Are the 1980s ‘history’ yet?

Thanks to Jordan for posting for me while I had to go unexpectedly to Australia (sadly, it was for a family funeral). I have to admit it feels a little strange to be back on the blog even though it’s only a few weeks…Somehow 2020 seems to have started on a bit of an emotional roller-coaster so I think I might need to re-celebrate the new year sometime in March!

Traveling to Australia can be a surreal experience – not only do you clock in at about 28 hours door to door, but going there you literally lose a day and coming back you often arrive before you left…both of which can play havoc on the body’s internal clock. Luckily, I didn’t suffer too much from jet lag this time – though I did experience what I like to call ‘time lag’. Isn’t it funny how going back to the place you grew up often puts you in a bit of a time warp, especially when (in parts of Australia at least) it’s like nothing’s actually changed in the 25 years since you left!

I’ve never written a book set in Australia but this time round a story which has been swirling around in my sub-conscious began to take form. In fact there are two stories circling in my brain – one of which has a definite historical context, the other that would take place (and least partly) in the mid 1980s. As a historical writer who likes to use a particular time and place to ground my stories I’ve been grappling with the question of whether the 1980s can really be considered ‘history’ yet. My memories of that time period are still clear (I’m not that old yet!) but I think I would still have to do research much like I would do for any historical period. If I was setting my story in the 1960s or 1970s I don’t think I’d even ask the question – but the 1980s…hmmm…I’m not so sure.

When I was in Australia, I was struck by how little it had really changed and how easy it would be to mentally transport myself back to my teenage years. But I was also challenged by the prospect of using the recent past as a historical backdrop – especially given how many recent successful franchises have already started to play on this kind of nostalgia (Stranger Things and The Americans anyone?!)…so I’d have to tread very carefully if I was to ensure authenticity and also avoid the usual 1980s cliches.

In some respects it doesn’t even matter (a good story is a good story no matter how you classify it) but it’s funny how in my own head I identify as a historical fiction writer and (if I’m honest) don’t feel all that confident that I could pull off writing ‘contemporary’ fiction (ah, the joys of the angst-filled writer’s mind!). Approaching the 1980s as a historical era would (perhaps) give me the crutch I need to move forward, but then I wonder, if that’s true…then what really is ‘history’ anymore??

So TKZers, what do you think? How do you classify ‘historical fiction? Do the 1980s even qualify???

5+

Mastering the Basics: Point of View and Dialogue

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We have another first page for critique today. See you on the other side.

THE OIL PATCH PROJECT

1. Slinging Pebbles at Goliath

Southwest National Laboratory
Albuquerque, New Mexico
A Monday in October

Engineering geologist Jim Checkers pushed open the door labeled “GEOCHEMISTRY LAB,” strode across the room to a workbench, and picked up a bulging old briefcase that was sitting among tools, a voltmeter, and a jar of vacuum grease. The place smelled like acetone.

Mattie Hawkins, geochemist at Southwest National Laboratory, locked into Jim’s eyes. “You’ve been spending a lot of vacation time at those oil meetings. Doesn’t your wife care?”

“I suppose, but she’s occupied with her own business.”

“Jim, did it ever occur to you that you can’t save the world?” He stopped to listen. It was pleasant to be around Mattie, the lovely tech who analyzed his samples and generated the data.

“No,” he said, as though answering a question about the weather. “I’ve got the facts … it will force change. I can’t let them continue dumping salt on the land.”

Stuffing another paper into his briefcase, Checkers reached for the old dinner jacket and tie he kept behind the door in case the lab’s brass brought official visitors from the Department of Energy.

“You can’t take on the entire oil industry, Jim.”

“Well, I’ll have to. I registered as a technical witness this time.” He brushed a stray hair from his eyes.

“Jim, you’re playing Don Quixote. The oilmen play for keeps.”

“I’m David facing Goliath, not Quixote fighting a windmill.”

She watched him hurry out and shook her head. “They’ll kill you,” she said to the closing door. “I should know. I grew up in the oil patch.” She wished she hadn’t mentioned his wife.

***

JSB: All right, let’s roll up the ol’ sleeves. I am assuming this is going to be a thriller. Thus, the first thing that needs to change is the title. The Oil Patch Project sounds like a chapter from the annual report of a city council’s energy committee … or a children’s story featuring bunnies. Maybe it’s the world Patch (e.g., Sour Patch Kids). Anyway, it isn’t a compelling thriller title, so I suggest you review this post and come up with alternatives.

