First Page Critique: 12 Rules

Happy Monday! Today we have a first page critique entitled 12 Rules. My comments follow and I’m hoping that TKZers provide some great input and feedback for our brave submitter. I will be on a plane to Europe so may not be able to respond to comments – but I’m sure it will be a great discussion!

Title: 12 Rules

Chapter 1

Everything around them tended to die, including people. She always struggled with keeping pretty flowers in her room alive by forgetting to water them, and he never could sustain tiny house pets lifespan beyond a couple of weeks. Even inatime things like hopes and dreams had a tendency to writher over time between the two.

Though they both had to admit, this was the first human to die in their presence.

As heartless as Arlo hated to be, the person who had fallen quite literally at their feet was of no importance to either of them. It was Parks’ third cousins step sister. Technically, she wasn’t really family according to him.

Two weeks ago they were at his annual family gathering. Everyone was drinking, laughing, and having a good time as far as Arlo could tell. Her and Parks were huddled by a picnic table full of all the younger kids while sipping on red punch, discussing the boy Parks believed to be his nephew, but wasn’t all that sure. He was cute, Arlo had commented, and in the corner they were devising a plan to get him to talk to Arlo. She knew Parks was the wrong person to ask when his first suggestion came with, “accidently spill your drink on him.” Before she could even fathom saying a word to the gorgeous new stranger, Parks’ mom pulled them over for a picture. Lined up by height, Arlo of course was at the front along with a younger lady who was very pretty. She smiled at Arlo, flashing perfect whitened teeth over baby pink lipstick that popped. Then there was blinding flashes of more than one camera, and then the flashes were gone and she was seeing spots. Everyone stood up, including the nice lady next to her. Parks had already been back at her side with a new and improved plan, but never got the chance to tell her. The lady’s eyelids fluttered and her ocean blue eyes rolled like pool table balls backwards, and she tumbled to the ground like a tiny building- quick and short. The lady didn’t just fall to the side or backwards, she fell forward; right on Arlo’s sunshine yellow shoes she’d been so excited to wear. And just like that, the lady had smeared death all over her new converse. Following the fall and destroyed shoes had been earfuls of screaming.

Now they were bumper to bumper in early morning traffic yelling at each other over a blaring radio.

“You were supposed to take that exit we passed like ten minutes ago!” Arlo shouted. She felt the need to cup one of her hands around her mouth like a mega phone. But leaned back in the driver’s seat, he still refused to listen.

My Comments:

Somewhere in this first page there is a great story waiting to emerge – I can see glimmers of a cool, detached, wry POV and the beginnings of a story about two people who can’t keep anything alive suddenly being confronted with an actual death. Unfortunately, this story is stymied by some stylistic choices, a passive choice of sentence structure, and a lack of characterization that robs the page of much of its dramatic tension.

In brief, I think these are the main issues that need to be addressed:

  1. Pronoun confusion – The use of ‘them’, ‘she’ and ‘he’ before we know and understand the characters creates confusion as well as distance. At first I had no idea who was ‘he’ or ‘she’ as Arlo and Parks are gender neutral names (which is no issue – just needs clarification so we know who is who) and had initially assumed they were a couple who lived together. All through this first page, the use of pronouns creates an awkward sense of distance from the story which makes it hard for a reader to feel engaged.
  2. Passive sentence structure – Many of the sentences in this first page are written in passive voice creating further distance from the story. An good example of this is the phrase “Following the fall and destroyed shoes had been earfuls of screaming”…not only does this sound awkward and strange, it also robs the scene of the drama of having people screaming as someone literally dies in front of them. I would recommend the writer go through this first page and change passive sentences to active ones to create  sense of immediacy and action.
  3. Lack of dramatic tension – In the first few paragraphs, the reader starts to feel some anticipation about the death that is going to occur only for it to be handled in a prosaic, indifferent way that drains away all the dramatic tension. I wanted to be intrigued and invested in the characters and how they responded to this initial death and also to get some sense of the story to follow. Once the scene switched from the death to Arlo shouting about how they’d missed the exit, I was no longer engaged in the story.
  4. Lack of detailed characterization – Apart from my uncertainty over the relationship between Arlo and Parks – at first I thought they were a couple whose hopes and dreams withered as much as their house plants – there is also the issue of providing characters with real meaningful scenes and dialogue so that we, as readers, become invested in them as three-dimensional characters. In this first page, none of the characters introduced are given any real substance. We are told  that that Parks is trying to set Arlo up with someone at the party, but there’s no real action or dialogue to make us care about this occurring (also the suggestion to ‘accidentally spill your drink on him’ is so bland that it doesn’t give us a true sense of character’). Likewise all the minor character’s are merely described in detached terms like ‘Parks’ third cousin’s step sister’, ‘gorgeous new stranger’, ‘a younger lady who was very pretty’, ‘ the nice lady next to her’, and someone who Parks ‘believed to be his nephew, but wasn’t all that sure’ (which I didn’t really understand…). This meant it was very hard to visualize any of the minor characters or care about what happens to them in this scene.
  5. Telling not showing – This first page is almost entirely told to us rather than shown, with only the death itself containing much in the way of visual details. I would have preferred we were immersed in the scene and given sensory details so we could visualize all the characters and become invested in the story.
  6. Spelling and grammar issues – We always emphasize here at TKZ that a first page is the all-important first impression and, as such, it must be as perfect as possible. Grammar errors such as missing apostrophes and spelling errors (‘inatime’ not inanimate and ‘writher’ rather than ‘wither’) will immediately put off any agent, editor or reader from continuing to read the story.

Overall, I think there’s a good story lurking beneath the surface of this first page, but the writer could benefit from cleaning up the sentence structure, grammar, and pronoun use, adopting a more active voice, and immersing us in the scene with action, dialogue and more detailed characterization for this first page.

