First Page Critique: “Blues In The Night”

This submission landed in a Kill Zone Inbox sometime last fall, and after a who’s-on-first? journey from then ‘til now, residing next to Trump’s tax return in a top secret eyes-only clandestine subterranean vault (my name is complicit, I’m told)… it finally shows up here, for our most well-intended group critique.

A consolidated apology goes out to today’s brave and persistent author.

Because this is short, I’ll show it undisturbed at first pass (nothing disrupts a read than a line of red typeface from someone suggesting it could/should be different), followed by— for the author, and those readers so inclined—my most empathetic input.

As usual, feel free to chime in. That’s the point, after all, shooting for consensus and clarity.

I will say, though, that while I’m delighted to be here participating, I’m not all that sold on first page critiques. It’s a bit like doing a home inspection with a high speed drive-by (“looks like that roof could use some patching up…”). And if the math of these things holds up, the dozen or so editorial suggesti0ns that almost always seem to manifest in these submissions (POV being the most frequent imposter), that translates to roughly 4800 total manuscript notes (12 per page in a 400 page manuscript)… which would send most of us sprinting to the local bar instead of back to the drawing board.

The math is explained by this particular human observation: when you ask a bunch of people sitting in front of the room for input, using the word “critique” to frame a process that is anything but precise—because this is not math—rest assured, they’ll find something.

If you think this is brutal, sit in on one of these things at a writing conference, especially if agents are doing the evaluations… it’s like a public hanging: dark, yet morbidly compelling… unless it’s us wearing the rope.

Remember what William Goldman once said: “Nobody knows anything.”

In this and all KZ critiques, know this: we’re just trying to help… and, we’ve all been there, swinging from that tree.

——————————————

Blues in the Night

Everett

Miami Beach, Florida

Tuesday, October 16, 1951

12:10 AM

Sarah rolled naked out of bed and sashayed into the kitchen to pour a couple of drinks. Her cute ass, uncommonly tight for her age, swayed from side to side as she left the bedroom, putting a smile on Everett’s face.

Not bad for an old gal.

When he heard her puttering around with the drinks, he slipped out of bed and across the room, and grabbed her custom-made replica of the Maltese Falcon from the occasional table. Stoneware bird in hand, he moved to a spot behind the door.

She never saw it coming. As she walked in with their drinks, he swung the falcon, which had to weigh five pounds, smacking her in the temple. The glasses flew from her hands as she sank to the floor, blood flying from the wide gash on her head.

In an instant he was on her, straddling her, hands wrapped around her neck tight, tighter, tighter. Her eyes, which only minutes ago gazed at him with unbridled lust, now bulged outward, as if in astonishment. Her well-tended complexion took on a ghastly blue tint.

Tight, tighter … until the faint rhythmic throbbing beneath his thumbs fell still. The only sound now was soft band music wafting out of the console radio, tuned to the late-night Sleepy Time Gal program.

Her hair hid the split in her skull but not the last of the blood. Everett watched it seek its own level, changing from red to reddish-brown as it spread across the rug. He touched it with the tip of his index finger and examined it, tilting his head to one side, then the other, to maybe discover some new feature of the droplet visible only from an odd angle.

The urge to lick the little red bead off his finger was great, and he thought about taking some of Sarah home with him, having her protein — her very essence — flowing through his own veins.

He recalled Violet. He hadn’t done that with her. But now? Yes! He swiped it off with his tongue and let it glide down his throat, then stood up and went into the bathroom to wash the blood from his arms and torso.

He got dressed, then rifled her purse for money and grabbed what jewelry he could find, including what looked like a nice diamond bracelet and a pair of emerald earrings.

He pulled a few drawers out of her dresser, looking for that stash. Everyone like her — rich, that is — had a big stash somewhere close by. He only had to find it.

——————————————

Here are my notes. In general I like the writing, but like everything just out of the printer, it could use some re-thinking to make it even stronger. It could be more visceral, more nuanced, and thus, the scene rendered more disturbingly.

One of the things that hit me is that this is more than a little terrifying. Which I suppose is a good thing in its genre. But keep in mind, a first page has a specific and unique mission: to thrust the reader forward, compelling them to keep going.

With that filter, read this again and ask how much invitation and motivation you’ve given your reader. While you tell us this isn’t his first time, there isn’t even a hint of motivation (beyond psychopathy) or a general sense of why we’d want more.

That becomes the context for my input today. Look for ways to get into the heads of these players, minding the fence of POV, using inner dialogue and context to intensify both vicarious roles.

Sarah rolled naked out of bed and sashayed into the kitchen to pour a couple of drinks. Her cute ass, uncommonly tight for her age, swayed from side to side as she left the bedroom, putting a smile on Everett’s face.

Not bad for an old gal.

Okay, this is seriously twisted.  But you don’t bridge it from what seems innocent to what ends up being incomprehensible… and you could. Perhaps add a comment that, a few sentences from now, will link his appreciation of her “”sashay” – am thinking you could find a better verb here; who gets out of a bed and sashayes anywhere? – to what will be her dark fate? He enjoys having put her at ease, it makes the take-down all the sweeter.

Play up the sickness playing in his head.

When he heard her puttering around with the drinks, he slipped out of bed and across the room, and grabbed her custom-made replica of the Maltese Falcon from the occasional table. Stoneware bird in hand, he moved to a spot behind the door.

You have three actionable movements here, in one sentence: hearing the drinks, slipping out of bed, and grabbing the fake Falcon. That’s too many. Chunk it up. While the writing is good, this is the most amateurish of all your sentences on this page.

And “stoneware in hand” is just… rewritable. Do so.

She never saw it coming. (Skip that… this is obvious.) As she walked in with their drinks, he swung the falcon, which had to weigh five pounds, smacking her in the temple. The glasses flew from her hands as she sank to the floor, blood flying from the wide gash on her head.

Could be tighter: He swung the falcon the moment she appeared in the doorway, anticipating,his feet leaving the floor from the force of his effort. Ceramic colliding into flesh, framed in an arcing spray of red. Bone shattering, creasing the skin before it tore apart. It played before his eyes as if in slow motion, a moment he would revisit again and again, turning up the sound to capture the wet thud of it, going in for a closeup on her eyes, scanning for the moment she knew she was dead, wondering if she could connect him to it before the darkness fell.

