If it bleeds, it leads

Hosted by Joe Moore

Today I’m pleased to welcome back to TKZ my friend and fellow ITW member, Julie Kramer. Julie is an internationally published and award-winning crime author, and one of my favorite writers. Her latest thriller, SHUNNING SARAH (Library Journal starred review) was released yesterday and I hope you’ll grab a copy. Enjoy!

My fifth media thriller, SHUNNING SARAH, is out this week and I’m starting to think julie_pressmaking my heroine a TV reporter might not have been such a good idea. One of the general rules of novel writing is that your protagonist should be “likeable.”

But just the other day a Gallup poll said the public’s trust in TV news is at an all-time low, almost as low as Congress. I can understand those stats. After all, two networks, in their zeal to be first, recently flubbed coverage of the Supreme Court’s ruling on government-mandated health care. Another network took liberties editing audio of a 911 call in the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida.

Used to be, journalists were the good guys. America cheered TV shows like Mary Tyler Moore, Lou Grant, and Murphy Brown. And don’t forget, Superman’s day job was as a reporter for the Daily Planet. And Spiderman took pictures for his local newspaper. In Network, Howard Beale became a provocative folk hero for railing “I’m mad as hell and won’t take it any more.” And in real life, Woodward and Bernstein inspired a generation of investigative journalists, including me.

The tabloidization of mainstream media and the narrowing of the line between news and gossip have damaged the credibility newsrooms once took for granted. Are we heading back to the sensational days of yellow journalism? My heroine, Riley Spartz, sure hopes not.

kramer-sidebar3I hear from readers who continue to appreciate her as a character because she reflects the problems plaguing newsrooms across America. Her voice is cynical, yet principled as she chases ratings and villains.

I know from a career in the television news business that words can be weapons. Satire and deadpan humor help Riley cope as news budgets are cut and bosses demand 24-7 coverage. Readers tell me they don’t watch news the same way after reading my books. It’s like sausage and laws. You don’t want to watch how they’re made. And my former news colleagues sometimes wish I wasn’t quite so candid.

“Did you have to tell them ‘if it bleeds it leads?’” they ask.

But it’s important for my writing to accurately reflect the state of the news business, good and bad. Because I love news. I’m addicted to knowing who, what, when, where and why. And I honestly believe a free, objective press is one of the best things our society has going. I like it when reviewers praise my depiction of behind-the-scenes action in the newsroom – warts and all.

But what I really need is for the new HBO series, The Newsroom, to take off big and get viewers rooting for TV news again. Then maybe I could sell film rights, and Riley could make it to the big screen.

How big a role does a character’s profession play in what you write or read? And if you simply need to rant about the media, I won’t take offense. 

Investigative television journalist Julie Kramer writes a series of thrillers: STALKING SUSAN, MISSING MARK, SILENCING SAM, KILLING KATE and SHUNNING SARAH—set in the desperate world of TV news. Julie won the Daphne du Maurier Award for Mainstream Mystery/Suspense, RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best First Mystery as well as the Minnesota Book Award. Her work has also been nominated for the Anthony, Barry, Shamus, Mary Higgins Clark, and RT Best Best Amateur Sleuth Awards. She formerly ran the I TEAM for WCCO-TV before becoming a freelance network news producer for NBC and CBS. Visit her website at http://www.juliekramerbooks.com/

Tricks to Creating a Page-Turner

By Joe Moore

If you write mysteries or thrillers (or any genre, for that matter), there’s nothing more rewarding than to have someone say your book is a real “page-turner”—that they couldn’t put it down. And there’s nothing more fulfilling for a reader than to find a book so captivating that they can’t stop reading. Naturally, the writer has to develop a compelling story populated with three-dimensional characters and enough conflict and tension to keep a reader’s interest. Those things are givens, and it’s the writer’s job to craft those elements into the manuscript.

But did you know that there are some simple formatting tricks that anyone can do to improve the readability of a manuscript and keep the reader turning pages. And what’s really cool is that you don’t have to change your story at all to benefit from them. Not a word.

Trick #1. Write short chapters.

Whenever a reader gets to the end of a chapter, they must make a decision to read the next chapter or put the book down and go do something else. It’s a natural stopping point or a launching point to the next part of the story. If it’s late in the evening, many times that decision involves continuing to read or going to bed. What you don’t want them to do is put down the book. When a reader finishes a chapter and comes to that late night decision to stop or read on, they usually check to see if the next chapter is short or long. If it’s only a few pages, there’s a really good chance they will read one more chapter. If they get to the end of that next short chapter and repeat the checking process again, they won’t go to bed. They’ll keep reading. And you will have setup a format that they’ll come to expect and rely on.

