Wedding Brain

–Stock photo by GoDaddy

 

Forgive me if I’m a bit distracted today. I have Wedding Brain.

This past weekend, I dashed off to a wonderfully restful yet productive writing retreat. While there, I wrote hard. But when I woke up Monday morning in my own bed, I was nearly flooded out of it with a sea of wedding-related email. As my daughter’s wedding is Memorial Day weekend, I’ve decided to put off absolutely everything until it’s over and I’ve had a couple of days to recover. I have only one daughter, and this is my big chance to be that obsessed creature: MOTB. (That does not stand for Monster of the Bride!)

I was thinking about weddings in literature, and realized I could come up with few blissful examples. The two weddings of Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester come to mind: the first thwarted by the presence of The Mad Wife in the Attic, the second a sad little affair with a blinded groom and, I believe, a housekeeper for a witness. And don’t forget that nutty charade/tableau in which the dreaded Blanche what’s-her-name plays Bride. It’s like Charlotte Brontë used weddings like a sledgehammer.

Didn’t Romeo and Juliet have a quiet ceremony with the priest before they…died? At least Shakespeare’s comedies usually ended with a wedding.

Help! Please share your favorite literary wedding. Or your favorite real-life wedding story. Because we’re all about storytelling here. (Happy endings not required.)

 

 

4+

Do you Have a Business Model?

Recent blog posts by Laura Benedict and Jordan Dane here at TKZ on backlists and  embracing new writing challenges, got me thinking about how writers approach the business side of being a writer. Indeed, I just finished Jane Friedman’s recent book entitled ‘The Business of Being a Writer’ (which is excellent BTW) so I’ve been ruminating on this for a few weeks.

At the moment, I am in the thick of trying to finish the first draft of my current WIP before summer hits and my boys are home from school (which, no surprise, tends to make it harder to get writing done!). My agent already has quite a few projects to juggle, but one element I’ve really not been focusing on is the business model for my writing. My principal aim over the last few years has been to focus solely on my writing (with just a bit of social media thrown in) as I’ve been exploring YA, MG as well as adult historical fiction. In doing so, however, I haven’t really been exploring new opportunities for my writing (such as Radish) or adhering to any real kind business plan.

Now, I feel at some point I need to take a step back and evaluate issues such as author platform, branding, backlist, and identifying new opportunities as part of a longer term strategic plan. However, just thinking about it all is making me anxious as I realize how far behind I’ve probably fallen. So TKZers, perhaps you can help.

How are you approaching the business side of your writing career? How do you view author platform and branding? Do you have a long term strategic plan? How are you identifying new opportunities and outlets for your writing?

3+

Riding the Writer Roller-Coaster

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

First off, thank you for all your wonderful support for the launch of my new thriller, Your Son Is Alive. The print version is now available.

Launch week is usually a high for an author, though nerves can be set a-jangling as we wonder what the reception will be.

Which brings up the subject of the roller-coaster ride that is the writing life. For as we all know there are ups and downs and curves and twists. Sometimes it’s exciting. Other times you get queasy. Which is why you should never launch a book after a big Italian dinner.

Ahem.

We all know this gig is rife with opportunities for that devil disappointment. Our human condition can’t avoid it. We construct hopes for ourselves and our work knowing there are plenty of rocks and boulders ahead in the rushing waters of the marketplace.

This is not just in our professional lives, of course. It’s there in every other aspect of our existence on this good Earth. We are hopeful beings, we strive and and work and desire. Sometimes those things turn out exactly as we envisioned. Most of the time not so much.

I remember when my son began playing baseball. He developed into a pretty good pitcher at a young age, and there was one game where he gave up a home run that lost the game. It crushed him. As the other team was running onto the field cheering, he was standing on the mound trying not to cry.

I went out to the mound and put my arm around him and bucked him up as best I could. Then later, over ice cream, I tried to impart a little bit of stoic wisdom. “Most of life is about losing,” I said. “It’s how we handle the losses that make us or break us.”

I told him that in moments like this, when a home run is given up or such like, I would allow him one great big DANG IT! He could pound his glove as hard as he could. He could feel it for a moment, he could shout, “Dang it!” But after that he was to begin the task of forgetting it and getting ready for the next batter or the next game.

It’s a lesson he learned well. He went on to become one of the best pitchers in the league. During the season he had a bad inning against the strongest team. It was brutal. And they let him know it, the way little boys do. They jeered and threw shade. He pounded his glove as the coach relieved him.

Then came the championship game, and he faced that same team. As he stood on the mound they began to jeer again and try to rattle him. He proceeded to mow them down. And his team won the championship.

I consider that one of the best moments of both our lives.

This is how we should handle disappointment in our writing life. Our book goes out there and doesn’t perform as well as we would like. Or we get a scathing review. Or a rejection from an editor. Or Aunt Hildegard says, “When are you going to grow up and go to dental school?”

