Tips for Distant Settings

Things I’ve learned about setting a book in real places, especially distant ones.

Distant SettingsWhen the Hubster and I decided to celebrate our 50th anniversary with a trip to the British Isles, of course I had “book” in the back of my mind. However, an international setting wouldn’t have worked with any of my existing series, and since I never plot in advance, I decided to enjoy our tour, taking pictures and notes of what we were seeing and doing and just wait and see what might bubble to the surface.

Distant SettingsOur trip began in Northern Ireland with a visit to our daughter, who had pointed out that she moved there 12 years ago and we’d never visited. From there, we had a couple days in London where I got to meet one of my critique partners face to face for the first time. Given we’d been in our little group for about 15 years, that was another “it’s about time” moment.

From there, we visited Scotland, and then Ireland. When we got home, I decided I’d write a short and sweet romance. Write it quickly, understanding that it’s not my true “brand” but that I had to publish something to justify writing off at least part of the trip.

Well, I soon discovered I’m not a short and sweet romance author, and mystery elements insisted on working their way into the story. What I ended up with is Heather’s Chase: an International Mystery Romance which is closer to my brand, although it’s a stand alone and still a bit of a one off. Nevertheless, it was an educational experience.

My Tips

Distant SettingsLess is more. My first drafts went into phenomenal detail about absolutely everything. Airports. Train stations. Hotels. Food. All the places we stopped, what we saw on the drives. Given we were traveling for well over two weeks, that would have been a LONG book. A sense of place is good. Overwhelming readers is not. I had to keep reminding myself to make sure everything related to the plot and characters. I wasn’t writing a travelogue.

Stay true to time. Readers familiar with the area will know that you can’t get from A to B in two hours, or that when you’ve had your characters on their bus for five hours, it’s really a twenty-minute drive.

Distant SettingsYou’ll always miss something. Unless you’ve got your plot mapped out before your trip, once  you start writing, you’ll have a scene to write and—lo and behold—you missed taking a picture, or didn’t take the right notes. I spent a LOT of time on the internet rechecking facts, looking at maps, and refamiliarizing myself with some of the attractions we visited. If I couldn’t find exactly what I needed, I reminded myself I was writing fiction—another reason not to name real places. On the occasions where my characters were eating in real, named places, I made sure I had pictures and menus. Same for attractions.

Distant SettingsDon’t make up real stuff. One of the reasons I made this book a stand alone was because our trip didn’t include visits to police departments (although I snapped a picture of a vehicle in Ireland, “just in case”). Also, it would be unrealistic for my American characters to have any access to law enforcement in several different countries.

Be nice. I also opted not to name the specific hotels or restaurants (mostly). For one thing, it gave me the freedom to change the décor, layout, amenities, or the restaurant menus. And, if something “bad” happened, I wasn’t going to incur the wrath of those establishments.

It’s about flavor. Although my characters didn’t visit Northern Ireland, I did include a character from the same town we’d visited when we stayed with my daughter. I made sure she vetted all his dialogue. For example, people in Northern Ireland use the word “wee” as a meaningless adjective. I was asked for my wee credit card, given a wee receipt, offered a wee bag for my purchases. My British critique partner was very helpful with vocabulary as well.

All in all, I had a great time ‘revisiting’ my trip to the British Isles while I was writing the book, and being able to incorporate my experiences into Heather’s Chase.

Want to see more pictures? Click on the book cover below, then scroll down to “Special Features.”


Heather's ChaseMy  Mystery Romance, Heather’s Chase, is  available at most e-book channels. and in print from Amazon.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Concrete Tips for Adding Tension, Suspense, & Intrigue to Any Story

by Jodie Renner, fiction editor & author of writing guides

Are you in the process of writing a novel? Maybe a thriller or other popular fiction that you hope will grab readers and really sell? Besides a great character and a fascinating plot, you’ll also need some tried-and-true fiction-writing techniques to take your story up a level or three.

To keep readers engaged and eagerly turning the pages, all genres of fiction, not just thrillers, need tension and intrigue – and a certain amount of suspense. And of course, you’ll need to ratchet up the tension, intrigue, and suspense a lot more if you’re writing a fast-paced, nail-biting, page-turner.

Here are some techniques for engaging your readers and keeping them riveted: 

~ First, create a protagonist that readers will care about, and give him some worries and secrets. Make your hero or heroine intriguing and complex, clever and resourceful. But not perfect – make them vulnerable too, with an Achilles heel and some inner conflict, regrets, and secrets. In most cases, you want your protagonist to be likeable too, or at least have some endearing traits to make readers worry about her and root for her. If readers can’t identify with or bond with your character, it’s pretty hard to make them care what happens to her. Essential Characteristics of a Thriller Hero

~ Get up close and personal. Use deep point of view (first-person or close third person) to get us into the head and body of your main character right from the opening paragraph. Show his thoughts, fears, hopes, frustrations, worries, and physical and sensory reactions in every scene. Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View.

~ Show your hero or heroine in action in the first paragraphs. Rather than opening with description, background info, or your character alone musing, it’s best to jumpstart your story with your lead interacting with someone else who matters to them, preferably with a bit of discord and tension. And show his/her inner thoughts and emotional reactions, maybe some frustration or anxiety.  Act First, Explain Later.

~ Give your character a problem to solve right from the get-go. It can be minor, but creating an early conflict that throws your lead off-balance will make your readers worry about him. A worried reader is an engaged reader.

~ Withhold information. Don’t tell your readers too much too soon. This is so important and a common weakness for new fiction writers. Hold off on critical information. Hint at a traumatic or life-changing event early on, then reveal fragments of info about it little by little, through dialogue, thoughts, and brief flashbacks, to tantalize readers and keep them wondering and worrying.

~ Keep the story momentum moving forward. Don’t get bogged down in lengthy descriptions, backstory, or exposition. Keep the action and interactions moving ahead, especially in the first chapter. Work in background details and other info little by little, on an “as-needed” basis, through dialogue or flashbacks – not as the author/narrator interrupting the scene to explain things to the readers. See my blog post Don’t Stop the Story to Introduce Each Character! 

~ Introduce a significant, meaningful story problem. Now that your readers care about your main character, insert a major challenge, dilemma, goal, or threat within the first ten chapters, a big one that won’t be resolved until the end. Create an overarching sentence about this to keep in mind as you’re writing your story:

“Will (name) survive/stop/find/overcome (ordeal/person/difficulty/threat) on time?”

~ Show, don’t tell. Show all your critical scenes in real time as they’re happening, with action, reaction, and dialogue. Show your main character’s inner feelings and physical and emotional reactions. Don’t explain as the author or narrator – stay in the character’s viewpoint. And don’t have one character tell another about an important event or scene after it happened. Instead, show that scene as it’s unfolding or as a flashback. Of course, briefly narrate or “tell” transition scenes. Tips for showing instead of telling.

~ Make use of compelling, vivid sensory imagery to take us right there, with the protagonist, vividly experiencing and reacting to whoever/whatever is challenging or threatening him. Show his reactions to his environment, including what he’s seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, even tasting, and also any discomfort – is he hot, cold, tired, stressed, hungry, thirsty, afraid? Is sweat pouring down his back? Are his feet sore? These details bring him to life for the readers, who feel that hunger, thirst, fatigue, or discomfort too. 