I don’t like the chapter title, either. This could be the subject of a whole post, but outside of juvenile lit I’m not a fan of giving titles to chapters. In any event, “Slinging Pebbles at Goliath” is confusing. David grabbed five smooth stones from a stream, suitable for killing. So if your hero is taking on the David role in this book, why is he only using pebbles? You may have an ironic meaning in mind, but it tripped me up. Do you really need it?

Then we come to the location/day stamp (we’ll get to the actual content soon, I promise!) I’m not against these, but I do think you need to be more specific. “A Monday in October” has me thinking, Wait, aren’tyou the author? How come you don’t know the date? I’d thus use “Monday, October 13” or just cut it and indicate the month in the text (if necessary).

We’re writing a thriller here, right? Titles and character names are crucially important. Don’t use the name Checkers. It sounds funny. A clown or a dog (see, e.g., Richard Nixon) might be named Checkers, but not the hero of a thriller.

Okay, let’s get to the content. I want to concentrate on two big areas. We can nitpick sentences here and there, but I’d rater you get your craft in order on these two items before you do anything else.

First is the dialogue. It’s expository. Review my post on the subject. You have the characters saying things not so much to each other as to the reader. In a few short paragraphs you’ve told us all about the high stakes. We need to see them, feel them, as they unfold for the main character. Don’t be in such a rush to tell us everything about a scene. Readers are patient if there is some real action and tension happening.

Don’t confuse the reader with wrong pronoun placement. You have:

“Jim, did it ever occur to you that you can’t save the world?” He stopped to listen.

That is Mattie’s line of dialogue, but you have Jim’s pronoun immediately following. No, no, never, never. It should be:

“Jim, did it ever occur to you that you can’t save the world?”

He stopped to listen.

Also, you have Mattie using Jim’s name three different times in this short segment. Once is enough.

Now on to the second problem—Point of View. The first two paragraphs are omniscient, with the author telling us about each of the characters in the scene:

Engineering geologist Jim Checkers…

Mattie Hawkins, geochemist at Southwest National Laboratory…

Then we drop into Jim’s POV:

It was pleasant to be around Mattie...

But at the end, we switch to Mattie’s POV:

She watched him hurry out…

This is called “head hopping.” The effect on the reader is subtle confusion. Who am I supposed to care about? Whose story is it?

So here’s what I want you to do, author.

  1. Study Point of View

Don’t worry. Many, if not most, new writers struggle with POV. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll find it makes an almost magical difference in your writing. You can begin your studies right here at TKZ. Emeritus blogger Jodie Renner did a great series on POV a few years ago:

POV 101 – Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There 

POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping 

POV 103 – Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View 

  1. Study Dialogue

Get a few novels by dialogue masters and see how they do it. Notice how tight their dialogue is, how there’s no rush to give out information, how it is consistent with their characters, and how it contains tension or conflict. Let me suggest Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker (1980s and 90s Parker) as exemplars. Perhaps others will have suggestions in the comments.

And for the definitive text on the craft of dialogue, I humbly suggest this one.

Don’t let this discourage you, author. Craft improvement is hard work. But the rewards are great. Study, write, get feedback, write some more. Do this for the rest of your life. You’re a writer, after all.

10+

In Praise of Book Parties

By Mark Alpert

Here’s the ironic thing: We write books to communicate with others, to share our stories, dreams, jokes, and philosophies, but in order to write those books we have to spend most of our time alone.

I spent twenty years writing novels in my spare time, while I worked as a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and television shows, and then as an editor at Scientific American. And then in 2008 I finally sold my first novel and made enough money that I was able to quit my day job. Which is every fiction writer’s dream, right? So I’m not complaining.

Well, maybe I am, just a little.

It wasn’t long before I started to miss my friends at Sci Am. When I worked there, I never spent more than a couple of hours at a time in my office. Even when I was on deadline, I’d step away from my desk several times over the course of an afternoon, often to chat with my fellow editors, sometimes to go to the break room and see if anyone had left a plate of cookies there (yes, it happened sometimes), and occasionally to take the elevator downstairs and just walk around the block. There were editorial meetings too, where we decided which articles were going to run in the magazine, and although the meetings always ran way too long, there were usually a few good jokes that unexpectedly popped out of the proceedings.