Give yourself a great big DANG IT! Pound your glove (but do not kick the dog). Then get back to your keyboard. One of the great truths about writing is that when we are in “the zone,” disappointments melt away. When we come out of the zone, the harshness may try to revisit, but it won’t be as strong. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Let me offer three more bits of stoic wisdom:

  1. Don’t compare yourself to others

Comedian Tom Shillue has a great five-minute video on the perils of comparison. Here is part of what he says:

If my happiness were based on being the biggest comedian in the business, I’d be mad at whoever was getting more Netflix specials than me. (I have zero.)

If it were based on having the best TV ratings, I’d be mad at Jimmy Fallon. He beats me every night.

And if it were based on being rich, I’d be mad at a lot of people.

And even if I were rich – really rich, like #10 on the Forbes 400 rich – I’d be mad that there were nine other people richer than me. It never ends.

Comparing yourself to others creates a totally unrealistic measure for what constitutes success. And I know, because the entertainment business is all about unrealistic expectations.

He concludes: “Professional success is about making a living, pursuing excellence, and finding meaning in what you do.” (You might also be interested in this video by the redoubtable Joanna Penn on the dangers of comparing yourself to other writers … and how to get over it.)

  1. Keep expectations in check

While it’s good to set goals, make plans, and take action, watch out for letting expectations build up too much in your mind. We have this wisdom not only from ancient philosophy; there’s also recent data that suggests lowering expectations leads to greater happiness.

For example, if you get nominated for an award, don’t keep picturing your acceptance speech. Don’t dust the mantel twice a day. When you get to the banquet, sit at the table and be a good conversationalist. Try to enjoy the rubber chicken. Then, if your name is called, it’s a bonus. If it’s not, you won’t want to crawl under the table with a bottle of wine (or whine, as the case may be).

As the great John Wooden used to tell his players, “All of life is peaks and valleys. Don’t let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low.”

  1. Worry only about the page in front of you

Epictetus said, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

You can’t control the will of agents, editors, critics, readers, awards committees or the IRS. So don’t worry about them. Instead, focus on your daily work. Get into your scene. Think about ways to make it better. That’s what you can control.

The mental aspect of writing is every bit as important as the physical act of typing. Which is why I wrote a whole book on the subject.

Friends, when you’re hit with disappointment, or on the other end with a great reward, remember the Latin phrase (which I had the audacity to make up):

Carpe Typem!

Seize the Keyboard!

What is your go-to method for handling the highs and lows of the writing life?

11+

The Best States for Writers

By Mark Alpert

Wow, I had a fantastic time last weekend at the annual conference of the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Inc. (OWFI) in Oklahoma City. The experience was so much fun that I’ve started to wonder: Which states have the best organizations for supporting and nurturing their writers?

I’m not qualified to make that judgment because I don’t go to many writers’ conferences outside New York City. My travels are limited by economic considerations; although I can promote my novels at this kind of event, the total royalties from any resulting sales will be far less than my travel costs, so I usually can’t afford to do it. But in the case of the OWFI conference, the organization offered to pay my airfare and hotel bills, so I gladly agreed to deliver a couple of presentations to the group’s aspiring writers.

More than 300 people attended the conference, and there was a full schedule of workshops, classes, pitch sessions, buzz sessions, luncheons, and banquets. OWFI has a deep bench of volunteers to ensure that everything runs smoothly, and the organization has succeeded in attracting sponsors to defray many of the costs and minimize the fees for conference attendees. Perhaps the best indication of the group’s success is that many writers from outside Oklahoma came to the event, traveling north from Texas, south from Kansas, and west from Arkansas.

It’s enough to make a New Yorker jealous. Writers in NYC have the advantage of living in the hub of the U.S. publishing industry, close to the majority of literary agents and traditional publishers, and many national and international writers’ organizations (such as the Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers) hold their events here. But at the grassroots level, the network of local support and critique groups is patchy. There are nonprofits that offer subsidized workspaces for writers (such as the Writers Room on Astor Place, where I was a member for several years) and many groups for journalists (such as Science Writers in New York, which I also belonged to for a while), but writing fiction in NYC can often feel like a lonely, dog-eat-dog struggle.

So now I’m wondering about the rest of the country. Perhaps all the TKZ-ers out there can help me with this survey; in your neck of the woods, are there strong regional, state or local organizations that help fiction writers enhance their craft and develop their careers? Which are the best states for writers?

6+

First Page Critique – The New One

Welcome to today’s brave Anonymous Author with the first page entitled The New One.

THE NEW ONE

“I’m new,” the vampire said.

Of course, at the time I didn’t know she was a vampire.  I didn’t even know vampires existed.

So.  She’d come in off the street.  My last patient of the day had just left, followed out the door by Dorinda, my receptionist.  I planned to do paperwork for a while.  I was standing at Dorinda’s desk flipping through messages when I looked up to see a woman silently watching me.  I jumped involuntarily as she spoke.

“Dr. Gilder, I presume?”

“Yes.  I’m Carrie Gilder.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Office hours are over for today.  You should call the office in the morning and make an appointment.”  I started around the desk.  “Now, if you don’t mind—”

“Please.  It’s important.  I won’t be able to come back in the morning.”

I looked at her, appraising.  She was striking.  Tall, well dressed, elegant.  She radiated power and confidence.  I felt drawn in by her eyes, somehow.  Maybe that’s why, almost against my better judgment, I relented, as if I had no choice.  “Step into my office.”

