mislead. But a character’s thoughts are unvarnished. This is where the character can be her true self. Through the internal dialogue that accompanies a difficult decision, readers will see what the character truly values, what she wants, what she fears. This is one reason that choices provide an excellent opportunity to show true character.

Another benefit is that readers are able to see and evaluate how the character eventually comes to his decision. Does he base it on morality or ethics? If he’s uncertain, who is able to sway him, and why? Does fear drive him, or insecurity, or some other weakness? Does he ultimately do what’s right, or what’s easy, or what other people expect him to do? If you want to reveal your hero’s true personality, give him a difficult choice and some time to mull it over, and readers will be able to see who he is at his core.

Crises are equally beneficial, but for a different reason. When a character is thrust into a critical event that requires immediate attention, there’s no time to think. In a crisis situation, he’s forced to respond in a knee-jerk fashion, without dissembling. He just reacts. In doing so, he reveals his true self. I love how Stephen King does this with his villain in The Dead Zone. Presidential candidate Stillson is a cruel, emotionally unbalanced individual, but, like many politicians, he has the public snowed. Then, during an assassination attempt, he snatches a young child and uses him as a human shield. A journalist catches Stillson’s instinctive response on camera, revealing him as the self-serving coward that he always has been.

The beautiful thing about crises is that while they work quite well at the time of the climax, they can be utilized as effectively at any point in the story.

So if you’ve got a multi-faceted character whose real personality you’d like to reveal, consider giving him a tough decision or throwing him into a crisis situation. Then sit back and watch his true colors bleed.

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Thank you, Joe, for inviting me to post at The Kill Zone today. As a special thanks for the warm welcome, I’d like to give away a PDF copy of my book, The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes. Just leave a comment to enter for a chance to win. The giveaway runs through December 13th, after which time I’ll pick a winner. Best of luck!

Becca Puglisi is the co-creator of The Bookshelf Muse, an award winning online resource for writers. She has also authored a number of nonfiction resource books for writers, including The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s WHW-Logo1-150x150Guide to Character Emotion; The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes; and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. A member of SCBWI, she leads workshops at regional conferences, teaches webinars through WANA International, and can be found online at her Writers Helping Writers website.

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First-page critique: HAIR TRIGGER

By Joe Moore

Today’s first-page critique is from a story called HAIR TRIGGER. My comments follow.

HAIR TRIGGER

They were going to cut my hand off.

When I came to, I was tied to a chair. It was dark in the print shop and, like a character in a 1940s film noir, I could see the distorted silhouettes of a tall man and short man standing in the shadows. I was dizzy and felt sick from the blow to my head. The two figures swam in and out of focus.

Leaning over as far as I could, I barfed on the floor at their feet.

“Feeling better?” the short one asked in a strained high-pitched voice that reminded me of Peter Lorre.

“Please don’t say ‘fuck you’,” the tall one added.

I didn’t. I just vomited again.

After I finished whooshing whatever cookies were left inside me, I noticed my right hand was trapped under the clamping rail of a paper trimmer. This type of machine is commonly called a guillotine and has a razor sharp blade with thousands of pounds of pressure behind it. It can make very neat cuts through thick reams of paper.

The short guy stood next to it but I still couldn’t see him clearly.

“It says here this thing can trim up to a thousand sheets of paper at a time,” he read off the metal tag on the side of the machine. “Apparently, the operator must have a hand on each of the side switches for safety.” He looked straight at me. “Gee, I’d like to see how it works. Wouldn’t you?”

The big guy walked to the wall and pulled down the breaker handle on the electrical panel.

Machines around the shop started to power up. I could feel the vibration of the cutter humming through the metal surface under my hand.

The trimming blade gleamed wickedly.

“Now this is the part of the James Bond movie where I ask you to tell me what I need to know. If I don’t get an answer I like, you’re going to have to learn to jack off southpaw.”

I have very few phobias. One, however, is my fear of dismemberment. I get queasy just thinking about it, let alone imagining what my life would be like without a vital appendage such as my gun hand. In feudal Japan it was considered a sign of dishonor if a samurai lost a limb in battle. It showed everyone that he had failed in his duty as a warrior.

