The Fine Art Of
Giving Out Criticism

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” ~H.G. Wells

By PJ Parrish

For most of my adult life, I made my livelihood in the newspaper business. My dream was to work for the Detroit Free Press, but I had to start out instead at a small suburban weekly called The Eccentric. It was a gift in disguise.

I did everything from taking and processing my own photos, to writing obits, to covering city council meetings where the surest thing to get the blood moving was a hot debate about sewers.  The pinnacle of my career was being named editor of the Women’s Life section, Yeah, I’m that old and that’s what it was called in those days. I got to supervise a small staff of eager beaver stringers.

That was my first experience with learning how to tell others that their writing well, might need some work.

I was not very good at it. It took me a long time to learn that doling out criticism is a learned skill. All writers need honesty but it has to come with a healthy side order of kindness.

We talk a lot here at The Kill Zone about how to take criticism. Or its uglier sibling rejection. As writers, we deal with this at every level of our writing lives. Better grow a rhino hide or you’ll never make it, the conventional wisdom goes. But maybe we need to take a moment and talk about how to give criticism.

If you work with a critique group or if you are someone’s beta reader, then you definitely need to learn the fine art of diplomacy. We here at the Kill Zone deal with this all the time as we critique your First Page submissions. And I think I can speak for all of us that it’s often not easy to do this because there is a fine line between being helpful to a new writer and being discouraging.

Whenever I get a First Page submission, I go through a distinct process:

  1. First, I read the whole 400 or so words quickly, without any eye toward editing. I try very hard to read it as only a reader would who has just bought the book. Does the opening, at the minimum, pique my interest?
  2. Second, I ask myself: Do I have any prejudices against this TYPE of book that would make me unduly negative or even ignorant? For instance, I’m not a big sci-fi fan, and I recognize that I’m a little clueless about what works in YA these days. So I read such submissions with that caveat.
  3. Next, I ask myself if the submission has something to teach all our readers. It’s not enough, I think, for me to just red-ink grammar mistakes or such. I look for a larger issue in each submission that can help all our writers learn.
  4. Sometimes, you get a submission that just isn’t up to snuff enough to critique. The writer hasn’t yet gotten the very basics of the craft down. It’s pointless to teach English until someone knows their ABCs.
  5. I don’t like doing a submission unless I have something good to say about it.

And that last one is important. Because I remember how hard it was to get feedback when I was trying to publish my first mystery back in the late 1990s. Even though I had had four romances published by a big house, I didn’t really know how to write a mystery and my first two attempts were awful. Luckily, I had an agent who was a hard-nosed New York ex-editor. She frankly scared the hell out of me but she knew how to give honest criticism. She told me I was a very good writer but I didn’t understand the distinct structure of a mystery. She told me to go home and read.  “Start with P.D. James and work your way up to Michael Connelly,” she said. So I did.

Once my mystery career took off, I then had to learn to take criticism from editors. I would turn in my manuscript and wait with a strange combination of eagerness and dread.  Eagerness because I was sure I was going to get heaps of praise. (“This is great! We’re pushing it up to our lead title with a 100,000 first press run!”) Dread because I was sure I was a fraud. (“Listen, this isn’t quite what we talked about when you turned in your outline…”)  The reality fell somewhere in between. I have been blessed to have some really great editors in my three decades of writing crime fiction.  Each one of them understood what some have called the Hamburger Model of Criticism:

Start out by staying something nice about the manuscript.

Insert a big juicy slab of criticism.

End with saying something encouraging.

I think every editor I have ever worked with did this. And it always made the meat patty go down a lot easier.  But here’s the the thing about the meat patty: It has to be constructive. Late in my journalism career, I was the Features Editor at a large Florida daily. I had an editor in chief who every morning took a red grease pencil to mark up every section of the paper. The comments were almost uniformly negative, of the type of “I don’t like this.” One day, in frustration, I asked him WHY he didn’t like something. He said he didn’t know. He was like judge who says “I can’t tell you what’s porn but I just know it when I see it.” Luckily, he was canned before I could quit.

A few other things I’ve learned about giving criticism:

  • Resist the urge to fix the problem. Unless you really have the solution, it’s not a good idea to offer up the answer to another writer’s problem. You don’t know their book; you’re not inside their head. You might be able to tell them they have wandered off the trail and that you, as the reader, feel lost. But it is not up to you to show them which is the RIGHT trail to the end. They have to find their way.
  • Watch your tone. Being snarky is, unfortunately, encouraged in our culture today. (I was curious about where the word “snarky” came from so I looked it up. It was coined by the Star Trek actor Richard William Wheaton in a speech he gave before a bunch of online gamers.) If you are asked for input, don’t be mean. Kindness is in short supply today and writers are like turtles without shells — easy to crush.
  • Don’t take out your frustrations on someone else. Hey, you’re having a bad day. Your own book is falling apart. Your plot has more holes than a cheese grater. Your Dell died and your geek can’t do a data retrieval.  Don’t vent your anger on someone else’s baby.
  • Don’t boost your own ego. Some people like to show how powerful or intelligent or knowledgeable they are, and use criticism as a way of doing that. They are puffing themselves up, challenging others, going all Alpha dog. Nobody likes a bully.
  • Let the person react. Giving a person a chance to explain why they wrote something the way they did helps their ego a bit and often, as they explain, they see where they can improve. It also makes you look fair.
  • Be empathetic. You’ve probably had the same problems the other guy is having. So tell him. Be vulnerable and relate how it was hard for you to understand motivation or the three-act structure. Walk in their shoes.
  • Don’t focus on the person. One of the hardest things beginning writers have to learn is to not take criticism personally. A rejection letter is never about you; it is about your book. So if you’re critiquing something, you might think, “Boy, this guy’s a lousy writer” but never say it. It only makes the other person angry, defensive or hurt. Plus, it makes you look like an ass.

Okay, so you’re done reading a friend’s manuscript. Or you’ve been doing your part in the weekly critique group. You’ve been kind, you’ve been constructive, you’re offering up suggestions that you think might cause a light bulb to go off over the other writer’s head. And then….

They turn on you. They say you don’t understand their genre. Or that if you’re missing the plot points. Or that they intend for you to hate the protagonist. Or that second-person omniscient is the only way the story can be told. I call these folks the Yeah Buts. “Yeah, but if you keep reading, things will get clearer.”  “Yeah but if you read more dystopian Victorian zombie fiction, you’d understand my book…”

You can’t help a Yeah But. Sometimes, they don’t want to hear anything except how great their stuff is. Don’t get angry. Don’t take it personally. You did what you could. Smile and walk away.

As Noel Coward said, “I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.”

 

5+

Which Word is Correct: Coffin or Casket?

By SUE COLETTA

Last Friday I was editing what I wrote the day before in my WIP when a word stopped me cold: casket. Should that be coffin?

The specific year in question is 1901, so I needed to figure out exactly when “coffin” first became “casket”?

The words are often used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t be.

Coffins and caskets give two distinct mental images. I could ruin my scene if I used the wrong word.

Coffin

The word coffin comes from the Old French word cofin and the Latin word cophinus, which translates to basket. First used in the English language in 1380, a coffin is a box or chest for the display and/or burial of a corpse. When used to transport the deceased, a coffin may also be referred to as a pall.

The shape of a coffin resembles the shape of a body, with either six or eight sides, wider at the top to allow for the shoulders, then tapered toward the bottom—the foot, if you will. 😉

Think: Dracula movies.

Coffins date back to ancient Egypt when bodies were placed in a sarcophagus after the mummification process but before being buried in pyramids. Around 700 AD, the Celts in Europe began fashioning ornamental flat stones to coffins.

Casket

Interestingly enough, the word casket was originally used to describe a jewelry box, similar to the one George modeled in the above photo. 😀

In the mid-nineteenth century, casket took on an additional meaning synonymous with coffin.

Once morticians and undertakers started operating funeral parlors instead of mortuaries, the word coffin changed to casket because polite society considered it less offensive. The exact date still escaped me, though. I also had to consider the location of my story. What if Maine townsfolk used casket while Massachusetts residents still used coffin?

I kept digging…

A casket is rectangular in shape and often has a split-lid for viewing the deceased.

Caskets and coffins have been made of wood, cast iron, steel, fiberglass, real glass, bamboo, wicker, wool, and even gold. Wicker and wool threw me. How ’bout you? Carved whalebone, ivory, or precious metals adorned the ornamental trim, if the family coughed up the extra dough.

Both possess side handles for easy carrying. The main difference is the shape. Which, for writers as well as readers, is a pretty big deal. How would it look if pallbearers carried a triangular coffin? See what I’m sayin’? Details matter.

In 1784, a disturbing new law went into effect for a brief period. Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II declared coffins should be reused to save on wood. So, coffin-makers installed trap doors on coffin floors that would drop open as soon the wood hit the grave. After the funeral service, the undertaker would hoist the coffin out of the hole, rinse and repeat. Public outcry abolished the law six months later.

That’s all well and good — fascinating, even; I love learning new tidbits for the ol’ memory bank — but I still hadn’t answered my original question. Should I use coffin or casket in my WIP? Some might not understand a writer’s obsession over one tiny word, but TKZers know every word counts. More importantly, they must be the right words.

Next, I read about the different materials used in coffins…

From 1848 through the 1870’s Almond Fisk made some coffins out of cast-iron. Shaped like a sarcophagus, they weighed over 300 pounds. Total cost: $100. How many pallbearers would it take to carry 400, 500, 600 pounds of dead weight?