Present tense would put us more in his head.

He was on her as she fell, straddling her already limp body. Hands wrapping around her neck… tight, tighter, tighter. Her eyes, only minutes from gazing at him with unbridled lust, now bulging outward, a confusion of astonishment and realization. Her face took on a ghastly blue tint.  (Would that happen that quickly, moments after impact?  I don’t think it would.  And… not the time or place to comment on her well-tended complexion.)

His hands froze on her throat, his forearms screaming at him until the faint rhythmic throbbing beneath his thumbs fell still. The only sound now was soft (we don’t care if it’s a band or an accordion) music wafting (wafting? Really?) out of the console radio, tuned to the late-night Sleepy Time Gal program.  (Why do we need to know the name of the program?  Don’t think we do. You’re trying too hard here… stay in the moment, author, go deeper into it, don’t dress it up with peripheral uselessness.)

Overwriting. The bane of the new author. Start to notice, and start to avoid it.

(cut this: Her hair hid the split in her skull but not the last of the blood.) Everett watched the blood emerge from beneath her hair, seeking its own level, changing from red to reddish-brown as it spread across the rug (nope, it wouldn’t change color before his eyes, moments after impact). He touched it with the tip of his index finger and examined it, tilting his head to one side, then the other (you already said “side to side,” so what do you mean by “then the other” – which translates to “side to side to side”… need to clean this up), to (not maybe) discover some new feature of the droplet visible only from an odd angle. (this sentence is a stretch, I think… nobody looks for, or cares about, a “new feature” of a drop of blood; you’re contriving here.)

The urge to lick the (don’t need the adjective “little” here; we’re pretty sure it’s not a “huge” bead of blood) red bead from his finger was tugging. (new sentence, avoid the run-ons) He thought about taking some of her (we don’t know her name, this isn’t the time to tell us, either) home with him, having her protein — her very essence — flowing through his own veins.  (I like this… it’s twisted as hell…)

He recalled the last girl. Violet, he recalled. He hadn’t done that with her. But now? Yes! He swiped it off with his tongue and let it glide down his throat, motionless, submitting to the sensation. He then stood and went into the bathroom to wash the blood from his arms and torso, tasting it again before it was all gone.

He dressed (did he “get dressed, or perhaps a more active verb – dressed – works better here), then rifled her purse for money. Coming up with nothing, he rifled her dresser for jewelry, grabbing what he could find, including what looked like a nice diamond bracelet and a pair of emerald earrings.

He pulled out the remaining drawers, looking for that stash. There was always a stash. Everyone like her — rich, that is — had a wad of cash somewhere close by. He only had to find it.

But even if he didn’t, he would go away satisfied.

(This closing line punches up the darkness of it all.)

____________________

Of course, these are editorial prompts only.  They suggest a deeper dive into the moment, into the perp’s head, which is the scariest place of all you can take your reader. We get a sense he’s not done, which is why we’ll stay with him in this story.  Because we want him to go down.That context – not so much to experience him, but to build a sense of dread, so that we will root for his ultimate failure and demise – is the nuance that will add to this project.

I wish you great success going forward!

Kill Zoners, what say you?

8+

Users who have LIKED this post:

  • avatar
  • avatar

Giving Characters the Courage to Change

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Zachary Scott and Eve Arden

The other day I turned on TCM and caught the last half hour of a film I’d seen before, The Unfaithful (1947). I was pleased because it has one of my favorite actors of that period, Zachary Scott. (This fine actor really needs to be remembered for his body of work, especially in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner). The other lead was the “Oomph Girl,” Ann Sheridan.

The plot: Bob Hunter (Scott) and Chris Hunter (Sheridan) are a happily married couple. One night, when Bob is away on business, Chris kills an intruder in their home. Self-defense, right?

What no one knows (at first) is that the intruder was a man with whom Chris had a one-night tryst during the war. She and Bob had been married only a short while before Bob went off to fight. Lonely and anxious, without letters from Bob, Chris found solace in this man’s arms. She felt guilty about it ever since.

Well, the truth comes out, and Bob is stunned, hurt, outraged. He demands a divorce. Chris pours out her heart to him, admitting the wrong, needing him to understand, wanting to stay married. But Bob remains resolute. Chris accepts the inevitable.

With the secret out that Chris knew the victim, she is tried for murder. But through the fine job done by family friend and lawyer Larry Hannaford (Lew Ayers), she is acquitted. (Let’s hear it for lawyers!)

Bob is still firm about the divorce. He goes to see another family friend, Paula (Eve Arden, who made a career out of playing the good-hearted pal). Paula delivers some plain talk to Bob. Almost like a slap in the face. She tells him about women during the war, how frightening and lonely it all was, especially when no letters came. And aren’t we all human? Don’t we all make mistakes? And are you going to hold on to this bitterness forever?

Bob goes back to his house as Chris is coming down the stairs, her bag packed. Bob asks her what her rush is. Maybe they could talk awhile. Discuss how to split up the property (he’s clearly wanting her to stay so they can reconcile.)

Chris, however, has accepted the divorce and closed off her emotions.

Now it’s time for family friend and lawyer Hannaford to be the voice of reason. (Let’s hear it for lawyers!) He makes a plea for the two of them not to throw away what they have. He leaves telling them this is one case he won’t mind not getting.

Bob sits next to Chris on the sofa and, in a typical 1940s gesture of impending reconciliation, offers his wife a cigarette. She takes it.

Fade out.

And I thought, Nicely done. Because the film utilizes a very helpful tool of the craft—the courage to change motivator.

When a character has to go into pitched battle—physically or professionally or psychologically—he is taking a step that requires courage. We need to see what it is that helps the character overcome the natural fear that occurs when facing such a challenge.

In Bob Hunter’s case, his step is psychological. He has to be willing to put aside the blow to his male ego, admit he’s been wrong in his vindictiveness, forgive his wife, and work at saving the marriage. If he suddenly changed at the end, without any preparation for it, we’d feel a bit cheated. We need to know why he’s taking this step.