I watched as she glanced around the room.  What a contrast, I thought.  My office is warm and comfortable, with its quaint country decor and fresh flowers gracing the credenza along one wall.  And she’s so sleek and, what?  Cold comes to mind.  She bent to smell the late summer flowers, touching a petal with one long finger.

She sat in the comfortable overstuffed chair opposite mine.  I was making notes.  Young woman.  Attractive.  Blonde hair, dark eyes, almost black.

“You’re very lovely, Dr. Gilder.”

“Thank you?” I said, frowning.  Not something I usually hear from my patients.

“Okay,” I said with a shrug.  “First, why don’t you tell me who you are?”

The young woman leaned forward in the chair and extended her hand, which I found surprisingly cold.  “I am Pica.  Pica Sharp.”  She then settled back in the chair.

I looked at her curiously.  “Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

“I was 27,” she replied.

“Was.”  Odd way to say it, I thought, making a note.

“Yes.”

“So, Pica, why are you here?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Well, you’ve got fifty minutes.”

She frowned.  “Yes.  I understand.  Cut to the chase, then.”

 

OK, let’s get to work. Upfront disclaimer: I’m not well-versed in vampire fiction. Please chime in if you’re more familiar with the genre. Suggestions are in blood red, naturally.

First, the title. While the line– “I’m new,” the vampire said.–piqued my interest, the title did not. The New One sounds vague and colorless—it gives no hint about genre, plot, character, conflict, or theme. Perhaps its significance becomes clear in the book but it doesn’t make a strong first impression on the reader.

A title must grab attention in a few short words, offering a tantalizing taste of what’s inside the book. A vivid cover may prop up a nondescript title. But in today’s competitive publishing world, authors need to make the strongest first impression possible, using every tool at their disposal. Search for keywords that relate to your plot: blood, vampire, undead, immortality, seduction, etc. Check out synonyms to trigger more ideas. Vampire fans, please add your suggestions to the list.

Anon, you quickly and clearly set up the situation: A psychiatrist or psychologist is alone in her office after hours when a vampire enters, seeking treatment. Carrie Lister’s normal world tilts.

The undercurrent of disturbance isn’t overly dramatic—no dead bodies, weapons, or explosions. Yet the reader gets the sense that Carrie’s life will undergo major changes because of her new patient. That is more than adequate to kick off an intriguing tale.

Now to the details:

“I’m new,” the vampire said.

Of course, at the time I didn’t know she was a vampire.  I didn’t even know vampires existed. A short, neat summary w/o wasting time on backstory. Well done.

However, upon re-reading, I wondered about that first line. It’s not clear when Pica actually says this. Kicking off a story with an attention-grabbing first line is important but if that bit of dialogue doesn’t actually occur, it feels like a bit of a cheat. A few paragraphs below, I’ve inserted the line in a different place.

Pica is a great vampire name. I’m guessing, Anon, that you also meant to refer to the disorder–pica–of eating things that are not normally considered food, like…uh…blood.

While you establish the setting and situation clearly, modifiers like “silently” and “involuntarily” are unnecessary. Adjectives and adverbs dilute the power of strong nouns and verbs. I also rearranged the order a bit for clarity.


So.  My last patient of the day had just left, followed out the door by Dorinda, my receptionist.  I planned to do paperwork for a while.  I and was flipping through messages at Dorinda’s desk flipping through messages when I looked up to see a woman silently watching me.  I jumped. I hadn’t heard her enter. I jumped involuntarily as she spoke. She’d come in off the street.

“I need to talk to you. I’m new.” [Inserting the “new” line here may eliminate the feeling of a cheat.]>

Watch out for the proper sequence of action and reaction. In the original, it sounds as if Carrie looks up to see Pica yet it’s Pica’s voice that startles Carrie. However, Pica is “silently” watching. Choose either sight or sound as the trigger: 1) Carrie looks up and sees Pica, then jumps, followed by Pica speaking (which is how I rewrote it); or 2) Pica says, “I’m new,” causing Carrie to jump, then she sees the unexpected visitor.

“Office hours are over for today.  You should call the office in the morning and make an appointment.”  I started moved around the desk to escort her out. “Now, if you don’t mind—”

You follow with a nice subtle reminder that she’s a vampire: ”I won’t be able to come back in the morning.”

Chop unnecessary verbiage. Watch out for words like “was” that often indicate passages that could be rewritten in a stronger way. Cut modifiers like “almost.” Below are several ideas to tighten up the prose:

I appraised her: looked at her, appraisingShe was striking, tall, well dressed, elegant.

Given two choices of how to express a thought, cut the weak and always go with the strongest:  Maybe that’s why, almost against my better judgment, I relented, as if I had no choice. “Step into my office.” Suggest you delete almost against my better judgment because the latter phrase I relented, as if I had no choice does a much better job of illustrating the irresistible pull the vampire has over Carrie. It also hints at her personality (more on that in a minute).