This tip does not mean that every chapter must be short. What I’m suggesting is to examine each chapter and see if you can split it into two. Or even three. After all, the same information is going to be imparted. It’s just going to happen in multiple segments.

There’s always going to be a need for longer chapters. Just ask yourself if that 6k-word chapter you just finished writing could be broken into multiple chunks. Remember that you want to entice the reader to keep reading.

Now I know that some writers will react by saying, “Well, my chapters end when they end. Short, long or in between, I write until the chapter naturally ends itself.” Fine. Do whatever you’ve got to do to write a great story. This trick may not be something that fits your writing style. But from a physical standpoint, readers tend to keep reading if they feel the next chapter will take just a few minutes to finish.

From a personal perspective, my co-writer and I try to bring our chapters in at around 1000 words. I know, some of you will think that’s way too short. But one of the most frequent comments we get from our fans is that in addition to enjoying the story, the short chapters kept them up late. We’ve had more than a few readers blame us for them not getting enough sleep because they decided to read “just one more chapter”.

Trick #2. Write (or format) short paragraphs and sentences.

This trick is closely related to trick #1, but it involves the visual experience of your book for the reader. It also involves setting up a distinctive and comfortable rhythm and tempo to your writing.

As you read, your eyes not only move along the sentence but your peripheral vision picks up the “weight” of the next sentence and paragraph. You’re reading a single sentence, but you visually take in the whole page. As your mind plays out the story from one word to the next, it also calculates what is coming up next, and  causes you to be subtly energized or marginally fatigued. It’s like driving across the desert—if the road stretches in an endless ribbon to the horizon, you become tired just knowing you have a long way to go to get to the next break, or in the case of the book, the end of the sentence or paragraph. But if the road is only a city block or two long before you start down the next stretch of highway, you feel less overwhelmed by its mass (paragraph) or length (sentence). Shorter paragraphs and sentences keep the eye from getting fatigued. They allow the reader take a mental “breather” more frequently thus keeping their attention longer. And it’s also a tool for controlling reading speed.

Shorter sentences move the story along at a faster rhythm and tempo because the eyes moves quicker and your peripheral vision sees less bulk and weight on the printed page ahead.

Trick #3. Eliminate dialog tags whenever possible.

If there are only two characters in a scene, eliminate as many dialog tags as you can without confusing the reader. The dialog itself should help to identify the character as should their actions. Even with more than two characters present, staging can help to reduce dialog tags. Staging and actions also help to build characters. Dialog tags don’t. If the reader knows who is speaking because of their actions, the number of tags can often be reduced or even eliminated.

Trick #4. Title your chapters.

Your book has a title for a reason. It sets the mood or intrigue of the whole story. Consider titling your chapters for the same reason. Like the book title, a chapter title is a teaser. When a reader ends a chapter and turns the page, nothing is more boring than to be greeted with the totally original title: Chapter 23. Or worse, just 23. Why not give the reader a hint of what’s to come with a short title. Don’t give anything away, just use the chapter title as an enticement—a promise of things to be delivered or revealed. Use it to set the stage or create a mood just like the book title. I believe that each chapter should be considered a mini book. Chapters should have beginnings, middles and endings. And one way to tempt the reader to keep reading is with a compelling title.

Tricks like these are never to be considered a substitute for solid, clean, professional writing. They are only tricks. But they work if used in the mix with all the other elements of a great story. And the only way for you to know for sure is to give them a try.

Beyond these formatting tricks, does anyone recommend others that can enhance the reader’s experience?

Thriller Must-haves

By Joe Moore

Next week I head to NYC for ThrillerFest — what many consider summer camp for thriller writers. ThrillerFest is really 3 events bundled into one general heading: CraftFest, AgentFest and ThrillerFest. This year, in addition to the 27 bestselling CraftFest instructors including Doug Preston, Michael Palmer, David Morrell, and our own TKZ blogmate John Gilstrap, the great Ken Follett will be teaching a course called “How Thrillers Work”. Taking a class from a guy who has 130 million copies of his thrillers in print ain’t too shabby.

AgentFest has grown to over 60 top New York agents and editors waiting to hear book pitches and look for that next big seller.