But writing novels full-time is a lonelier business. I arrange lunches with friends, mostly other freelancers who work in their Manhattan apartments. I attend get-togethers of journalists, sometimes at bars, sometimes at public lectures. And I’m in a writing group that meets once a month. Nevertheless, I’ve become something of a hermit. It’s usually a great relief when my wife gets home from work. And now that our kids have gone off to college, I can’t even pester them anymore.

So that’s why I look forward to book parties. I went to a great party in Soho earlier this month to see Paul Davies, a scientist I’ve known for many years, and to get a copy of his new nonfiction book, THE DEMON IN THE MACHINE. In January I went to a party in Astoria where my good friend Nancy Bilyeau read from DREAMLAND, her new novel. And just last week I threw a party to celebrate the publication of my latest thriller, SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK. We packed into Books of Wonder, a remarkable bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and shared some beer and wine and fruit-and-cheese platters (a time-honored totem of the New York literary scene). After a while the partygoers sat down in folding chairs, and my wife introduced me to the crowd. (That’s my favorite part, because she always says so many nice things about me.) Then I read my novel’s first chapter and answered lots of good questions.

Since then I’ve gone back to work, writing another novel, spending hours bent over my laptop, alone. But at least I have a few photographs from the party (see above and below).

6+

First Page Critique: A Thousand Cuts

By Elaine Viets

Have I got a first-page critique for you, TKZers – a biker, a strip club, serious money and the age-old struggle between mother and daughter. A winning combination in my book. Here, take a look. Then I’ll make my comments.
***

“Juliana, it’s time to grow up and stop being foolish.”

My mother and I had been locked in this loop for the last four days. Every morning, she descended from her five-hundred-a-day vacation perch on the lake and made her way to the trailer park to harangue me about my life choices. Of course, I had an open invitation to stay with her and partake in the luxury. After one night, I decided the natural stone hot tub wasn’t worth it. Being in her lair gave her more time to go on about all my failures.

“I’m going to be thirty-seven in a few weeks. I think I’m as grown as I’m going to get. I do not want to move to Houston,” I said with the flat monotone of a phrase well-rehearsed and often-repeated.

Rachel María del Carmen Delgado Martin could easily pass for ten years younger than sixty. She wore her vintage designer suit and cat-eye makeup like a queen. In contrast, my black jeans and tank top, still stained from work behind the bar at the Biloxi strip club, marked me as a refugee from a biker rally.

Evidently, my mother agreed. She pulled one of my wild curls straight and let it spring back. I hadn’t cut it since the FBI shut down the family law firm, and the jumbled mass was almost to my waist.

I grabbed her hand before she could start finger-combing my hair. “Stop it. I’m not five. I don’t need you to spit on a hankie and wash my face.”

“Well, you need something. A half-million dollar education and you’re living out here in that box with wheels. You’re better than this. Come to Houston. The co-op board needs a new lawyer. One word from me and it’s yours. You don’t even have to live with me, although you didn’t seem to mind after your surgery. There’s a nice two-bedroom unit on the tenth floor of the south tower, and,” she paused as if her next words hurt, “It’s yours.”

I choked back the sarcasm bubbling to my lips. For my mother to even think about giving away a couple of million in real estate; she was speaking from her heart. I wasn’t going to gain anything by being a bitch.

“Mom.”

My contrition was cut short by the rumble of a motorcycle pulling into my driveway.

***

I thought our Brave Author did a fine job of setting the scene: We know Juliana is 37 and her mother is 60. Mom has plenty of bucks and is staying at a $500 a night vacation place. She wants her daughter, who is 37, to leave the trailer park and her life as a bartender in a strip joint, and tries to bribe her with a job and a high-end condo in Houston.
As an editor, I would make some tweaks:

(1) The first sentence – “Juliana, it’s time to grow up and stop being foolish” – doesn’t have a tag. It’s obvious who is talking, Juliana’s mother, Rachel Martin. But just so readers don’t get lost, I’d recast it this way:

“Juliana, it’s time to grow up and stop being foolish,” my mother said. Again.
My mother and I had been locked in this loop for the last four days. Every morning, she . . .
That tag, or something similar, ties the first paragraph into the second.