~ Use brief flashbacks at key moments to reveal your viewpoint character’s childhood traumas, unpleasant events, secrets, emotional baggage, hangups, dysfunctional family, etc. Show these in real time for greater impact.

~ Insert some conflict/tension and a change into every scene. There should be something unresolved in every scene. Your character enters the scene with an objective or goal (agenda), but she encounters obstacles in the scene, so she is thwarted in her efforts to reach her goal. By the end of the chapter or scene, she or circumstances have changed.

~ Put tension on every page. Every page needs some tension, even if it’s just doubt, questioning, disbelief, disagreement, suspicion, or resentment simmering below the surface.

~ Add in tough choices and moral dilemmas. Devise ongoing difficult decisions and inner conflict for your lead character. Besides making your plot more suspenseful, this will also make your protagonist more complex, vulnerable, and intriguing.

~ Delay answers to critical plot questions. Look for places in your story where you’ve answered readers’ questions too soon, so have missed a prime spot to increase tension and suspense. Draw out the time before answering that question. In the meantime, hint at it from time to time to remind readers of its importance.

~ Plan a few plot twists. Readers are surprised and delighted when the events take a turn they never expected. Don’t let your readers become complacent, thinking it’s easy to figure out the ending, or they may stop reading.

If you’re writing a thriller or other suspense fiction, ratchet up the tension and conflict even more with these techniques: 

~ Create a cunning antagonist. Your villain needs to be as clever, determined and resourceful as your protagonist – or even more so. Make him or her a serious force to be reckoned with! See my post here on TKZ, Create a Fascinating, Believable Antagonist.

~ Ratchet up the problem to a serious threat, and make it personal. Your hero or someone he cares about is personally threatened. It’s a life-or-death situation.

~ Establish a sense of urgency, a tense mood, and generally fast pacing. Do this by your choice of words and tight writing.

~ Use the setting to establish the mood and create suspense. This is the equivalent of ominous music, harsh lighting, strange camera angles, or nasty weather in a scary movie.

~ Create a mood of unease by showing the main character feeling apprehensive about something or someone or by showing some of the villain’s thoughts and intentions.

~ Keep hampering your hero or heroine throughout the novel to increase worry, tension, and suspense. Stir in some of these ingredients: a ticking clock, obstacles, chases, traps, restrictions, handicaps, injuries, bad luck, etc.

~ Keep raising the stakes. Keep asking yourself, “How can I make things worse for the protagonist?” As the challenges get more difficult and the obstacles more insurmountable, readers worry more and suspense grows.

~ Get us into the head of the villain too. For increased anxiety and suspense, show us the thoughts and intentions of your antagonist from time to time. This way the readers find out critical information the hero or heroine doesn’t know, things we desperately want to warn her about!

~ Use foreshadowing to incite curiosity. Tease the readers with innuendos. Drop subtle hints of troubles to come. Hint at the main character’s past secrets. What is the character worried about or afraid might happen? Capitalize on this. For more specific tips on this technique, see my TKZ article, Fire up Your Fiction with Foreshadowing.

~ Add in some revelations and epiphanies to put a twist on things and reward readers for their interest and involvement.

~ Use cliff-hangers. Put your hero or heroine in hot water at the end of some chapters to incite reader curiosity and questions and compel them to go to the next chapter. Then maybe use a jump cut to go to a different scene, so they have to read more to find out what happened in the previous chapter.

For a list of techniques to consider when writing suspense fiction, see my Checklist for Adding Suspense & Intrigue here on TKZ.

Then, in the Revision Stage: 

~ Amp up, condense, or delete any scenes that lag, and tighten up your writing.  Are some of your sentences and paragraphs too long? Are you inadvertently repeating words, ideas, actions, or imagery in close proximity? Go back and make sure every scene, paragraph, sentence, and word enhance the story and drive the plot forward. Critical Scenes Need Nail-Biting Details.

Use short paragraphs and mix it up with brief narration and snappy dialogue. Vary the sentence structure and length. Use shorter sentences at tense times. More tips: Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner.

~ Word choice is critical too. Vary your words. Use specific, evocative nouns, and verbs that really capture the action and add tension, rather than overused ones like “walked” and “ran.” For examples and more, see Nail it with Just the Right Word.

Have some of these techniques worked for you? Which ones do you find the most helpful in your own writing? Do you have any other tips to help new suspense fiction writers create a novel that will captivate readers, sell lots of copies, and garner great reviews? Or examples from your own work or a bestselling novel you’ve read? Let us know in the comments below.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the author of three 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. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, at her Amazon Author Page, her blog Resources for Writers, and on Facebook

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First Page Critique: The Great German Escape

This is my last blog post for 2019 before we head to our holiday break, and I have a first page critique for a novel entitled The Great German Escape for you to enjoy and provide feedback. My comments follow – as always, thank you for all your great comments and feedback to our brave submitters this year. I think we all learn from these critiques:)

The Great German Escape

As the American army captain exited the front gate on July 2, 1943, Wehrmacht Major Kurt Jaeger’s heart raced. The accountability formation confirmed the presence of eighty-three officers. All recently arrived. All from Rommel’s Afrika Korps. All adjusting to a zoo life existence.

Jaeger’s gaze shifted to the southwest guard tower. Behind it, a thin brown haze curtained the southern horizon. Hanging in front, a makeshift plywood placard branded him a failure. Stomach acid burbled as he read A – 12, B – 2.

Out of the corner of his right eye, he spied the German Commander step forward. The man set two marred futbols on the ground. As his routine, Oberst Heinrich von Richter’s gaze swept left to right first.

Biting the inside of his cheek, Jaeger focused straight ahead. Outside the interwoven wire fence, American soldiers clustered, anticipating the day’s entertainment.

“This morning,” von Richter said. “We demonstrate endurance … resistance … expected by our leaders … our countrymen. This current state is not static … though some of you believe it to be.” Again, his gaze traversed the formation, stopping periodically, then continuing. “War is dynamic. Today’s vanquished … becomes … tomorrow’s victors. Preparedness is imperative.”

More American soldiers appeared, some jostled for a better view. A clamminess broke out on Jaeger skin.

“In combat,” von Richter said, “two critical skills are speed and agility. The footrace I’ve designed test these attributes. Barracks commanders, choose your representative.”

Jaeger read the sign, hesitated, gulped, faced about. Thirty-six pairs of eyes focused on him. Scanning the first rank he spied a thin, leggy Oberluetnant. The man’s gaze averted his. Afraid? The Barracks B leader thought. Stand here and choose a competent winner.

In the second row, a lithe Hauptmann puffed his chest out, his head nodding left.

Another movement captured Jaeger’s attention. His counterpart, Major Heinrich Weiss, Barracks A, stood in the middle of his platoon, talking to a soldier.

“We ain’t gots all day,” an American shouted. A ripple of laughter emitted from their side of the fence.

Weiss tapped the man’s shoulder, and they moved up front.

Jaeger studied the man next to the twitching Hauptmann.  “Luetnant Fogel, step forward.”

Eyes wide, the man blurted, “Herr Major, I’m no runner.”

Jaeger’s stomach acid roiled. To change his decision would suggest him weak, indecisive. Through clenched teeth, he said, “Do not shame us. Run the race.”