And ThrillerFest boasts two days of panels and interviews by some of the biggest names in the genre. As an added bonus, representatives of the CIA will be on hand to answer all those spy novel questions. And the conference ends with the naming of the 2011 Thriller Awards winners and the celebration of R.L. Stine as this year’s ThrillerMaster. There’s still time to register if you can make it.

On Saturday (July 9), I’ll be on a panel called “Are there must-haves in Thrillers?” My fellow panelists include Karen Dionne, Mike Cooper, William Reed, Larry Thompson, Norb Vonnegut, and F. Paul Wilson. It should be a great discussion.

I believe, as I’ve discussed on this blog before, that there are a number of elements commonly found in most thrillers. So to get in the spirit of my ThrillerFest panel next week, here are 6 general must-haves that I think can and should be found in most contemporary thrillers.

First, let’s define a thriller and how it differs from a mystery?

Although thrillers are usually considered a sub-genre of mysteries, I believe there are some interesting differences. I look at a thriller as being a mystery in reverse. By that I mean that the typical murder mystery usually starts with the discovery of a crime. The rest of the book is an attempt to figure out who committed the crime.

I see a thriller as being just the opposite; the book often begins with a threat of some kind, and the rest of the story is trying to figure out how to prevent it from happening. And unlike the typical mystery where the antagonist may not be known until the end, with a thriller we pretty much know who the bad guy is right from the get-go.

So with that basic distinction in mind, let’s list a few of the most common elements found in thrillers.

1. The Ticking Clock. Without the ticking clock such as the doomsday deadline, suspense would be hard if not impossible to create. Even with a thriller like HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER which dealt with slow-moving submarines, Tom Clancy built in the ticking clock of the Soviets trying to find and destroy the Red October before it could make it to the safety of U.S. waters. He masterfully created tension and suspense with an ever-looming ticking clock.

2. High Concept. In Hollywood, the term high concept is the ability to describe a script in one or two sentences usually by comparing it to two previously known motion pictures. For instance, let’s say I’ve got a great idea for a movie. It’s a wacky, zany look at the lighter side of Middle Earth, sort of a ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST meets LORD OF THE RINGS. If you’ve seen both of those movies, you’ll get an immediate visual idea of what my movie is about. High concept Hollywood style.

But with thrillers, high concept is a bit different. A book with a high concept theme is one that contains a radical or somewhat outlandish premise. For example, what if Jesus actually married, had children, and his bloodline survived down to present day? And what if the Church knew it and kept it a secret? You can’t get more outlandish than the high concept of THE DA VINCI CODE.

What if a great white shark took on a maniacal persona and seemed to systematically terrorized a small New England resort island? That’s the outlandish concept of Benchley’s thriller JAWS.

What if someone managed to clone dinosaurs from the DNA found in fossilized mosquitoes and built a theme park that went terribly wrong? You get the idea.

3. High Stakes. Unlike the typical murder mystery, the stakes in a thriller are usually very high. Using Dan Brown’s example again, if the premise were proven to be true, it would undermine the very foundation of Christianity and shake the belief system of over a billion faithful. Those are high stakes by anyone’s standards.

4. Larger-Than-Life Characters. In most mysteries, the protagonist may play a huge role in the story, but that doesn’t make them larger than life. By contrast, Dirk Pitt, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, Jack Bauer, James Bond, Laura Craft, Indiana Jones, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and one that’s closest to my heart, Cotten Stone, are all larger-than-life characters in their respective worlds.

5. Multiple POV. In mysteries, it’s common to have the story told through the eyes of a limited number of characters, sometimes only one. All that can change in a thriller. Most are made up of a large cast of characters, each telling a portion of the story through different angles. Some thrillers are so complex in their POVs that you really need a scorecard. But even with multiple POVs, it’s vital to never let the reader lose sight of whose story it is. There should be only one protagonist.

6. Exotic Settings. Again, in most murder mysteries, the location is usually limited to a particular city, town or locale. But a thriller can and usually is a globetrotting event. In my latest thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTES, co-written with Lynn Sholes, the story takes place in, amount other locations, the tomb of an Aztec emperor, Sao Paulo, Brazil, the sub-basement burial vaults of Westminster Abbey, Red Square, the Bahamas, a small island off the coast of Panama, and the Paris catacombs. Exotic locations are a mainstay of the thriller genre.

Like any generic list, there will always be exceptions and limitations. But in general, these are the elements you’ll usually find in mainstream commercial thrillers. But the biggest and most important element of all is that a thriller should thrill you. If it doesn’t increase your pulse rate, keep you up late, and leave you wanting more, it probably isn’t a thriller.