(2) The next tweak is punctuation:
There’s a nice two-bedroom unit on the tenth floor of the south tower, and,” she paused as if her next words hurt, “It’s yours.”

It should read:
There’s a nice two-bedroom unit on the tenth floor of the south tower, and,” she paused as if her next words hurt, “it’s yours.” (It’s is lower case.)

(3) The parts of this sentence do not belong together:
For my mother to even think about giving away a couple of million in real estate; she was speaking from her heart.

Consider recasting it this way:
My mother must be speaking from her heart to even think about giving away a couple of million in real estate.

Finally, I’m not sure what kind of book this is. There are plenty of elements – the daughter’s wild life, Mom’s money, and the “FBI shutting down the family law firm” – that could make for a good mystery. On the other hand, it could be modern women’s fiction, examining the relationship between two headstrong women.
However, I believe the author throws too much at us too soon: What we really have here is the opening to a short story or other form of short fiction. For this to work as a novel, and avoid having the women become stereotypes (defiant rebel daughter vs. controlling mother), the author needs to introduce the characters a little more slowly, and build sympathy for both of them. We need to meet them a little at a time.

Congratulations, Brave Author. I’m intrigued.
How about you, TKZers? What do you think?
*****************************************
A STAR IS DEAD, Elaine’s new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, debuts in April. Publishers Weekly says it has “witty dialogue and well-defined characters.” Pre-order it here: https://tinyurl.com/uwj27lv

5+

Writers’ Group Trolls

By John Gilstrap

In the mid-1990s, about the time when Nathan’s Run was first being published, AOL was pretty much synonymous with the internet for me.  Those were the days of squealing telephone modems and pay-by-the-hour access.  I remember jumping out of my skin the first time that AOL voice said, “Welcome” through the speakers that I didn’t even know my computer had.

There seemed to be no end to the rabbit holes of information diving. As a trivia junkie and a procrastinator, I’d stumbled upon the ultimate time suck.  It was fabulous!  But it wasn’t until I discovered the wonders of the chat room that I truly understood the addiction of internet rabbit holes.  AOL chat rooms provided opportunities to “speak” real-time with real people all over the world.

My favorite of those chat rooms was the AOL Writers Club.  Run by a husband-and-wife team out of their apartment in Arlington, Virginia, the Writers Club provided my first opportunity to interact with writers of all stripes.  Since the chats were real-time, the topics we discussed were the kinds of things you’d discuss in a coffee shop with friends.  We got to know each other as we talked not just about craft, but about our families and whatever came to mind.  Tom Clancy was probably the most famous person to pop in from time to time, but other regulars included Harlan Coben, Tess Gerritsen, Dennis Lehane and others who were just starting their careers.  More than a few of those Writers Club denizens became face-to-face friends and remain so to this day.

Then the trolls arrived.

I don’t know that we knew them as trolls at the time, but they charged into the otherwise friendly group and started swinging bats and throwing hand grenades.  They were uncooperative, and just plain mean to people.  One in particular went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, but he was one of the most sour individuals I have ever run across.  The Writers Club did not survive.  (I don’t know if the trolls were the cause of the collapse, but they are certainly the reason why I capped off that particular rabbit hole in my life.)

At conferences, I run into some the old members, and when the topic comes up, everyone agrees that no group has ever come close to the sense of community we shared in the early days of the AOL Writers Club.  TKZ comes close on some levels, but the interaction here happens in slow motion, while the Writers Club was real time.

Fast forward to 2020.  I have joined–but rarely participate in–several writer-oriented Facebook groups, and I’m dismayed by how many of them are pre-loaded with trolls, and how the trolls are the dominant presence.  Even more frustrating is the fact that these moderated, members-only group leaders tolerate the internal festering that will ultimately kill the thing they’re trying to build.

Some of these groups have tens of thousands of members.  If only 1% carry the troll gene, that’s still a lot of negativity.  So, why do people who are obviously early in their writer-journey post their work into these ant hills and ask for comments?  Do they not read other entries first?  Are they masochists and merely want to reinforce the negative narrative that plagues so many artists?  I cannot imagine doing such a thing.

Let’s add into this mix some egregiously awful advice, mostly doled out by people who clearly are parroting what they’ve heard from somebody who knows someone who attended a conference somewhere.  A recent goodie was the echo chamber conclusion that prologues are essential in order to give the backstory necessary to understand why the main character does what he does in Chapter One.