So the screenwriters (one of whom was the famous noir novelist David Goodis) gave Bob a “voice of conscience.” That was Eve Arden’s character. By giving Bob a good, old-fashioned talking-to, we are set up to accept his change of heart.

This voice of conscience needs to be someone who is credible, wise, trustworthy. In many movies—mostly from the 30s and 40s—this is a voice from the past (which is set up in Act 1). At a crucial point in Act 3, the Lead hears that voice in his head as he’s walking down the street in torment, e.g., his mothers’ voice saying, Johnny, don’t do it! Once you do it, you’ll do it again, and then you’ll be bad. Don’t break my heart, Johnny!

Then Johnny hears the voice of his parish priest (Irish accent, of course): Don’t do it, Johnny! You’ll break your poor mother’s heart!

Finally, the voice of Johnny’s brother who was gunned down by mobsters in Act 2: You’re nothing but a crumb, Johnny. That’s all you’ll ever be, you hear me? A stinkin’ lousy crumb!

Shortly after this sequence, Johnny will take the courageous step to do the right thing. And we accept it, because we know what motivated the change.

The motivation must be strong: coming from a source the Lead trusts and loves.

The motivation must be clear: there is no doubt about the source (to the Lead and to the audience).

The motivation can be a voice of conscience, or it can be invested in a physical item.

An example of the latter comes from the great Bette Davis film, Now, Voyager (1942). Davis plays Charlotte Vale, the withdrawn, unattractive daughter of a steely, upper-crust matriarch. This mother has dominated Charlotte all her life, convincing her she has nothing to offer the world.

After a nervous breakdown, Charlotte is sent to a sanitarium run by the good Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains). Charlotte reaches a point where she is ready to take a major step—going on an ocean cruise. This will require her mixing with people socially for the first time.

On the cruise she meets a man named Jerry (Paul Henreid), who is traveling alone (he is unhappily married). Jerry sees the “real” Charlotte, and the two fall in love. Ah, but they know they must part. Jerry gives Charlotte a bunch of camellias before they do.

Charlotte finally comes home to face her domineering mother. And boy, does the mother (the great character actress, Gladys Cooper) try to smash Charlotte right back to where she was before.

This is the key moment (the “mirror moment”) for Charlotte. She is thinking, can I possibly stand up to my mother? She’s too powerful! Will I go back to being the old Charlotte again?

If only there was something to give her the courage to … well, have a look:

Camellias! This emotional association is enough to give Charlotte the courage to stand up to her mother.

So …

… when you get to a point in your manuscript where your protagonist must take a major step, one that requires courage, provide a boost via a voice of conscience, or an item of emotional significance. This boost is most helpful sometime after—or simultaneously with—the mirror moment. Or during the final battle at the end of the book.

Characters exercising strength of will, to confront challenges and transform as a result. That’s what a novel is really all about.

Give them the courage to change.

16+

The Moral of the Story

By Mark Alpert

Now that I’m writing Young Adult novels – the third one, The Silence (pictured above), is coming out this July – I’ve started getting a lot of emails from high-school and middle-school students. My favorite messages are the ones from kids asking me for help with their book reports.

Some of the kids ask for biographical information, which is easy enough to provide. The kids want to know where I grew up, where I live now, how I occupy myself in my spare time, and whether I have any pets. Other kids want to know about influences: what were my favorite books when I was young, how do I come up with the ideas for my novels, and so on.

And some particularly clever kids cut right to the chase and ask the question that their English teachers undoubtedly urged them to explore: what is the theme of your books? Do they have an argument or a moral? In all likelihood, the teachers expected their students to analyze this question on their own, but it’s such a nebulous question that you can’t really blame the kids for going directly to the source.

I admire this kind of resourcefulness, so when kids ask me if my novels have any message or meaning, I try to give them a straight answer. I wrote the books, so I know their themes better than anyone else does. My wife sometimes chides me – “You’re doing their homework for them!” – but I don’t care. Those kids were smart and brave enough to approach an author, so they deserve a little reward.

When I was a kid, my favorite author was Isaac Asimov. I loved I, Robot and the Foundation series. I wish I’d had the courage back then to send him a note and ask a few questions. I almost got the chance when I was an adult; in 1990, when I was a reporter for Fortune Magazine, I set up an interview with Asimov for a special anniversary issue we were doing, “Great Visionaries of the Twentieth Century” or something like that. But Asimov was in poor health by then, and he had to cancel the interview. He died two years later.

But I did interview another idol of my childhood: Olivia Newton-John, the British-Australian singer famous for “Please Mr. Please” and “Have You Never Been Mellow.” This was in 1989, a few years after Newton-John’s star power had begun to wane. She was seeking publicity for a chain of women’s clothing stores she’d started. I didn’t meet her in person; I did the interview over the phone, but it was still a thrill to hear that sweet voice of my adolescent daydreams. Unfortunately, the publicity didn’t help her much — a few years later, her chain of clothing stores went bankrupt. Oh well.

That same year, I also interviewed two men who went on to become President. I talked on the phone with George W. Bush right after his dad’s buddies set him up in business, financing his purchase of the Texas Rangers. Strangely enough, I don’t remember anything he said – the guy made no impression on me at all. But I do remember talking to Trump. Fortune was doing a story about his financial troubles at the time, and I called him up to get some solid evidence that he was worth as much as he claimed. (He insisted, then and now, that he was a billionaire.) Trump promised to fax me a statement from his accountant, but when the statement arrived I saw that it was a year old, and it put his worth at only $640 million. I called Trump’s office to get him to discuss the discrepancy, and I left a message for him. I’m still waiting for him to call back.

What’s the moral of this story? Kids, I just don’t know.

4+

Reader Friday: Advice

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” ― Dorothy Parker

What advice would you give an aspiring writer today?

4+

Passion

Today’s TKZ guest, author Sasscer Hill, has been involved in horse racing as an amateur jockey and racehorse breeder for most of her life. She sets her novels against a background of big money, gambling, and horse racing, and her mystery and suspense thrillers have received multiple award nominations. She’s well qualified to write about writing with passion. Welcome, Sasscer.   — Elaine Viets

 

 PASSION

By Sasscer Hill

Here’s what I believe: if a current of passion doesn’t run beneath a story, it will never be as good as it can be.