Are there any characteristics of a thriller not on my list? What do you look for in a good thriller?


THE PHOENIX APOSTLES is “awesome.” – Library Journal. Visit the Sholes & Moore Amazon Bookstore.

First-page critique: THE MARONITE

By Joe Moore

We’re getting down to the end of critiquing our anonymous first-page submissions. This one is called THE MARONITE. Enjoy the sample. My comments follow.

A bullet whizzed past his head as he ran down the alley. Somewhere else in the city, the sound of a gunshot would have prompted someone to call to the police. Not here, and definitely not at this hour. The man looked back, his three-piece suit sprinkled with blood. They weren’t far behind.

Fuck! They’re trying to make it look like a mugging.

The thirty-something got to the street, finally reaching his car. He shoved his right hand into his trouser pocket, frantic, his usually carefully coifed hair falling into his eyes. He wiped at the blood and sweat on his forehead. Earlier, the two men had tried to knock him out and failed. Those Krav Maga classes at Chelsea Piers had saved his life, for now. Desperate, he unlocked his car, and then, as his attackers emerged from the alley at a full sprint, dove into the driver’s seat.

Anyone could have easily mistaken the would-be killers for professional football players or ex-military, trained to kill. Both had hefty athletic builds and were over six feet tall. They’d been caught off-guard by their prey’s martial abilities when they had tried to pistol whip him near the front of his building. They wouldn’t make the same mistake twice, though. Those bonuses were too big, and they wanted them too badly. The assailant on the left broke off and situated himself in the street, diagonally from the car. He trained his pistol on the driver while his partner tried to keep their victim from closing his door. But it slammed shut and locked.

They’d failed again.

The driver turned the ignition.

The car revved.

His hand tingled as he pushed the gear shift into first. He watched the tachometer flicker then looked up. It seemed like only a few milliseconds between the explosion from the pistol’s barrel and the sound of windshield glass popping. The bullet hit him in the chest. He could feel the heat as the metal sank into a lung. Blood started rushing out onto his shirt and tie. He let go of the parking brake, disengaging it.

First, the good news. This is a heck of an opening scene. It has strong visuals, a solid sense of place, and enough tension to fill any reader’s plate. The situation is dire. We don’t know who “thirty-something” is—that’s a cliché, by the way—but by the end of the page, we’re all holding our collective breath. It would be hard to imagine someone putting this one down without turning the page. I know I would keep reading to find out if he makes it or not. So overall, I consider this an excellent, attention-grabbing start to an action-packed thriller (or mystery).

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a couple of things that bugged me about this example. It’s something we’ve discussed before, but I would refrain from dropping the F-bomb on the first page. Now, granted, if this gets published, anyone that picks up the book has already seen the cover and read the back blurb. So if the marketing department did their job well, the language might not be an issue to the potential customer. But there are a whole lot of folks out there who would see that and put the book back down. If the F-bomb was removed, would it change the story? Would it change the character?

Another thing is that there’s a good bit of telling here, and I don’t think it’s needed. Telling us that the guy is frantic and desperate is redundant to the man’s actions. This scene is so frantic and desperate, we don’t need the writer to say, “Hey, just in case you didn’t get it, let me remind you that my guy is frantic and desperate.” We get it.

Finally, I would shift the last few sentences into a more active voice and eliminate the last few words. Here’s my suggested rewrite:

He felt the hot metal sink into a lung. Blood rushed onto his shirt and tie as he released the parking brake.

Overall, I think this is a promising beginning that just needs a little editing and clean-up. Good job.

So what do you guys think? Would you keep reading?


THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8. Preorder now at Amazon or B&N.

Playing Jenga with my book

By Joe Moore

There’s a great game called Jenga. It’s comprised of lots of wooden blocks from which you build a tower. Each player in turn removes one wooden block from anywhere within the tower. The object of the game is to game1not be the one to remove the block that tumbles the tower into a heap of rubble. After all, each block is connected, touches, or relies on the others. The tower must remain structurally stable and strong to keep from falling and breaking. It’s fun to play, but you know that if you pull the wrong block, you can cause a chain reaction that brings the tower down. Once it falls, the game is over.