Let’s pause for a moment to give Brother Bell a chance to settle his blood pressure.

I join these groups with the intent of helping but then I realize that by pushing against the group-think, I run the risk of playing the role of the perceived troll.  So I sit silently, lurking through the bad advice about structure and the industry, waiting for that occasional opportunity to help out.  And after I do, I weather the push-back from the people who heard differently from their cousin’s girlfriend’s brother.

Here’s what I want to scream in those groups: If you’re serious about selling your writing–whether by traditional or indie routes–move away from the easy echo-chamber research.  Attend conferences.  Read books by people who know what they’re talking about.  Quit complaining about how stupid the world is to reject your 180,000-word dystopian romantic vampire political thriller and accept the reality that as a rookie, there are wise moves and unwise moves, and that your actions have consequences.

Understand that your zeal to self-publish that book that you know is under-cooked, merely for the bragging rights, can fundamentally damage your ability to sell future books as your skills improve.

Ah, the heck with it.  I’ll write a blog post instead.

13+

Finding An Opening Line Is Like Seeing
The World In a Grain of Sand

“One should be able to return to the first sentence of a novel and find the resonances of the entire work.” — Gloria Naylor

By PJ Parrish

I just wrote the two most fearsome words in the crime writer’s lexicon:

CHAPTER ONE

There’s nothing after that. Just an empty page. Just whiteness, as desolate and lonely as a snow-covered field in the Michigan woods.

Wait, that’s not bad! Maybe I can use that. . .

No. No, no, no. This book is not set in winter, you moron! You can’t drag out another over-wrought weather opening. Stop it! Besides, you used up all your snowy field metaphors in your second book. Yeah, I know it was 2001 and you’re counting on the fact that no one will remember. But you’re not going to get away with it. You have to be fresh!

I stare at the screen. The curser pulses like a dying heartbeat. Twenty minutes pass. The field of snow is still there. I start rifling through my cerebral filing cabinet for inspiration. I give up and Google quotes about how hard writing is.

Writing a novel is like making love, but it’s also like having a tooth pulled. Pleasure and pain. Sometimes it’s like making love while having a tooth pulled. –Dean Koontz

Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. — Flannery O’Connor

Writing fiction is for me a fraught business, an occasion of daily dread for at least the first half of the novel, and sometimes all the way through. The work process is totally different from writing nonfiction. You have to sit down every day and make it up. — Joan Didion

Gee, thanks guys. I feel a whole lot better now. Not. Just knowing that every other writer has the same problems getting traction as I do does not make me feel any less inadequate.

Maybe if I blog about this, it will help. Okay, you can’t write your opening line until you know what your story is about, right? You have to have an idea. Or a concept. Or a note that you scribbled on that pad beside your bed. Or maybe a great title got seared into your brain after those three scotches. See James’s Sunday post here.

Wait, that happened to me once. I got an idea for a title — Island of Bones — and had no idea, concept or plot. All I saw was the title in my head, but everything flowed from there.  That book almost wrote itself.

Mostly though, whenever I start a new book, I stare at the empty white screen with a slow-burn panic building in my chest. Because usually I am one of those pathetic constipated creatures who can’t move forward on a story until I have the first line. (See Gloria Naylor quote at top).

Hey, the first sentence is important. Don’t we preach that all the time here at TKZ? A great opening line is a promise you make to your reader that they are in for something special, a hell of a ride. No pressure, right?

One of my writing heroes, Joyce Carol Oates, says “The first sentence can’t be written until the last sentence is written.” That is not some Buddha-esque mumbo-jumbo. Oates is saying that a great opening line comes from you the writer having a complete understanding of what your book is about at its soul.  And usually that is something you discover not at the first step but during the journey.

Which tells me that I shouldn’t be sweating this first line so much. I should just get something down and move on.  But the habits of this old dog die hard.

{{{Switch back to my other screen. Curser still blinking on snowy Michigan field. Switch back to blog screen.}}}

Maybe it’s helpful to try to pin down the qualities of a great opening line.

It can be vivid or surprising. It immediately sets off a spark in your reader’s imagination.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. — 1984

It can be funny.

