First Page Critique

I confess to being a little trepidatious about tackling today’s first page critique entitled ‘We the People are Good to Eat’, not just because of the subject matter (you’ll see…) but also because I’m not really sure of the author’s intention (dystopian YA? parody?). It’s always tricky when reviewing only one page, but this particular submission had me scratching my head even more than usual. Read on – my general and specific comments follow.

We the People are Good to Eat

At 7:37 AM, on the 1378th Level of the City Building of Manhattan, thousands of people moved along the West 55th Street Corridor, going east from the 9th Avenue to the 8th Avenue corridor. Many teenage students walked among them, heading toward their local Public High School; HS L-1378-55, which stood between 8th and 7th.

As the crowd moved along, they went past an enormous advertising billboard, displaying a photographed line of full figured Warrior Women dressed in bikinis, while armed with swords and spears. Shrunken human heads were tied on their belts. Superimposed above them, across the top of the photo, was the slogan, “Paradise Meats. Healthy Tasty Treats”

17 year old Karen Bennet moved with the crowd. She was dressed in a lightweight, dark green jacket, with the words “HS L-1378-55”, printed in yellow on the back. She also wore a light blue skirt, hanging to her knees. Like all the other students in the crowd, the hungry, blonde Karen carried her edu-computer, and like many of them, she also had a pair of shrunken human heads tied on her belt.

She was about halfway down the block, when her steady boyfriend David Krendell came up beside her.  He was irritated.

“Hey Karen!”

Like most of the people in the City Building of Manhattan, he was a little thin and his energy level was low. She was also thin and not very energetic. A daily ration of sausages and meat patties was allocated for each citizen, but the portions were small.

Karen was annoyed. “Hi Dave.”

“I hear” he accused “you’re planning to try out for cheerleader?”

She snapped at him. “Since I already fought on the Warrior Girls Squad last year, I’m now qualified to join the cheerleaders. All cheerleaders and their families receive triple rations for the entire season, just like the warrior girls. Why not?”

“You might be the cheerleader who gets hanged, after we lose a game.”

“The extra rations will improve the health of me and my whole family for the entire season. Isn’t that worth the risk?”

“I wish you didn’t have to take that risk at all.”

She sighed, “And I wish you weren’t such a wimp, Dave.”

“I’m not being a wimp.” He told her, “The extra rations are intended to make the cheerleaders fill out, so they’ll look sexy, instead of unhealthy.”

She laughed, “You’ve got a complaint about that?”

“The girls on the cheerleading squad are expected to do it with every guy on the Warrior Team. I’m the Team’s equipment handler, so I know everything that goes on. I want you to be my girlfriend alone. Not the entire Team’s.”

“I know what’ll be expected of me, and I don’t see the point of me being a well fed, sexy cheerleader, if I’m not a team girlfriend. They’re the girls who have all the fun.”

“What about me?”

She groaned. “You’re too much of a wimp, and not all that much fun.”

Karen stepped away from Dave.

General Comments

As I wrote in my introduction, I’m not entirely sure what the author’s intention is here, but assuming it is a YA dystopian novel then I have a number of specific issues to raise, but my main overall comment would go back to my blog post a couple of weeks ago – does the author really think the idea of teenagers eating human flesh is a saleable premise? To be honest I can’t imagine many editors favorably reacting to that. Even if the author intended the novel to be a parody of a YA dystopian novel (which is not apparent in this first page) then this would have to be made obvious from the start and, even then, I’m not sure the premise would really sustain a publishable novel.

Specific Issues

Information Dump

Moving onto the specific issues in this first page… I think the major concern I have is that this first page is more of an information dump that a compelling start to a novel. While I was intrigued by the initial setting (the 1378th Level of the City Building of Manhattan), there were a lot of details that seem extraneous (the address and repetition of the HS number) and the dialogue between Karen and Dave seems designed to provide the reader with information, rather than a natural conversation between two teenagers (would Dave really have to explain to Karen why cheerleaders get extra rations or that a cheerleader gets hanged after losing game? She obviously knows this – so the information is really only for the readers’ benefit). In terms of story craft, however, this first page cannot be merely an information dump masquerading as conversation. We need action and tension to become engaged in the story – right now, this first page seems staged and unrealistic.