Let me mention three authors who have greatly influenced me with the passion that appears to drive their writing. All three are terrific writers with an excellent grasp of the craft of writing, but each has that something extra, that something that polished technique alone doesn’t produce.

Michael Connelly, previously a crime journalist for many years, has a visceral theme in his books that appears to be propelled by a desire for justice. His main character, Harry Bosch, strongly believes that someone must speak for the victims of violent crimes. Bosch’s empathy and integrity lends an authenticity and tension to his stories that has kept readers coming back for years.

Born in 1908, M. M. Kaye, author of the book, The Far Pavillions, had a lifelong fascination with India and the history of the British Raj. She had a wonderful story idea for her book. But her passion for India’s exotic culture, the mysticism and mystery found in its rugged land and among its people appear to have impelled her to create a book that became an international bestseller.

Lke me, author Walter Farley had an intense passion for horses and horse racing. His love of speed and the thrill of the sport, coupled with his ability to translate it into fiction, made his Black Stallion series one of the most popular children’s series of all time.

As a reader, I graduated from Farley to Dick Francis, the famous British author whose career began with horse racing mysteries. In school, the only thing I truly loved, and consequently excelled at, was literature and creative writing. My extracurricular activities centered on horseback riding.

When I set out to write my first horse racing mystery, I worried. Just because I loved the sport, how could I make my racing novel mysterious or compelling for others? Back in the eighties, I went to Maryland’s Laurel Park racetrack quite often. One day standing by the winner’s circle and gazing beyond the vast oval track to the backstretch beyond, I realized it was all there, right in front of me. From the terrible intensity of the gamblers, to the possible cheating by trainers, owners, and jockeys, and finally, to the drug problems. And more importantly, the love and care shown to the horses by the backstretch workers. Most important of all, the heart and courage exhibited by the jockeys and horses when they reach deep inside themselves to pull out that win. I was pretty sure that if I could weave these things with good craft, I could produce a competent and entertaining novel.

Lacking craft, that first novel wasn’t too competent and still hides in a drawer where, I fear, it belongs. I knew nothing about plotting, and had no idea was a story arc was. So I took mystery classes at Maryland’s Bethesda writer’s center where I wrote Full Mortality, the first of four Nikki Latrelle books. The novel was published and garnered nominations for both Agatha and Macavity best first book awards. Several years of hard work and a new agent later, I finished the first in the Fia McKee series and landed a two-book contract with St. Martins. The first in this series, Flamingo Road, will appear on April 18. If adult mystery-thriller readers like the novel half as much as the kids who still love the Black Stallion books, it will be one of the greatest events of my life.

Flamingo Road, published by Minotaur Books, St. Martins Press, can be found at Amazon, bookstores, and any ebook outlet on the April 18 pub date. Find it herehttp://tinyurl.com/gq4lyql

7+

First Page Critique: NUTTER BODINE

Bu John Gilstrap

Another brave soul has stepped up to the plate and volunteered for a First Page Critique.  The Italics are all mine, just to separate the author’s text from my comments, which appear on the far side.  Here we go . . .

NUTTER BODEEN

’tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free

     Eighteenth century Shaker song

 

“I think I killed someone.”

Not what Police Chief Will Edd Pruitt wanted or needed to hear first thing on a scorching hot Monday morning with the department’s A/C on the fritz. He’d positioned an oscillating fan next to his desk, but it only made his small office feel like a convection oven.

He silently cursed Jim Beam for last night, and waited for the caffeine and four aspirins to kick in. His eyes hurt as he tried to focus on the giant standing in the doorway to his office. He was shirtless, wore faded, grime-stained bib overalls meant for a much smaller person, and his sockless feet were stuffed into laceless brogans. His square head reminded Will Edd of Boris Karloff in the old Frankenstein movie.

Out at his desk, Gus Temple, made the “crazy” sign with his finger, careful to make sure the big man didn’t see him. Will Ed frowned at him, but the skinny dispatcher just grinned.

His name was Arvil LeRoy Bodeen, and he wasn’t crazy, just slow—— the result of a teen-age mother who consoled her unwanted pregnancy by snorting meth and drinking cheap wine. His eyes darted nervously around the room like a frightened kid on his first visit to the dentist.

Will Edd took a sip from his warm Dr. Pepper, sighed and said, “Come on in, Arvil.”

Arvil LeRoy Bodeen lumbered in and plopped down in the visitor’s chair. It groaned in protest. In the closeness of the room, the smell that rolled off him was a mixture of cheap booze, old vomit and unwashed armpits. Will Ed scooted his chair back as far as he could and tried to breathe through his mouth.

“My friends call me Nutter,” Arvil Leroy Bodeen said, his voice seeming too high pitched for his massive body. “You can too, if you want.” 

Will Ed doubted the man had any friends. He frightened the women and scared the men. Over the years, the town had learned to accept him as they would a stray mongrel—— let it sleep under your porch, but never let it into the house.

“How ‘bout I just call you Arvil?”

“Okay, but you can still be my friend.”

First the good:

There’s a lot here to like.  The first line is everything a first line should be. It’s short, to the point and engaging.  I get a real sense of place, a sense of atmosphere.  The writing is journeyman like (that’s a compliment), though it needs tightening (see below).  It’s a compelling setup.  If the point of a first page is to drive the reader to turn to the second page, then this is a success.  Except . . .

Now let’s talk about strengthening the already-strong writing:

Not what Police Chief Will Edd Pruitt wanted or needed to hear first thing on a scorching hot Monday morning with the department’s A/C on the fritz. He’d positioned an oscillating fan next to his desk, but it only made his small office feel like a convection oven.

  1. Is his middle name Edd or Ed? You present it both ways.
  2. Pruitt just heard some startling news, yet he’s more concerned about the heat and the fan.  I’m not sure I buy it, but I’m thinking like a critiquer (critic?), not a reader. If this were from an author I liked, it would not be a deal breaker because I would assume that the author wanted me to think Pruitt is something of a prick.  If that’s not your point, consider changing it.
  3. “Scorching hot” is superfluously redundant. Pick one, drop the other.
  4. “He’d positioned…” Who’s “he”?