I watched as She glanced around the room.  What a contrast, I thought,.  My to my warm, comfortable office is warm and comfortable, with its quaint country decor and fresh flowers gracing the credenza along one wall. You don’t need I watched as or the separate declaration My office is warm and comfortable… Instead, incorporate the description into Carrie’s ongoing thoughts.

And She’s so sleek and, what?  Cold came to mind.  She bent to smell the late summer flowers, touching a petal with one long finger. The petal fluttered to the floor. Italicize cold to emphasize. I also added a small detail about the petal dropping to underscore Pica’s sinister quality.

She sat in the comfortable overstuffed chair opposite mine.  I made was making notes: Young woman.  Attractive.  Blonde hair, dark eyes, almost black.

“You’re very lovely, Dr. Gilder.”

I frowned. “Thank you?” I said, frowningNot something I usually hear from my patients usually say. I shrugged. “Okay, ” I said with a shrug.  “First, why don’t you tell me who you are?”

Thank you” followed by a question mark makes Carrie sound uncertain, as if she’s not sure how to react. If you intend to show she lacks confidence, that works. But it struck me as odd because a psychologist has likely heard strange statements from new patients and would already have practiced responses.

The young woman leaned forward in the chair and extended her hand. , which I found It felt surprisingly cold in the warm evening.  “I am Pica.  Pica Sharp.”  She then settled back in the chair.

Strong sensory details, especially touch, add to the mood. The reader not only sees Pica but feels her. Her cold handshake serves as more than simple description—it underscores the vampire theme and unsettling discomfort that Carrie experiences.

Choose a strong verb instead of modifying a weak one. I studied her. looked at her curiously.  “Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

She replied, “I was 27.” she replied.  For more impact, place the punchline at the end of the sentence.

“Was?”  Odd. I made way to say it, I thought, making a note. Nice hint of vampire immortality.

The style is minimalist and understated but maybe too understated. First person POV gives an opportunity to showcase a captivating, distinctive voice. However, Carrie’s tone sounds bland and clinically detached. I suggest you exploit the first person voice to give more hints of her personality under the professional demeanor.

Read Jim Bell’s VOICE. His terrific examples show how a character’s background colors her attitude and reactions in ways that don’t slow the story’s action.

Below are some thoughts that might trigger ideas to add depth to Carrie’s attitude.

Is she inexperienced and a little unsure? Is she a sincere healer who believes she can help patients? Or a burnout case putting in her time? Is she a seasoned old hand who’s heard it all? All, that is, except for a patient who’s a vampire.

Why does she make an exception to see an after-hours patient? Is she bored with her life and this piques her interest? Does she need the money? Maybe she has nothing to go home to. Kids are grown and moved out. Or she dreads going home to her mate because he’ll be drunk again.

Why does she succumb to the vampire’s will? What in her character makes her vulnerable to Pica’s allure?

Obviously, Carrie’s full background and experience shouldn’t appear in the first page but her voice must hint at why she is unique and why the reader should turn the page. Carrie must be interesting enough that we’re compelled to follow her journey, the same as she is compelled to listen to this mysterious patient outside normal working hours.

Anonymous Author, you did a good job of orienting the reader to your story world. You present the situation, set the scene, introduce two major characters, hint at the conflict, and raise questions. If you fully exploit the first person POV to amp up Carrie’s voice, you’ll be on your way.

Your turn, TKZers. What suggestions can you offer our brave Anonymous Author?

 

For a cheap thrill, my book Instrument of the Devil is on sale for $1.99 during May.

 

4+

Demonic Darjeeling — A First Page Critique

By John Gilstrap

It’s that time again.  The brave writer who’s stepped into the breach for a first page critique has been waiting for way longer than s/he should have.  This one was actually submitted back in December, and it got lost in the scrum of the Holidays.  My apologies for that.  So, here we go, hopefully better late than never.  I’ll see you on the other side.  (As always, the italics are mine for clarity’s sake.)

Title: When the Demons Came for Tea

The tinkling bell chimed in the teashop and I turned to see two figures, dressed smartly in velvety black business suits.  They could have passed for ordinary people save for the curling ivory horns and alabaster pale skin.  I picked up the rose patterned china tea pot and asked;

“Who is it this time?”  For as long as I had run the tea shop, the Demons would come in for afternoon tea before they went off to claim their next soul.  These were demons of death, in charge of claiming the souls of those ready to depart the earth and giving theme safe passage to…  well, wherever they went next.  I had no idea what had drawn them in here in the first place, by all accounts this was an ordinary tea shop.  Perhaps they just liked the tea I served.  That’s what I liked to believe anyway.  I handed the demons a cup of tea each and repeated my question, noticing for the first time their rather uncomfortable silence.  Oh God, was it one of my family?

“W-who is it?”  I asked again.  Kailor sipped his tea.  Malariz shot Kailor a furious look before turning to me.

He cleared his throat uncomfortably, “it’s… you Ness.”  The china tea pot shattered as it hit the marble floor, having fallen from my limp hand.

“M-me?”  I whispered.

Kailor sighed, repairing my tea pot with a sweep of his hand.  “Hennessey Kayla Jones, we Kailor and Malariz of Soul Reclamation come to you know with a choice.  Come with us, to your afterlife or accept our job offer.”