My comments:

Overall

I enjoyed this first page and can definitely see, from both the title and first scene, this turning into a great war-time adventure novel, focusing on the German experience (and escape I assume from the POW camp). However, I do think this first page could benefit from some overall revision, as well as some minor tweaks to address specific concerns.

First, I think this first page would benefit from additional description/sensory details to help firmly establish both the setting and the main characters. A first page should ground a reader with a sense of place and introduce enough details regarding the main character to get a reader invested – so far this page is almost there, but not quite. I also think that some tweaks to the dialogue would help. I’ve provided my advice on these overall comments below:

Grounding setting and characters:

I felt like there were a lot of names and specifics but, despite these, I found it hard to visualize the scene or get invested in the characters. In terms of characters, just in this first page we have five characters identified by name: Wehrmacht Major Kurt Jaeger, Oberst Heinrich von Richter, Major Heinrich Weiss, as well as an Oberluetnant (unnamed) and a German soldier called Hauptmann – that’s a lot for a reader to digest, especially as, at this stage, the reader doesn’t know who is going to be a major or minor character (apart from Jaeger, who I’m assuming is the main protagonist).

Despite all the names, we get only a a few visual cues so it’s hard (for me at least) to visualize all these people, or to know who is likely to become crucial to the plot. My recommendation would be to cut down on the names/titles at this early stage so the reader can concentrate, and become invested in, a key character from the get go.

Likewise, although we get specifics like the date (July 2, 1943), barrack numbers (A – 12, B – 2.) and some hints as to composition of the POW camp (All from Rommel’s Afrika Korps), apart from a vague reference to a ‘thin brown haze’ on the horizon, I can’t really visualize the camp. Where are we? Europe? North Africa? Given the Americans are in charge of the POW camp it’s important for me to understand the greater context – were the Germans captured after a particular battle or American victory? How long has Jaeger been at the camp? Why is this competition/race so important to him (and it doesn’t make a lot of sense, given his stress levels, why he would chose a random soldier who isn’t a runner – surely, for something this important, Jaeger would have been better prepared??)

In addition, I think some further background on Jaeger on this first page would help establish his motivation and character. I was a little confused by: ‘Hanging in front, a makeshift plywood placard branded him a failure’- – I’m assuming he feels a failure because he was captured but then I wasn’t sure why his ‘stomach acid burbled’ as he saw the barrack numbers. Has his barrack lost previous races? The more we know what’s at stake here, the more we can be invested in both Jaeger as a character and the outcome of the race.

Dialogue

I wasn’t completely sure why von Richter’s speech seemed so disjointed but I found it  distracting and it confused me as his words didn’t seem to match the ‘entertainment’ that was being organized (namely a race between the barracks). If there is a hidden meaning or wider implications of his speech I think we need more context to understand this.

Other specific comments.

I also had a few smaller, more specific ,comments about elements in this first page that I found distracting or confusing. These are easily rectified but important nonetheless.

  • The number of times left and right identified was distracting: Just in one page we have ‘out of the corner of his right eye, he spied the German Commander’ followed by ‘Oberst Heinrich von Richter’s gaze swept left to right first’ and then ‘Hauptmann puffed his chest out, his head nodding left’. For me this was too repetitive on one page.
  • I was confused why the ‘two marred futbols’ were placed out for a running race – at first I thought there was going to be a football match between the barracks or between the Germans and the Americans.
  • Using specific numbers became distracting: eighty-three officers; thirty-six pairs of eyes…I started trying to do the math as to how many people were there when I should have been focusing on characters and plot.
  • “We ain’t gots all day,” an American shouted – I assuming this was supposed to be “We ain’t got all day.” Be careful of even small typos like this on your first page.

As you can see from my comments, I think this page would benefit from further revision – but the key elements are there. A race in a German POW camp where there is clearly more at stake than the reader first believes – with some revisions, I think this first page could create some great tension to get this story off and running! (Pardon the pun!)

So TKZers what advice would you offer our brave submitter?

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Keys Ways to Begin A Story – First Page Critique: The Young Lieutenant’s Dog

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

National Archives and Records Administration [Public domain]

One of my last First Page Critiques for 2019 and of course it is about a dog. Please enjoy this anonymous submission for your consideration – The Young Lieutenant’s Dog. My feedback will be on the flip side, after my thoughts on book introductions.

***

The history of humanity is held in the fragile palm of our stories. When they are lost, a part of us leaves with them. Perhaps that is why, even as a young child, I treasured the stories my father told us. Although a born raconteur he was, however, oddly reticent to discuss the most dramatic story of his life: his role in WWII.

With an older brother and sister on the cusp of adolescence and I still engrossed in childhood, we were too young to understand the brutality of war. Thus intrigued and naive, we cajoled him mercilessly to tell us about his life in the army during those years, especially when the tales spoke of life-and-death adventures.

Unlike his other stories, which were invariably charismatic and often humorous, those from the war were meant to serve, like Aesop’s Fables, as a moral lesson for his children to learn. I didn’t grasp this until many years later when it was too late and my father was gone, felled by a heart attack. By then, the stories he’d told were either forgotten or punctured with holes, the remaining threads barely clinging to our fragile childhood memories. But one remains, fixed with absolute clarity as if it had been related just moments ago.

I always assumed that I remembered this one because it was about a dog. But, of course, it was much more than that.

In light of the horrendous events of WWII, many have forgotten that in the early years of the war, the United States stood staunchly isolationist. Our country was still struggling to recover from WWI and a cascading depression. On September 3, 1939, Great Britain declared war on Germany. Our President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his staff, watched with mounting concern the steady onslaught of Hitler’s armies and knew that it was not a question of “if” the United States would enter the war, but “when.”

***

Keys Ways to Begin a Story

There are many techniques to begin a novel – from an intriguing first line that triggers questions in the reader’s mind, to the paragraphs that draw the reader into a mystery or suspenseful action or a compelling story.

A good hook gets to the point quickly to raise a question or shock the reader into reading on. If a story begins in the voice of a narrator, that voice must be intriguing from the start. Successful openings raise unanswered questions or they describe intriguing actions/events or they highlight odd or troubling scenarios of intrigue or suspense.

Here’s a few types of intriguing opening lines:

1.) Teaser Line:

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” Jeffrey Eugenides – Middlesex

2.) Autobiography

“Whether I turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Charles Dickens – David Copperfield

3.) Dialogue

“‘Where’s papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” E. B. White – Charlotte’s Web

4.) Announcer/Omniscient POV

“The year 1866 was signalized by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten.” Jules Verne – Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

5.) Scene Setting

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

The Next Paragraphs – Following a solid first line or a quick and compelling intro, the next paragraphs must draw the reader deeper into the story with more questions. This is where storytelling comes in and patience. Make the reader ask, “Who? What? When? Where? Why?” Think about an interesting, seemingly unimportant detail of a character or setting that can become symbolic to your story’s larger themes. In the case of our story for submission, that detail is brilliantly the dog.

No matter how great the first line is, if the paragraphs that follow don’t draw the reader deeper into the story, that great opening is deflated and reads like a gimmick.

Below is an example of an intriguing opening line from Paula Hawkins – The Girl on the Train, followed by paragraphs that draw a reader into the story as questions are raised by the author.