So TKZers what other advice or feedback would you provide our brave submitter?




The Importance of Creativity Time

by James Scott Bell

I read a fascinating article the other day on how athletes’ bodies age. Using baseball players as an example, the author explains:

[A]n athlete’s physical decline begins before most of us notice it, and even the 23-year-old body can do things today that it might not be able to do tomorrow. Fastball speed starts going down in a player’s early 20s, and spin rate drops with it. Exit velocity begins to decline at 23 or 24. An average runner slows a little more than 1 inch per second every year, beginning pretty much immediately upon his debut. It takes a little over four seconds for most runners to reach first base, which means with each birthday, it’s as if the bases were pulled 4 inches farther apart. Triples peak in a player’s early 20s, as does batting average on balls put into play. A 23-year-old in the majors is twice as likely to play center field as left field; by 33, the opposite is true.

Feeling tired yet?

Thirty-three feels so far away, but it’s already happening. The 23-year-old’s lean body mass peaked sometime in the preceding five years. His bone-mineral density too. He’s at the age when the body begins producing less testosterone and growth hormone. His body, knowing it won’t need to build any more bone, will produce less energy. Male fertility peaks in the early 20s, the same time as pitch speed and exit velocity. Athleticism is, crudely speaking, about showcasing what a body looks like when it’s ready to propagate a species.

Had kids yet?

And then there’s the brain:

Researchers in British Columbia studied decision-making speeds of thousands of StarCraft 2 players and found that cognitive abilities peak at 24. Other research has found that perceptual speed drops continuously after 25. The brain is changing: the ratios of N-acetylaspartate to choline, the integrity of myelin sheathing, the connectivity of hippocampal neurons — you know, baseball stuff.

So basically, after age 23 or so, we’re all on the treadmill to decline.

Thanks for stopping by TKZ, everyone!

Well, stats be hanged, I’m a Do not go gentle into that good night kind of guy. Might as well put up the good fight as long as you can with all the weapons available to you.

Especially if you’re a writer who wants to write until they find you with your cold, dead fingers poised over the keyboard.

Which means our brains—which house our imagination, tools of language, and craft knowledge—must be worked out just like a body.

I have long taught the discipline of a weekly creativity time, an hour (or more) dedicated to pure creation, mental play, wild imaginings. I like to get away from my office for this. I usually go to a local coffee house or a branch of the Los Angeles Library System. I also like to do this work in longhand. I mute my phone and play various games, like:

The First Line Game. Just come up with the most gripping first line you can, without knowing anything else about what might come after it.

The Dictionary Game. I have a pocket dictionary. I open it to a random page and pick a random noun. Then I write down what thoughts that noun triggers. (This is a good cure for scene block, too.)

Killer Scenes. I do this on index cards, and it’s usually connected to a story I’m developing. I just start writing random scene ideas, not knowing where they’ll go. Later I’ll shuffle the stack and take out two cards at a time, and see what ideas develop from their connection.

The What If Game. The old reliable. I’ll look at a newspaper (if I can find one) and riff off the various stories. What if that politician who was just indicted was really an alien from a distant planet? (Actually, this could explain a lot.)

Mind Mapping. I like to think about my story connections this way. I use a fresh blank page and start jotting.

After my creativity time I find that my brain feels more flexible. Less like a grouchy guy waiting on a bench for a bus and more like an Olympic gymnast doing his floor routine.

Now, I’m going to float you a theory. I haven’t investigated this. It’s just something I’ve noticed. It seems to me that the incidence of Alzheimer’s among certain groups is a lot lower than the general population. The two groups I’m thinking of are comedians and lawyers.

What got me noticing this was watching Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks being interviewed together, riffing off each other. Reiner was 92 at the time, and Brooks a sprightly 88. They were both sharp, fast, funny. Which made me think of George Burns, who was cracking people up right up until he died at 100. (When he was 90, Burns was asked by an interviewer what his doctor thought of his cigar and martini habit. Burns replied, “My doctor died.”)

So why should this be? Obviously because comedians are constantly “on.” They’re calling upon their synapses to look for funny connections, word play, and so on. Bob Hope, Groucho Marx (who was only slowed down by a stroke), and many others fit this profile.

And I’ve known of several lawyers who were going to court in their 80s, still kicking the stuffing out of younger opponents. One of them was the legendary Louis Nizer, whom I got to watch try a case when he was 82. I knew about him because I’d read my dad’s copy of My Life in Court (which is better reading than many a legal thriller). Plus, Mr. Nizer had sent me a personal letter in response to one I sent him, asking him for advice on becoming a trial lawyer.

And there he was, coming to court each day with an assistant and boxes filled with exhibits and documents and other evidence. A trial lawyer has to keep a thousand things in mind—witness testimony, jury response, the Rules of Evidence (which have to be cited in a heartbeat when an objection is made), and so on. Might this explain the mental vitality of octogenarian barristers?

There also seems to be an oral component to my theory. Both comedians and trial lawyers have to be verbal and cogent on the spot. Maybe in addition to creativity time, you ought to get yourself into a good, substantive, face-to-face conversation on occasion. At the very least this will be the opposite of Twitter, which may be reason enough to do it.

So what about you? Do you employ any mental calisthenics?


Sequel Fatigue

By Mark Alpert

Summer is the time for movie sequels, so I went with my wife and daughter this week to see Incredibles 2, the long-awaited follow-up to the blockbuster 2004 animated film about a superhero family. And I was disappointed.

It isn’t a bad movie. Parts of it are funny. And the animation is beautiful. But it just didn’t live up to the original Incredibles. There’s no way it could’ve.