“I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” — The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson

It can presage something bad to come. Which is what our good First Page Critique submission yesterday was doing, I think, by having the main character jump off a building.

Some years later, on a tug boat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were places in a tub of cement. — Live By Night by Dennis Lehane.

Was Lehane paying homage to Gabriel García Márquez?

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. — 100 Years of Solitude

It can introduce the main character, or more specifically his or her voice.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.– Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

It can be a simple statement of fact, like the iconic “Call me Ismael.” But here’s my favorite:

I had a farm in Africa. — Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen. 

Such sadness in the mere use of that past tense.

It can set a mood.

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

It can establish the theme.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. — Anna Karenina by Tolstoy

And it can plain beautiful writing. But that beauty has to mean something deeper in the story as it certainly did for Nabokov.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.

Sigh. Now I am really flummoxed. Or maybe just intimidated. Wait, I think something’s brewing. Be right back…

{{{Switch to other screen and type this}}}

CHAPTER ONE

Someone was following him. He had noticed it a couple miles back, but only because he was so good at tailing cars himself and had never been made.

{{{Switch back to blog screen}}}

My protagonist is skip tracer who’s great at finding people who don’t want to be found. But now he’s now trying to find his wife, who is dead — or is she? And everyone thinks he did it.

Okay, it’s not perfect. But it’s a start.

 

11+

Where Am I? — First Page Critique

By SUE COLETTA

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. I’ll catch ya on the flipside. Enjoy!

TITLE: Sonbgird

chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building. Below me, the slow curve of it swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below. Above me, it changed into a skyscraper. The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see. So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt.

Do it. Do it now.

I screamed at myself to move, but my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. Tingling my fingertips as sweat prickled my forehead.

Even if I didn’t believe I could, I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out. But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve on fire. The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast. He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bight brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate hair over her shoulder. It draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

The genre would be fantasy, I think. Full disclosure: this is not my preferred genre. As a reader, I’m drawn to stories that are logical or at least possible (think: The Martian by Andy Weirs). Brave writer, please remember this is one reader’s opinions. Perhaps others will see something I missed.

Let’s look at this opener in more depth. My comments are in bold.

TITLE: Sonbgird I’m guessing this is a typo and you meant to write Songbird, which I liked right away.

Chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. (first two lines drew me in—good job) I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

The previous two sentences I’ve read a gazillion times and I still can’t picture where I am. Is the MC standing in an empty culvert? If so, then how does wind blow his/her hair “up the side of the building”?

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The Sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building (excellent visual). Below me, the slow curve of it (of what, the walls or tunnel? In my mind a tunnel is horizontal, not vertical. If it is a vertical structure and s/he’s looking down into a tunnel-like pit, then you need a better way to set the scene. Also, whenever possible substitute the word “it” for the object) swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below.

“Sand” threw me. I’d assumed we were in a metropolitan area due to the word “tunnel,” so you need to ground the reader to where we are.

Above me, it changed into a skyscraper.

Again, what is “it”? And how did it morph into a skyscraper? Without some context, these details don’t make sense to this reader.

The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see.

That passage reaffirms a metropolitan landscape in my mind. Unless we’re in the desert outside Vegas or somewhere similar. See why it’s important to ground the reader? Don’t make us guess. If we can’t envision the surroundings, how can we fully invest in the story?.

So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt. Those two lines intrigued me. I’m thinking concrete smokestacks. Try adding more sensory details i.e. smoke plumed into an aqua-blue sky, tangoed with a lone cloud, and filled my sinuses with burnt ashes of sulfur (or somebody’s dearly departed — kidding. 😉 ) 

Do it. Do it now. Nice. I can feel the urgency.

I screamed at myself for my feet to move, but they wouldn’t comply my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. (try to decrease the sentences that begin with “I” while remaining in a deep POV). A cold rush of panic washed over me, tingling my fingertips, as sweat prickling my forehead (changed to show how to play with rhythm to create a more visceral experience. Just a suggestion. Your call on whether to keep it).

Even if I didn’t believe I could (could what? You’re trying too hard to be mysterious), I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair. This I like. It’s mysterious yet, as a reader, I don’t feel cheated—nicely done.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out (good visuals here). But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve was on fire (removed “I felt” to stay in deep POV). The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I still say the MC is in a horizontal culvert that’s hanging over a cliff of some sort. Regardless, please make it clear where we’re at. I shouldn’t still be guessing.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited. Whoa. The MC burst into flames?

