What Genre Intimidates You?

Some writers have told me they find the prospect of writing historical fiction intimidating and this got me thinking about what, if any, genre, I would be reluctant to tackle. As a historical fiction writer, I understand that writing a novel set in a different time period to our own can be a formidable prospect. However, for me, the historical context for a novel helps provide a solid footing as well as a necessary framework for my story to develop. In many ways, writing about history is far less daunting than the present:)

Almost all of my story ideas spring initially from a historical incident or person (or, as with my latest WIPs, a ‘what if’ alternative history scenario). There’s literally no aspect of historical research that I don’t enjoy – from delving into primary sources to get a sense of life during the period, to reading secondary sources about the events of the period, to looking up (endless) historical details relating to things like fashion, architecture, furniture, food and even language (I use an online historical thesaurus which is so much fun!). I do recognize, however, that anyone contemplating writing historical fiction has to add a much greater research burden to their process. For me, this research is a critical part of finding the voice for any novel – with the specifics of time and place adding an additional dimension to everything I write. I totally understand, however, that tackling a historical novel is not for the faint of heart – but then that could be said for writing any novel! For me, the prospect of writing a contemporary novel is far more daunting than any historical novel (even one set in a period I know nothing about!). The most ‘contemporary’ period I’ve contemplated writing about is the 1980s:)

So what genres do I find more intimidating than writing a contemporary novel? Well, I feel pretty comfortable about facing the challenge of writing a romance, sci-fi or fantasy novel…but horror or erotica? Hmmm…not so much. I doubt that I’d be able to pull off a horror novel or even a really disturbing thriller…unless it was historical. Then, for some reason, I think I’d be able to go dark (though how dark my dark would be is debatable!). As for erotica, well anytime I’ve tried to write a graphic sex scene I’ve made myself laugh…so I doubt I’ll ever make a successful erotica novelist!

In general, I feel pretty open to writing whatever I feel passionate about – even if the prospect intimidates me – but I think deep down I recognize that there’s something about history – something about grounding myself in a different time and place that informs my creative process. What about you, TKZers? Are there any genres that intimidate you?

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A Scene Template For New Writers

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

 

Today’s first-page critique provides an opportunity to discuss the nuts and bolts of the basic unit of novel writing—the scene. Let’s have a look the opening and take up this crucial craft matter on the other side.

 

He wrote on the back of a postcard.

“I’m in Oaxaca (Pronounced “Wah-Hah-Kah”) Mexico, 
on the first Tuesday in February. I’m enjoying very 
warm days, very hot food and good cold beer. 
Wish you were here.
Frank.”

23 year old Frank Sandrell thought;

This new El Cacique Premiero of the Aztecs received his Investiture on New Years Day. He’s been going around the Country, performing sacrifices in all the major Cities. He arrived in Oaxaca today, just like I did. While I’m here, he’ll actually be immolating a devout Aztec maiden under the midday sun; presenting her as an offering to Los Teochacos, keeping them satisfied, so they will continue “to sustain the World and all that is therein”.

Local people from all over the region had been crowding into the city to witness the event; so had a very large number of turistas. Not one hotel room in town was now available. Frank was glad he’d made all his reservations back in October.

The time was around 8 in the evening. The postcard he’d just signed lay on the table beside a painted glass lamp containing a burning candle. He sat in an outdoor restaurante, beneath the ceiling of a brightly lit arcade, across the street from the Main Plaza of Oaxaca Mexico. The local people called the Plaza “El Zocalo”.

Frank was seated alone, having a dinner of chicken burritos, rice, and refried beans, along with a mug of Tres Equis beer. The sound of performing mariachis came from tables at the far end of the arcade. They sang the traditional “Los Tres Caballeros”. Across the street in the Zocalo, a different band performed “Guadalajara”. The different tunes performed at the same time filled the warm evening air with melodious confusion.

At the table next to his, three stylishly dressed Oaxacan girls in their late teens sat chatting amiably while drinking beer of the Bohemia brand. They had straight black hair, tan complexions and full, firm figures.

One of the girls called out and pointed. “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

Everyone in the seats around them looked where she was pointing. Frank saw an unsmiling, casually dressed middle aged Mexican hombre, with thinning hair and glasses, moving around the tables in the arcade. If he hadn’t been pointed out, Frank would not have noticed him.

As the man walked past the stylish girls’ table, the three spoke respectfully. “Buenas noches Cacique.”

He replied, still not smiling. “Buenas noches senoritas.”