When the original came out, my kids were five and three. We got the DVD, of course, and over the next few years we watched it at least a dozen times. I became convinced that this was a perfect movie. Better than Shrek or Toy Story. Even better than Finding Nemo. (As you can tell, I was watching a lot of animated films back then.)

So the bar for the Incredibles sequel was set very high, almost impossible to reach. And many book sequels face an equally tough challenge. Dune, the first novel in the sci-fi series by Frank Herbert, was far better than any of the books that came after it. The same thing can be said for The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Magicians, and Ender’s Game. But it’s not true of all series, of course. The Harry Potter books, in particular, seemed to get better as the series went on. I felt the same way about Stephen King’s Dark Tower books. (It’s hard to make a similar judgment about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels because he hasn’t finished the series yet. My favorite book so far, though, is the third one, A Storm of Swords.)

I guess you could say I’m suffering from sequel fatigue. I recently wrote a trilogy of Young Adult novels published by Sourcebooks — The Six (2015), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017) — and in retrospect it seems that the first book was definitely the best. So now I’m back to writing standalone novels. The Coming Storm, a thriller about our very dysfunctional government, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in January. And right now I’m working on a Young Adult novel about God and faith. It’s kind of a crazy stunt — publishers hate books about religion because they’re bound to offend someone — but I can’t stop myself. At least it won’t have a sequel.


“In the Heart of a Child, One Moment Can Last Forever” – Share Your Moment

Jordan Dane

I hope you all had a great July 4th holiday. I hosted my parents for a ribs dinner for my holiday celebration. I’ve been on a ketogenic diet (more of a lifestyle than a diet) and have been feeling AMAZING. I’m more energized and have been sleeping well and waking up refreshed and ready to go. As I’m writing this, I’ve had my Keto Coffee, which is like a buttery latte with strong coffee. Yum!

For today’s post, I wanted to share the idea behind a book that a friend recommended me to read. JUST A MINUTE by Wess Stafford is based on a theme that touched me – “In the heart of a child, one moment can last forever.” Although this is a Christian-based book, it holds stories that can touch anyone. Its chapters are split into several categories: moments for rescue, to build self-worth, to form character, to discover talent, to awaken the spirit, to stretch the mind, and to realize one’s calling.

If you think back in your life, can you remember times when the special attention of an adult helped define who you became as an adult? These moments don’t have to be earth shattering. Just moments you have never forgotten, for a reason, because they meant (and still mean) something to you all these years later.

My parents have given me a lifetime of these moments. They recently celebrated their 67th anniversary and I wanted to share their wedding pictures with you.

My mother has given me many of these life-altering moments. She is the first person I think of when I ponder who I was as a child and who I became as an adult. My father had his influence, but my mom was in the trenches with us growing up while dad worked long hours to keep my five siblings in private school in a house he designed (as an architect).

Under the category of TO DISCOVER TALENT – my mom had the opposite effect. After it took me a few years to decide what my major would be in college, I called her to say that I had made up my mind and that I would be getting a B. S. (Business Degree) with an emphasis on Accounting. The first words out of her mouth were, “You’re not good at math.” Yeah, thanks for the vote of confidence, mom. In complete irony, I proved her wrong (sort of). I had 6 hours of deficiencies in math that kept me from taking a necessary course – Statistics. I was advised to bite the bullet and take the 6 hours in other math courses before I would be considered proficient enough to endure Stat. With my Irish dander up, I called B.S. on that and just took the damned Stat class. I finished with a B, one of my lowest grades. When it came time for my graduation, I realized I was still short those 6 hours before I could graduate. I went to the Dean of the school (someone who knew me well from all my hours on the Student Council) and asked him to waive the 6 hours. It obviously was a mistake if I could pass Stat. He agreed and said he would remove the deficiency if I could tell him a good joke. For the price of a good joke, I graduated with honors. Yes, my mom stirred up my competitive spirit and raised the Irish in me–a skill that has served me well.

Under the category of TO FORM CHARACTER, My mom once caught me sneaking out a small bottle of aspirin filled with liquor when I was going to a party of teens. I had planned to share that little bottle with a few of my girlfriends. When she found it in my purse, she told me I was busted and couldn’t go to the party. I told her I understood and was prepared to take my lumps. I didn’t make a fuss. But after a short while, my mom rethought her position and came to me with a moment that changed my life forever. She said that if I promised NOT to take a drink at the party, she would still let me go. She trusted me. That moment of trust made me feel like an adult. At the party, even though alcohol was present, I did not take ONE SIP of it. I told all my friends that I had made a promise to my mom that I would keep. That life lesson stuck with me. After that, I never lied to my mom. I learned that lies diminished me, then and now. If I couldn’t face the truth of who I am as a human being and had to resort to a lie to fake it, what did that make me? I learned to own my truth.

Mom also learned a lesson. If she didn’t want to really know something about me, she shouldn’t ask if she couldn’t handle the truth. I loved shocking her whenever she asked me about things happening in my life. This was the woman who said on my wedding day, “I’d tell you about the birds and the bees, but I’m afraid you’d correct me.” Reality isn’t in her wheelhouse.

What about YOU, TKZers? Who influenced the adult you have become? Please share some of your stories and what you learned from them.


First Page Critique: A Good Story
Is In Here Trying To Escape

By PJ Parrish

It’s Show and Tell Day here at TKZ school. Some of you might be old enough to remember Show and Tell Day.  (I’m told schools don’t do it much anymore, alas). Like all kids, I loved it because it was a break from the daily grind. You got to sit back and listen to your classmates tell tales and sometimes do tricks. I remember one kid who brought his pet salamander. Another girl showed off her Barbie collection. Then there was the kid who brought in a rock. There was a lot of giggling as he started. What the heck could you say about a rock? But then he told a great story about how he and his family had gone canoeing on the Platt River in northern Michigan on vacation and he had tipped over and almost drowned. He found the rock on the shore and brought it home as a souvenir of his big day. Needless to say, we were enthralled. He almost died! I never forgot him.