This week, I’m deep into the editing of the galley proof for my upcoming thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES (June 8). It’s one of, if not the most critical stage of the novel writing process. Up until now, it’s been all fun and games: playing “what if”, outlining, researching, writing, discussing the plot with my agent/editor, sending out portions of the manuscript to my beta readers, rewriting, changing and shifting plot and characters, panicking that I won’t meet the deadline, turning in the manuscript on the deadline day, waiting for the initial feedback from my editor, strategizing with the publisher’s publicity department, seeing the cover art for the first time, worrying, and waiting. A treat arrives in the mail in the form of an ARC (advance reader copy) that my editor snagged for me. I get to see the mockup of the book and cover, and hold it in my hands, and show family and friends that there really will be another book, and I really am a writer, and the first four books weren’t just flukes. So up until now, it’s been tons of fun.

Suddenly, I get an email from the copy editor. The galley proof (the entire text printed as it will appear in the final version) will arrive on such and such a date, and she needs my corrections back on such and such a date to meet the “to-press” date. And she includes the statement that causes all warmth to drain from my body to be replaced with bone-crunching Arctic fear: this will be my final opportunity to make changes.

I’m about to play Jenga with my book.

OK, I can handle it. After all, everyone who read the manuscript loved it. Sure, there’s going to be a few typos that even the editor and proof reader missed. Hey, we’re all human, right? I’ll just whip through this baby, catch a few minor flaws, and get it back ahead of time.

Note: one big advantage here; I have a co-writer, and she’s got her own copy of the galley proof, and she’s going through the same exercise I am. So we figure it’ll be a quick read-through and we’re done. Then we can get back to the fun stuff, right?

So far, I have 5 pages of changes, mostly small items, but a couple of plot issues that need a great deal of thought before we commit to a change. The reason is, one small change, even a word, can break stuff all over the place. Pull the wrong block and the book comes tumbling down.

“This will be your final opportunity to make changes.”

Most of the changes going back to the copy editor are small stuff. But if I stumble across something that needs to be clarified and that clarification causes something else to be changed, and that change causes a major . . .

You get the idea. Editing the galley proof is like pulling blocks in the Jenga tower without it crumbling down around me. It’s not fun, and you don’t get a second chance. Who said writing a novel wasn’t dangerous?

How does this stage of the process go for the rest of the writers out there? Do you love it or hate it? Do you play Jenga with your book?

THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8, 2011.
”Leaves the reader breathless and wanting more.”
– James Rollins

The First Line Game, part II

By Joe Moore

Last month, my blogmate Jim Bell posted a blog called The First Line Game, a cool exercise he and some friends do to have fun with the first lines of their WIP. We’ve often discussed the power (or lack of) that first lines have on the reader. It can’t be emphasized enough how much a first line plays into the scope of the book. For just like first impressions, there is only one shot at a first line. It can set the voice, tone, mood, and overall feel of what’s to come. It can turn you on or put you off—grab you by the throat or shove you away. It’s the fuse that lights the cannon.

Some first lines are short and to the point—built to create the most impact from a quick jab. Others seem to go on and on and on. And only when we arrive at the period at the end do we see how expertly crafted it was for maximum effect.

So in the spirit of sharing what I consider examples of pure genius, true literary craftsmanship, and genuine artistic excellence, I’d like to share what I think are some of the best first lines in literary history. Let’s start with two of the most famous:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. —Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938)

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. —Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

All this happened, more or less. —Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. —Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

It was the day my grandmother exploded. —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

It was love at first sight. —Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. —Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. —Louise Erdrich, Tracks (1988)

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. —Ha Jin, Waiting (1999)

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

"To be born again," sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, "first you have to die." —Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)

The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm. —Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962)

Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me. —GŸnter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959; trans. Ralph Manheim)

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. —Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)

He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.  —Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900)

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.  —L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. —Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)

Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women. —Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (1990)

In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. —Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. —David Lodge, Changing Places (1975)

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. —Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

Let’s finish with my personal all-time favorite:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

So which ones have I missed? If it’s not on this list, what’s your favorite first line?

THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 2011
"A knockout apocalyptic thriller." – Douglas Preston

First page critique of IMPERFECT JUSTICE

By Joe Moore

I had an author approach me at ThrillerFest to say how much he enjoyed visiting and reading TKZ. He also asked if I would post the first page of his WIP for a Kill Zone critique. So here we go.

“Oh God.”

I stood for a moment in shock not only from the horrific scene, but the fact that I had verbally reacted. I never express my thoughts in words, but what I saw would crack the resolve of even the strongest individual.

My usual response is to smile and say nothing, or more likely, release a torrent of smartass comments. I guess I use humor to release the pressure of stressful of situations, but in this case I couldn’t think of anything even the slightest bit ironic, or remotely funny.