He silently cursed Jim Beam for last night, and waited for the caffeine and four aspirins to kick in. His eyes hurt as he tried to focus on the giant standing in the doorway to his office. He was shirtless, wore faded, grime-stained bib overalls meant for a much smaller person, and his sockless feet were stuffed into laceless brogans. His square head reminded Will Edd of Boris Karloff in the old Frankenstein movie.

  1. The adverb in the first sentence weakens it, and the second part of the sentence weakens it further.  Consider: “He cursed Jim Beam for last night. The caffeine and four aspirins hadn’t kicked in yet.” Maybe it’s just my style, but I think breaking the one sentence into two strengthens them both.
  2. I think you need to give the giant man a name in this paragraph.  Consider: “. . .  in the doorway. Arvil LeRoy Bodeen.  He was . . .”  Note I deleted “to his office” because we already know that.
  3. Sentence construction that begins, “He was . . .” is inherently weak.  Consider, “Shirtless, he’d stuffed his sockless feet into laceless brogans.  Faded, grime-stained bib overalls barely contained the man’s girth, making Will Edd wonder if the man had dressed himself in someone else’s clothes.”  By eliminating the passive voice, the images become more vivid and the prose snaps a little more.

His name was Arvil LeRoy Bodeen, and he wasn’t crazy, just slow—— the result of a teen-age mother who consoled her unwanted pregnancy by snorting meth and drinking cheap wine. His eyes darted nervously around the room like a frightened kid on his first visit to the dentist.

  1. By introducing Arvil’s name earlier, you eliminate the need for more passive construction.  Consider: “Arvil wasn’t crazy, just slow . . .”
  2. This whole sentence, from Pruitt’s POV, presumes knowledge of backstory that doesn’t jibe with future paragraphs. Knowing about the unwanted pregnancy and the meth is pretty personal stuff.
  3. I would end the final sentence of this graph at “room”.  The simile about the frightened kid seems over-worked. (That is a simile, right?)

Arvil LeRoy Bodeen lumbered in and plopped down in the visitor’s chair. It groaned in protest. In the closeness of the room, the smell that rolled off him was a mixture of cheap booze, old vomit and unwashed armpits. Will Ed scooted his chair back as far as he could and tried to breathe through his mouth.

  1. More passive construction. Not bad, per se, but not strong to my ear. Consider: “A toxic bouquet of cheap booze, old vomit and unwashed armpits made Will Edd’s eyes water.  He scooted . . .”

“My friends call me Nutter,” Arvil Leroy Bodeen said, his voice seeming too high pitched for his massive body. “You can too, if you want.” 

Will Ed doubted the man had any friends. He frightened the women and scared the men. Over the years, the town had learned to accept him as they would a stray mongrel—— let it sleep under your porch, but never let it into the house.

“How ‘bout I just call you Arvil?”

“Okay, but you can still be my friend.”

  1. This is the part that confuses me.  Does the chief know him or not? That equation needs to be equalized somehow.
  2. Also, is it necessary to use all three of Arvil’s names at every mention? It feels awkward to me.

Fearless Writer, congratulations on a fine start.  These edits are of a polishing nature.  You done good.

What say you, TKZers?

 

7+

First Page Critique: A Primer
On Prologs and Wavering POV

By PJ Parrish

Hello crime dogs! Today’s offering from one of our brave contributors doesn’t have a title but it does have things to teach us.  Thank you, writer, for letting us share your work. My comments follow and I hope you will all weigh in.

PROLOGUE
BARRY MARSHALL
I’ve been a police detective for six years. One thing this job teaches you is that nobody is really what they pretend to be. It’s a lesson you learn over and over — and that changes you. With this case, the learning was crippling. I’d like to say it changed me for the better, but that would be a lie…

Chapter 1
TEMPLE LAKE PA
Temple, Texas

Friday, March 6th, 4:10 P.M.

The mint-green Mini Cooper sat in the parking lot about fifty feet from the shoreline of Lake Belton. Inside the car, the young couple kissed and fondled each other. Neither of them saw the man slink toward their car from behind the stand of cedar trees. Nor did they know death was coming with him.

The young man pulled back when he heard someone whistling a tune. His arm slid off her. His head cocked to one side, listening.

“What is it?” Her brow furrowed as she brushed a tendril of hair off her forehead.

“Shhh.” He held up a finger. “Listen.”

He wiped the condensation off the driver’s side window using his sleeve. A glance outside. Nothing.

“I don’t hear anything,” she whispered.

A few moments of dead silence passed, broken only by the faint whirring of an outboard motor in the distance.

“Humph.” He shrugged. “Thought I heard somebody whistling.”

“C’mere,” she said, pulling his head over to her. “I got something that’ll make you whistle.”

The back end of the car began rocking up and down. Slow at first, then faster.

“Who’s doing that?” the driver asked. He looked out his side window, then hers, as if he could actually see anything through the steamed-up window.

The rocking stopped.

He twisted his body to look out the rear window, but it was no clearer than the others.

The rocking started again.

“Okay, that’s it.” He pushed open the door and crawled out.

She hugged herself as chilly air flooded the inside of the car.

He yelled, “What the hell, man?”

A loud grunt, followed by a thud. The car shook for a split second.

The young woman’s eyes widened. She leaned toward the driver’s seat and peered out the open door.

“Jerome?”

A couple of seconds passed. A gurgling sound reached her ears.

She shouted his name louder. “Jerome?”

Dead silence.

_________________________

Back to me again. I’m guessing that a lot of you are way ahead of me on this one, because if you are regular here, you are well-versed in the gospel according to James et al about picking a point of view and staying with it to establish that vital reader-writer bond. So what is the main issue with this opening? (Forget the prologue. We’ll deal with that in a second. Focus for now on the main action between the two lovers).

It has no point of view. Well, actually it has three, count ’em, three. (Four if you count the prologue). The opening graph is omniscient POV with the writer hovering above the car and TELLING us what is happening below in the car. And we have these two lines:  “Neither of them saw the man slink toward their car from behind the stand of cedar trees. Nor did they know death was coming with him.”