I liked this submission, and would keep reading. It starts, just as we so often suggest here at TKZ, with a life-changing event. The protagonist is in trouble and the author presents the reader with a big question: how is he going to get out of losing his hand? The bigger question, at least so far: what did he do to get into this situation?

The voice is not quite solid but it does take on enough character to intrigue. The scene is cliché – two bad guys, one tall, one short, but it does have forward motion and kept my interest.

A bit of line editing and cleanup would help, but it reads like a decent first draft. Nothing wrong with that.

I’m not sure who said the line starting with, “Now is the part of the James Bond . . .” That need clarification.

I would suggest not using the word “very”. It is meaningless. What’s the difference between few phobias and very few phobias?

There were a couple of places where the story slowed down while the writer explained how an industrial paper cutter works and what it means to lose a hand in feudal Japan hand. I would suggest avoiding those type of speed bumps at this stage of the story.

Lastly, even if it’s appropriate to the story, I recommend not dropping the f-bomb on the first page, or anywhere in the story for that matter.

Overall, not bad. I want to know what happens next. Thanks to the brave writer for submitting.

Now, Zoners, what do you think. Would you keep reading or does this guy losing his hand not grab you by the throat? Hold up your hands.

———————-

THE BLADE is an absolute thrill ride." — Lisa Gardner

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Writing with Two Heads

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Recently, Mark Alpert posted a blog about The Writing Buddy and how writing can be a lonely occupation. There are few methods of getting around that situation. If you want to write fiction, it’s usually a one-man show. Fortunately for me, I have a solution—a cowriter.

One of the most frequently asked questions  Lynn Sholes and I get is “How is it possible for two people to write fiction together?” The answer is, it ain’t easy. At least it 2heads8wasn’t at first. Collaboration on non-fiction is somewhat easier to understand. In general, with non-fiction, the “facts” usually already exist and the collaborators’ job is to organize them into a readable document that has a beginning, middle and end. A good outline and knowledge of the subject matter along with professional writing skills may be all the authors need.

But with fiction, nothing exists. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Fiction is a product of an individual’s imagination. It might be inspired by actual facts or events, but only the individual has a specific vision of those events in their head. So how can two people have a similar enough vision to be able to write a novel together?

I can’t speak for the handful of other writing teams out there (including TKZ’s own PJ Parrish), but Lynn and I have managed to complete 6 thrillers together because of a number of reasons.

First, we love the same kind of books—the ones we read are like the ones we write.

Second, we have an unquestioning respect for each other’s writing skills and a deep belief that whatever one of us writes, the other can improve.

Third, we believe that there’s always a better way to write something.

Fourth, we never let our egos get in the way of a good story. This comes from spending over 10 years in a weekly writers critique group.

Fifth, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and are willing to admit them.

Sixth, we agree on the same message/theme in each book.

Seventh, we believe that we are on the same level of expertise.

And last, we believe that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Those points cover the mental portion. Now, how do we handle the mechanics of the job? We talk, and talk, and talk. Once a day we conference call, brainstorm, tell and retell each other the story. Our two favorite words are: What if? Whether it’s global plot points or an individual scene or character motivation, we keep telling each other the story until that little imaginary movie in our minds becomes as in-sync as possible. Then one of us will declare they have a “handle” on the scene or character or chapter, enough of which to create the first draft.

We write very slowly because each chapter must go back and forth many times for revision. Years ago, when we first started, everyone could tell who wrote what as we tried to write our first book. It took three years of hard work before we melted our voices together. Now, because the process goes through so many revisions, even I can’t always remember what I wrote and what she wrote. I rely on my co-writer so much that I’ve come to wonder how individuals can possibly write a book on their own.

There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to collaborating. A disadvantage is that you split any money you make. So you’ll always make half of what you could as a single author. And like any relationship, there is always a chance of a falling out. And something could happen where an ego can become inflated and affect the process.

One of the pluses is that we never experience writer’s block. One of us will always have an idea on how to get out of a jam or move the story forward. And unlike our spouses, family, friends, trusted beta readers, and everyone else, a co-writer has an intimate, vested interest in the success of the story that no one else could have.

Lynn and I are approaching the mid-point of our seventh thriller together (THE SHIELD, the follow-up to THE BLADE). I’ve found that creating the first draft of a chapter is just as exciting as getting a new chapter from her and seeing where the story has gone. I guess the whole thing boils down to trust. Trust in each other and in the goals we both want to achieve with the story and with our careers.