With that prelude, let’s take a look at today’s submission. Thank you, dear writer, for letting us learn from your work.

Nephilim of Flame

Wren Wilson held her face in her hands but she had no more tears left in her. Besides, tears belonged to the grieving, not the guilty. The town had its first murder in more than forty years and Wren was responsible. The media had eaten up the story, a heroic sacrifice that led to Wren’s escape from a madman. Somehow it had made the horrible murder easier for the town to handle. They had put Wren on a pedestal like she had accomplished something. Wren was sick to her stomach thinking about it. Not because the tragedy of it all, but because it was a lie. The lie came easily to her lips after so many re-telling’s. Wren knew she didn’t deserve the sympathy and good will showered on her. She was no damsel in distress and certainly no hero.

Wren took a deep breath and lowered her hands to blankly out the car window. The sunny day was already beginning to become overcast as the funeral procession approached the cemetery. Wren watched the distant clouds, doing her best to ignore the sight of the hearse and flashing lights ahead. Wren daydreamed that she was out on a normal drive with her parents, unconcerned with big city problems like murder. For a few minutes, she managed to become lost in the tranquility represented by the car window. The illusion shattered when the car pulled to a stop and Wren glanced forward, they had arrived to the cemetery.

Wren picked her way carefully to the cemetery plot where the hero would be interred. She had been asked to say a few words today and she fretted over what to do. To her left she could see TV crews filming the mourners while reporters updated their viewers on the day’s events. Wren tried to keep a mournful look on her face. She knew cameras would be focusing on her. Wren plucked at her black dress irritably. She glanced up and met the eyes of some of the other mourners, lowering her head quickly. Their sympathy made it worse.

Wren sighed and shook her head, they didn’t know the whole truth, that is why they gave her those looks. Wren had lied to the police, to the media and to her family. She had conspired to keep the truth from everyone.


As you might guess by now, I’m using this as a springboard to talk about showing versus telling in fiction. What we have here is an intriguing idea (a woman who harbors a dark secret about a murder). But the idea is obscured by two problems that are common to many openings — confusion and too much telling. Let’s tackle the confusing part first.

What’s happening on the surface isn’t the problem — Wren Wilson, the putative protagonist, is at a funeral thinking about the dead person, her own status in her community and the secret she carries.

But what’s below the surface is really confusing, especially about the relationship between Wren and the person being buried here. We get this line first:  The town had its first murder in more than forty years and Wren was responsible. This implies Wren murdered someone, probably the person being buried? Which makes her a criminal. Then we get this line:  The media had eaten up the story, a heroic sacrifice that led to Wren’s escape from a madman. Which makes me think that Wren was abducted maybe and she killed him and escaped? So she’s not a criminal; she’s a victim. But if she was abducted, she killed in self-defense, no? So that’s not a murder. It’s a justifiable homicide. 

The town lauds her, “showering her” with “good will and sympathy.” So apparently, she did something really brave and positive? But she feels so guilty about it, she’s cried-out and can’t stand to look out at the cemetery but then she “picked irritably at her black dress.”  I don’t understand what is going on in this character’s head. I also don’t understand who is being buried — the “madman” or someone else who so far has no grounding in the story.  After I re-read this several times, I also wondering if maybe Wren was abducted (by the “madman”) and someone ELSE saved her (“the hero”) but he got killed in the process and now folks are mourning him?

Wren picked her way carefully to the cemetery plot where the hero would be interred.

Who is this “hero”? I thought she was the hero. We go on:

She glanced up and met the eyes of some of the other mourners, lowering her head quickly. Their sympathy made it worse.

Wren sighed and shook her head, they didn’t know the whole truth, that is why they gave her those looks. Wren had lied to the police, to the media and to her family. She had conspired to keep the truth from everyone.

Other mourners? Why is this person being mourned? Again, I think the confusion is just because the initial implication here is that the “madman” who was “murdered” by Wren is now being buried. But that makes no sense given the use of “hero” and “mourners.”

I get that the writer is going for some misdirection here. Wren was some kind of victim at the hands of a madman but became a “hero” herself by escaping. But apparently, this is not true.  Wren herself tells us it is a lie. So that is a great source of tension and intrigue. But I think the writer needs to clarify the characters here — the “madman,” the “hero” and Wren’s relationship to them. And who is being buried? 

Now let’s talk about the showing versus telling.  There is minimal action here: Wren is driving up to a cemetery where a burial is taking place and walks to the grave site. That is all that happens. Everything else is thinking, remembering, regretting, thinking, sighing, thinking…

Everything is told to us. All the crucial information is conveyed through Wren’s thoughts. The first paragraph — that critical door into the reader’s imagination — is 99 percent backstory. Now, I don’t like trying to rewrite someone’s opening because we all tell our stories in our own voices, but I just want to suggest a different approach to make my point. What if this scene opened at the END of the grave site ceremony? We see Wren standing there, feeling exposed under the TV lights and cameras and the eyes of the people in her town. Maybe a pastor says a quick last word about the person being buried (so we know who it is) and Wren has a BRIEF thought about him. (No long backstory — you dribble that out artfully later!)

Then one by one, a few folks come up to talk to her. DIALOGUE IS ACTION! And this is how you begin to fill in the backstory. Let me take a stab at it:

Wren saw a woman in black moving slowly toward her but it was too late to dodge her. It was her old sixth grade teacher.