Excerpt

She’s buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn. Not more than a little pile of stones, really. I didn’t want to draw attention to her resting place, but I couldn’t leave her without remembrance. She’ll sleep peacefully there, no one to disturb her, no sounds but birdsong and the rumble of passing trains.

#

One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl . . . Three for a girl. I’m stuck on three, I just can’t get any further. My head is thick with sounds, my mouth thick with blood. Three for a girl. I can hear the magpies—they’re laughing, mocking me, a raucous cackling. A tiding. Bad tidings. I can see them now, black against the sun. Not the birds, something else. Someone’s coming. Someone is speaking to me. Now look. Look what you made me do.

This introduction leads into a morning where the reader meets the narrator – Rachel. It’s a short intro written with patience that raises lots of questions and paints a mystery in the reader’s mind. There are ominous visuals like a secret grave, the disturbing rumble of passing trains, the muddled mind of the narrator, and the bad tidings of magpies. There’s no real action, but since the intro is short and very much to the point, without diversions into backstory, this opening works well.

FEEDBACK

My notion of critiquing is to provide feedback that’s in keeping with the essence of the story the author submitted. I don’t want to rewrite lines as much as I want to give a 30,000 ft view of the overall beginning and analyze it for impact.

I liked what the author submitted. It was well-written and unfolded a story I would be curious to read, but I wanted to provide an alternative way to take the essence of this story and reorganize it to tell a tighter narrative. I truly want to know about this man and his dog story. I also like the title. It hints at the mystery of the story. Who doesn’t love a dog in wartime story? There are so many ways to parallel the innocence of a dog with the horrors of war and the potential for the redemption of humanity through the eyes of man’s best friend.

My thoughts, without knowing where this story is going, is to intrigue the reader’s mind with questions about the mystery. I also love stories that start in the present, but delve into the past for answers to a mystery. Hence, the ending that implies a grown child had been intrigued enough to dig into his father’s most memorable story to uncover the truth. That definitely would hook me. Why is the dog story the one this narrator couldn’t forget? How will the mystery unfold? Whose life will be changed by the reveal? What’s the journey of this book? The author has teased us with a wonderful mystery with lots of promise. Kudos.

Tighter Narrative for Mystery Setup

Although a born raconteur, my father was oddly reticent to discuss the most dramatic story of his life: his role in WWII. His tales of life-and-death adventures in the army became an enticing mystery for my brother, sister and I, as curious children. His stories from the war held even more significance after he died of a heart attack years later. After we realized his stories were meant to serve as moral life lessons for his children to learn–like Aesop’s fables–they became a message from the grave that kept him alive in our minds.

One treasured story remained, fixed with absolute clarity as if it had been related moments ago. I never forgot it and always assumed that I remembered this one because it was about a dog. But, of course, it became much more than that–after I uncovered the truth.

As rewritten, this rearranges the original submission to a first line I thought held a particular mystery to pique the attention of any reader. It focused on a story-telling father who played a particular role in WWII that he held back. Why? What role?

I then picked out a tighter narrative with a flow that is more direct and leads quickly to the point of the introduction – to set up the mystery of the dog. I added my own interpretation of the narrator uncovering a truth about the story so the reader gets hooked faster. I also chose to leave out the history lesson in the last paragraph. After the author has the reader focused on a mystery about a dog during wartime, the back story deflates the mystery and slows the pace. That morsel could be saved for later, along with the character development of the surviving children.

As written, this story may leap back into the war to tell the story of a young Lieutenant’s dog. That’s fine too, but if that’s true, why begin with a child’s memory and a son as a narrator? I made an assumption that this story will be woven between the past and the present. I don’t have enough to go on with the first 400 words, but my intention is to show an alternative intro that perhaps is more complicated by weaving in a mystery that straddles the line between past and present.

This story could be like Bridges of Madison County where surviving children uncover a mystery in the life of a deceased parent and the story unravels that truth. That’s my assumption.

The rewrite is similar to the Paula Hawkins excerpt for The Girl on the Train. It’s laser focused on the essence of the story and creates questions in the reader’s mind, before it starts telling the actual story through the eyes of the storyteller.

DISCUSSION:

Please provide your constructive criticism of this compelling submission, TKZers. How do you see this story unfolding?

 

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Nextdoor

If you are looking for ideas for your story or your novel, or characters to populate them, you need to join Nextdoor. Nextdoor is an online social network (isn’t everything, in some way?) which is organized around neighborhoods which are close to you. You just go to nextdoor.com, sign up, and you find yourself with access to all sorts of things, such as reports of suspicious activity, questions about what is permitted locally (and what isn’t), recommendations for everything from home power washing specialists and auto mechanics to tree trimmers and appliance repairmen, and lost and found (I’ll talk a little more about that last one in a minute). Once you’re a member of Nextdoor you get emails when someone posts about a topic such as an injured deer in their yard or a street closure, and you can answer back or post on a topic thread. You can also just read the threads that are posted, watching the occasional disagreement get contentious and then settle down a bit. It’s a bit like Facebook (Nextdoor’s less civil cousin) with its “like” button, except that Nextdoor has a “thank” button instead and for the most part forbids political discussions. After a bit of reading, you can dope out the personalities of your neighbors, whether close by or several streets away, and quickly determine what gets whose undies in a bunch fairly quickly. It is entertaining at the least and occasionally functions as a real-time and constantly evolving cozy mystery setting or, yes, a domestic thriller.  You really should check out the page for your area if you haven’t already.

About that lost and found topic that I mentioned earlier…folks in my area use that primarily for locating or reuniting lost dogs or cats who slip the tether and make a jailbreak for what they consider to be the greener pastures of next door or the next street. Such happened in my own immediate neighborhood last week. My backdoor neighbors have two small children and a dachshund. The dog, named Heika, is blind, but gets around quite well, doing that happy, bouncy doidy-doidy-doidy walking rhythm that dachshunds do. Heika occasionally wanders over to my back door, having learned that the sucker who lives there is always ready with a dog treat. The family’s grandmother is often there watching the two children, who are as polite and well-behaved as any two kids I’ve encountered recently, and I occasionally sit and watch them interact, wondering how the grandmother somehow manages to keep them all corralled.

So. Last Thursday night I was at a local coffeehouse waiting for my AA meeting to start and happened to see that I had gotten a Nextdoor email with the heading “Found weiner type dog.” I opened it and found a photo of Heika doing a Nextdoor star turn courtesy of my next door neighbor, who had found her wandering on our street. Heika had done a Papillon from her loving family one street over in the mistaken belief that the world beyond her marked territory was as nice and friendly as the world within. Dachshunds are the second cousins to beagles but they share that “clever but not smart” inclination to wander that gets them in trouble. I got on the phone, contacted my next door neighbor, contacted Heika’s mommy, and doggy and family were reunited within three minutes of Heika’s photo being posted. My meeting started and all was well with the world, or at least a little corner of it. The ability to do that justifies Nextdoor’s existence all by itself, to my mind.

Do yourself a favor and check Nextdoor out. Even if you don’t contribute you can get a really good idea of what your community is like, not to mention populating your works of fiction with myriad characters or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Maybe you’re already familiar with it. If so, do you have a story to share?