Lots of problems here, right? First, omniscient POV is quaint. It was a mainstay of 19th century fiction and rears its grizzled head in some modern literary stuff. But it doesn’t work in today’s crime genre where there is an expectation of creating a bond between character and reader quickly and cleanly.  And then there’s that hoary device of “Little did they know what awaited them…” These victims can’t know what they don’t know. They can’t SEE the cedar trees or the slinking man. They can’t know death is coming for them.

You don’t need this false foreshadowing, dear writer.  Use your power of description to create a mood of impending horror, doom, intrigue, whatever you’re trying for here. But don’t TELL us death is coming. SHOW US. Make us feel it. You really need more description in this opening, not just to establish where we are but to make us feel a mounting sense of suspense.  I don’t know why some writers stint on description in their openings. Maybe they feel it will slow things down? It doesn’t if it is evocative and fuels the intrigue.  (Tip to writer: Go read Poe’s essay on the unity of effect.)

But omniscient POV isn’t the only issue here.  After that, the writer moves into the man’s POV as he hears a sound and feels the rocking. And after he exits the car, we slide into the woman’s POV as she hugs herself and cries out Jerome’s name.  This is called head-hopping. This is not good.  Why? Because we don’t know whose story this is.  I suspect what we are getting with this opening scene is a set-up and these two die. The next chapter might be the true protag then dealing with the aftermath, be it a cop, detective or someone who then has to begin facing the challenge and conflict of whatever this story is about.

And that leads us to yet another issue I have with this opening. It isn’t very fresh. Outside of the terrifying lovers-at-the-lake scene in Zodiac, this scenario is a cliche. Such set-ups are so corny that they were lampooned in a 1999 movie called Lover’s Lane. (“There’s no such thing as safe sex!”).  And how many of us growing up heard the “true” story about the hook-handed mental patient escapee who murdered teens making out in the woods but one couple didn’t realize they had narrowly escaped doom until they got home and saw…wait for it…a hook hanging off the car door!  But I digress…

In today’s sophisticated and crowded crime fiction market, you can’t get attention with old chestnut plots, especially about serial killers. Maybe there is a way to make a lover’s lane murderer feel fresh but I wouldn’t want to try it. It is true that crime fiction is dependent on formula and there are only so many variations on plots. But I have to go back to something I heard an agent say once about how she is always looking for freshness within the formula: Say something unique or say something uniquely.

Some other quibbles here: I really really really don’t like prologues. Why? Because nine times out of ten, they are just throat-clearing, or evidence that the writer has not figured out how to grab the reader legitimately so he/she tacks on a preamble teaser. (Caveat, I have seen good prologues that really work, so I am not blindly biased, just burned by bad examples).  I am not sure what this prologue is trying to do.  Is it introducing the protag Barry Marshall? If so, I’m not intrigued.  I’d rather meet Barry the detective on the job, maybe looking at the bloody hook hanging on the car door. (Just kidding!)  If Marshall is the protag, find a way, dear writer, to SHOW HIM in action at what James here calls a critical moment of disruption.  Don’t let our first encounter with your hero be a paragraph of navel-gazing. Yes, I get that Marshall is damaged in some way — what he learned was “crippling” — but get your story moving first and then let us learn about Marshall’s damage through the action of the story. Don’t TELL us he is in pain — SHOW us. How? Via his reactions to the case, via his interactions with other characters, via his own arc over the story, via his thoughts as they relate to the ongoing action.  This is what I meant in my comments about point of view: Your job as a writer is to make us feel Marshall as a human being and bond with him.

But…

Here’s the thing like about this submission — the potential implied in the protagonist.  I am somewhat intrigued by Marshall by this teaser. I have a feeling that he’s an interesting protag with a powerful story to tell. Something happened to this man to leave scars.  That’s always good.  But it is your job, writer, to pull us deep into his soul and make us care about his journey. Because it’s never about the dead. It’s about the living.

And while we’re talking about Marshall — is this story in first person or third? If I were you, I’d pick one and stick with it.  Switching between first and third can be very effective but you really have to be in control of your craft to pull it off.  Don’t juggle with chain saws until you’ve mastered bowling pins.

That’s it for general comments. Here’s my Track Changes edits if you want more.

PROLOGUE
BARRY MARSHALL  If you have a chapter from his POV find a way to insert his name into the text.  Even Sue Grafton, who starts out nearly every story with “My name is Kinsey Millhone…”  finds a way to make this feel graceful.
I’ve been a police detective for six years. One thing this job teaches you is that nobody is really what they pretend to be. It’s a lesson you learn over and over — and that changes you. With this case, the learning was crippling. I’d like to say it changed me for the better, but that would be a lie…

Chapter 1
TEMPLE LAKE PA
Temple, Texas

Friday, March 6th, 4:10 P.M.  Why do you need this time/place tag? One of my pet peeves is the overuse of this device because it usually indicated the writer can’t figure out a graceful way to integrate this info into the narrative flow. And are we in Pennsylvania or Texas? 

The mint-green Mini Cooper sat in the parking lot about fifty feet from the shoreline of Lake Belton. Inside the car, the young couple kissed and fondled each other. Neither of them saw the man slink toward their car from behind the stand of cedar trees. Nor did they know death was coming with him.  Get out of the way of your story, writer.

The young man pulled back when he heard someone whistling a tune. His arm slid off her. His head cocked to one side, listening.

“What is it?” Her brow furrowed as she brushed a tendril of hair off her forehead.

“Shhh.” He held up a finger. “Listen.”

He wiped the condensation off the driver’s side window using his sleeve. A glance outside. Nothing. Missed opportunity to show us the surroundings, just a little. You can use this moment to even tell us where we are…He had been coming to Belton Lake since he was ten, the year his family had moved to Texas. It had always been a place of barbecues and tubing until he grew older and realized its shadowed pine coves were the best places in the little town of Temple to bring girls to make out.  Now, as he looked out into the window, the trees moving in the wind, seemed to be alive. (That’s bad but you get the idea!)

“I don’t hear anything,” she whispered.

A few moments of dead silence this doesn’t cut it as suspense. passed, broken only by the faint whirring of an outboard motor in the distance.