“Wren, you poor thing,” the woman said, embracing her. “I don’t know how you can come here today. Not after what that man did to you. You’re so pale. Are you okay?

Wren pulled away. “I’m fine, Mrs. Marsh.” But she wasn’t. She was downing Ambien every night and staring out the window of her florist shop every day, unable to fill the simplest order. (You slip in what she does for a living).

Wren turned to get away, nearly bumping into the tall man. The WMRK emblem of his TV station was emblazoned on his blue blazer. Mark Standish…the reporter who had been there when the police first brought her out, clothes torn, face streaked with blood. She still wondered how he had heard about her escape.

“When you going to give me the story, Wren?” Standish asked.

“I told you all as much as I remember,” she said. But she hadn’t. She hadn’t told anyone what had really happened in that week she had been held captive in that basement. She had told just enough to be called a heroine, just enough to get the sympathy of everyone in town.

Wren pushed past him and went to stand under a tree. She pressed a hand to her chest and shut her eyes tight. FILL IN HER WITH SOME BRIEF FLASHBACKS TO WHAT HAPPENED.  Wren turned to look back at the grave site. The mourners were leaving, heading back to their cars, popping up umbrellas as a light rain began to fall.

Wren waited until they were all gone then walked slowly back through the rows of plastic chairs to the edge of the grave. She looked down at the black casket.

“We know,” she said.  “You and me. We are the only ones who know the truth.”

Well, you get the idea. What I am trying to do here is to convey the same backstory but through the actions and dialogue of the characters. You needn’t have slam-bam death and destruction in your opening. But you need tension and action. Dialogue is action. It is showing. Use it!

Okay, I know I am running long but I like this submission for its potential so let me  quickly go over a few more things in Track Change edits:

Wren Wilson held her face in her hands This is an odd image and sorta cliched. Can you find a more compelling first line? but she had no more tears left in her. Besides, tears belonged to the grieving, not the guilty. The town had its first murder in more than forty years and Wren was responsible. The media had eaten up the story, a heroic sacrifice that led to Wren’s escape from a madman. Somehow it had made the horrible murder easier for the town to handle. They had put Wren on a pedestal like she had accomplished something. Wren was sick to her stomach thinking about it. Not because the tragedy of it all, but because it was a lie. The lie came easily to her lips after so many re-telling’s. Wren knew she didn’t deserve the sympathy and good will showered on her. She was no damsel in distress and certainly no hero. This is an info-dump of backstory. This needs to come out slowly, gracefully, throughout the first chapter, not in the first graph. The first graph should be a tease not a tell-all confessional.

Wren took a deep breath and lowered her hands to stare? blankly out the car window. The sunny day was already beginning to become overcast as the funeral procession approached the cemetery. Wren watched the distant clouds, doing her best to ignore the sight of the hearse and flashing lights ahead. Wren daydreamed that she was out on a normal drive with her parents, unconcerned with big city problems like murder. For a few minutes, she managed to become lost in the tranquility represented by the car window. I think this odd jump back to childhood clutters things up here. The illusion shattered when the car pulled to a stop and Wren glanced forward, they had arrived to the cemetery. I think this whole graph could cut. It doesn’t add anything.

Wren picked her way watch your choreography here. Did she drive or was driven? She needs to get out of the car. carefully to the cemetery plot where the hero Huh? would be interred. She had been asked to say a few words today and she fretted over what to do. To her left she could see TV crews filming the mourners while reporters updated their viewers on the day’s events. Wren tried to keep a mournful look on her face. She knew cameras would be focusing on her. You already implied this. Wren plucked at her black dress irritably. whiplash change of mood She glanced up and met the eyes of some of the other mourners, lowering her head quickly. Their sympathy made it worse.

Wren Note that you started every graph with her name. You also could use some variation in your graph length. Dialogue would go a long way to breaking up how this gray mass looks on the page sighed and shook her head, they didn’t know the whole truth, that is why they gave her those looks. Wren had lied to the police, to the media and to her family. She had conspired to keep the truth from everyone. Nice intrigue being placed into the story but you must find a way to convey this through ACTION and dialogue instead of all thought. 

One last thing: I really don’t like the title. When I read this cold the first time, I thought, uh oh…they gave me a fantasy story and I am terrible at those. But this story appears to be contemporary (though we get no sense of time) and set in a big city or a town. (the writer uses both phrases and they imply different places). I had to Google Niphilim. Turns out it is the Nephilim were the offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” before the deluge, according to Genesis in the Bible. That’s kinda sorta interesting but for a contemporary murder story? Not so sure. I also don’t get the “of Flame” unless it’s put there for alliteration.  I love biblical and literary allusions in novel titles, but if your reader is sent scurrying to Google to get it, you’re in trouble.  I think it might work for fantasy, or especially dystopian fiction. For this story, as we understand it in 400 words, I think it’s off tone.

Again, thank you writer for submitting and don’t give up.  I sense there is a good story and character here waiting to escape.


6 Unusual Forensic Techniques

By Sue Coletta

The forensic community works tirelessly to improve techniques to aid law enforcement, and much of this work is done at body farms across the country. The Texas body farm has conducted some amazing work. I’ve complied my top six forensic advancements, which I think you’ll find fascinating.

Teeth Show Time of Death

When no clues exist to identify a corpse, investigators have a serious problem. The determination of age and sex of the body can be crucial to limit the search for individuals that could possibly match missing persons records. Today, gender can be determined through DNA, as well as the skeleton itself, but believe it or not, it’s not as accurate as testing done on teeth. Age estimation in children and adolescents often depends on radiological examination of skeletal and dental development. In adults, however, age estimation is much less accurate.

Enter: aspartic acid racemization and radiocarbon dating.