World Building

This stifled conversation drains the page of any tension or drama a reader may have felt after the mention of the Warrior Women billboard (the first mention of the shrunken heads) and so far, the information the reader is getting seems more off-putting than compelling. I’m assuming society has resorted to cannibalism because meat has become scarce but how and why remains unclear (and to be honest, as a reader I’m not sure I even want to know…). When re-reading this piece I wasn’t even sure how cannibalism is involved (although, given the title I’m assuming it is). Do Warrior Women just show off their skills by having shrunken heads tied to their waist bands? Is everyone else hungry because of meager meat rations or is human meat their only option? When creating a dystopian world, it’s fine to leave questions unresolved on the first page but the reader must feel confident that the author has created a viable and intriguing world – which I’m not convinced has been achieved as yet.

Dialogue

As I mentioned, the dialogue on this first page seems to be nothing more than an informational dump and I certainly don’t get any sense of attraction or friendship between Karen and Dave to indicate there would be any possibility of them being boyfriend and girlfriend. In fact, Karen seems pretty unlikable so far, which isn’t a great start. Also the conversation about cheerleaders ‘doing it’ with the whole team seems a bit off-kilter (although the mention that Dave is the team’s ‘equipment handler’ was possibly inadvertently hilarious). Neither Karen nor Dave come across as real (dare I say it) flesh and blood people yet – which leads me to my final specific comment…

Characterization

When dealing with a rather icky subject matter (cannibalism) an author is going to have to rely on some amazing characterization to get over that initial hurdle. The reason why the Hunger Games was so popular was, in major part, because the character of Katniss Everdeen was so compelling. So, while that series dealt with teenagers fighting to the death, the empathy of Katniss really added a humane touch to what was otherwise a pretty horrific premise for a book series.

Perhaps the author of this first page was inspired by that series and wanted to push the envelope even further – but as my comments demonstrate – in order to pull that off you need to have a solid and believable world (which hasn’t been developed in this first page yet), empathetic and compelling characters, and action that compels a reader to turn the page and keep reading. Sadly, because of the issues I’ve raised, I would not want to turn the page with this story – but I also think the author needs to take a step back and consider the ‘saleable’ premise question before addressing any of the specific comments I’ve raised.

TKZers, what do you think?

5+

On Empathy

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The other day my laptop and I drove to a local caffeine establishment to do some work. The early morning rush was over and the place relatively quiet. A young woman was at the cash register with a customer. A young man, a little older than the woman, was working the espresso machine like Frank Morgan behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz.

When it was my turn to order I stepped to the counter, but before I could say a word a look of shock came over the young lady. She looked directly at me and said, “Oh my God!”

I was so sure I’d shaved that morning.

But then she said, “Excuse me!” and spun around to face a couple of large coffee urns. She started to fiddle with one, but apparently didn’t know the tune.

The young man saw this and said, “What are you doing?”

Woman: “I forgot to change the [something].”

Man: “You don’t do it that way.”

Woman: “I saw [unintelligible] do it this way.”

Man: “Well, that’s not the way you do it. Look out.”

He began rearranging and replacing things on and around the coffee urns, the whole time rat-a-tatting at the young woman with transparent annoyance.

“That’s how,” he snapped when finished, then went back to steaming milk. The woman returned to the counter, her eyes literally downcast. When she finally looked up at me, the hurt in her face was palpable. She could have been my daughter. I heard myself say, “It’s all right.” Then I placed my order.

Now why did I say that? I didn’t plan it, it just popped out. I don’t think the answer is complicated—I was hit with a jolt of empathy.

Empathy, simply put, is the ability to understand another person’s feelings, to “step into their shoes” as it were. It’s a common human attribute unless a) you are a sociopath; or b) have conditioned yourself not to care by practicing hate, selfishness, or some other form of conscience-weakening.

Empathy is powerful. So much so that it’s the theme of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird. As Atticus tells Scout, “You never really understand a person … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Empathy should be the theme of a writer’s life, too. You can’t really know your characters without it, and that includes the bad guys. Fiction that transcends the predictable and mundane is largely built, I would argue, upon layers of empathy. Those layers reach out from the page and connect to readers on an emotional level.

Which, of course, is what we’re going for. Fiction is an emotion-delivery system, not a lecture or jeremiad. Sure, you can have a message, but it won’t penetrate very deeply without character empathy.

Writers also need empathy for their readers, who are looking for escape into a story. Why? Because, as Wordsworth put it, “the world is too much with us.” We all need some relief in crazy times. If we can give that to a reader through our books, we’ve done more for that reader than a million characters of Twitter ever will.