One last note: I haven’t seen Lynn in person in over 5 years since we live hundreds of miles apart. That seems to be something that mystifies everyone.

So, now that you know how we write together, do you think you could ever collaborate on a novel? Or is writing fiction too private an experience. Do you believe two heads are better than one or would you rather not have anyone sticking their nose in your work?

————–
THE BLADE is full-throttle thriller writing.” David Morrell

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First Page Critique – A Rose to Love


Here is today’s first page critique – ‘A Rose to Love’

My comments and feedback follow.


    “So, what’s she like?” Will asked as he took a sugar packet and stirred it into his coffee. They were sitting in a booth in the Coffee House next door to their private detective agency.
    Jesse, tapping on his laptop keyboard, barely looked up. “What’s who like?”
    “You know.” Will narrowed his eyes and leaned forward in the booth. “The woman who’s moving into the apartment upstairs. What’s her name again? And doesn’t she move in today?”
    Jesse took a sip of his coffee before replying. “Guinevere Russo and yes. She should be here any time now.”
    “So, what’s she like?” Will raised his eyebrows meaningfully.
    “I don’t know. I haven’t met her. I only did a background check on her.”
    “I thought that was the whole point of a background check.” Will had learned long ago to never doubt Jesse’s thoroughness. Because of his expertise, their clientele included several lawyers, various businesses and even the police departments in and around Chicago. Not only was Jesse expert at background checks, he was amazing at finding people who didn’t want to be found. 
    Jesse sighed and looked up from his laptop. “Yes, but sometimes, even with the best and deepest background checks, there are surprises.” In their detective agency, Jesse handled the ‘cyber-investigations’ and Will did the more ‘hands-on’ field work. His expertise was in noticing details about people and at crime scenes. They were a good team. Jesse helped Will to become more savvy on the Internet and Will got Jesse out of the office for surveillance work, on-site crime scene investigation, and other jobs that required two sets of eyes.  
    “Nah, you’re too good.” Will dismissed Jesse’s reservations. The man even did some work for the FBI and CIA. Will doubted there would be too many surprises. His partner was just very cautious. “So, is she pretty?”
    Jesse’s eyes widened and then he frowned. Will couldn’t tell if he had touched a nerve or if the man was distracted by whatever he was doing on his laptop. He tapped at his computer some more before replying. “No, she’s not pretty, not like Hollywood pretty. She’s …” He looked up at the ceiling then back at his laptop. “She’s beautiful, but that doesn’t mean much.”
    In all the years he had known Jesse, Will had never heard him describe a woman as beautiful. This should be interesting. 


         My comments:


    First of all, I’m proceeding on the assumption (based on both the title and this first page) that this is a work of romantic suspense. 

    My initial feeling, reading this first page, was that it was the start of a pretty clear (and possibly all too predictable) ‘set-up’ for a romance. Although I thought the style worked well – the sentences are lucid and the back story introduced succinctly and successfully – there wasn’t much in the way of real suspense. Not enough at least to get me intrigued from the get go. The fact that Jesse was a background checker extraordinaire who had never described a woman as beautiful wasn’t quite enough – at least for me. 

    The strength of this as a first page, however, is definitely in the writing style (I liked the fact it was clear and cleanly written). However, I needed more ambiguity and tension to feel compelled by the story. To me this page read more like a romance and less like a mystery/thriller/suspense novel. The fact that Will and Jesse own a private detective agency suggests that this book will involve both romance and suspense – so I think a first page needs to balance both elements to succeed. I also was a little confused as to why they felt the need to do a thorough tenant background check on the person  moving into the upstairs apartment – sounded like overkill unless there’s something more to the story than on the page. 

    It could be that the author needs to start the book off at a different point in time – perhaps when Jesse first sees Guinevere Russo and suspects there’s something that the background check missed. We need something that shocks, disrupts or at least throws us off guard as readers. We need to be shown, not told, that there’s something intriguing as well as beautiful about the new tenant upstairs. As Jim is always saying, the explanations can come later…

    BTW- One little nitpicking quibble – Coffee House should only be capitalized if this is actually its name – otherwise just coffee house… 

    So TKZers what’s your feedback on this as a first page?
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