“Humph.” He shrugged. “Thought I heard somebody whistling.”

“C’mere,” she said, pulling his head over to her. “I got something that’ll make you whistle.” Can you find a way to insert her name?

The back end of the car began rocking up and down. Put this in his sensibilities. Slow at first, then faster.

“Who’s doing that?” the driver asked. The driver? He’s not driving. He looked out his side window, then hers, as if he could actually see anything through the steamed-up window. There’s a slight problem here. It’s 4 in the afternoon. The sun is probably nice and bright, starting to come in at a slant. No way could he not see anything, even with steamy windows.  Change the scene to night?

The rocking stopped.

He twisted his body to look out the rear window, but it was no clearer than the others.
The rocking started again.

“Okay, that’s it.” He pushed open the door and crawled got out.

She hugged herself Rut-Roh…POV whiplash. as chilly air flooded what time of year is it? I was thinking summer but it’s chilly at 4 p.m.? the inside of the car.

He yelled, “What the hell, man?”

A loud grunt, followed by a thud. The car shook for a split second.

The young woman’s eyes widened. She leaned toward the driver’s seat and peered out the open door.

“Jerome?”

A couple of seconds passed. A gurgling sound reached her ears. She heard…

She shouted his name louder. “Jerome?”

Dead silence. This is a cliche. Too many others before you have used it so it is devalued as an attempt to inject suspense.  It is just silence.  And if you have made the scene creepy enough, by building in tension with good description (you’re too spare on that account!) you don’t need this. 

5+

Raising Social Issues in the Cozy

Please welcome Judith Newton to the TKZ. Today, her guest post is about raising social issues in cozies, based on her experiences writing Oink: A Food for Thought Mystery. I look forward to reading your comments and feedback!  Clare

Raising Social Issues in the Cozy

by  Judith Newton

I became interested in mystery sometime in the 1990s when I began reading Tony Hillerman, whose sleuths are two Navajo policemen. What I liked about Hillerman’s books was that they dealt with social issues—the ongoing colonization of Native peoples—and that they presented stories from the points of view of people on the margins. I was especially drawn to Hillerman in the 1990s because I saw myself as living on a different sort of margin at my university. I was director of women’s studies, the faculty of which I had worked to make half women of color, and I and my program had formed deep personal connections with faculty in the four ethnic studies programs.

This community building took place, however, just as a newly prominent national development (often referred to as “the corporatization of the university”) had begun to make our already marginal positions less secure. With its ever greater focus on profit, my university administration was threatening to defund our programs. In the end, I am happy to say, the administrations’ very efforts to do away with women’s and ethnic studies prompted the faculty in these programs to form an even more tightly-knit community and to fight successfully for our survival.

When I began to write Oink, I followed Hillerman in making my main characters people on the margins of the university, faculty in women’s and ethnic studies, but the biggest issue I faced in outlining the novel was how to write about their issues so that a general audience would want to read about them.. I was aware that puzzles and unsolved crimes keep people turning pages and that within different mystery genres there were additional inducements to reader engagement. Hillerman, of course, uses elements of the thriller. Guns booming in the dark always kept me reading. But I wanted a different feel for my novel, which would have a lot to say about the value of caring community both for our lives and for political resistance, so I turned to another genre, that of the cozy.

Cozies are characteristically set in a small and valued community. By making one of the most valued communities in Oink that of a political coalition I gave this convention a political twist. Many cozies also involve food and come with recipes. The presence of food usually affirms pleasurable connection among the characters, a connection that is then extended outward to the reader through the inclusion of recipes. In Oink the same is true, although there the major connections being affirmed are among those resisting the university’s turn toward competition, self-interest, and profit. The inclusion of recipes pleasurably invites the reader into this alliance.

In Oink, moreover, as in the history on which it was based, gathering around food is one manifestation of a larger organizing impulse based upon “working on the relationship” through multiple acts of friendship, love, and support. This is a strategy which black women had already employed to organize grassroots communities during the Civil Rights Movement and it reappears in Oink among the women characters in particular.

The cozy’s quirky, often, female sleuth and its characteristic humor are also present in Oink and serve a related purpose. According to J. K. Gibson-Graham, our repertory of tactics for getting people together should include playfulness and humor, which can toss us on to the terrain of new possibilities. By fusing playfulness and humor with a story of struggle, I aimed to attach a sense of optimism and possibility to political resistance.

By merging Hillerman’s focus on social issues and marginal points of view with the conventions of the cozy I could write about some of the difficulties for people on the margins in the university and in the nation while also immersing the reader in experiences of connectedness, love, humor, and pleasure, experiences which I hope will keep the reader reading and which I identify both as ways to live a more fully human life and as crucial to effective struggles for social change. In a way I hadn’t anticipated, the continuation of these values seems ever more critical to our time.

  • What do you see as the advantages of or the difficulties in using cozies or other kinds of mystery to address social issues?
  • Are there particular cozies with a social issue or political theme you have read and enjoyed?
  • Does exploring social issues even belong in a cozy?
5+

Create Mystery, Not Confusion, in the Opening

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first-page critique raises an important craft issue: how much should you withhold from the reader when trying to inject mystery into the opening scene?

Mystery, one could argue, is the sine qua non of page-turning fiction. Why? Because you want the reader on the hook, desperate to know what happens next. You can’t have that without an element of mystery. And mystery involves holding back information.

Yet this requires a deft touch, especially in the opening pages. You are introducing the readers to the characters and story world. You want them to know enough to get into the scene, you want to dangle a bit of mystery, but you don’t want to overload the exposition. At the same time, you need to make sure the readers are not scratching their heads as they read along.

We’ll chat about all this on the other side of today’s anonymous first page:

***

January 1974
Egypt-Libya border

The blades of the search-and-rescue helicopter cut through salty air one thousand feet above the Mediterranean. The steep escarpment came into Temple’s view, sparse vegetation between ridges. His headset sputtered over the roar of the engines.

“Senator,” said the pilot, “I think that’s Lilah.”

Fingers clenched around the doorframe, Temple leaned into the wind and surveyed the scene below. Vehicles bound for Alexandria were stalled on the hilly pass by Gaddafi’s border patrol. The soldiers had separated the men from the women, holding them at gunpoint away from the caravan. Temple strained to spot the girl. “Where?” he shouted into the mouthpiece, blinking away gritty sand.