So try this:

  • Create a childhood scene for every one of your main characters. In that scene confront them with one of the following: a bully, a pet that dies, an accident, a humiliation, a disappointment, a failure.
  • Write a diary entry from that character, describing in detail how she felt during and after the experience.

In the next scene you write, explore how that feeling might affect the way the characters in the scene treat each other.

Do the same throughout the book.

And in your life, too. Oscar Levant, the songwriter and TV curmudgeon of the 1950s and 60s, once remarked: “When I was young I looked like Al Capone, but I lacked his compassion.”

Don’t let that be your epitaph.

So how deeply to you identify with your characters … including the bad ones?

 

13+

This Is (Almost) Halloween…

I know. Perhaps it is too early for me to be writing about Halloween. I’ve been seeing  merchandise for the unofficial holiday in stores since September 5th, however, so I’m actually behind the curve. Herewith please find my subjective list of Top Five frightening reads that will carry you through the next few weeks:

MISERY — I was given this newly published book as a present for Father’s Day 1987. I started reading it that afternoon and did not stop until I finished it that evening. Some dad, huh? Stephen King’s now-iconic tale of popular author Paul Sheldon’s extended visit with defrocked nurse Annie Wilkes — his Number One Fan — more than stands on its own merits. It makes/tops my list, however, because I had a relationship with someone very much like Annie, right down to her potentially dangerous mood changes and odd turns of phrase, the manifestation of which always preceded what I would come to call an “episode.” I read this book at least once a year, repenting at leisure and recalling the exhilarating sound of doom whistling by me at a near-miss.

THE SHINING — This tale about Jack Torrance, a struggling author with writer’s block the size of a Jersey Wall, and his family was already quite well known when it was adapted for a (lesser) film by Stanley Kubrick. I screamed twice while reading it. The first was during young Danny Torrance’s encounter with the girls in the hall.  To this day, when I am in a large hotel with a long, carpeted corridor, I think of Danny and the girls who wanted to play with him forever.The second was during the bathroom scene. I have, unbidden, remembered this scene at inopportune moments over the course of my adult life, with unhappiness ensuing. The book as a whole, however, is a terrific example of how to wring every bit of drama that can be wrung out of a single location.

THE EXORCIST by William Peter Blatty — This early 1970s novel was a potboiler for sure — and that is one of my highest compliments — but it is a cringe-inducing tale of demonic possession and the efforts of a heroic priest to save the life and soul of an innocent girl  which fed right into my Roman Catholic upbringing. My father, who spend serious and quality time in Seminary school, assisted in an exorcism and told me that Blatty’s account of possession was mild compared to what he witnessed. That might have been, but it is hard to believe that what (almost) Father Joe experienced was any more frightening than Blatty’s description.

‘SALEM’S LOT by, ummm, Stephen King — I have always enjoyed well-written vampire novels — there aren’t many of them — but there is a special place in my heart for this story of the Undead and love lost in a small town on its last legs. King’s second novel published under his own name is a textbook example of how to plant a slow, unnamable dread on the first page, nurture it, and grow it to full blossom stark terror. The television adaptation, with David Soul in the lead role, has its weaknesses but actually stands up quite well. A planned sequel was later incorporated into the Dark Tower series in THE WOLVES OF THE CALLA and SONG OF SUSANNAH but neither quite reach the atmospheric levels of fright found in this book.

THE BODY SNATCHERS by Jack Finney — I saw the 1956 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers before I read the book upon which it is based. That august novel, although almost as old as I am, has held up much better than either myself or its film adaptation. Marketed as science fiction, THE BODY SNATCHERS is a paranoia-laden horror story about alien seed pods that land on earth and begin producing a duplicate replacement copy of each human being. You have almost certainly seen at least one of the three films based on the book but you can’t beat the source material on any level. Five-year-old mini-Me was also certain at one point that his parents had been pod-snatched. You might as well, but take a chance and pick up a copy of this classic if you’ve never read it.

You know what I’m going to ask now, I’m sure: what are your favorite horror/scary novels? And why? Thank you.

5+

What is Amazon Doing Now? Can it Work for You?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I received a notice recently from Amazon regarding its implementation of “Amazon Stores,” a way to promote a brand or company products. I’m not sure how open and available this is for anyone with a brand or a store concept. Are many authors using this?

I have a corporation, Cosas Finas LLC, that I have developed into Cosas Finas Publications to promote my brand and I have a website that I’m still developing for this entity. (My navigation needs improvement and I’m tweaking it after my deadline, so be kind.)