He continued moving past the other tables, where all the local people respectfully greeted the Supreme High Priest of all the Aztecs.

# # #

JSB: Okay, we’ve got some work to do. I see two promising things in the material: a) the setting (Oaxaca); and b) the potential strangeness of an Aztec priest in the modern world, performing sacrifices yet!

The problem with this page is that the material is front loaded with exposition (i.e., story information the author wants the reader to know), and what minimal action there is comes too late, with too little to keep us interested.

Write this down and stick it near your computer: It is not information that captures readers. Nor is it characters. It is characters in motion toward an objective.

That is what a scene must have—one or more characters who want something, even if (as Kurt Vonnegut suggested) it’s just a glass of water.

Since you seem new to fiction writing, I’d like to provide you with a scene template. As you grow in the craft, you will learn how to riff within this basic structure. But you can’t play jazz piano without first learning the scales, right?

A scene has three component parts: Objective, obstacles, and outcome.

Objective

A novel is about a character using strength of will to attain a crucial objective. For example, in the movie The Fugitive the wrongly convicted Dr. Richard Kimble must avoid being captured, or he’ll be sent to Death Row for a murder he did not commit. To exonerate himself—and get justice for his murdered wife—he needs to stay free long enough to find the one-armed man who killed her.

Now, each scene in the film has a sub-objective that connects somehow to the big one. Thus, early on, the wounded Kimble has to sneak into a rural hospital and treat himself, without arousing suspicion. Later he poses as a janitor in a hospital in Chicago with the objective of gaining access to the records of the prosthetics wing. Why? So he can get a list of one-armed men to track down.

Obstacles

Conflict and tension are the lifeblood of a scene. When the viewpoint character is confronted with obstacles to gaining his scene objective—in the form of opposing characters, physical barriers, time pressure, or all three—things get tense.

In the rural hospital scene from The Fugitive, Kimble must sneak past the loading dock and find a treatment room. After stitching himself up, he needs to shave off his beard and steal some clothes. He does this in the room of a patient who is out like a light. But a nurse walks into the room! And a state trooper has arrived because Kimble might be in the area! The tension mounts as we worry about his cover being blown at any moment.

Outcome

A scene has to end at some point, and needs to answer the question: did the viewpoint character realize his objective?

The answer can be: No, Yes, or Oh my gosh!

A NO answer is always a good default, because it makes the character’s situation worse. When a character is set back in his quest, the reader’s worry mounts. And that is what readers want to do: worry about characters in crisis all the way to the end.

A YES needs to happen on occasion, but when it does, brainstorm how it can lead to more trouble. For example, in the scene in The Fugitive where Kimble poses as a janitor, he is temporarily stuck on a crowded trauma floor. He spots a little boy in distress. When a doctor tells him to take the boy to an observation room, Kimble has a scene objective: Help this boy! As he pushes the gurney Kimble sneaks a look at the X-rays and the chart, and starts asking the boy diagnostic questions. He determines the boy needs surgery right away. In the elevator he changes the orders and takes the boy to an operating room. He alerts a doctor and shows her the orders. The boy will be saved! That’s a YES answer. However, his earlier look at the X-rays was seen by the doctor who asked him to help. She confronts him and calls security. Now Kimble is outed and has to get out of there! He’s in worse shape because of his good deed.

An OH MY GOSH! scene ending means you leave the situation temporarily unresolved (a “cliffhanger”) and cut to another scene (perhaps with another viewpoint character). If you write in First Person POV or Limited Third Person (meaning one viewpoint character throughout the book) you can end a chapter on a cliffhanger and take up matters in the following chapter.

That’s basic scene structure.

Now we have to discuss how you get into a scene. This is, of course, crucial for opening pages, but no less so for any scene you write. So I’ll give you a template for this as well. Learn it, know why it works, then, as I mentioned, you can begin to play around with it.

First thing I want you to do is put the name of the viewpoint character in the first paragraph of every scene you write. Also, give us an indication of the setting and some kind of action.

Here is the first line of Harlan Coben’s Missing You: 

Kat Donavan spun off her father’s old stool, readying to leave O’Malley’s Pub, when Stacy said, “You’re not going to like what I did.”

See that? Named character, setting, and action. (Here’s another tip that will help you enormously—in general, get to dialogue as soon as possible. That forces you to write in scene style.)

In a happy coincidence, here’s the opening line from yesterday’s first-page critique:

The instant her helicopter touched down, Francine threw the door open, leaned out, and shouted, “Any survivors?”