 

5+

First Page Critique: THE DIVINITY COMPLEX

(Photo courtesy FancyCrave from unsplash.com)

Hello, TKZers! Please join me in giving a hounddog-howdy to Anon, who has bravely submitted the first page of The Divinity Complex for our consideration. Anon, take it away!

 

Title:  The Divinity Complex

We have no choice when it comes to life and death. But sometimes others make the choice for us.

Chris Martinez pulled into Jimmie’s Travel Center early Sunday morning. He parked his blue Chevy Impala in the spot closest to the front door and walked into the convenience store. The entire journey from car to register should have taken no more than a couple of seconds. But it took Chris a bit longer because every few steps, he stopped and looked back at the car. It was apparent something was wrong…very wrong.

Randy, the thirty-year-old attendant on duty, watched from behind the cash register. He thought the customer’s behavior seemed odd, but then he reminded himself of where he was. Jimmie’s was right off interstate I-95 in South Georgia. It was somewhere between late Saturday night and early Sunday morning. Under those set of circumstances, it would have been odd not to see something out of the ordinary. It wasn’t a matter of if, just when.

When Chris arrived at the cash register, he looked Randy straight in the eyes. He cleared his throat as if he wanted to say something. But he couldn’t tell what was on his mind. Chris had to be careful of the words he chose. That was because the phone tucked in his shirt pocket was recording the conversation. Chris knew if he said the wrong thing something terrible would happen. He had no choice but to play by the script.

If he wanted to stay alive, Chris would have to rely on his ability to send a single telepathic message. Being a carpenter by trade and not a psychic, made the chance of success infinitesimal. But Chris had to at least try. It was his only hope.

Chris locked onto Randy’s eyes and concentrated. He screamed as loud as he could into his own head hoping it would get Randy’s attention.

Help me…Help me…Help me

Sweating and trembling, Chris handed over a twenty and two fives. All he could muster was a half-hearted but utterly fake smile. It was apparent something wasn’t right.

“30 dollars…on…uh…Pump…10,” Chris said. That’s all he could say. Anything else and there was a good chance someone would die. Chris looked at Randy again.

Help me…Help me…Help me

“30 on 10, you got it, buddy,” Randy responded.

 

Anon, I absolute worship road trip stories, particularly those that wander off the freeway and into parts that are at least initially unknown. You accordingly had me from the jump. There is a glaring problem that jumps out at me, however, and it leads to others. It’s fairly easy to fix, so let’s roll up our shirtsleeves and see if we can Chris back on the road.

The main problem that I had with your first page from The Divinity Complex is that the narrative point of view keeps shifting. You’re using the “third person multiple.” narrative. That means that you are describing the action through the eyes, ears, and thoughts of multiple characters in the third person. That is fine, but it gets confusing when you shift so quickly.  You go from Chris to Randy to Chris again in the course of three paragraphs and then seem to shift into third-person omniscient, where the third person narrator knows everything at all once. A number of books shift point of view from character to character throughout. There is nothing wrong with that at all. I recommend, though that at the beginning and for at least the first couple of pages you stick with one character’s point of view before shifting to another. Let’s start with Chris, as you did, and keep things focused on him and his perceptions:

— You step away from Chris before the first paragraph is even done. “It was apparent that something was wrong…very wrong.” Apparent to who? Whose observation is that? Randy’s? We haven’t even met Randy yet. Let’s drop that sentence altogether. Let’s cut that last sentence and use something like this, instead: “He couldn’t help himself.”

— You’ve introduced Chris so let’s bring Randy into the narrative through Chris’s perception. How about if we eliminate the second paragraph (but not throw it away altogether; more on that below) and go for something like this:

The doormat sensor went “dingdongdingdong” as Chris walked into the store. The cashier stood at the far end of it behind the counter, holding an open copy of Cavalier, eying Chris with a look of uneasy surliness. Chris thought that the guy looked to be about his own age, thirty or so. As Chris approached the counter he could read the name tag — “Randy” — pinned to his blue smock. Randy looked to Chris as if he wanted to be anywhere but where he was, which was just how Chris felt.

— Let’s take a look at those fourth and fifth paragraphs:

If he wanted to stay alive, Chris would have to rely on his ability to send a single telepathic message. Being a carpenter by trade and not a psychic, made the chance of success infinitesimal. But Chris had to at least try. It was his only hope.

Chris locked onto Randy’s eyes and concentrated. He screamed as loud as he could into his own head hoping it would get Randy’s attention.

— Anon, these don’t quite work. I get what you’re going for, but if Chris doesn’t have telepathic powers what makes him think he’s going to suddenly develop them? And the third sentence — “ Being a carpenter by trade and not a psychic, made the chance of success infinitesimal.” You don’t need the comma for sure. What if you change the sentence order and a couple of words?  See if this is better:

Chris wanted — needed — telepathic powers in the worst way. The problem was that he was a carpenter, not a psychic. He locked onto Randy’s eyes, hoping he could in some way communicate that he was in trouble without using words.

— I do like what you did here, telling us a bit about Chris — he’s a carpenter, which is interesting — so good on you. Keep doing that. Drop a few more breadcrumbs like that throughout the first couple of pages so that we get to know Chris and begin to empathize with him.

— Let’s drop down now to the seventh paragraph, the one that begins with “Sweating and trembling…” It ends with “It was apparent that something wasn’t right.” Again, where is that thought coming from?  Have we switched point of view to Randy again, who is looking at Chris “sweating and trembling” all over the place? Again, let’s keep the point of view with Chris while we change that last sentence a bit, using some of that second paragraph that we removed but did not throw away:

Chris was sure that Randy could tell that something wasn’t right with him. That didn’t mean that Randy would do anything about it. Jimmie’s was right off I-95 in South Georgia. Chris figured that it would probably be odd for Randy,   to not see something out of the ordinary at this godforsaken hour and at the back end of Bumfreak, Egypt. There was no help here, for sure.

Notice that I changed “somewhere between late night and early Sunday morning” to “this godforsaken hour.” The reason that I did that was that you already established in the first paragraph that things are taking place early Sunday morning. If you want to give the impression that it’s really early then give the time or mention that it’s “full dark” or even “no see” (as they say in the cotton fields).

— When/if you want to change the point of view to Randy you might want to remove Chris from the scene altogether. Have Chris leave the convenience store. Skip a couple of lines, begin a new paragraph or chapter, and switch the third person narrative from Chris to Randy. You can do anything from having Randy decide, yeah, that guy was weird even for the night shift, and calling the police, to pulling out a burner phone and calling an unknown person and saying, “Yeah, your pigeon was just in here, right on schedule. He looked REALLY shook up.” You can have all sorts of fun with this. Just make sure that it’s plausible.

I hope this helps, Anon. My rewriting is merely illustrative. There are several different ways to follow my suggestions and you should follow your heart. Seriously, I LOVE stories that involve gas stations off of the highway.  I want to love this one. I kind of already do, warts and all. I’m just not ready to buy it coffee yet, gaze into its eyes, and have it throw me over its shoulder and carry me off.

I will now make a valiant and probably futile attempt to stay uncharacteristically quiet while some of the finest folks in the world — our readers at TKZ — comment and offer additional suggestions. Thank you, Anon, for participating in our First Page Critique by sending us the first page of The Divinity Complex!