Wooden coffins sold for $1.00 to $3.00 during that time. Imagine? Today some “burial boxes” can cost a whopping $50,000., depending on material and style.

In 1950, Fisk died penniless after mortgaging his patent rights to John G. Forbes, who resurrected the company and continued the cast-iron coffin business till it folded in 1888. The affluent members of society, however, preferred cast-iron coffins to wood; they helped to deter grave robbers. In fact, some say General Ulysses S. Grant is buried in a steel casket for this very reason.

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Premature Burial added to the chaos of the 1700’s and 1800’s, when folks feared being buried alive. Which is when coffin-makers introduced the safety coffin, complete with cord and bell. We’ve all heard those stories, right? Countless novels, short stories, novellas, film adaptations, and even plays hopped on that particular bandwagon.

Poe’s The Premature Burial exacerbated many people’s worst fear.

            The lady was deposited in her family vault, which, for three subsequent years, was undisturbed. At the expiration of this term it was opened for the reception of a sarcophagus; — but, alas! how fearful a shock awaited the husband, who, personally, threw open the door! As its portals swung outwardly back, some white-appareled object fell rattling within his arms. It was the skeleton of his wife in her yet unmolded shroud.

            A careful investigation rendered it evident that she had revived within two days after her entombment; that her struggles within the coffin had caused it to fall from a ledge, or shelf to the floor, where it was so broken as to permit her escape. A lamp which had been accidentally left, full of oil, within the tomb, was found empty; it might have been exhausted, however, by evaporation.

          On the uttermost of the steps which led down into the dread chamber was a large fragment of the coffin, with which, it seemed, that she had endeavored to arrest attention by striking the iron door. While thus occupied, she probably swooned, or possibly died, through sheer terror; and, in failing, her shroud became entangled in some iron — work which projected interiorly. Thus she remained, and thus she rotted, erect.

As you can probably guess, I got sucked right into the master of darkness’ story instead of searching for the answer to my research question! It wasn’t easy — Edgar Allan Poe’s mind intrigues me — but I finally managed to refocus on the task at hand.

Turns out, I had the answer all along in my printed research paperwork, hidden in a news article. The story told of a victim’s father who argued over the price of his daughter’s coffin, believing he should be charged the wholesale price rather than retail. *facepalm*

Ah, well, I figured, maybe I can use this casket/coffin research for my Monday post on the Kill Zone. 🙂 There must be a lesson or two in here somewhere. Or maybe, just maybe, this information might save one of you research time in the future.

What say you, my beloveds? Have you ever gotten hung up on one word? Did it lead you to uncover a fascinating tidbit or two? Tell us about it.

International Thriller Writers wrote a feature article about RACKED, which I’m still *happy dancing* about. If you’re interested, you can read the full article HERE.

The ebook of RACKED is on sale for 99c on Amazon for another day or two.

*All books in the series can stand alone.

 

8+

The James Garner Secret

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

James Garner as Maverick.

When I was a kid my big brother loved the TV Western Maverick. It’s been running on a cable channel and I’ve enjoyed catching up with it. The series introduced the American audience to James Garner as Bret Maverick (who often shared adventures with his brother Bart, played by Jack Kelly).

Garner became an instant star, and it’s not hard to see why. He was masculine without being obnoxious; handsome but not too pretty; charming but not cloying. Most of all he was a natural, relaxed actor (though he put in a lot of hard work to get that way!)

Which all led to a storied career. He created not one, but two, iconic television characters—Maverick and Jim Rockford. He transitioned easily to movies, and was at home in light comedy (The Thrill of it All; Victor/Victoria), action adventure (The Great Escape; Hour of the Gun), romance (Murphy’s Romance), and showed considerable dramatic chops in the experimental Mister Buddwing.

By all accounts, he was as decent a fellow as there was in Hollywood. Married to the same woman for 57 years. Not a party animal or public boor. A true professional who showed up on time and knew his lines.

In the 1970s he did several commercials. I was starting my stint as an actor in Hollywood then, and in a commercial acting class the teacher held up Garner as the quintessential pitchman. “You just believe him,” she said. “It’s all about trust.”

So we students all had to pick an ad out of a magazine and memorize the copy, then spout it as naturally as we could. I still remember my product: The Pentax ME camera.

The exercise paid off. I nabbed several commercials, which helped pay my bills and later gave me nice residuals all through law school. (Remember the guy at that picnic who pours everyone some Pepsi? Yep, that was me. And I’m sure you recall the handsome lad sliding a tray of hamburgers in a McDonald’s serving window. Me again!)