“Not with the crowd, sir. Check the port side,” the pilot said. “Look for yellow clothes.”

There. A figure running between boulders, her robes fluttering behind. Lilah was a couple of hundred feet from the group under inspection, concealing herself behind the limestone formations. She looked up at the chopper before plastering herself to the side of a rock. After weeks of reconnaissance, they’d located one of the abducted teenagers, the daughter of the late ambassador.

“She’s hiding from the border patrol,” Temple muttered. “What about the boy? There were two kids.”

“Probably with the caravan. Let me—” The pilot stopped to curse. “We have a problem, Senator.”

One of the soldiers had detached himself from his team to follow Lilah. If she got caught, there was little a single search-and-rescue chopper could do to help. Temple grabbed the AK-47. He did not have the skill to hit the target from this distance, but he could buy her some time.

“Hold position and inform the ground team,” Temple hollered.

Temple’s fingers trembled when he took aim. His stint in the army between world wars had not involved active combat. The helicopter shuddered. With a gasp, Temple tumbled back into the seat. Sweat trickled down his neck.

When he checked the terrain again, Lilah was not where she had been, but her yellow robes made her easy to spot even behind the rocks at the far border of an open space. The soldier in pursuit sprinted across the clearing, toward Lilah. Temple swore and took aim, once more.

Before he could press the trigger, there was a sudden blast on the ground. The soldier’s body disintegrated, ripped into pieces and scattered across the territory. Temple’s mouth fell open, and sounds struggled to escape.

***

JSB: There is much to commend here, not the least of which, of course, is that it opens with action and disturbance. In keeping with the thriller genre, we’ve got a girl in immediate danger as a rescue chopper tries to save her.

The writing is crisp and sure. I like Plastering herself to the side of a rock. I also like how details are marbled in with the action, never slowing things down.

My notes, then, are fine tuning, but with one major issue to resolve.

Let’s do the fine tuning first.

Character Name

I’d give Temple’s first name up front. I thought Temple was the first name of a woman. The next line clears that up, but unless there’s a strong reason we only know this character as Temple throughout (and I can’t think of one), give us the full name.

Dialogue Attributions 

Always place an attribution after the first complete sentence or clause. Thus:

“Not with the crowd, sir. Check the port side,” the pilot said. “Look for yellow clothes.”

Should be:

“Not with the crowd, sir,” the pilot said. “Check the port side. Look for yellow clothes.”

1 + 1 = 1/2

This is a Sol Stein rule I have found quite helpful. Stein, a legendary fiction editor and a novelist himself, held that when you use two different words or terms to describe something, the overall effect is diluted rather than strengthened. The writer should choose the most evocative descriptor and ditch the other one. This sentence threw me:

The soldier’s body disintegrated, ripped into pieces and scattered across the territory.

Something that disintegrates does not rip. The two images work against each other.

I suggest sticking with disintegrated here, and render what that would look like. I see red … but that’s as far as I am going to go before breakfast.

Also, territory implies a huge expanse of land. An exploding body would cover an area.

Cursing

I appreciate the author using The pilot stopped to curse and Temple swore. We’ve had several discussions here at TKZ on this issue. See, for example, here. My view is that the scene loses nothing, and no potential readers will be turned off when they sample the book.

And now for my main issue …

I’m not a writer of military thrillers, so perhaps others can chime in (Brother Gilstrap?). But here we have a United States Senator, probably in his mid-60s, in a military chopper, firing an AK-47 (would this be the correct weapon in this context?) We’re told the senator doesn’t have great skill and that he was never in combat. So how on earth is he in this position, as opposed to trained military? Perhaps the author is withholding this information to extend a mystery. Maybe the next page gives us the whole story. Ha!

But let’s deal with what we’ve got.

My standard advice in the opening is to act first, explain later. But as with all axioms, it requires some expansion. There are times when we need a bit of exposition to clue us in, or a line of backstory to explain a situation (Note: In workshops I tell my students they can have three lines of backstory in their first ten pages, used all at once or together.)

It would not be hard to come up with an interior thought or a couple lines of dialogue to at least give us a hint of why this situation has occurred. We don’t need all of it … yet. But as is, I fear readers are likely to think the situation isn’t plausible.

Also, why aren’t the soldiers firing back at the low-flying chopper?

To sum up, this is fine thriller style and potentially a gripping opening scene. If the major issue I’ve mentioned can be cleared up—and if the weaponry and other military details are sound—we’re off to a great start.

I’m at a writers conference today and may not be able to comment as much as I’d like. So have at it, TKZers. Anything else you’d like to offer our anonymous author?

8+

Knowing the Year

(c) Dan Povenmire and Jeff Marsh. All rights reserved to the creators.

Here is a short bit of morbidity for you. I had a very short dream several nights ago. I was standing in front of a pedestal-type entryway table with a faux leather top. There was a piece of paper on top of it. It was a death certificate. The death certificate was mine. I focused on my name — “Joseph V. Hartlaub” — and the date of death. All that I was able to read was the year: 2030. I then woke up.

I mentioned the dream to my wife the following morning. She said, “Well, you have thirteen years to prove the dream wrong.” My response was, “True. But that could work either way.”

The dream has been weighing heavily on my mind since that time. I’ve sharpened up my bucket list, stepped up my writing game, and considered asking David Levien to fix me up with Maggie Siff (I’m just kidding about that last one. Heh. Heh.). I’m thinking all along, however, that I could accept knowing to a reasonable degree of certainty at this point that I have thirteen more years to hang around. As I sit here right now I’m sixty-five, in good health, have twenty-six years of sobriety, and possess all of my mental faculties. I hope that’s true in thirteen years. It probably won’t be. It might be time to go.

I’m wondering, however, if EVERYONE has dreams like this and doesn’t talk about it. Have you ever had a dream like this, which gave you a date certain for your departure from this side of the veil? Do you want to know? And if you had a dream like this, and took it seriously, what would you want to accomplish in the interim with regard to your life, your relationships, and yes, your writing?

 

11+