 

2+

Gone, but not forgotten…First Page Critique: REMINISCENCE

Photo courtesy marina4848 from pixabay.com

Welcome, Anon du jour, to yet another installment of First Page Critique. I’m a little hard on you today, but if you can make it through what follows I think you will ultimately be okay in the long run. Consider this your first day at Parris Island but remember that Myrtle Beach is only a few hours away! Let’s begin:

Reminiscence

The piercing silence rang in my ears. My nerves rattled from a week of weeping. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not now but later, way later. I was never ready for this.

His smile shined at me every morning, embracing the life I hated for the past year. I struggled to keep my peace and appreciate every waking moment. It was hard to do knowing the certainty. I’d smile along with him, laughed at his jokes, it kindled a soft glow in my soul when it was dying.

At night, when I’m alone, tears wetted my pillow as I reminisced about the past. There was more good than the dreaded times. I’d taught him how to cook. He showed me I’m never alone. He promised me he’d be by my side with the rough and tough events in life that taunted me. Yes, he was there, comfort and content.

Oh, and he was strong, physically and mentally, supporting both our anguish and a wary eye for both of us. How sincere, sympathetic, and empathetic he was to this crisis in our lives. That was him, a man I wished we all could be. To think how the world would be if we all had that kindness in our hearts.

My hand shook out of control.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

I watched my hands tremble as I reached and opened the envelope. This time a tissue wasn’t enough for my cascading tears. The letter read . . .

The reminiscence of past times of laughter, sorrow, and the emotion that shot steam out of my ears, I could never forget, even if I tried. It was a crazy life with her, but I loved every minute spent with her. She was the soul that kept me motivated to succeed. She was my inspiration. She was my life. I will miss her, but the reminiscences will hold the torch burning in my heart for her. I am proud of her and proud to be a part of her life. ‘Live for it,’ she’d say, and I did, every day in my planner book, every night in my prayers. Thank you for nurturing me, giving me the strength to live as far into the future as I can. I will be your angel in heaven as you have been my angel on earth. I love you, mom.

Anon, you have two major problems right from the jump. The first is overwriting. The second is vagueness. You’re saying too much and too little at different times and at the wrong times.

Let’s start with the overwriting. You’re getting in your own way.  You start in the first paragraph, which is kind of like putting a speed bump just past an intersection.  “Piercing silence ringing”…no. Also…Nerves don’t “rattle” but they do get rattled. You might never be ready but in the past tense you should simply be not ready, not “never ready.” It doesn’t stop there, either. The third paragraph includes the sentence, “Yes, he was there, comfort and content.” I don’t know what that means. I think what you mean is “Yes, he was there, providing comfort and content.” The letter (see below) is also overwritten, with phrases such as “…shot steam out of my ears…” “torch burning in my heart for her…”  

Now we come to vagueness. I’m having trouble figuring out who the narrator is and who they are to the deceased. I think someone is deceased. Maybe they’re just gone. What I am getting is that someone important to the narrator has died. I am assuming it is a son. At one point the narrator says that the deceased is “a man I wished we all could be.” But then that letter the narrator is reading is addressed to “mom.” Let’s try to get the identities and relationship established in the first paragraph, just to keep the reader on firm ground. And that letter…I assume that the last paragraph is a letter, based on your sentence “The letter read…” but I’m not entirely sure.  If so, please italicize the letter to set it off so that we know it’s separate from the story narration.  

You might ask (and should) why any of this is important. The reason is that I had to read your first page a couple of times to even come close to understanding what you were getting at, Anon, other than the obvious manifestation of loss and resultant grief. That’s a problem. If you’re submitting your work to an agent, editor, or ultimately to a reader, they’ll need to see a first page that grabs them and makes them want to go for the second, the third, and the fourth page and beyond, all the way to the end, without having to try to figure out who is what. If someone is browsing for a book on Amazon or in a store, they normally read the jacket summary or the Amazon blurb and then if it’s of interest they’ll read the first page or two to see if it grabs them. If it doesn’t, they put that book down and pick up another until they find one that does. I happened across a terrific quote from Mickey Spillane, who said, “Nobody buys a mystery to get to the middle.” That’s true of any book. If you would like an excellent example of a book that picks you up from the first page and carries you through all the way to the end, take a look at the newly published novel HOW IT HAPPENED by Michael Koryta. You can get a sample of the Kindle edition easily enough. It starts with a strong first sentence and keeps things moving all the way through.  Actually, Anon, better yet, walk over to your bookshelf and pick up any novel that you call a favorite and read the first page. I bet that it still calls and sings to you, even after repeated readings. That’s what you want to aim for.

The short version of the above? Name the person who is so dearly missed early on, in the first paragraph. Establish the identity of the deceased with the narrator. Delete four out of every five adjectives, similes, and metaphors.

Let me if I may rewrite what you have written to give you an illustration of what I’m talking about:

I couldn’t get used to the silence. It took on a presence of its own the house. It made my home — what had been our home — sad and lonely. The quiet was an unwelcome and unwanted guest that had arrived uninvited before its time.

Mike’s passing was inevitable, as is everyone’s. His, however, was a violation of the unwritten law that a parent should predecease their child. His Bose mp3 SoundDock sat silently in his room but I still kept hearing one of his favorite songs, a Bob Dylan tune with a jaunty melody about wanting and not being born to lose someone. I didn’t want to listen but my memory didn’t have an “off” switch. We had supported and complemented each other, freely giving to and taking from each other according to our needs and abilities. Now it seemed as though half of me — my better half — was missing.

Mike near the end could not talk but he could still write. I found his last note to me a few days after he passed. The ink was tear-smeared by my frequent  readings, but I could still make out his words, even though my hands were trembling as I held the thin paper:

I’m not saying that what I’ve just done is the only way to write this, or the best way, or even a good way, but it’s a start. It establishes (or at least hints at) the identity of the narrator and the narrator’s relationship with the deceased. It names the deceased. It also removes some of the clutter.

The bottom line, Anon, is that you’re going to need to roll up your sleeves, hit the delete button, and start over. There is no sin or weakness in that. Everyone — and I mean everyone — overwrites and loses focus the first time(s) through. What you see when you pick up any work of art is the end of the journey through the thicket, a sojourn fraught with getting lost, cutting through brush, fighting off chiggers, spiders, and wasps, and enduring cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Sit down and have the Raid, bandages, Neosporin, maps, and machete at the ready.   Keep trying to get through that thicket again and again. Don’t hesitate to write, revise, and revisit repeatedly until it’s the absolute best it can be. And thank you for being brave enough to bare your soul to us and risk the criticism. I hope you accept it in the spirit in which it is offered.

As I post this, Anon, one of our past submitters, if you will to the First Page Critique process got ‘er done, if you will. Harald Johnson (he of “the boy in the canoe”) has just published 1609 https://www.amazon.com/New-York-1609-Harald-Johnson/dp/0692115250/.  Yes. You can do this.

I will now step back and strive mightily to remain uncharacteristically quiet while I open the floor to our wonderful visitors and commenters. Thank you all, and especially you, Anon, for contributing to our First Page Critique!