I red-highlighted all the sentences that begin with “I” to make you aware of them. If this is intentional, and it may be, then fine, but be careful of overdoing it. Too many in a row can work against us.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast (this is a great way to weave in a tidbit of backstory). He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bright brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. This is a nit: whenever I read “eyes” instead of “gaze” in this context I think of disembodied eyeballs. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate-colored (added “-colored” so the reader doesn’t imagine real chocolate like I did on the first read-through. Some descriptive words are like that. Or choose a different way to describe the color i.e. deep brown) hair over her shoulder. It (Strands instead of “it”) draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

The first line indicates she has long flowing hair, then we find out she’s wearing a braid. Give us one solid image. When we’re not clear right away it causes confusion.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your work to TKZ. It’s been a pleasure critiquing this first page. I hope you found it useful.

Over to you, my beloved TKZers! Please add helpful suggestions for this brave writer.

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How Do You Pick a Title?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

It goes without saying that titles are important. So I won’t say it. Instead, let’s explore how you go about finding the right one for your book.

Sometimes a title will come to you the moment you have a concept. Other times you may start writing without a title in mind and put off the decision until later.

Have you ever had a title come to you, demanding a novel be written to go with it? I have one right now that I love. I just don’t know what the book is about yet. But someday I’m going to write that thing.

I don’t know of any formula for finding a title, but here are a few suggestions (please share your own in the comments):

First, look over a bunch of titles of books in your genre. Go to Amazon and search the bestsellers in that category. Get a sense of how they sound. If you’re writing thrillers, for example, you probably don’t want a title like The Policeman and His Lady or A Cold Wind Bloweth the Badge.

Second, make two lists, one of nouns and one of adjectives. For example, when I was under contract for legal thrillers, I wrote down a bunch of legal nouns: trial, guilt, jury, witness, justice, evidence, etc. Then I wrote adjectives with thriller possibilities: night, dark, hidden, and so on.

Put the lists side by side and mix-and-match, e.g., Dark Justice. Hidden Guilt.

Next, play with phrases that have key genre words. I was doing that one day when I thought of the word alive. How could I use that in a phrase for a thriller title? A little more playing around and I wrote Your Son is Alive. That grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I had no idea what the book would be, only that it demanded to be written. So I wrote it and published it.

After you’ve come up with half a dozen or more titles, do a little testing on people you know:

“Hey Stan, which of these do you like best? Dark Justice, Justice in the Dark, The Darkness of Justice, The Justice of Darkness, or The Girl Who Searched for Justice in the Dark?”

If you’re doing a series, a “link” word or phrase is often a help. John Sandford’s Prey series, for example. I did a lawyer thriller series with the word Try in each title. Why? Because I had planned the first one to be Die Trying, but some writer named Child had used it. I could have gone ahead anyway (titles cannot be copyrighted, see below) but I decided against it. Then the play on words, Try Dying, came to me and I liked it.

The other titles in the series are: Try Darkness and Try Fear. I actually made a list of more title possibilities, e.g., Try Justice, Try Running. But when I got down to Try the Veal, I determined I had enough. (FYI, the first book in that series, Try Dying, is free today through Wednesday in the Kindle store. Use this link.)

Okay, suppose you come up with a title and then find out another author has already used it. Can you use it, too? Yes. Titles are not copyrightable.

But that’s not the end of the matter. How well known is the other author? There’s a “rough” copyright protection out there in the form of consumers who are likely to be very upset (and nasty in their reviews) when they learn that your novel bearing the same title as Big-Name Author’s book is not actually by Big-Name Author.

If the book was published ten years ago, however, enough time may have elapsed that this won’t be a problem. Use common sense. How likely is it that a significant number of readers will be confused? I once had a title ready for a book I was prepping to publish, when I saw that Mr. Harlan Coben had a book with that same title about to come out. Ouch! I could have gone ahead with it, but in addition to the confusion, I knew I’d have reviews that would say something like, “What a ham-fisted way to try to feed off Coben’s readership!”

So I changed the title. (For the curious, the book is Don’t Leave Me. My original title: Stay Close.)