Awhile back I set up an Amazon PAGE for my company/brand using Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) to link ad campaigns to. I created a landing page for my ads to show more of my books and group them by series or featured new releases.

I’m a user of Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) and have various ad campaigns established for my books as they release or I develop a concept to promote a series, for example. Through AMS I had created a Cosas Finas Publications company PAGE, which is different than their new STORE idea. Amazon Stores are slicker and more attractive in appearance.

Brand pages are going away or the links to these pages will start to be phased out by Oct 31 and completely gone by Dec. It’s only cost me the money for “click-thru” ads and I set my budget and can monitor the expense vs sales revenues. I’ve been satisfied with the benefits outweighing the cost on AMS and I monitor my profitability and tweak ad campaigns to make them more effective.

Amazon Stores are free to vendors. I just set up an ad campaign that links directly to my new store. It was very easy. I chose a HEADLINE search for keywords as my campaign structure (recommended by Amazon and others I’ve researched) and I can query Amazon’s own system for high traffic keywords used by customers. I set up a daily max budget with a click-thru cost for an ongoing campaign without an end. It’ll be up to me to periodically evaluate the effectiveness and I can terminate any campaign at any time. From what I understand, these vendor stores will be required to have at least one ad campaign linked to them to keep them active. This will probably go into effect after Dec, 2017.

I really liked the ad design I submitted yesterday for Amazon approval. Instead of me creating an intriguing tag line for each book, I was able to use my brand slogan, which is “Take a front Row Seat to Suspense” and direct readers to my store. My ad dollars will go farther if I can consolidate my ads for my brand. We’ll see how this turns out. It’s still very new and I need a final approval on my ad campaign before I can see what traffic and sales it generates, but the metrics are there to analyze, with revenues vs ad cost.

To check out more details, visit AMS for vendors (first party sellers are vendors) or Seller Central (for 3rd party sellers that sell other’s products) for sellers.

How many of you advertise through AMS? What’s been your experience?

My STORE is approved as of yesterday. I hope this link works – Cosas Finas Publications The pre-set design templates are not flexible enough for me. It would be nice to have them in modules where you could mix and match, but I can play with the templates to see what works best for books.

Key Features of Amazon Stores:

1.) Design templates allow you to feature different books in a way that your Amazon Author Page isn’t set up to do. You can add video/book trailers, post promo text, praise blurbs/awards, or feature upcoming releases.

2.) Flexible ability to feature different products at your command. You are the keeper of your store and what is in it. If you have other products that are associated with your brand or writing, like T-shirts or coffee mugs for writers, you can feature those along with your books.

3.) There are social sharing buttons tagged to your store and you can set up HEADLINE search ads or drive readers to your store through your ad campaigns and increase your store traffic. Amazon allows a vendor to search existing keywords already proven to have high traffic on their system.

4.) You can take your Amazon Store link and use it in other promotions off the Amazon website. I can see this working for KDP Select products that are exclusive to Amazon for a time.

5.) Developing an ad campaign for my whole brand of books allows me to make the most of my budget for advertising. Rather than creating an ad for a new release, I can create one for my brand and update the book offerings as I have releases.

For those of you focused on your writing and not at the point of targeting the “not so fun” part of the business end, it’s still important for you to see what authors are doing to promote their work. I talk to many aspiring authors whose eyes glaze over when you share the very necessary business side. They want to believe a publisher will “take care of them” and sell their books, easy/peezy, but that’s not how it works.

I wanted TKZers to see how this might work for you, if you’re not aware of AMS and the Amazon STORE concept, but if you are using it, what are your thoughts? Where do you see this going for Amazon? Is this concept directed at larger companies with multiple products, like a running shoe company for example, or can this work for authors on a budget?

5+

The Wrong Story: A Cautionary Tale

 

(GoDaddy stock photo)

 

I’m in the final stretch of an edit for my next suspense novel, One Last Secret. It has to be  in my editor’s hands by close of business today. Fortunately, I’m past the “dropping potato chip crumbs all over the keyboard as I type in a blind panic” phase. Today is the “last read to make sure I didn’t leave in embarrassing formatting and continuity mistakes” portion of the program.

So I’ll be brief.

When I first started sending out short stories, I concentrated on contests and fellowships. Things with specific deadlines and guidelines. It’s a method I highly recommend to newbies.

I was newly married, living in West Virginia when I decided to submit a story to be considered for a West Virginia Arts Fellowship because it was a literature year. (I don’t know that they still have the same program in place. Perhaps something different.)