4+

First Page Critique: Gideon

Happy Monday! Today we have a first page critique from a dystopian novel – the extract we have is from a chapter entitled Gideon so I’m not sure if this is the first page to the novel itself or merely to a later chapter. The author who submitted this also provided an overview of the dystopian world he/she has created but I’m just going to focus on the page itself – as this is typically how a reader would first immerse themselves in the world  (and we at TKZ don’t typically go through a synopsis or overview for the pages we review). Suffice to say this novel takes place in the near future after a Third World War that has obliterated civilization in a nuclear strike. My comments follow after the extract but I do think this first page critique illustrates the need for clear, consistent world building for any novel that relies on a futuristic or alternative world that is unfamiliar to a reader.

Gideon

On his way to his scheduled fear desensitization treatment at the House of Pain, Gideon Guidry and his friend Paul Roseau had stopped at the Iron Byrd Tavern, where Gideon’s friend Paul, who had made several visits himself, felt sympathy for poor Gideon had purchased several large pink glasses of Le Grand Courage, a rare and expensive French wine for him, and began slurring his words, as the two shared the wine and sat discussing Gideon’s pending appointment and possible death sentence.
Gideon gulped the wine as if he had spent the day in the desert without liquids and as if wine would never be available again, to bolster up his courage for the day ahead.
Paul said, “You know they steal your memories and sell them to those rich citizens up on the Excelsior level of Sanitorium.”
  “No, you must be kidding. They wouldn’t dare.
  “They would, and they do. “Paul said.
  “And people go along with this? “asked Gideon.
  “Either the poor subversives don’t realize it is happening to them, or they just pretending it isn’t happening to them. No one has the courage to face the whip on Public Punishment Day. So, there really is no way, you can avoid the treatment. Why not fake an illness? ”Paul suggested, Gideon just shook his shoulders and said, “There is no point in putting it off. They will get me eventually and then I’ll be in the punishment square. Might as well get the dammed thing over. Right?”
  “No, OK, maybe. Well, let’s at least meet up tomorrow anyway and you can tell me how it went. My prayers are with you, my old friend.”
  Now Gideon was like a bull seeing red, as hate poured over Gideon’s soul like hot grease on a cook stove, imaginary smoke came out of his ears, as he stood there his hands shaking, his fist balled up tight, as he faced this indignity stoically and stood in front of the old converted psychiatric hospital. Surprisingly, near the front entrance, he saw a large pile of rotted timbers stacked neatly up against the sleek new part of the House of Pain and thought, I wonder what that stuff is for? Then, he thought, oh, I hope it is not what I think it is?
  Then, Gideon thought, Am I Drunk enough? Am I strong enough?  To hide the deep dark secret.

My Comments

As always, bravo to our brave submitter for providing us with an extract of his/her work to review. Even though I don’t typically write these sorts of novels, I’m a huge fan of works that fall in both the dystopian and science-fiction genre (which this clearly seems to do). When reading these genres, I look for the following: (1) novelty and clarity in world building; (2) an immersive experience that surprises or shocks me with details or events and; (3) something unique that sets apart the world from others I’ve read. Given how many novels have been set in a post-apocalyptic world it is very difficult to achieve all three.

Rather than providing an overview as I usually do followed by specific comments, this time I’m going to provide notes embedded in the extract itself – in bold and italics – as I think this is a more effective approach.

Extract with my notes:

On his way to his scheduled fear desensitization treatment at the House of Pain, Gideon Guidry and his friend Paul Roseau had stopped at the Iron Byrd Tavern, where Gideon’s friend Paul, who had made several visits himself, felt sympathy for poor Gideon had purchased several large pink glasses of Le Grand Courage, a rare and expensive French wine for him, and began slurring his words, as the two shared the wine and sat discussing Gideon’s pending appointment and possible death sentence.

This sentence is far too long and unweildy. The use of ‘had’ seems redundant in the use of the past tense. The ‘House of Pain’ and ‘fear desensitization treatment’ kind of make sense but when we learn that this appears to be a public whipping I’m not sure what the purpose of this treatment really is….or why this might be a death sentence. The world I’m expected to suspend disbelief and inhabit doesn’t seem entirely consistent. The description of a tavern in particular is hard to reconcile in a more sci-fi post apocalyptic world (sounds more fantasy/middle ages). I need to believe that this world has ‘taverns’ and pink French wine called ‘Le Grand Courage’ even if it also sounds pseudo science-fiction. 

Gideon gulped the wine as if he had spent the day in the desert without liquids and as if wine would never be available again, to bolster up his courage for the day ahead.

Gulping wine as if ‘he had spent a day in the desert without liquids’ and ‘as if wine would never be available again’ and ‘to bolster up his courage’ is too much – one of these reasons would have been fine and I’m also confused: In this post apocalyptic world, why is wine available? Are there still deserts even? 

Paul said, “You know they steal your memories and sell them to those rich citizens up on the Excelsior level of Sanitorium.”

More confusion – so do they steal the memories of pain/fear desensitization treatment? If so, why would rich citizens want them? If they are stealing other memories, how and why does this occur and how does this fit into the discussion of what is going to happen to Gideon at the House of Pain?

“No, you must be kidding. They wouldn’t dare.
  “They would, and they do. “Paul said.
  “And people go along with this? “asked Gideon.
  “Either the poor subversives don’t realize it is happening to them, or they just pretending it isn’t happening to them. No one has the courage to face the whip on Public Punishment Day. So, there really is no way, you can avoid the treatment.

This makes it sound like the memories are of the whipping – but how does Public Punishment Day relate to the House of Pain/Fear desensitization treatment? Again, I’m confused as to what this discussion is really about. Would Gideon really think people might go along with having their memories stolen? Why are we now talking about subversives when before it sounded like everyone went to the House of Pain for treatment (Paul, after all, had already made several visits). Also, why in a dystopian world wouldn’t ‘they dare’ steal memories (I mean they are happy to whip people in public…)

Why not fake an illness? ”Paul suggested, Gideon just shook his shoulders and said, “There is no point in putting it off. They will get me eventually and then I’ll be in the punishment square. Might as well get the dammed thing over. Right?”
  “No, OK, maybe. Well, let’s at least meet up tomorrow anyway and you can tell me how it went. My prayers are with you, my old friend.”

So you can avoid treatment by faking an illness? Seems incongruous for a society/government that inflicts treatment at the ‘House of Pain’ to allow people to delay just because they don’t feel well…again this goes to presenting a consistent and authentic feeling world for a reader. If a reader is confused or has to ask these questions, then the world building isn’t clear.

Also, it seems very strange that Paul which say ‘let’s meet up tomorrow and you can tell me how it went’ when he’s already endured ‘several visits’ to the House of Pain. Not only does this minimize what was described in the first paragraph as a ‘possible death sentence’ it also robs the scene of dramatic tension.

Finally, there is a missing quotation mark before Paul’s comment. As we always emphasize here at the TKZ, an author must go over his/her work to ensure it is error and typo free before sending it to an agent or editor.

Now Gideon was like a bull seeing red, as hate poured over Gideon’s soul like hot grease on a cook stove, imaginary smoke came out of his ears, as he stood there his hands shaking, his fist balled up tight, as he faced this indignity stoically and stood in front of the old converted psychiatric hospital.

Notes: Again, way too many descriptions/similes going on here – to the point where it almost seems humorous…and how did he get from the tavern to standing in front of an old converted psychiatric hospital (which I’m assuming is part of the House of Pain)?