At the sprawling 26-acre Freeman Ranch in Texas, over 50 human corpses reside at the body farm. Many of which are checked via drone. Scientists examined 44 teeth from 41 individuals using aspartic acid racemization analysis of tooth crown dentin and radiocarbon dating of enamel. Of those, ten were split and subjected to both radiocarbon and racemization analysis. Combined analysis showed that the two methods combined worked better than relying on one or the other.

Radiocarbon Dating, a forensic tool also done on eyes, is an accurate way to determine environment, date of birth, age of deceased, nutrition, diet, and even date of death. I’ve written about Radiocarbon Dating before (see link above). Briefly, similar to counting rings on a tree to determine its age, same applies to the eyes and teeth. Only with teeth researchers aren’t looking for crystallins.

Twice a year each permanent tooth is anchored to the gums by tiny, distinct fibers. A bright line is laid in the spring or summer, depending on where you live, and a dark line in the fall or winter. The number of bands, as well as the color and width of the outermost ring, help scientists estimate the deceased’s age at death and also narrows the TOD (time of death) window.

Plants and Trees Love Dead Bodies

Human remains act like any other type of fertilizer, producing nitrogen that leeches into the soil. and provides nutrients to plant-life. Trees and plants thrive on this added nutrient, growing taller, fuller, and greener than those not living near the dead. By studying their size compared to other plant-life in the area, experts can determine where and when bodies were buried.

Insects, Rats, and Squirrels Help Determine Date of Death

I’ve written about entomology before, but did you know scavengers — like rats and squirrels, for example — prefer different types of human bones? It’s true. Rats like their bones greasy, and tend to chew on the ends in order to gain access to the marrow. Scientists can then look for these signs to determine how long the body has been in its earthly grave.

Conversely, squirrels prefer drier, more brittle bones that have been fully exposed to the elements. They use the calcium in bone to aid in the breeding of strong litters. By examining the different bite marks and narrowing when the bites occurred and by whom, forensic anthropologists are then able to determine if the body was skeletonized while fully exposed to the elements = squirrel activity. Or if buried in a shallow grave with nibbles on the ends of the bones = rats. Also, they can estimate how long the body has been dead and if the body has remained undisturbed.

Quick fun fact: it takes vultures only a few hours to strip a body down to bare bones — a time frame previously estimated to be weeks.

Mosquitos Can Aid Investigators

In bodies that are badly degraded obtaining DNA becomes a chore, and sometimes isn’t possible at all. Researchers at the body farm, however, have a solution. Mosquitos and other biting insects, believe it or not, preserve portions of the DNA in the bodies they feed on. By trapping and dissecting these insects, DNA could be recovered.

How cool is that? It’s also a bit disturbing to think of mosquitos flying around with our DNA inside them. Or worse, when you smack a mosquito and it leaves a trail of blood, someone else’s DNA could be splattered on your palm. Yuck! I swear, the more I learn, the more paranoid I become. I don’t know about you but these things haunt me. LOL #writerslife

Decomposition Follows a Set Process

The body farm discovered a set pattern to decomposition. One week exposed to open air equals two weeks in the water and eight weeks buried underground. The latter refers to murdered victims, not people who’ve been embalmed or mummified. Environment, temperature, clothing, and weather all have to be taken into account as well, but as a baseline this formula aids investigators a great deal.

Drones Help Find Buried Remains

In bodies not visible to the naked eye, drone flights are part of an ongoing study using near infrared imaging to detect bodies above and below the ground. This technology can also spot locations, where a corpse was previously buried for up to two years after its removal.

“The search for clandestine bodies is a very time-consuming ordeal,” Wescott told the Texas Tribune. “Even then, a lot of times you can walk right by them and not realize that they’re there.”

As corpses decay, they release carbon and nitrogen into the soil, which decreases the amount of light the soil reflects. The influx of chemicals first kills plants, but as it disperses into the soil around the body it morphs into a fertilizer that reflects a ton of light. By using near infrared imaging the drones can detect these reflections. Two extremes show up as black and white on the mostly gray near infrared imagining. Anyone searching for a body doubles their chances of finding it.

Cool, right?

Have you found a fascinating forensic technique in your research? Did you use it in a story?

Wishing all of you a safe and happy 4th of July! Stay cool.

Can they crack the riddles in time to save the next victim?

I’m excited to announce my new release, SCATHED, is now available for pre-order. Only 99c. Yay!!!


Building Characters Layer by Layer

by James Scott Bell

About a month ago Mrs. B noticed a nest starting to form under the eaves outside our front door. We began to keep an eye on things and saw a couple of doves flitting about. We started calling them Mr. and Mrs. Dove, and were happy they’d decided to build a home attached to ours. We thought it a perfect spot, too, out of the reach of our neighbor’s cats.

Then a couple of weeks ago we noticed Mrs. Dove sitting in the nest each time we went out our door. Just sitting there, day after day. Obviously, a happy event (or two or three) is about to hatch.

There was also a stretch of days when we didn’t see Mr. Dove at all. I told Cindy, “I hope he’s not out having a worm with the boys.” I imagined a Far Side-style cartoon of a couple of male doves, with fedoras pushed back on their heads, holding martini glasses with worms in them. I imagined them in a bar called The Wiggle Room.

But I digress (I wish I could draw!)

Then one day I was sitting in my courtyard which offers a view of the pitched roof above the place where the nest is. And I saw Mr. Dove walk across it, one end to the other. He continued to higher ground, the jut of our garage roof, where he could survey all of the territory around the house.

He was protecting his wife and kids. So I took this picture:

Mr. Dove on the lookout

My admiration for Mr. Dove went up a mile. Good man! Good bird!