I submitted a very nice story about–okay, I honestly don’t know which story I thought I submitted, but I do remember that it was very PG-rated. I was new in the area and I didn’t want to shock the nice West Virginia committee.

Lo and behold, I won a fellowship. It was a couple thousand dollars, I think. A real boost to my ego and burgeoning career. There were festivities and news articles, etc. But when I read the title of the winning story, I thought, “How odd. I don’t think that’s the story I sent in.” And then I turned bright red and got woozy. The story that won was not a PG story at all. It was a dark, shocking tale about a woman who hooks up with a rather pathetic married businessman in a hotel bar. I was mortified. Pleased, but mortified. Because I was a young writer, you see, but I was also a new mother, and someone whose husband’s family was well known in the state and in their small town. Just call me Jezebel.

I assumed no one would actually read the story. West Virginia is a relatively small state, and people always say they’ve read things when they really haven’t, to be polite. But unfortunately, one of the women on the executive board lived in our town, and I ran into her at a cocktail party. She was forty years my senior, and very proper.

“Congratulations on your award,” said she.”It was a very interesting story. Was it autobiographical?”

And then I died.

Please tell me you have your own horrifying submission or publishing stories. Misery loves company.

4+

First Page Critique: Portrait Of A Young Man

Yes, ’tis the season for catching up on first page critiques from our TKZ “In” box. Today we’re reviewing the first page of PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG MAN. Please add your feedback for today’s brave writer in the Comments.

Portrait of a Young Man

I picked up the dead man about twenty miles west of Columbus. I stopped to take care of my business and grab a soda at a Pilot gas station at mile marker seventy-nine. When I returned to my car I found him in the passenger seat. He was the one I’d seen frequently in the weeks before, but I’d seen him then in my dreams, not in the waking day, and certainly not in my Civic. I went back into the station and milled about for a solid fifteen minutes, examining overpriced sunglasses and t-shirts, hoping the dead man would wander off. But when I went back, he was still there.

So, I got in the car and I drove. I still had some miles to cover. I had a job waiting in Cleveland. Not too much rough stuff, Maxwell had promised.

My passenger was, as he had been in my dreams, clad in a Prussian blue Union greatcoat with a small cape. The double-bar insignia on his lapels showed his rank to be that of a captain and the crossed sabers on his slouch hat meant he was cavalry. In my dreams, I’d seen him only from afar, charging on horseback across some remote fog-blurred field of battle with his sword raised, into a fusillade of Confederate musket fire. In my dreams the wounds he suffered were but specks in the smoky distance. Up close and sitting beside me I saw them as jagged, fleshy holes, one above the left eye and one through the throat. They bled, as he sat, but not so much as to seem to distract him.

My car was old, built before smoking had become unofficially criminal, and the dead officer spent several minutes inspecting my lighter, pressing it in and waiting for it to pop out again. He inspected the glowing coils closely and returned the thing to its slot to repeat the process. He made a quick examination of the glove box, taking no apparent interest in the ‪1911‬ .45 caliber pistol I kept there, then he just stared out the window, watching the cornfields of central Ohio glide slowly by.

Unlike Larry, and most of my other visitors, he never said so much as a word. He began to fade around mile marker one-fifty, heading north on I-71. He was totally gone before we passed through Mansfield, twenty-five miles later.

My feedback: I’m intrigued by the underlying notion here: a dream image suddenly materializes in the passenger seat of the narrator’s Honda Civic in the form of a Zombie Yank officer, who calmly proceeds to rummage through the glove box. Who wouldn’t want to hear more about that?

That being said, I was confused about what type of story to expect here. The narrator’s lack of reaction to his bizarre driving companion is puzzling, for example. If I suddenly encountered a hitchhiker plucked from a recurring dream, I’d immediately assume that someone had slipped a spiked mushroom into my breakfast casserole. Here, however, the narrator displays little reaction to the bizarre passenger. That muted response muffles the dramatic impact of the scene, making the opening seem a tad flat despite its compelling setup.

The title doesn’t help the reader anticipate what  type of story to expect. PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG MAN sounds like a Joycean, literary title rather than mystery or suspense.

Craft-wise, the writer should pay heed to punctuation rules and edit with an eye to avoiding run-on sentences and an overuse of commas.

Overall, the writer grabbed my interest with the opening image, but he needs to add “more”: more narrator reaction is needed to punch up the drama and set the stage for this story; more context is also needed to clarify certain details as the scene progresses (who is “Larry”, for instance?).