Which brings me to today’s clever writing segue. James Garner’s “secret”—which applies to writers as well as actors—was that he was always himself within the role. He knew his parameters, and that was his zone. That’s also what my favorite actor, Spencer Tracy, said about his acting style. He would see himself as Spencer Tracy as a priest, or Spencer Tracy as a bride’s father…or a fisherman or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Which is why, when we write, we must put ourselves into our fiction by seeing ourselves as the characters.

How does your Lead character feel at each stage of the proceedings? The answer is the way you would feel if you were that character.

That goes for any of the cast, including the bad guy. Why does he do these things? That’s backstory. What’s going on inside him? It’s what would go on inside of you if you lived that same past.

When you tap into these things, you get a James Garner effect—readers will trust your story. (It is also, by the way, how you get at that elusive thing agents and editors call voice.)

In an interview Garner once said, “When people see me in something and say, ‘That’s just you, that’s not acting,’ it’s the best compliment I can get.”

He also said, “I’ve had to work hard at that easy-going manner you see on the screen.”

Working hard to get natural. Good advice for writers, too.

What’s your favorite James Garner role? Mine has to be The Great Escape, especially the moment where Garner insists on taking the blind forger (Donald Pleasance) with him. The outcome of this plot line gets me every time.

22+

The One-Millionth Storytime

I had originally intended today to gripe gently about a couple of topics.  During my research,on those topics, however, I stumbled across something else — check out Sue Coletta’s excellent blog from last week about “research rabbit holes” to read about how that happens — that I found to be very interesting and incredibly hopeful and which makes, I believe, for a better topic. 

Barnes & Noble (B&N) is celebrating today (September 7) and tomorrow (September 8) c something they are calling “Our One-Millionth Storytime.” I don’t know how they arrived at that number or how close it is to accurate. What I do know is that whenever I have been in a B&N store anywhere I have always peripherally noticed an announcement posted in or near the children’s section about a scheduled storytime. This is going back to 2001 or so, and probably before that. Someone who when they were two or three years old and may have been taken there by their parent for storytime may well be taking their own child there now, braving the gauntlet of books and book-related toys, dolls, stuffed animals and the like, to enjoy the shared experience of hearing a story, of being read to. The good folks at B&N have weathered several wounds over the years, some by circumstances beyond their control (drops in readership) and others by friendly fire (the, uh, Nook). They still, however, present those storytimes, week in and week out. 

That is dedication.  An undertaking of that type involves more than just pulling out a book and reading to a gaggle of children and a place and time certain. B&N has to have someone there who is good with children and who is ready to show up and smile even when they don’t feel like it, someone else to deal with the accidents that little ones have at the drop of a Huggies, and someone else to restore the children’s section to its pristine condition afterward. All of this is predicated on the hope of generating goodwill and planting the seed of love of reading in the minds of those assembled. Talk about your Hail Mary forward pass. They still do it, however, and someone has calculated that they’ve done it around one million times, collectively. Well played. 

I am not sure if every single B&N in the country is participating in this commemoration but if you are lucky enough to have a little person in your life, whether one or more generations down, you might want to consider checking to see if your local store is marking this event and if so taking your little loved one so that they can participate. If your financial circumstances permit you might also consider showing a bit of commercial appreciation to the folks at B&N by purchasing something for yourself or, better yet, your child. I like Kindles — my Fire HD8 is velcroed to my hand — but there are some things, darn it, that you can’t do with an eReader, and a group story session with a bunch of other kids who listen to the words while they hear the sound of pages turning is one of them. 

Thank you, B&N. And thank YOU for stopping by today. 

10+

Travel Replenishes the Writer’s Soul

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I have my first real vacation coming up in October. It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled to another country. When my husband was alive, he had his passport but never wanted to travel outside the U.S. I wanted him to see some of the countries I visited after high school but he never had the curiosity for international travel. It’s a shame. I would’ve liked to experience another adventure with him. I lost him in 2014 and have missed him every day. It’s been a process of redefining who I am without him, but with every day that passes, I feel stronger and more hopeful.

I didn’t write for two years after he died. I was in a fog for a long time. Faced with selling my large home and an extra car and downsizing was a daunting task, but I had lots of support. After a friend contacted me to write for her Amazon Kindleworlds, I finally got back into writing and that helped me deal with my grief. I wrote about it. In the many characters I developed in my Amazon novellas and in the novels I’ve written after my husband died, I explored my emotional frailties through the eyes of my characters. Writing helped me heal. I will never be whole again, but through hardships, you develop strength and you see how important friends and family can be. In many ways, I’ve been blessed.

This trip is more than exploring the world and meeting new people. It’s an awakening for me. It’s as exciting as it is frightening but I can’t wait to get the first stamp in my passport and I have more trips planned over the next two years.