My view of Mr. Dove changed not by what he felt, but by what he did.

Which is how readers respond to characters. Not by what they feel, but by what they do. When we see a character acting with strength of will in pursuit of a worthy goal, we begin to care, and only then does emotional response deepen the experience.

As the great writing teacher Dwight V. Swain put it in his book Creating Characters, all “traits are abstract and general. Behavior is concrete and specific. ‘What does he or she do?’ that demonstrates any given point is what’s important.”

Over the years, as the teaching of the writing craft became mainstream, two approaches emerged that occupy the same relationship as plotters and pantsers. For our purposes I’ll refer to them as the Dossier Doers and the Discovery Kids.

With a dossier, the writer constructs a thorough background of the character before the actual writing begins. Marcel Proust was this kind of writer. He developed an extensive questionnaire for his characters, with such queries as:

  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  • Who is the greatest love of your life?
  • What is your greatest fear?
  • What is your greatest regret?
  • What is your motto?

You can find Proust’s questions, and other character-building questionnaires online. I have nothing against this method if it works for you. The caution I have is that when you do it this way, you pretty much lock in that character to the profile you create. As your story unfolds, the slings and arrows of the plot might operate to an extent that you wish your character had a different background altogether.

With the discovery method, you begin with a certain degree of knowledge, but then let the character react in the various scenes and watch them grow along with the story. Some authors prefer to do a first draft and then, upon rewrite, add layers to the character. “You simply can’t foresee all the facets of a story’s development,” says Swain, “and trying to out-guess every turn and twist may hang you up for longer than you think.”

Personally, I get bored quickly if I have to fill out a long questionnaire, or write a comprehensive biography. I’d rather add things as I go along, in keeping with the needs of the plot.

Which is not to say I start with a blank slate. I do need a few things in place before I get going. At a minimum they are:

A Visual. When I see the face of my character, it automatically starts the cauldron bubbling with possible characteristics. So I immediately figure out my character’s age and then go looking on the internet for a headshot that reaches out and says, “I’m your character.” I want the image to surprise me a bit, too.

A Voice. I begin a voice journal, which is a free-form document of the character talking to me. I may prod them with questions, but I mainly want to keep typing until a distinctive sound begins to appear. As a bonus, what the character tells me about their background may prove useful in the book.

A Want. What is the thing this character, at this point in time (as the story begins), want more than anything in the world? To become a great lawyer? Nun? Piano player?

A Mirror. As TKZ regulars know, I am big into the “mirror moment.” So I begin to brainstorm this early. It’s subject to change, but I’m finding more and more that it operates as my North Star, shining its light on the whole book. Knowing it up front is a tremendous help.

A Secret. I’ve found this to be a useful item to have in your back pocket. What is one thing character knows that he doesn’t want any of the other characters to know?

After my Lead is given this treatment, I move to my other major characters and go through this process again, paying special attention to casting for contrast. I want there to be the possibility of conflict among all the cast members.

Along the way I’ve constructed my signpost scenes, so pretty much have the plot trajectory down.

Now I write, and as I do I allow the characters to help me flesh out the scenes which, in turn, adds layers to characters.

For instance, let’s say I know I’ll have a scene early where my lawyer, a woman, is told by one of her senior partners to quickly settle a case. She doesn’t want to. She thinks it’s a winner. At the end of the scene, the partner has issued her a mild threat—play ball, or your future here is limited.

In my mind, this scene would leave my lawyer angry and maybe a bit afraid. This is supposed to be her dream job. So she goes back to her office and writes an angry email to the partner. Then deletes it.

Then I’ll ask, what if she does something else? What if she quits? Maybe this is just what she needs to do at this point in her life! I could then construct a bit of backstory about how she was afraid to do something as a little girl, how a boy taunted her for that, how she’s never taken a risk. And now she finally does.

Or what if she leaves work and goes to a bar and gets hammered? Hey, maybe she has a drinking problem.

You get the idea. The layers get added. And upon rewrite, they can be deepened and secured.

My wife and I are anxiously awaiting the birth of the little doves. I wonder of Mr. Dove will be puffing out his chest a little bit more when it happens. Hmm, maybe when he was a young dove he had an encounter with a cat, and…

So what is your preferred method for building characters?


First Page Critique: Into the past with DEATH KNELL

Photo: “Tree Tunnel” by Gaurang Alat, courtesy

Good morning, and let’s give a hound-dog howdy to Anon du jour, who has gathered up a seemingly endless supply of courage and submitted the first page of work-in-progress DEATH KNELL for our collective consideration!

Title:  Death Knell

Chapter One: The Visitor

   No one is ever who they appear to be.  Peter Templeton had this thought as he stepped out of his car and looked up into the crimson blanket that covered the evening sky.  It was a gorgeous sunset and cast a glow over his entire neighborhood. Another perfect ending to another perfect day in his now perfect life, he thought.                 

   Across the street, neighborhood children scattered and laughed.  He watched the children play for a minute and smiled. Two years ago, he sat in a small cubicle and knew it would be his grave.   Now, he was living in a world where children played on well-manicured lawns, driveways were lined with vehicles named Cadillac, Lexus and BMW, and people spoke to each other across wooden fences.  He shook his head and smiled again.

   As if on cue, a silver Mercedes drove up the driveway next door.  The driver honked two short bursts and waved as he got out. That was Simon, Peter’s neighbor and financial planner.  Simon sat in a different type of cubicle and helped old people enjoy their final days. By the look on his face, he enjoyed it as much as anyone.