Update: After rereading the page, I realized belatedly that this story is in the zombie mystery category. I never read that genre, so I missed a couple of cues that might  have been obvious to fans of that genre. (The reference to “other visitors”, in my case). It’s generally a good idea to write a scene so that even newbies to a genre can “see” clearly what is going on in a scene during the first reading.

Please share your thoughts about PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG MAN in the Comments. And we thank today’s brave anonymous writer for submitting this first page!

4+

First Page Critique: The Fish Thieves

Must be the season for First Page Critiques here on KZ.  My last post was a FPC, several others followed, and here we are again.

As usual, here’s the call to chip in with your feedback. Which I will do after presenting today’s Brave Writer Submission.

It was always about the water.

Trina hacked through saw palms, ducked under spider webs, and climbed over fallen oaks and loblolly pines. She passed an overturned, rusted out SUV. It guts and doors removed, used for another purpose now. A mountain of garbage blocked her way—a baby stroller, plastic CD cases, kitchen utensils, plastic bottles everywhere. She picked her way around the mess—remnants from a previous life, a previous time. The brackish, sulfur-tainted saltwater tickled the hairs in her nose and she gagged, stifling a sneeze. She paused in the semi-darkness, aware to the dangers of walking through the forest, long enough to listen to her surroundings.

The lack of the natural sounds—birds chirping, frogs grunting—still offended. But she tightened her core, felt the weight of the automatic on her hip, brushed sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand and swallowed hard. Then she stomped on a No Trespassing sign. The tattered faded sign had been X’d out, another stark reminder that she wasn’t in Louisiana anymore. Or anywhere else familiar. A reminder that the laws that once governed the United States of America no longer applied. But she wasn’t deterred. Nor was she afraid.

Trina moved at a faster pace now, aware of the emerging predawn light, the guards and the Exiles—the unfortunate people who, once the tsunami hit the Gulf coast and changed the land they once knew, were neither afforded a place in academia, or could find work in Texicana. Those underprivileged, uneducated people who had it bad before The Big Rise, are now worse off. If that’s even possible. Recent rumor in the lab said Exiles are uniting and gathering strength.

The iridescent glow from the activity on and below the surface of the water illuminated the morning—thousands of tiny moon jellies and hopefully shrimp fry—made the risk of being caught worth the monthly trip. 

I lean into liking this, though it confused me a bit. Delivering a sense of confusion on a first page is not necessarily a bad thing, provided the confusion compels the reader toward forward movement toward clarity from a sense of intrigue. Which for me, this does… in spite of rather than because of the confusion I’ll describe below.

But I suspect that may not be true for all readers here. So the confusion that troubled me may end up being on the problematic side for others, as well.

But first, the nit-picky stuff. There are a couple of grammar things to clean up. These nits are like flies on frosting, they always deter more than they should, but deter nonetheless. Here they are:

Second paragraph, second and third sentences: …rusted out SUV. It guts and doors removed… should read – It’s guts and doors removed. Probably a typo, but if so, then consider better proofing before you submit, or in this case, hold this up in front of a few thousand readers. But before that, I’d recommend not using the period after “SUV” and, with a comma, conjoin those two sentences into one. The second sentence, as used, is a fragment anyway, so this solves that problem, as well.

Then, first sentence in the third paragraph: The lack of the natural sounds… This would read better if you lose the word “the” here, to read as – The lack of natural sounds…

Okay, now a few words about the aforementioned confusion.

Your first line… what is the object of this, the “it” of it? Really, if you pose this question – as you’ve done – then your next line should begin to address the explanation. As presented, the shift is kind of a jolt that leaves the opening question hanging and unattached to anything, and as such, renders the opening line… confusing rather than compelling.

After that you open in a forest. Trees and stumps and such. And “loblolly pines”… huh? As a guy who grew up in Oregon, where there are as many pine trees as anywhere else on the planet, and who didn’t major in botany, I have no idea what a loblolly pine. When an author summons obscurity with no real upside to it, it screams “look at me, I’m a smart writer who is trying too hard to demonstrate that fact!” You don’t want to elicit a WTF? moment from readers, and this one might.

Back to the forest. Now we have the gutted carcass of a car, some garbage, and assorted plastic stuff from a house, and then the smell of brackish salt water. In a forest? What, is the forest flooded? And how can this be salt water, unless there was a tidal wave that reached an inland forest? Maybe that’s precisely what you mean, but in one short paragraph you’ve got the reader on unsure footing at this point.