Job offer?  Was that a thing? 

“A job?”  I asked.

“You accept the job?” Malariz asked quickly.

“No, what is the job?”  I said quickly.  The demons exchanged a secretive look.

“We can’t tell you.”  Kailor said happily.  I gaped at him.  Taking a deep breath, I downed my tea in one gulp and turned back to the demons.

“Let me get this straight.  I’m the soul you’ve come to claim, and I can either go with you to my afterlife, or take this job offer.  A job which you can’t tell me about until I’ve accepted it?  Is that about right?”  I asked shakily.

Malariz looked happy that I was catching on, “Yep that about covered it.”  I stared at him, lost for words.  Kailor looked between me and Malariz.

“I think she was being sarcastic mate.”  He said.  Malariz looked crestfallen.  I looked back and forth between the demons for a moment before turning around to look at my beloved tea shop.  Either way I would have to leave this place, I’d might as well have an adventure while I’m at it.  I turned back to them.

“I’ll take the job.”

=

It’s Gilstrap again.

Truth be told, I don’t know what to make of this piece.  I think I like the tone, the off-handedness of the interaction and dialogue, but I don’t understand the world.  Wouldn’t those horns raise a ruckus as they wandered down the street?  If they’re visible only to Ness, then that should be made clear.  And if they can repair pottery with a sweep of a hand, why do they need to enter the shop through the door?  Wouldn’t they just *poof* their way in?

I don’t think this scene makes a good first scene.  It’s a good turning point, but I’d like to get to know Ness–and see her interacting with Kailor and Malariz on previous missions–so that we get a chance to buy into their relationships.  There’s a chumminess among them that feels unearned in this sample.

I’m reminded here of the Three Kings from the Gian Carlo Menotti operetta, Amahl and the Night Visitors, where Melchior is portrayed as playing with less than a full deck.  I presume that that’s what we are to believe of Malariz.

I think there’s real potential here, though angel-of-death stories have been done many, many times, and therefor pose a great risk of falling into the realm of cliche.

Brave Author, you’ll see below that I have made some specific suggestions for a re-write.  You have a tendency to be redundant in your narrative, and there seems to be an addiction to -ly adverbs.  Look for my comments in bold type.

And thanks for submitting!

Title: When the Demons Came for Tea

The tinkling bell chimed in the teashop and I turned to see two figures, dressed smartly in velvety black velvet business suits.  They could have passed for ordinary people save for the curling ivory (really ivory—in which case could she really know that—or ivory colored?) horns and alabaster pale (redundant) skin.  I picked up the rose patterned china tea pot and asked;,

“Who is it this time?”  For as long (How long is that? This is an opportunity for detail.) as I had run the tea shop, these Demons (why capitalized?) of death would come in for afternoon tea before they went off to claim their next soul.  These were demons of death, in charge of claiming the souls of those ready to depart the earth and giving theme safe passage to…  well, wherever they went next.  I had no idea what had drawn them in here in the first place. By all accounts this was an ordinary tea shop.  (We will assume the ordinary, unless instructed otherwise.) Perhaps they just liked the tea I served.  That’s what I liked to believe anyway.  I handed the demons a cup of tea each and repeated my question, noticing for the first time their rather uncomfortable silence.  Oh God, was it one of my family?

“W-who is it?”  I asked again.  Kailor sipped his tea.  Malariz shot Kailor a furious look (This feels unearned to me. Why the furious look?) before turning to me.

He cleared his throat uncomfortably, “it’s… you Ness.”  The china tea pot shattered as it hit the marble floor, having fallen from my limp hand.

“M-me?”  I whispered.

Kailor sighed, repairing and repaired my tea pot with a sweep of his hand.  “Hennessey Kayla Jones, we Kailor and Malariz of Soul Reclamation come to you know with a choice.  Come with us, to your afterlife or accept our job offer.”

Job offer?  Was that a thing?

“A job?”  I asked.

“You accept the job?” Malariz asked quickly.

“No, what is the job?”  I said quickly.  The demons exchanged a secretive look.

“We can’t tell you.”  Kailor said happily.  I gaped at him.  Taking a deep breath, I downed my tea in one gulp and turned back to the demons.

I think this is a place for some internal monologue as Ness sorts through her options.  As written—as dialogue—it seems too glib, too for-the-reader.

“Let me get this straight.  I’m the soul you’ve come to claim, and I can either go with you to my afterlife, or take this job offer.  A job which you can’t tell me about until I’ve accepted it?  Is that about right?”  I asked shakily.

Malariz looked happy that I was catching on, “Yep that about covered it.”  I stared at him, lost for words.  Kailor looked between me and Malariz.

“I think she was being sarcastic mate.”  He said.  Malariz looked crestfallen.  I looked back and forth between the demons for a moment before turning around to look at my beloved tea shop.  Either way I would have to leave this place, I’d might as well have an adventure while I’m at it.  I turned back to them.

“I’ll take the job,” I said.

 

3+

Let’s Make a Deal! The Prize?
A Big Stone in Your Shoe

By PJ Parrish

I’d give anything for a nice sharp stone in my shoe right now.