This year, my travel plans will be to the Lakes District of northern Italy and Milan. The area is nestled into the Swiss Alps, on the border with Italy, and covers beautiful lakes (Lake Como, Bellagio and Maggiore) with quaint villages, shopping and restaurants on glistening waters. It’s picture post card scenery when you see the idyllic images of this beautiful part of the world.

I will also visit Milan, the fashion district of Italy, and there are other daily excursions to different islands using a ferry system. A rail system can also get me into Switzerland on my free time, between organized day trips.

I’m looking forward to seeing the LAST SUPPER by Leonardo da Vinci (housed in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan) and the iconic La Scala Theatre and its Opera museum.

I’m traveling as a solo traveler with a small 28-person tour organized by the Traveling Aggies (an association of former A&M students, but you don’t have to be alumni to travel with them) through AHI Travel. It may be a little intimidating to travel solo, but I am looking forward to meeting the group under the guidance of an established travel guide and Texas hosts.

This is my first adventure, but I have friends and family lined up as travel companions for trips in 2020-2021. I’m planning a river cruise with some dear friends in 2020 into Europe and have a Germany trip in the planning stages with my older brother and his wife for July 2020.

I feel very unprepared for travel these days, but would like to ask help from you seasoned travelers.

I’ve learned that I can get TSA pre-check for US domestic flights–to avoid the longer security checks by obtaining an early background check for ease of travel–or I can also get something more global. GlobalEntry.Gov is geared more for international travel, but also covers domestic flights. For those unfamiliar, the GlobalEntry.Gov application costs $100 but also pays for TSA Precheck on domestic flights. I had already paid $85 for TSA precheck when I could have paid $100 for the Global Entry and gotten both clearances for worldwide travel. Live and learn.

I purchased Rick Steves’ book on Milan and the Lakes District and he has a video on Youtube. Lots of tips. Steves suggested I acquire a credit card that doesn’t charge for currency conversion with charges. I did my research and have done that. In addition, Italy is part of the European Union so EU currency is what I’ll need.

I’m also acquiring travel accessories, like electrical outlet converters for Europe, neck support & eye mask for sleeping on the plane, money belt with RFID protection, and I’m considering the purchase of a good theft-resistant backpack for the day trips.

Other things I have done to prepare ( in no particular order):

1.) Notify my credit card company of my travel dates, so my transactions aren’t flagged or stopped.

2.) Notify my bank of those dates, in case I need a wire or expect an ATM transaction.

3.) Expand my cell service for international coverage.

4.) Check health warnings for the country I’m traveling to, if any. Get any vaccinations I may need.

5.) Set up email alerts for my country of travel through Smart Traveler Enrollment Program – STEP.com to get State Department advisories via email.

6.) Purchase trip cancellation insurance.

7.) Verify that my present health insurance covers foreign travel. Will I need more?

8.) Set up Mobile Passport in advance, the app for U.S. Customs and Immigration to make my border crossings run smoothly.

9.) Make copies of all my important documents & emergency contact information (keeping them in a separate & safe location – ie locked in my hotel safe) for reference if they are stolen and I need to report it.

10.) Send out my travel itinerary to family (with contact information) for emergencies.

11.) Record emergency contact phone numbers in my cell phone contact list with a hard copy backup if my phone is stolen (ie embassy info, hotel phone number and instructions on how to make a long distance international call).

DISCUSSION:

Any tips that I’ve missed? I would appreciate advice from you more seasoned travelers.

Should I get local currency (Euros) before I leave? How much should I bring? I plan to see my bank this week.

Has anyone been to the northern Lakes District of Italy & Milan? Any recommendations for restaurants or fun places to see?

2+

Good Lists Make Great Stories

 

 

On a recent drive to a workshop event, I was listening to Jodi Picoult’s novel, SMALL GREAT THINGS. Near the beginning, Ruth, a Labor and Delivery nurse, describes all the things that need to be observed during a newborn’s physical assessment. It’s a long list of  over a dozen items, including measuring the circumference of the infant’s head, its sucking reflex, the relative softness of its belly, the location of the urethra, etc.

I got very excited when I recognized the list as a list because I was planning an exercise about using lists in fiction during the workshop. (Credit for the exercise goes to my writing prof/writer husband, Pinckney, who is an amazing teacher.)

Do you create lists for yourself? I’m most prone to make lists when I’m very busy around the holidays, need to do a brain dump for all the things I need to do for a project, or I’m packing for travel. Even the least list-like people usually have mental checklists they use. Think: unlock car, get in, turn on engine, buckle up, adjust climate, charge phone, light cigarette, put car in gear. Or, make coffee, unlock door, take dog outside, get paper, lock door, feed dog, make breakfast, read paper. An airplane or helicopter pilot doesn’t fly if their checklist isn’t completed. If you write down all the things you usually do in a particular order, you’ll have a list.