   Peter waved back and thought his life in a different cubicle.  He didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as Simon did. He hated every minute of it.  When he was younger, Peter thought heartbreak and pain were the worst things he would ever experience.  But he was wrong. Boredom, he discovered then, was a whole new kind of hell. It was a living hell where you lived the same day over and over and over again.  A hell where the seconds felt like minutes, the minutes felt like hours, and the hours felt like days. A hell where you prayed for death to end the boredom. But those prayers were never answered.  They didn’t even give you the freedom to kill yourself back then. Time was the only thing he was allowed to kill.

   He looked over the lawns and thought about what a difference a few years can make.  Back then, he just existed. He was a zero then. A nobody. He was a murderer in the eyes of the law and a criminal to everyone else.  He was a loser waiting to die. And he knew the world would be a better place without him.

   Then his salvation came out of nowhere.  It pulled him from his hell and dropped him in the middle of this quiet, calm and gorgeous neighborhood.  It removed all of the failures in his life like a strong tide and cleansed them in a sea of normal society.  Gone were all the wasted dreams, lost loves, and poor decisions. Now, he was really living. He was a winner now.  And God-damn it, he loved every second of it.

   Peter took a deep breath and looked down the street again.  Tree branches made a canopy over the road. For a second, it reminded him of the tropical leaves on the island.  They formed a natural ceiling and made the island feel like a great cathedral. He looked around again and took another deep breath.  There were many funerals in that cathedral and he witnessed too many of them. He didn’t miss that at all.


Anon, you’ve got an interesting setup here. It sounds as if Peter is a guy who has taken the opportunity to reinvent himself and has done so to his satisfaction. You’re hinting just enough to bait the hook in the reader’s interest and sink it. I have the feeling that Peter’s past is going to come knocking on his door and I would love to be there when it does. You’ve got the substance down. Let’s work on the form of your project just a bit to get it ready for publishing.

— Let’s begin with a little housekeeping. The color of the text in your submission went from blue to black about halfway through it.  I’m not sure if the problem was on your end, mine or somewhere in between, but please check that on your manuscript before you send it off an agent. Your text color can be any color you like so long as it is black unless your target tells you otherwise. You also want to proofread a bit more carefully. For one example, you state in the fourth paragraph that  

Peter waved back and thought his life in a different cubicle.

You left out the word “about” or “of” between “thought” and “his.” I do this so often in my own writing when my fingers are flying faster than my brain, that I am embarrassed to the extent that I might have a tee shirt created that states “I BEAT GRAMMARLY!” A proofreader (either you or someone else) will hold you in good stead.

— With that out of the way, let’s look take a look at Peter’s interior monologue. Your story is told in the third person past tense, so we want to have a clear delineation between what Peter is directly thinking and what our omnipresent narrator is telling us. You can do this by setting Peter’s thoughts off in italics when you want to tell us what he is thinking. You can say “he thought” once in a while but if you use it once early on with the thought italicized your readers (particularly TKZ readers, who are among the most intelligent on the planet!) will get the idea. You can remind them every once in a while but using “he thought” too frequently will become as boring as “he said.” Also, please note that if Peter is engaging in an internal monologue he is going to be thinking about “my” rather than “his” now perfect life. Let’s see how that will look in your first paragraph:

No one is ever who they appear to be, Peter Templeton thought as he stepped out of his car and looked up into the crimson blanket that covered the evening sky.  It was a gorgeous sunset and cast a glow over his entire neighborhood. Another perfect ending to another perfect day in my now perfect life.

— I also got a little distracted by your use of tenses. I noted earlier that Death Knell is told in the past tense. That’s all well and good. We understand that all of the events in the book took place in the past. You need, however, to distinguish between the “past,” which is when your primary narrative occurs, and the “remote past,” which occurs before your main narrative. We use the “past perfect” tense for this. The “past perfect” tense is formed by taking the past tense of “to have” (which is “had) and combining it with the past participle of the verb you are using. It’s easier than it sounds. Here is what happens when we utilize it in the fourth paragraph of Death Knell, where Peter begins to really rock ‘n’ roll about the past and about how things are much better today:

Back then, he had just existed. He had been a zero then. 


He had been a murderer in the eyes of the law and a criminal to everyone else.  He had been a loser waiting to die. And he had known the world…

It makes for easier reading, given that the reader doesn’t have to sort out the past and the remote past, as you, the author has already done it for them. Which brings us to the next thing on the list:

— Your writing style is just a bit repetitive in spots, Anon. You have a slight tendency to use the same words in close proximity to each other and to repeat what you have already stated or indicated. You are hardly alone in overwriting. I’m in that very large room with you. So is Charles Dickens. The late Harlan Ellison, in his column The Glass Teat, did a short but hilarious sendup of Dickens and the seemingly endless repetition of Tiny Tim’s classic line “God Bless us, every one!” in A Christmas Carol. To correct this,  read through your work and if you are describing the same thing over and over, or using the same word more than once in a paragraph, get rid of it and use a synonym.

Let’s look at that fourth paragraph again, where with a snip here and a clip there we can move things along just a bit faster by reducing the use of the phrase “He was”:

Back then, he had just existed. He had been a zero then, a murderer in the eyes of the law, a criminal to everyone else, and a loser waiting to die.  He had known the world…

That’s all I got, Anon. In the interest of brevity (…) I tried to focus on the broad picture and give an example or two rather than to go through and pick out each and every potential error. I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically quiet while I give our wonderful readers a turn at commenting on your work. I sincerely hope, Anon, that you keep plugging away so that we can see the rest of Death Knell at some point in the future. And thank you for submitting to First Page Critique!














Your story is told in the past tense.  All of the events described took place in the past. The problem arises when you have to distinguish between events which took place in the past in your main narrative — and events which took place even further in the past. That’s where the past perfect comes in. It’s easy enough to use



— Peter waved back and thought about his life in a different cubicle.