I’m trying to start over with my work in (non)progress. A while back, I threw out the first five chapters. I knew in my gut it was bad, but it took me three months and many sleepless nights to finally admit it.  You know that door metaphor I use here a lot? I like to say that finding the right door through which to enter your story is maybe the most important decision a writer has to make.  Well, I had entered my door — it was a very pretty writerly door — but it turned out to be a dead-end.

Which brings us to our First Page Critique today. I will let you read and then we’ll talk.

Title: Joe Blatz

Joe Blatz put his Bic pen up to his mouth and began to chew on the cap, lightly this time, because he didn’t want to ruin another one. He was thinking about what he should write on his report about his last case. He was trying to stick to the facts and not color his words too much with his attitude toward the slimy perp he had just cornered, cuffed, and stuffed into a patrol car not three hours before. These country crooks really pissed him off, and on some days he had a shorter fuse than others.

He was sitting in his basement office in his log home in the country, about 5 miles from Cannonsville, Tennessee. His basement was paneled with dark wood and had carpet on the floor. The basement was divided into two sections, one toward the back of the house where his office was, and one in the front that was more of an entertainment area that contained a leather couch, big-screen TV, a wet bar, and a full-size refrigerator. He didn’t use the entertainment area that much, preferring to relax either upstairs or on the front porch in one of his rocking chairs.

Joe pushed himself away from his desk and leaned back in his wooden desk chair, an antique he had picked up at a country estate yard sale several years before. It was made of solid oak and was scarred up enough to give it ‘character,’ as Joe put it. He liked scuffed up, half worn out things that other people seemed to shy away from. When someone said something was worn out and needed to be thrown away, he thought it was just getting broken in. He was a man of simple tastes, beer and bourbon, and simple viewpoints.

Joe turned his chair back to the desk and pulled it in and went back to writing. He was almost finished. Then he would fax his report to his client and the local police in Cannonsville, who were interested in it, too. Cannonsville’s police department was shortstaffed and had come to rely on Joe’s reports whenever he wrote them and it involved their jurisdiction. It helped them put together evidence and sometimes help them convince the local district Attorney to prosecute a case. Joe didn’t mind helping out the local police, especially since that’s where he got his dog from.

_________________

I’m back. (By the way, before I forget, that quote about the stone in the shoe is not from Monte Hall. It’s from Chuck Wendig. I just put Monte in there to get your attention.)

About Joe Blatz…

He might be an interesting guy. He might have an interesting job (though we aren’t told what he does, except push perps into cars when the local cops are too busy). He likes bourbon, has a cool old desk and a dog. But what Joe is doing here is not very interesting at all. Nothing is happening. All we’re getting is memory and thoughts. Note the sentence constructions:

“He was thinking about what he should write…”

“He was trying to stick to the facts…”

“He was sitting in his basement office…”

“He was almost finished…”

Now, there is nothing wrong with the writing here, on the surface. Gets the job done. But it is passive, and the situation itself is static. As we always say here, it is hard in a mere 400 words to see where a story is going, but when it starts in a neutral gear like this, it is hard to get excited about the journey ahead. Often, I suggest to writers that they might have entered their scene too early. Here’s an example of this that I made up:

The phone jarred Joe from his sleep and he grabbed the receiver. “Yeah?” he stammered, his voice raspy from last night’s Camels and Christian Brothers.

“We got another one. Young, pretty. Just floated up on Juno Beach.”

“Did she have the pink ribbon around her neck?”

“Yup. Just like all the others.”

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” Joe hung up and swung his feet to the cold floor. He didn’t like the bad feeling that was gathering in his gut.

This is where the same scene begins, in my humble opinion:

The body, nude except for the ribbon around the neck, moved back and forth with the incoming tide. It was like the water was trying to gently rock the girl to sleep. Or back to life. 

Joe stood three feet away, as close as the yellow tape would allow, staring hard at the ribbon. Pink…just like the others, all six of the other girls he had seen dead in the water during the past four months had been the same. 

He turned away. Except for this one. This one he recognized.  

Do we need the phone call? A case could be made for it. (See below). But I think you have a better chance of your story feeling fresh if you enter your scene at a prime moment of disturbance. Show us something happening live. Give us some emotion. Don’t waste the precious opening moments of your book clearing your throat with unimportant action. Get into a scene as late as possible.

However…

The problem with Joe Blatz is that I think the writer perhaps got into the scene too late. Three hours too late, to be exact. What is the most interesting thing mentioned? That Joe busted two creeps in his free-lance cop role. I’d much rather read about that then Joe writing his report and thinking about his old desk.

I started reading an 2018 Edgar nominee this week called Ragged Lake by Ron Corbett. He opens with a two-page omniscient description of a remote cabin in the forest built by an odd family of squatters. A forestry worker discovers the family murdered:

The boy never went inside the cabin. Peered through a window and then took off for Ragged Lake, making good time on his snowshoes, then telling the bartender at the Mattamy something bad had happened by the headwaters of Springfield. Something that shouldn’t have happened, because no cabin should have been out there on O’Hearn timber rights on O’Hearn land. Something evil-bad had happened.

