Limit the Exposition in Your Opening Pages

James Scott Bell
Twitter.com/jamesscottbell


Since I am the resident zombie fiction guy, the first page I’ve been given for critique is, not surprisingly:
Z.O.M.B.I.E. Squad:  Hot ZOMBIE Nights
Jaz surveyed the semi-dark alley after escaping from her BMW. Drat. ZOMBIES. Not what she needed at the moment. How would she explain this to her new boyfriend?  Not the ZOMBIES per se, but the fact that this would be the third time this week that she’d bailed on dinner with him. Well, if he was a quality catch, he’d let her make it up to him, if not, there were other non-ZOMBIES out there in the world. Right?
There was a screech of metal on metal, as one of the ZOMBIEs dragged something along the side of her M3, and it would definitely leave a mark.  Ok, “drat” just officially became “double-damn” the minute both her love life and her car became casualties. Being undercover with ZOMBIE International Technologies was never easy. Often it downright stunk, just like this alley. It always seemed to be us or them and just a street away from normal. Whoever thought that all aliens were smarter and more techno-savvy, never met a pod-ZOMBIE.
The pod-Zs looked almost as unearthly as they were. Jaz could see their sallow, waxy faces as they stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlight. Light-colored images of the humans they might have been. Ok, maybe she could see why someone who didn’t know better might think they were just the walking. Jaz’s chest heaved a bit as she took in one, deep, cleansing breath. It was warm, wet, and tasted a bit like the Cuban carne asada she’d planned on having for dinner. She sighed as she pulled the transonic pen-dart from her bra: her $100 Dior Du jour, lace alternative, super-sexy, continental blue bra, with matching underwear. Yes, they did match her Beemer perfectly. That should say something about the level of clothing perfection and date desirability she had worked so hard for as she prepared to meet up with 3DP-vid god, Wylie Taylor.
It pained her to risk her Dior bra by using it as a weapon holder, but without stockings, there were few choices to secure a pen-sized super weapon and keep it accessible.
****
Paranormal fiction. Zombies. You have to build a world, and that’s what the writer is attempting to do here, plus give us exposition to boot. And the instincts are good: weave the exposition within the action.
However, this opening is weighted too heavily on the informational (notice how “blocky” the text is on the page). It’s a common mistake made because the writer feels the reader has to be clued in to a lot of background before he can understand what’s going on.
Almost always a wrong choice. Because readers will wait a long timefor explanations so long as something is happening that is disturbing.
This first page delivers a great opening disturbance. To make it even more effective, let the action be primary and drop exposition in later, a bit at a time.
To show you what I mean, here is the opening rendered with just the action sentences:
Jaz surveyed the semi-dark alley after escaping from her BMW. There was a screech of metal on metal, as one of the ZOMBIEs dragged something along the side of the M3.
She could see their sallow, waxy faces as they stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlight. Light-colored images of the humans they might have been. 
She sighed as she pulled the transonic pen-dart from her bra.
***
I am much more in this scene now. I want to keep reading. I want to know what that thing in her bra does.
The author has me hooked, and can begin to drop in exposition as needed. But keep it brief. The next lines might be:
Being undercover with ZOMBIE International Technologies was never easy. Often it downright stunk, just like this alley.  
Then get back to the action. Then later the stuff about the boyfriend. More action. And so on.
Also, I’d cut: The pod-Zs looked almost as unearthly as they were. This is a “tell” just before the “show” of the next sentence. The latter creates a picture for the reader, who can then draw his own conclusion.
I like the voice that is “lurking” here. But it sounds “once removed,” e.g. in this line: That should say something about the level of clothing perfection and date desirability she had worked so hard for as she prepared to meet up with 3DP-vid god, Wylie Taylor.
This is the author commenting on Jaz, not something from Jaz herself. I wonder if the author might consider turning this into a First Person narration. Then the fun aspects of the voice could come out more naturally, e.g.:
I pulled the transonic pen-dart from my $100 Dior Du jour, lace alternative, super-sexy, continental blue bra, with matching underwear. Matched my Beemer, too. But this was about date desirability. Hard work, but then again it was 3DP-vid god Wylie Taylor I was going to meet up with.
If I ever got away from these Zs.
That’s just a suggestion, something to consider. You can achieve pretty much the same effect in Third Person, but you should make sure the narration sounds like thoughts your character would actually think, and keep author commentary out of it.
I like this concept. Hey, fun zombie thrillers are my bag. So hook me with action in this first chapter and drop in only the exposition that is absolutely, positively necessary for the understanding of the scene.
It is much less than you think. And a much better start without it.