I felt the bile rising in my throat, and grit my teeth to maintain some measure of composure. I knew I should call for help, but when I pressed the transmit button on my shoulder mounted microphone, the words wouldn’t come out. It was as if I couldn’t force air through my vocal cords. I swallowed hard and shoved my emotions as far as I could below the surface, but it didn’t help and my vision blurred as mist began to form in the corner of my eyes.

I hadn’t actually expected a body to be here. The last few calls like this had been mistaken identity. Some moron saw a pile of clothes next to a dumpster and assumed it was a dead body. I had no reason to think that this situation would be any different, but when I turned the corner to the address given to me by the police dispatcher, there was the bloody mess. Instead of seeing a homeless person sipping on a bottle of cheap wine, there was a body with an ear to ear gash across her throat.

Along the edge of the cut, a stain of blood traveled down the front, and left dark streaks on her once tan blouse. On the ground, the twin headlight beams of my cruiser sparkled off the surface of pools of blood on each side of her. Since the blood hadn’t yet dried, that meant one thing, this had just happened.

The first thing I would do is delete everything after “Oh God.” down to the paragraph that starts with “I hadn’t actually expected a body . . .” All the stuff about how the cop normally reacts is unimportant. What we want to know is how he reacts now. We can learn all the other info later if it’s really important.

I would have liked to read the cop’s radio chatter inserted right after the “Oh God” reporting the discovery of a body. If he believes the murder was just committed, shouldn’t he approach with gun drawn in case the killer is still there? Shouldn’t he call for backup?

This piece starts off a bit too soft for me. Raise the excitement with dialog, actions, reactions. Those elements will tell us so much more about the character than exposition. Let him tell the dispatcher that this one is REAL, not one of the previous false alarms. It may be routine for a cop to discover a murder victim, but it’s not for the reader. Outside of a funeral home, most people have never even seen a dead body. Pull the reader into the scene and explain the inner thoughts later. Overall, this first page needs a shot of literary adrenalin but I’d be interested in reading on a few more pages.

What do you think? Is opening with the discovery of a dead body unique or cliché? Would you like to see more action and reaction? Would you read on?

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?

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More, more, more…

by Michelle Gagnon images.jpg

So like Clare, I’m currently out of town on vacation (nowhere as exotic as Australia, but I’m still enjoying a bit of a break from the San Francisco fog).

Last week I attended Left Coast Crime in LA, where I was fortunate to have the opportunity to catch up with John Gilstrap and James, and to meet Kathryn for the first time. Which was kind of shocking-the funny thing about blogging like this is how well you get to know each other without ever meeting face to face. For instance, I feel like Basil is practically family at this point (albeit as that crazy cousin who kicks off the conga line at family events). The post 9/11 literature panel that John and I were on made episodes of the Jerry Springer show look dull in comparison. In the bar afterward, almost every passerby stopped to tell John that they’d heard about his performance. He’s officially a legend now, and will probably start showing up late to our Denny’s meetings, if he makes them at all.

I got the chance to talk to Lee Child briefly at the conference (I know, I’m a shameless name dropper), and we were discussing the fact that for the first time he’s releasing not one but two books this year. This has become a trend with the recent industry downturn. It’s easier for publishers to push more books written by their stable of well known authors than to build up a new name, so old faithfuls like James Rollins, John Sandford, and of course James Patterson are being offered nice bonuses for increased productivity.

Even authors who aren’t household names are being urged to try to churn out multiple titles a year. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t people who do this well. But when my agent and I were negotiating my last contract, and they pushed for an increase to two or three books a year, I said no.

It’s a struggle for me to finish one book a year. It takes between 4-6 months for me to compose the initial draft, then I send it off to my editor and have a few weeks head start on the next book. Then the edits come back, and I have in general another month to polish it. At which point I mail it back, work a little bit more on the next book…just when I’m getting in the groove again, it’s time for round three. Add in the months I need to coordinate marketing for that book before its release, and it’s always about a year, start to finish. The thought of adding another book, never mind two, into the mix would be hive-inducing.

Yet many writers do manage to produce more than one book a year. Which raises a few questions for me. Firstly, does the quality suffer? Dennis Lehane claimed that the book a year grind made him feel like his work was deteriorating, so he took two full years off to write the next book- which turned out to be MYSTIC RIVER.

I also question whether or not having an author flood the market with books actually helps their sales if they’re not James Patterson or Stephen King. Is it better to come out with three books a year, rather than one? What does everyone think?

Now, back to the sun…

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?

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