Directions–whether to a particular location or describing how to put something together–are another sort of list.

The glorious thing about using lists in stories and other writing is that they are a perfect shorthand for defining characters and setting scenes.

Some famous lists from literature:

Oft-quoted packing list from Joan Didion’s The White Album

TO PACK AND WEAR:
2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
stockings
bra
nightgown, robe, slippers
cigarettes
bourbon
bag with: shampoo
toothbrush and paste
Basis soap, razor
deodorant
aspirin
prescriptions
Tampax
face cream
powder
baby oil

TO CARRY:
mohair throw
typewriter
2 legal pads and pens
files
house key

“This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes.”

—Joan Didion, “The White Album”

So, it’s not fiction. But we get an astonishingly clear picture of Didion, the person and the writer, in a fairly small space. Bourbon, aspirin, Tampax, typewriter–though where’s the underwear? Perhaps it was too delicate a mention for her? If so, that definitely says a lot about her.

 

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

“What more easily explained and natural? With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatcher, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.”

A scathing sentence, isn’t it? Two lists that condemn both practices and and entire philosophy.

 

Mary Oliver

“I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.”

Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

I want, I want, I want…Imagine playing with the form of your short story (it would be too long for a novel), beginning every line with a word or phrase. A list of wants, shaped into a story.

Joyce Carol Oates has a story in which each line begins with “If.” At least I think it was “If.” Anyway, it was a good story, as I recall.

 

Johnny Cash’s To-Do List

“THINGS TO DO TODAY!

1. Not smoke
2. Kiss June
3. Not kiss anyone else
4. Cough
5. Pee
6. Eat
7. Not eat too much
8. Worry
9. Go see Mama
10. Practice Piano

NOTES: Not write notes”

This says so much about Johnny Cash. Or another sensitive man, musician, lover.

 

Bridget Jones’s Diary, New Year’s Resolution list

One of the most famous lists in recent literature. Find it. Read it. Even if it’s not your flavor of fiction. Utterly defines her character and is a brilliant precursor for the entire novel.

From my novel, The Stranger Inside

“There are two carefully folded summer dresses, both V-neck and in patterns she might have chosen for herself, one more tailored than the other. Beneath them is a pair of white Capri pants and two pairs of soft linen shorts. Then several linen shirts in pastel colors, one a loose button-down. As she takes the clothes from the bag, she lays them out on the bed. The tags say Nordstrom, and the linen pieces are marked as having been on sale. She smiles when she opens the two shoeboxes to find a pair of buff kitten-heel slides that go with the dresses, and a pair of flat Tory Burch sandals. It’s as though she’s been visited by a fairy, but she knows the fairy was surely Diana.

Opening the third bag, she laughs. There’s more tissue, but it’s wrapped around a clutch of panties that spill out like silky water over her hand and onto the bed. At the bottom of the bag is a diaphanous pink cotton nightgown with satin ties at the shoulders. While everything else is very close to what she’d wear, the nightgown strikes her as bridal and girlish. Still, what a surprise it all is. She realizes she hasn’t really smiled in days.”

(Don’t be fooled. This is one of the novel’s very few quiet moments. After all, there’s a stranger occupying Kimber’s house and he has possession of all her clothes.)

 

__________

Are those enough lists for you? Think of your own lists: grocery lists, wishlists, self-improvement lists, lists of goals, bucket lists. There are as many lists as people in the world.

Think about what kinds of lists your characters might make. If your character is a serial killer, imagine her Home Depot shopping list. Imagine the prescriptions her elderly victims take.

Every list tells a story. Go make one!

Do you have any favorite literary lists? What lists have you made that could be stories? How have you used lists in your work?

 

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Rave Rejections

 

Recently, in offline discussion, Joe Hartlaub and I were talking about rejections. He mentioned an editor at Hard Case Crime who wrote the “best” rejections—two to three-page long letters with specific details that proved he paid close attention and had actually read the whole manuscript.

Editors and agents rarely have time to put that much effort into giving feedback to an author. Most often, it’s a quick “Thanks but not for us.”

When a professional reads more than the first five pages of the manuscript and recognizes value in it, the writer is over the moon.

Even though it’s a rejection.

Actual SASE

Back in the days when authors submitted manuscripts by snail mail, you always included an SASE (for anyone born after 1980, that’s self-addressed stamped envelope) so the editor/agent could mail rejections to you.

Occasionally, the SASE was used to mail the author a contract or check but that was rare.

 

There is a hierarchy of rejections–a ladder to climb:

Rung #1 – Unsigned form letter: “This does not meet our needs at this time.”

Rung #2 – Unsigned form letter: “This does not meet our needs at this time but please try us again.”