They needed to phone someone.

That’s the end of chapter 1. Chapter 2 opens with a continuation of the close omniscient point of view:

The call was logged in at the  and Cork’s Town detachment of the regional police at 6:17 p.m. on a Tuesday evening. An elderly dispatcher took the call, asked a few questions, then reached for an incident report form and repeated most the questions. After that, the dispatcher hit a key on his computer and a list of names and phone numbers appeared on his screen. He dialed the third on the list.

Note the natural bridge between chapters with “the call.” The next graph is the protag, Frank Yakabuski answering the call and the plot is off and running. The writing is atmospheric and spare, so I don’t mind the lack of a personal point of view and we get to the real case — a true disturbance — quickly, by page 4. The writer could have segued straight into Frank at the cabin, like I outlined in my scene above, but I think this slower move into the case works okay. Especially since it segues smoothly into Frank’s POV and all info is related almost exclusively through crisp dialogue. And we are introduced to Frank’s father, who is wheelchair bound after a freak shotgun accident, who I suspect is going to serve as Frank’s confidant, in the vein of James Garner’s dad Rocky in “The Rockford Files.”

I bring this book up just to point out that there are no hard rules — so, yes, you can ease into a scene and no, you don’t always have to use intimate point of view. But you still have to find a good door into your story. Whether the door swings open fast or creaks slowly ajar just wide enough for the reader to slip in, that’s what we call style.

Compare the measured opening of Corbett’s Ragged Lake with the opening of James Scott Bell’s latest Your Son is Alive:

Your son is alive.

A scrawl in red crayon. Messy block lettering across a piece of 8×10 white bond that had been tri-folded and placed in a blank business envelope.

It had been slipped under Dylan Reeve’s door in the middle of the night.

Dylan, holding the note, stumbled to a chair, sat heavily, his bathrobe bunched up under him. He didn’t know how long he sat there. All he knew was he hadn’t moved, except to wipe his eyes.

Finally, he got up, went to the kitchen where he phone was plugged in next to the coffee maker. He called Erin.

Boom…we’re dropped right into the central conflict of the story. James could have opened at the point when the boy disappeared ten years prior. He could have even opened with — ack ack — a prologue showing the boy getting abducted then jumped ahead to show the Reeves falling apart and getting divorced. But James picked door number 3, no backstory, no preludes. Just a nice big stone in the reader’s shoe.

The door chosen here to enter Joe’s world I don’t think is the best one. I’d bet there is a better one, maybe even later in the book that relates to the real case. I suspect the two perps mentioned have nothing to do with the actual plot. I suspect they are what I call a “false case” injected into the beginning to introduce the protag.

You have to be wary of “false case” openings. I recently beta-read a manuscript for a good friend who has published many thrillers. His chapter 1 features a fascinating protag quickly solving a case, then waiting for his superior to call him about the next one.  It’s well-written and introduces his protag really well.  But I questioned the wisdom of opening with a “false case” instead of going right to the real one, which begins in chapter 3.  I told him that his false start could be justified because 1. It is short and juicy and 2. Its exotic locale would be a nice contrast to the rural American setting for the real case. But I still am not sure he wouldn’t be better off just letting his hero take off on the true path. Law and Order does this “false case” opening sometimes. But they always manage to link it to the real case eventually.  That’s a big difference.

As I read Joe Blatz, I kept thinking of Alice in Wonderland, the part where Alice falls down the rabbit hole into the hall of doors. She’s overwhelmed trying to figure out which one to enter and in the end discovers a door behind a curtain that looks promising. But the door is too small. I think that is this writer’s problem here. The door to Joe Blatz’s world is so small, we’re getting no vision as to what’s on the other side.

Also, the passive construct has the additional problem of being all TELL and no SHOW. Rather than playing out the action “on camera” (Joe cuffing and stuffing the perps), we get his memory of it. Rather than showing us how Joe feels about these low-lifes via his actions on the scene and his live thoughts or better yet, dialogue, we have to rely on the writer telling us,  “these country crooks really pissed him off, and on some days he had a shorter fuse than others.”  Wouldn’t you rather see Joe’s fuse go off? I would. I want to follow a pro-active hero, not a Bic-munching muser.

One more thing. I hope the title is only a working one. This isn’t a title, it’s a label. It’s okay to use a character’s name in the title, but you have to make it mean something. It wasn’t Gatsby. It was, ironically, The Great Gatsby. He is a criminal whose real name is James Gatz, and the life he has created for himself is an illusion. T. Jefferson Parker didn’t call his Edgar-winning thriller about cop-cum-bodyguard Joe. He called it Silent Joe because Joe’s adoptive father taught him: “Mouth shut, eyes open. You might actually learn something.” The “silent” also has a poignant second meaning for Joe personally.

Yeah, I know…Emma, Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Carrie, and Lolita. But remember that Nabokov didn’t call her Lola, and for good reason. Here’s his great opening paragraph:

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. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Now that’s a heck of a “door” — to Dolores and the havoc she wreaks on Humbert.

Try to pick the right door. You want your reward to be an engaged reader, not a lifetime supply of Turtle Wax.