Is the forthcoming disaster natural, social, military, or something else that ends up with a forest deluged with salt water? Political or criminal mischief would not accomplish that, but that feels like where you might be going… so its confusing.

I just think you can clean this up a bit, and the read will be better for it.

The next paragraph is good stuff. A girl with a gun, always interesting. A sign on the forest floor… did it float here? Was it a camp? Not sure. Still somewhat confusing, but hopeful.

Here’s the whopper moment on the confusion scale: “…she wasn’t in Louisiana anymore. Or anywhere else familiar.” Unless she was brought to this place in a coma and then awakened, I think she’d know where she was. But to suggest she has no idea where she is… really, this makes too little sense. An easy fix, because surroundings feeling unfamiliar is perhaps clear, while literally not being in Louisiana but not being sure where you are… isn’t.

This feels like a speculative and/or futuristic thriller, and if so it’s a good start. It’ll be a better start, though, when the vagaries are given a little more resolution. It would be good, too, to have her stumble into something truly baffling (to her) and frightening on the next page, which would complete a pretty strong hook overall.

One more thought. Wherever this premise goes, it needs to circle back to actually being about the water (aka Chinatown) as the underlying McGuffin or ultimate prize. If it doesn’t – and because it’s salt water, which isn’t a commodity with either economic or political value, I’m fearful it won’t – then you probably need to rethink that opening line.

Okay KZers, share your thoughts on this one. In any case, congrats to this author on going out on an edge early.

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Herd Your CATS

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We all know that getting a reader inside a lead character’s head is one of the keys to compelling fiction. But it has to be done seamlessly so it doesn’t jerk us out of the narrative and put a crimp in the fictive dream.

Which means we have to learn to handle what I call “Character Alone Thinking Scenes” (CATS) in a deft manner.

The first issue is whether to begin the book with a CATS. As last Wednesday’s first-page critique demonstrated (in my view, at least) the answer should almost always be No.

Why? Because we have to have a little personal investment in someone before we can care deeply about their feelings.

Imagine going to a party and you’re introduced to a fellow with a drink in his hand. You say, “How are you?” and the guy says, “I’m really depressed, man, I wake up every day and the room looks dark and the sun never shines, even though it’s out there, and I don’t see it because of the dark dankness in my soul, and life has lost its meaning, its luster, whatever it was it once had for me when I was young and ready to take on the world. Ya know?”

AHHHH!!!!

Well, the beginning of a book is like walking into a party. The reader wants to meet interesting people. And interest is aroused by what people do. The way you catch readers from the start is through action and disturbance, not feeling and expounding.

I can’t tell you the number of manuscripts I’ve read over the years that did not begin with a real scene, but instead opted for the inside of a character’s head. What I usually do in such cases is flip the pages until I get to some dialogue, because that automatically means we’re in a scene. And 98% of the time that is the best place to start. (Sure, an argument can be made that a great style might be enough to carry the opening pages. But it better be truly great and truly brief.)

So, re: the opening—save your CATS for later.

Once you’re into the novel there are two types of CATS to herd—active and reactive.

In an active scene, the character is alone but with a major scene objective (something that materially relates to the plot), and thinks while trying to overcome whatever scene obstacles are in her way.

In a reactive scene, the character is alone with a chance to reflect. She may be thinking about what’s already happened in the story, or her current psychological state, or the other characters. When done well, reactive scenes strengthen our emotional bond with the character.

A couple of examples. The first is from Dean Koontz’s Intensity. A young woman named Chyna Shepherd is thrust into the dark world of serial killer Edgler Vess. After Vess murders a family (not knowing Chyna is in the house, too) Chyna sneaks into his motor home in the hopes of saving her best friend, whom Vess has dumped there. Alas, she’s dead. But it gets worse. Vess starts driving away and Chyna is trapped in the back of the motor home.

Her objective now is survival. She must keep her presence in the vehicle a secret, find an adequate weapon, and somehow kill or disable Vess. As she looks for a weapon she makes a grisly find—the body of a young man hanging in the small closet, his eyes and mouth sewn shut.

She pulled shut the pleated-vinyl panel. Though flimsy, it moved as ponderously as a vault door. The magnetic latch clicked into place with a sound like snapping bone.

In all the textbooks she had ever read no case study of sociopathic violence had ever contained a description of a crime sufficiently vivid to make her want to retreat to a corner and sit on the floor and pull her knees against her chest and hug herself. That was precisely what she did now – choosing the corner farthest from the closet.