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Don’t Be Afraid to Fail Aggressively


I like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
We all know he made his name as a wrestler, then got screen time as the Scorpion King. Then he kicked it up a notch with The Rundown and Walking Tall.
But Johnson wanted to break out from just being the next action guy. He wanted to expand his range, into comedies. So he started working toward that end. Some folks were skeptical. But in an interview with People magazine just before Get Smart came out, Johnson said, ”I would rather fail being aggressive than being passive.”
I loved that quote. I put it on a card and displayed it in my office. Because at the time I was taking a big risk, too.
After over a decade in the fiction game I had a secure following in the Christian publishing arena. I could count on a solid number of readers every time out. I also liked the people and the companies I worked with.
That market, however, was trending toward a more “romance” feel, with a rather surprising uptick in books depicting Amish life. Now, in our chaotic times, I well understand the appeal of fiction that depicts steadier, simpler ways. I do not at all hold it against thee if thou likes Amish fiction.
But that’s not my particular crevice in the fiction world.
So I had to make a decision. Stay put and play it safe? Or try something new and unproven? Continue as I had where everyone knew me, or put oars into the waters of the vast ocean of mainstream publishing?
Which is when I read the Dwayne Johnson quote. And I thought, If I don’t try this now, I’ll look back and regret it. It could end up being a ten story dive into a glass of water, but Bugs Bunny did that, why can’t I?
The worst that could happen was that I would “fail aggressively.” There’s no shame in that. It’s what’s driven all the innovations and breakthroughs in history. Edison failed more than he succeeded, but would never have succeeded at all if he hadn’t been aggressive. 
So I took the plunge and sold a zombie legal thriller which is, I would say, a bit outside the box of my previous engagements!
Am I glad? Oh yeah. I love Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law. And I’ve been getting some lovely email from my readers. If I may be allowed to share one comment in that regard: “If a great story is about someone we can care about who wants something we can identify with and faces odds that are relatable and believable, then it doesn’t matter what Mallory IS. What matters is what Mallory wants and why she wants it. And the best part is, she is sassy, smart and funny.”


When you get a comment like that, one that says you accomplished what you set out to do in a book you’ve poured your heart into, it makes the whole thing worth it. 


Yes, there will be dissenters. We who write professionally know that well. But while there is no sure formula for success, there is one for failure: try to please everybody. 
As writers we have to be willing to fail aggressively. If we don’t, if we play it too safe, if we spend too much time worrying about the market and how to chase it down, we will lose that chance to be what the world prizes most—an original.
Sure, use market sense, but put all that through the prism of your unique voice and vision and heart and desire. Then go for it. Don’t be afraid of failure. You may be on the pathway to a breakthrough.
Listen to The Rock. 

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A Legal Thriller to Die For

James Scott Bell
Twitter.com/jamesscottbell



Last week I explained why my next book will bear a pseudonym. It’s really about brand distinction. Man, is it about brand distinction! Here’s why:

About a year and a half ago my agent, Donald Maass, and I are discussing ideas, and I say, “The whole zombie thing is hot now, but it’s all the same, zombies as slobbering, mindless monsters. What if the zombie was the hero? In fact, what if it was a lawyer practicing law in L.A.?”
Don laughed. I went with it. “I mean, how can you tell the difference between zombies and defense attorneys anyway? Most people think there IS no difference. And what if this lawyer specialized in defending outcasts like vampires, who never get a break?”
Don told me to write up a proposal. As with all my ideas for fiction, I had to see if I could get into the characters and the heart of the story. I can’t just write to a market. I know some can. But even with short stories, I have to connect to the material in some essential and emotional way.
So I started doing my pre-writing. I knew I wanted to write in the hard boiled tradition I love. I wanted it to be an actual legal thriller, where I would use my experiences in court (with a paranormal twist. Let me tell you, I’ve been in front of a few judges who I thought came from other planets). I wanted a first person narrator, and then I decided I wanted it to be a woman with a strong voice and attitude and wit.
All that started to emerge. Finally, I came up this concept:
TAGLINE:
In L.A., practicing law can be hell. Especially if you’re dead.
PITCH:
In an increasingly hellacious L.A., zombie lawyer Mallory Caine defends a vampire hooker accused of the crime Mallory herself committed, even as a zombie-killer closes in and the love of her former life comes back as the Deputy DA she must oppose. And as Lucifer himself begins setting up L.A. as his headquarters for a new attack on heaven and earth, Mallory slowly discovers she may be the one who has to stop him.
Well, doggone if Don didn’t go out and sell it to Kensington, in a deal that was everything I hoped it would be. I wanted the books to come out in mass market, with great cover art and the know-how of a terrific company behind it. I also wanted it priced right for you, the reader, both print and e-book.
It is all these things.
And as far as I know, this is the first zombie legal thriller series on the market. It’s not everyday you get to start a genre. Which, to my mind, makes it imperative that you jump on the bandwagon while it’s hot!
And so here it is, the first in the Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law series, PAY ME IN FLESH by the mysterious yet roguishly handsome K. Bennett.
Find it at your local bookstore or online. Official pub date is on Tuesday . . . just in time to deal with the debt ceiling blues!
You can also check with:
K. Bennett has a dedicated website that will post things from time to time. But right now, it’s all about the launch.
So there is really nothing left to say but Bon Appetit!


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