While titles cannot be copyrighted, in some cases they may be trademarked. You can’t, for example, write a novel with Star Trek in the title without getting a letter from a law firm with several names on the letterhead. Actually, you probably won’t get that far, because Amazon won’t allow you to publish it. So don’t get clever and try to write The Space Adventure of Civil War General Harry Potter.

Okay, over to you. How are you at picking titles? Do you have a method?

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Under Siege

Photo by Annie Spratt from unsplash.com

I try not to be a Danny Downer when it is my turn in the Saturday morning TKZ barrel. That’s what I am today, however. 

There is a simple reason for this. Our libraries are under siege, and not from lack of funding. The barbarians are at the gate and in the parking lot.

I posted a blog here several months ago about one of my local library branches and how wonderful it was. I stand behind every word.  I think that many of us take them for granted in several ways. They were here for us when we were children and we assume they will always be here as a place to borrow free books, music, films, and graphic novels, among other things. We also might tend to forget that libraries were and are also places where kids could go to study. Additionally, libraries were also the original “safe space” before that term got co-opted by college students. Back in the day parents and teachers used to tell kids who were lost, were being bothered, or just needed a quiet place that they could go to “the library.” 

The problem is that the space we know and love is being disrespected. People used to know how to act in a library. Everyone used to know, and if someone forgot the librarian said “Shhh” and you “shhhed.” That increasingly is not the case. Folks are using the space for naps, panhandling, hookups, and worse. They are harassing library workers and patrons, sometimes while under the influence of adult beverages and controlled substances and sometimes not. I’ve been to a couple of branches locally where I have had to walk a gauntlet of aggressive requests for money as I walked through the doors. I can deflect that type of thing quickly and effectively enough. What about the parent who isn’t so prepared, who is just trying to take their little kid into the library for storytime? They’ll probably just stop going. Then what? 

Don’t take my word for it about this. I found several articles regarding this issue, though it was this one that resonated most strongly with me. What reminded me about this issue, however, is a recent murder that took place in Columbus, Ohio, I don’t live in Columbus, but my profession occasionally takes me close to the area where the murder took place, a neighborhood called Driving Park. The killing occurred in the parking lot of the library that serves the neighborhood.  The library building, which was built a few years ago to replace an older facility, is the one bright spot on the street, which is not a commercial destination for anyone living outside of the neighborhood. I occasionally will stop in that library and browse for a few minutes if I find myself running early to an appointment. My observation is that the people who do use it — primarily students who live in the area — are well-served. The library does not suffer from a lack of resources. It’s a place where students can and do go to study quietly and without disturbance, where reliable online access is more likely to be obtained than it might be at home, and where the librarians are happily kept hopping by the requests for help. 

You can read an article about what happened at the Driving Park library here.  The police have the alleged shooter in custody. What is clear is that this incident didn’t occur because of an argument over who was going to check out the last copy of American Dirt.  It didn’t happen because two people wanted the same parking space. No, the reason for the killing was a street beef which caused more than a dozen knuckleheads to gather in the library parking lot because it was convenient. This is in a neighborhood where parents walk their kids to the library to give them a chance to do well. 

There is some discussion occurring under the radar on a nationwide basis about what to do. Some systems are retaining special duty police officers. There are some librarians who are objecting to this on the basis that the presence of a police officer makes the library less “welcoming.” I understand their point, though I would submit that the sight of a drunken adult dropping a dooky on the carpet in front of a five-year-old isn’t exactly a welcoming sight, either. Neither is the sound of gunfire or the sight of a knife fight.

I don’t know what we do here. The problem isn’t going to get any better on its own. It’s only going to get worse. And while the problem, in general, isn’t confined to libraries in disadvantaged areas it certainly impacts them harder —  places where libraries are needed the most — than those located in areas that are financially better off. The mother quoted in the article I linked to above is, I would guess, going to be less likely to let her child go to the library, with her or without her, if it is no longer assuredly a safe place — a safe space, if you will — either inside or out.  The kids are being scared away. The parents of those kids are being scared away. So where does a kid like that go, someone who could turn out to be anything from a teacher to a doctor to an astronaut with a little encouragement and a lot of available resources?

Is this a problem near you? If it is, are you hearing about it anecdotally or is it being reported in your local media? I take the sense is that it is happening primarily in metropolitan areas as opposed to those with smaller density populations. Am I wrong? 

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