She had to get control of herself, quickly, starting with her manic breathing. She was gasping, sucking in great lungfuls, yet she couldn’t seem to get enough air. The deeper and faster she inhaled the dizzier she became. Her peripheral vision surrendered to an encroaching darkness until she seemed to be peering down a long black tunnel toward the dingy motor-home bedroom at the far end.

She told herself that the young man in the closet had been dead when the killer had gone to work with the sewing kit. And if he’d not been dead, at least he’d been mercifully unconscious. Then she told herself not to think about it at all, because thinking about it only made the tunnel longer and narrower, made the bedroom more distant and the lights dimmer than ever.

She put her face in her hands, and her hands were cold but her face seemed colder. For no reason that Chyna could understand, she thought of her mother’s face, as clear as a photograph in her mind’s eye. And then she did understand.

To Chyna’s mother, the prospect of violence had been romantic, or even glamorous. For a while they had lived in a commune in Oakland, where everyone talked of making a better world and where, most nights than not, the adults gathered around the kitchen table, drinking wine and smoking pot, discussing how best to tear down the hated system, sometimes also playing pinochle or Trivial Pursuit as they discussed the strategies that might bring utopia at last, sometimes far too enraptured by revolution to be interested in any lesser games …

Koontz then gives us a page-and-a-half of backstory, filtered through Chyna’s perceptions and thus relevant to the present action. She’s alone, but moving toward her scene goal. Her thoughts—which in real time would flash through her mind but in fiction time are detailed—are part of the action.

Now let’s take a look at a reactive CATS. This is from John Fante’s classic Ask The Dust. Arturo Bandini is a young writer living a meager existence in L.A. He has just decided to he’s going to steal milk off a truck. In his dingy hotel room, he reacts to his decision:

The night came reluctantly. I sat at the window, rolling some cigarets with rough cut tobacco and squares of toilet paper. This tobacco had been a whim of mine in more prosperous times. I had bought a can of it, and the pipe for smoking it had been free, attached to the can by a rubber band. But I had lost the pipe. The tobacco was so course it made a poor smoke in regular cigaret papers, but wrapped twice in toilet tissue it was powerful and compact, sometimes bursting into flames. 

The night came slowly, first the cool odor of it, and then the darkness. Beyond my window spread the great city, the street lamps, the red and blue green neon tubes bursting to life like bright night flowers. I was not hungry, there were plenty of oranges under the bed, and that mysterious chortling in the pit of my stomach was nothing more than great clouds of tobacco smoke marooned there, trying frantically to find a way out. 

So it had happened at last: I was about to become a thief, a cheap milk-stealer. Here was your flash-in-the-pan genius, your one-story writer: a thief. I held my head in my hands and rocked back and forth. Mother of God. Headlines in the papers, promising writer caught stealing milk, famous protégé of J. C. Hackmuth haled into court on petty theft charge, reporters swarming around me, flashbulbs popping, give us a statement, Bandini, how did it happen?

The scene continues, with Bandini eating an orange, doing some typing, all the while thinking about his prospects as a writer. The chapter ends with Bandini making the milk snatch, giddily bringing the two bottles back to his room, opening one and taking a long drink. And immediately spitting it out. He’d stolen what he hated—buttermilk.

There should be activity in a reactive CATS. It is often innocuous (rolling cigarettes, eating oranges, typing) but it provides the space for emotion and analysis.

The big thing to know about CATS is that they are the best way to control pace. If you need to slow things down a bit, give us more thinking. If you need to pick up the pace, compress the thoughts.

In other words, learn to herd your CATS and the readers will lap up your fiction.

11+

This Is The End

By Mark Alpert

This will have to be a brief post because I’m very close to finishing the first draft of my next novel, and I can’t really think about anything else.

It’s so much fun to write the last chapters! I don’t know yet if the book is good or bad, but it doesn’t matter. This excitement justifies everything.

I’ve come up with a new analogy to describe a novel’s narrative shape. It resembles a football. It starts at a spiky point and rapidly expands to a thick middle that’s bulging with characters and events and conflict and ideas. Then it tapers back to a point as the conflicts play out and the plot is reduced to its inevitable conclusion.

I’m approaching that endpoint now, tying up the loose ends and killing off characters right and left.

Good luck to everyone else out there who might be in the same position! (And while we’re on the topic of football, the Giants could certainly use a little luck too.)

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