Surprisingly, near the front entrance, he saw a large pile of rotted timbers stacked neatly up against the sleek new part of the House of Pain and thought, I wonder what that stuff is for? Then, he thought, oh, I hope it is not what I think it is?
  Then, Gideon thought, Am I Drunk enough? Am I strong enough?  To hide the deep dark secret.

I’m confused as to what the pile of rotting timbers were for – a hanging? A funeral pyre? Again, the punishments inflicted in this society sound more medieval that future/post apocalyptic so it is vital that this world is described in a way that the reader believes it has sunk back into medieval style punishments (which doesn’t seem to fit with having the technology available to steal people’s memories…). The final line also isn’t clear as we have been given no sense up to this point that Gideon is hiding any dark secret. 

Final Comments

Overall, my key concern here is world building consistency – especially in a genre that necessitates something different/unique to set it apart from all the other dystopian worlds out there. The writing could easily be tightened up but this dystopian world has to be clear to both the author and the reader. Believe me, I know how hard it is to create a world and to ensure all the elements are there on the page, rather than just in your head – but in this genre it is critical.

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

 

5+

Winter Tails

Photo (c) 2018 by A. L. Thummz. All rights reserved.

I for whatever reason am occasionally asked for advice about writing. My bottom line suggestion — one that I follow myself only after being dragged to it, kicking and screaming — is to tell the story simply. Not everyone needs to be James Lee Burke, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison or Cormac McCarthy, and they shouldn’t be. Write from Point A to Point B, at least at first. You have to build the wall before you decorate it. Get those corners at right angles and those verticals plumbed in your story before you decorate it. You’ll have plenty of time for that later. Your story or novel isn’t going anywhere unless your cat walks across the keyboard and steps on the delete button.

That brings me to an example of the foregoing.

There is a feral cat who has been coming around since late last spring. We call him “Felix.” He’s grey and skittish. His trust is measured in incremental inches, bought and paid for with food on demand. Felix disappeared for several weeks near the end of summer.  I was fairly certain that he had crawled into the brush to await the arrival of the picadors and had risen to meet them one last time. He surprised me, however, by returning near the end of October, gazing at me through the rear sliding glass door with an expression that probably translated to, “Yeah? Whaddya want from me?” He has visited regularly since. It’s been a tough winter, and I’m surprised whenever I see him, but see him I do, and almost every day.

Felix and I tell each other a story each day.  When I get up each morning I turn all of the backyard lights on. Felix always shows up within ten minutes. His arrival is heralded by Demonspawn, the resident housecat and indoor maitre ‘d. I bring the food out while Felix stands an arm’s length (mine, not his) or so away from me until I go back into the house. If he wants more, he hangs around and I give him more. We follow the same pattern at night. Sometimes I’ll see his footprints on fresh snow, weaving in the same pattern he always makes, and know that one of us missed the signal. I make it up on his next pass.

The story that Felix and I tell each other is simpler than that, however.  He tells me he’s hungry. I tell him I care. Actually, that’s the root of just about every story, from Aesop’s Fables to The Bible to The Dark Tower series and beyond. So there you go.

Simple stories aren’t just for children, but it’s during childhood that we normally hear our first ones. Are there any that you care to share?

As always, thank you for stopping by. And if you are able please take a minute to feed our friends outside. It’s a cold one this year.

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In Media Res with LESSER EVILS: First Page Critique

Photo: “Left Behind” by Jon Hernandez, unsplash.com

Welcome, Anon du jour, welcome to THE KILL ZONE First Page Critique!

Let’s all take a look at how Anon drops us into the middle of a plane crash with great aplomb in Lesser Evils:

Lesser Evils

The instant her helicopter touched down, Francine threw the door open, leaned out, and shouted, “Any survivors?”

She already knew the answer. For as far as she could see, fragments of her company’s plane littered barren, rocky terrain. In the waning-sunset gloom, scattered islands of yellow flames flickered in a huge sea of shattered metal—only the jet’s tail and two small engines intact enough to recognize. The destruction of her plane and the ten lives it had carried was absolute.

Francine suppressed a grin.

Absolute was what she’d planned.

Next on her plan was a bit of stagecraft. The sheriff’s deputy she’d yelled at stood less than a hundred feet away, but the scream of the copter’s motor as it powered down drowned out all other sound. She carefully stepped from the two person cockpit onto apple-sized volcanic rocks. Freezing in the copter’s windstorm, she pulled her jacket tight, stumbled forward on sloping ground, her pilot following closely behind.

When they reached the officer, she paused to catch her breath and almost choked on the sulfuric rotten-egg stench. The engine noise finally died. She pasted on a well-rehearsed look of anxiety and said again to the deputy, “Any survivors?”

He looked the two of them up and down. “Who are you?”

Francine’s pilot handed the cop a business card. “Ian Brack, Corporate Security, International Health Enterprises. This is Dr. Francine Duvaine. She owns the company and the plane.”

The deputy stared at her for a moment; then shook his head. “No one could have survived. Slammed into the caldera at over four hundred knots, a ton of fuel on board. Couple of folks at the tourist center fainted. Fireball was so big they thought St. Helens was erupting again.” He shook his head again. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“Please, you’re certain?” She made her voice crack. “No one?”

“No one.”

She closed her eyes, hung her head, and stood still for a few seconds. There—her work here was done. “Thank you, officer.” She began to turn away. “Thank you.”

“A real shame.” The deputy said. “Two crew and seven passengers.”

Francine whirled back toward him. “Seven?” She shot a glance at Brack and marveled at how he maintained a calm expression. Her pulse pounding in her temples, she took a deep breath. “You’re absolutely sure? Seven—not eight?”

 

I want the rest of Lesser Evils right now. I’m going to forego the usual nitpicking on it simply because the author does so much correctly in terms of storytelling. The pacing is just right. The narrative baits and sinks the hook from the first few words. This big fish was then caught and netted. Yes, there are a few typos (one near the beginning, one near the end, to name two) and if no one mentions them by close of business today (and we never close) I will jump in and note them but Anon, you are on the right track here.

Why do I love Lesser Evils? Anon drops us right into the middle of the action in a manner which entices without confusing. The introduction of two of the main characters is handled simply, but in a more interesting manner than just stating their names (which would have been fine). We know right away where the crash takes place.  There are a couple of surprises in the first page, those being 1) Francine’s hidden reaction to her company’s plane crashing and 2) the news that, apparently, not everyone died (and she’s not happy). It’s terrific. Those two elements will undoubtedly play out over at least the first few pages of the book and possibly beyond. It makes the reader wonder why Francine planned the crash, how she will be caught, when she’ll be caught, who will discover it, and the consequences. The audience will also be asking where that eighth body, breathing or otherwise, might be. I am assuming that later on Anon will explain to someone how Francine and Ian got there so quickly, where the plane took off from, and how Francine will keep from getting into trouble by landing in the middle of a crash scene, but what we have here is everything I want and could reasonably ask for in a first page: murder most foul; an intriguing villain, and a surprise or two, all wrapped in the same box without bumping into each other.

I wanted page two of Lesser Evils, then page three, and so on. I know I’ve got a good read in my hands when I feel that way. Go, Anon, go!

I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically quiet while I turn the comments, praises, and criticisms portion of this page over to our wonderful readers and visitors. Enjoy!

 

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