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Where Do You Find Inspiration?

By Sue Coletta

Whenever I’m plotting a new novel, I read a lot of true crime stories for inspiration. I may even steal character traits from one real world serial killer or victim and combine them with another. Reading triggers the muse to fire off plot, character, and subplot ideas. Somedays, though, the stories are almost too bizarre to believe. In which case, I’ve merely entertained myself for a while. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t call it wasted time, because true stories have a way of worming into our subconscious mind. When we’re in the writing zone, these alleged “useless facts” can morph into an intriguing scene that we never expected. Don’t you love when that happens?

With that in mind, I pose the following question to you, my dear TKZers. Did you know serial killing families existed? I’ve written about them before on my blog, as well as serial killing couples, which aren’t as rare.

Wes Craven found inspiration for his 1977 slasher film The Hills Have Eyes when he read about the horrors of one particular family of serial killers — the Sawney Bean clan. This is their story. (Did anyone else hear Law & Order’s theme song when they read that line?)

In the times of King James I, Mr. and Mrs. Sawney Bean transformed Bennane Cave, by Ballantrae in Ayrshire, Scotland, into their home. Long, twisting tunnels extended for more than a mile underground. The cave also featured several side passageways to accommodate a growing family. And grew they did. Over the years they created their own army of psychopathic cannabals.

Opposed to getting a job to support his new bride, Sawney Bean resorted to robbery. On the lonely back roads that connected the villages, he’d lie in wait for travelers to pass by. Townsfolk believed the roads were haunted due to the massive amount of disappearances.

A budding serial killer stalked those streets.

Bean’s sole reason for escalating to murder was to not leave witnesses. But then, Agnes, his wife, had an even sicker idea. If they butchered their victims, their remains could provide a high-protein diet, which had the added benefit of evidence disposal. Their relationship had already forced them to flee from their homeland in northern Scotland, after locals repeatedly made accusations of Agnes being a witch, claiming she’d been involved in human sacrifice and conjuring demons.

Over the years Sawney and his wife had fourteen children — all as twisted and evil as their parents — who became an army of serial killing cannibals.

During the next two decades, through incest, the children bore more children, who refined the art of murder and cannibalism, often salting and pickling human flesh. According to the Bean family ledger, found many years later, these incestuous acts brought Bean and Agnes a total of 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters, now bringing the Bean clan to a total of 48 inbred, cannibalistic monsters.

Decaying body parts washed up on the beaches surrounding Bennane cave. Which prompted massive search parties. But no one thought to check the cave.

In about 1430 A.D., fate intervened when the Bean army — who had split into several small groups to hunt — attacked a man and his wife while on their way home from the fair. Half the Bean clan dragged the woman off her horse and had already disemboweled her before the other half of the group had a chance to wrestle the man to the ground. Fighting for his life, the distraught husband trampled several members of the Bean clan with his horse. This caused such a commotion a group of twenty bystanders came to his rescue.

During an all-out war, the Bean clan found themselves outnumbered for the first time in their pathetic lives. They retreated to the cave, leaving behind the mutilated remains of the man’s wife and a score of witnesses. The surviving victim was taken to the Chief Magistrate of Glasgow to tell his tale. With the longest missing persons list the country had ever seen, they reported to King James I, who arrived in Ayshire with his own army of 400 men and a pack of dogs.

Together with several hundred volunteers, another search was underway. Yet again, no one thought to search the cave. Until one cadaver dog alerted at the entrance.

Nothing could have prepared them for the horrors inside. The Bean family lived in that cave for 25 years. In total, the number of missing persons during that time is said to be over 1000.

Bennane Cave

Torches in hand and swords drawn, the army soldiered into Bennane cave and into the mile-long twisting passageways to the inner sanctum of the Bean lair. Dank cave walls held row after row of human limbs, heads, and torsos displayed like the window of a butcher shop. Bundles of clothes, jewelry, and picked-clean bones littered the ground.

A fight broke out between the King’s Army and the forty-eight Bean members, resulting in the arrest and apprehension of Sawney Bean and his kin.

Their crimes were so heinous that normal channels weren’t enough, so King James I sentenced them all to death. Twenty-seven Bean men were left to exsanguinate after executioners disarticulated their limbs. The twenty-one Bean women were hung, staked, forced to watch their male kin bleed out, and finally. set ablaze. Through the entire ordeal not one member of the Bean family showed any sign of fear or remorse. Instead, they spit obscenities toward their captors.

Until the moment Sawney Bean drew his final breath, he repeated one continuous phrase, “It isn’t over, it will never be over.”

Legend says, one of the daughters escaped during the fight with the King’s Army and a local family adopted her. At seventeen years old, she married and had a son. In hard times they also killed and cannibalized to stay alive. When the villagers caught wind of their gruesome activities they hung the Bean daughter and her husband, but not before her son escaped to America, settling what was then known as Roanke Island. The entire colony later disappeared without a trace.

Legend also says that if you sit under the hanging tree in Scotland, you can still hear the Bean daughter’s bones scrape against the bark.

I’ll end this post the same way it began. Where do you find inspiration?

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