Rung #3 – Same form letter with a handwritten note (unsigned): “This is good. Do you have anything else?”

Rung #4 – Personal letter: “Good story but too similar to one we recently published. I like your writing. Send more.” Actual editor’s signature.

Rung #5 – Personal letter signed with editor’s first name. Now we’re buddies.

With today’s electronic submissions, the process is similar, just faster and cheaper without the cost of postage and printing.

But the process still requires climbing the rungs.

Finally you clamber onto an exciting but scary roof with a steep pitch. The editor/agent likes the sample chapter and asks for the whole manuscript. Get a toehold on the rain gutter.

A month or five later, the rejection says: “This is good BUT…”

Fill in the blank with:

“Characters felt inconsistent.”

“The climax didn’t live up to expectations.”

“I just didn’t love it enough.”

Etc.

Slide down the roof a bit but hang on with fingernails.

Rewrite and submit more. Inch up the shingles. 

“All the editors loved it but the marketing department doesn’t think they can sell it.”

At last, you reach the peak of the roof when you receive a long, detailed, personal letter with specific suggestions.

In December, I received the most beautiful rejection of my entire career (and I’ve received hundreds!). I couldn’t even be unhappy when I read the following:

“Several of us read it and we all enjoyed your fresh, exciting take on a thriller—particularly the way you used the genre to explore the very real issue of elder fraud. There are several striking scenes that are seared in my memory (especially that late-night rescue in the snowstorm!). We thought you developed Tawny and Moe’s relationship with great sensitivity and nuance, and this in turn made Moe’s shifts between lucidity and violence a more emotional experience for readers. Unfortunately, we had difficulty connecting as deeply to Tawny—it often felt like she was kept at a remove from us. For this reason, despite our admiration for your writing and the compelling and dynamic world you’ve created, we don’t think we’re the right publisher for your book. I’m sorry not to have better news. Thank you so much for the opportunity to read and consider STALKING MIDAS, and best wishes in finding the right home for it.”

 

It felt like the editor had sent me a dozen roses!

When you tell civilians (non-writers) about the wonderful rejection you received, they usually draw their chins back and look down their noses. “You got rejected and you’re happy?”

Only other writers understand the irony of a rave rejection.

 

What do rejections really mean?

You’re in the game.

What do rave rejections mean?

Publication is in your future.

~~~

TKZers: What is the best rejection you ever received?

Was the story eventually published?

 

 

 

Please check out Debbie Burke’s new thriller Stalking Midas which garnered rave rejections before publication. Here’s the link.

 

 

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Labors of Love

Happy Labor Day weekend!

I hope you all are enjoying the quasi-official end of summer. For me, the approaching fall has got me thinking about how few of us have time for hobbies anymore. I think about this as my twins enter their freshmen year at high school and how crammed their schedules are with both school work as well as activities, most of which (given everyone’s focus on college and careers) cannot be mere hobbies anymore.

Sadly there doesn’t seem much time now for activities undertaken simply for pleasure. You don’t have to excel at a hobby – you don’t even have to be any good at it – you just have to enjoy It. But for my kids especially, there is a culture of excellence which means they should forgo what they’re not good at (even if they enjoy it) for sports or other activities they excel in. Sometimes, it seems like it’s all about getting into the competitive sports teams (recreational leagues being few and far between for my boys at least), or working towards varsity in your chosen activity such as marching band or debate. The focus is definitely on pursuing activities that will either look good on your college application or that might lead to scholarship or other opportunities. It’s really hard for them to find time just to enjoy something for fun!

Even for the adults around me, there’s very little time left in our busy schedules to undertake anything remotely resembling a hobby. Take gardening, for example…what was once an enjoyable hobby for my husband has now turned into a desperate scramble to keep things alive in the garden with the few minutes or hours that can be carved out over a weekend!

This fall, however, I’ve decided to buck the trend and indulge (that’s what it feels like sometimes – an indulgence) in not one but two hobbies…the first is my painting, which I love, and the second is knitting, which I’ve never succeeded at before. When it comes to my art, I’ve always felt guilty setting aside time to paint, especially as most of my life is taken up with writing (something, my husband considers a hobby anyway:)). There are always so many other chores or errands to run, that taking time to paint (especially when I’m clearly never going to make a career or money out of it) feels wantonly indulgent. Recently, however, I returned to art class and loved it so much I vowed that I had to allow myself time to  to paint. Painting unlocks a different creative process for me than writing – the only difficulty is, I still feel guilty doing it!

I decided to take up knitting for completely different reasons. When I was at school we had one compulsory craft unit in 7th grade, and I was so terrible (and I mean terrible…) at the knitting component, that the teacher had to get assurances from my parents that I would never do another craft lesson with her! As a result, I’ve been designated the ‘uncrafty’ one throughout my adult life – the one incapable of knitting or sewing, while my mother, mother-in-law, and sister proudly knit, sew clothes, embroider etc. A  few months ago I stumbled across a website ‘We are Knitters’ and decided I would finally throw off the yoke of ‘uncraftiness’ and try knitting. I’ll admit I had pretty unrealistic visions of sitting by the fire in the mountains knitting away…but I was determined to give it a try.  A month ago my mother-in-law was in town and she helped me get started – and, despite some fear-filled moments of dropped/wrong stitches, I’ve finally managed to get the hang of it. Now, I feel like knitting could actually be a real hobby of mine – if only I can find the time…I’m also totally fine with the fact that I might never be actually that good at it!

So, TKZers, what new hobbies have you tried this year? How do you find (and justify) the time? Do you find having a hobby helps or hinders your writing process?

 

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The Most Important Question You Can Ask About A Scene

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Charles McGraw and William Conrad as The Killers (1946, dir. Robert Siodmak)

The other day I reread Hemingway’s famous short story “The Killers.” It takes place in a small-town diner at twilight. Two men enter the diner and start talking tough. It is unlike any other Hemingway story in that it is clearly pulp style. “The Killers” was published in 1927, but because it was Hemingway it came out in Scribner’s Magazine, not Black Mask.

The tough guys order the diner owner and the one patron, Nick Adams (Hemingway’s alter ego in many of his stories), behind the counter. One tough takes Nick into the kitchen and ties him up with the cook.

When the owner asks what’s going on, one of the tough guys explains that he and his partner are there to kill “a Swede.” The Swede’s name is Ole Andreson. He’s supposed to come in for dinner at six. But he doesn’t show. After an hour the killers leave, presumably to go hunt for their prey.

The owner unties Nick and the cook. Nick runs over to the rooming house where Andreson lives. Nick finds him lying on his bed with his clothes on. Nick tries to warn him, but Andreson refuses to go. He says he’s tired of running. Nick returns to the diner, and we are left with the impression that Andreson will soon be dead.

The classic film noir adaptation of “The Killers” was released in 1946 (and features the film debut of Burt Lancaster, who plays Ole Andreson). It uses the short story as the opening sequence. The rest of the film is told through a police investigation and flashbacks.

I first read this story in college, when I was going through my big Hemingway phase. This time, with twenty-five years of my own writing behind me, some things bothered me about the story.

First, the killers walk in and immediately start talking like killers. They might as well have had name badges that said, “Hi! My Name is Al, Assassin, Chicago.”

Second, they come right out and say they are there to kill Ole Andreson.

Third, they make no attempt to hide their faces.

Fourth, when they leave, they don’t shoot the witnesses they’ve just spilled their guts to.

Fifth, if they wanted to kill Ole Andreson, why do it in a public place? Why not just look him up in a directory or politely ask the diner guy where they might find him? Or stake out the diner from across the street and wait for him to show?

Sixth, they overuse the term “bright boy” when they talk. Something like thirty times in just a few pages. Maybe they are indeed killers … who annoy people to death.

If I’d been around in 1927 and met Hemingway in a bar, I might have asked him these questions, then ducked.

All this leads to me to my assertion today about the most important question you can ask about a scene. This is a question that you should ask both before and after you’ve written it. There are, of course, some other questions you need to consider before you write a scene, e.g., Who is the viewpoint character? What is his or her objective in the scene? What are the obstacles? What are the agendas of the other characters in the scene? Where is the conflict?

But then should come this final and ultimate question, for it overhangs everything. Plus, it’s what the readers will immediately pick up on if it’s not answered correctly. Here it is:

Would they really?

Would the characters, if this were “real life,” act this way? Would they make these choices? Or are you, the author, pushing them to do certain things in order to move your plot?

Would hired killers really act the way they do in “The Killers”? Or was it a way for Hemingway to show that he could out-pulp the pulp writers of the day, especially in the dialogue department?

Another way to pose this question to yourself is: are all the characters in this scene operating at maximum capacity in order to get what they want? The sci-fi author Stanley Schmidt has wisely said, “At every significant juncture in a story, consciously look at the situation from the viewpoint of every character involved – and let each of them make the best move they can from his or her own point of view.”

So:

  1. Give every character in every scene an objective, even if it’s only (as Vonnegut once said) to get a glass of water.
  2. Pit the agendas against each other. Even a scene between two friends or allies should have some form of tension.
  3. Have the characters, even the minor ones, make the best moves they can in order to realize their objectives.

Do you have a “would they really?” example from a book or movie? Carry on the conversation in the comments. I’m on the road, so will try to respond as I can.

***

And speaking of conversations, my book HOW TO WRITE DAZZLING DIALOGUE is now available in audio, as read by the author.

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