So how about this for your opening line:

Frank Sandrell was about to take another pull on his Tres Equis when a girl at the next table shouted, “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

See how much better that is? The first thing readers look for in a scene is the who. Give them that up front. This line also has an indication of setting (drinking beer and next table imply a café; the Spanish language alerts us to a foreign place).

Next, drop in some details on the setting and situation in the thought-voice-attitude of the character. Here is the next paragraph from Coben’s novel:

O’Malley’s used to be an old-school cop bar. Kat’s grandfather had hung out here. So had her father and their fellow NYPD colleagues. Now it had been turned into a yuppie, preppy, master-of-the-universe, poser asshat bar, loaded up with guys who sported crisp white shirts under black suits, two-day stubble, mansacped to the max to look un-manscaped. They smirked a lot, these soft men, their hair moussed to the point of overcoif, and ordered Ketel One instead of Grey Goose because they watched some TV ad telling them that was what real men drink.

What you have to note here is that the above description is filtered through the voice of the POV character. This is how Kat thinks of the place and the men in it. Thus, your assignment is to take some of the essential info in your page (e.g., Oaxaca, mariachis, brightly-lit arcade) and weave it into a paragraph with Frank’s voice and attitude.

The next part of the template: Somewhere within the first page of your scene make it clear what the character’s objective is. I’m not sure what Frank’s is except that it has something to do with this Aztec priest guy. What about him? Does Frank want to kill him? Learn from him? Take his power for himself?

Next: brainstorm various obstacles to that objective. Go to town with this before you write any scene. Often (most of the time?) our mind first comes up with familiar tropes, because that’s what we’ve seen in countless books and movies. Take time to come up with something fresh. Make a list of possibilities then choose the best ones.

Lastly, you decide what the outcome is going to be. Brainstorm this part, too. You may decide to change it in the course of writing the scene, and that’s perfectly fine. But you need to write your scene with a destination in mind.

Whew! That’s a lot to work on, I know. But it’s absolutely necessary for your development. Because a successful novel is a series of scenes, none of which are dull. It’s a high bar, but we’re not peddling peanuts on the street corner here. We’re attempting to transport impatient and distracted readers into a fictional world and hold them there for the duration!

Let me end today’s lesson with a few style notes:

He wrote on the back of a postcard.

“I’m in Oaxaca (Pronounced “Wah-Hah-Kah”) Mexico …

The disembodied “He” writing on a postcard did not create a picture of a character for me. The message, too, was a bit odd. Would a guy writing a postcard really use up valuable space giving the pronunciation?

Further, don’t put quotation marks around written text. That should be called out via italics, a different font or a block indentation.

23 year old Frank Sandrell thought;

Never begin a sentence with numerals. It should be: Twenty-three-year-old Frank Sandrell thought …

And you meant to use a colon, not a semi-colon. That’s a typo, obviously, but a big one, because I don’t want to see you use a semi-colon in fiction ever!

This new El Cacique Premiero of the Aztecs received his Investiture on New Years Day. He’s been going around the Country, performing sacrifices in all the major Cities. He arrived in Oaxaca today, just like I did. While I’m here, he’ll actually be immolating a devout Aztec maiden under the midday sun; [AHHH!!!] presenting her as an offering to Los Teochacos, keeping them satisfied, so they will continue “to sustain the World and all that is therein”.

This doesn’t sound like a real thought. It’s exposition from the author. Note: interior thoughts are generally short, a line or two. Otherwise it tends to sound fake. Rework these sections so the thoughts sound like the character’s voice in that particular moment.

Also, that last quote looks odd. It’s supposed to be the Aztec priest, I guess, but it throws us. Try not to do that. And, of course, the punctuation always goes inside the quote mark.

The time was around 8 in the evening.

As a general rule, spell out numbers from zero to one hundred. Thus: The time was around eight in the evening.

This can be a confusing style issue, but here’s one helpful article you can refer to.

One of the girls called out and pointed. “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

When a foreign language is spoken by a character, render it in italics. Thus:

One of the girls called out and pointed. “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

That’s enough for today, writer! I hope it helps. Write, learn, edit, rewrite, get feedback.

Repeat …

Your turn, Zoners. Any other advice for today’s writer?

8+

In Media Res with LESSER EVILS: First Page Critique

Photo: “Left Behind” by Jon Hernandez, unsplash.com

Welcome, Anon du jour, welcome to THE KILL ZONE First Page Critique!

Let’s all take a look at how Anon drops us into the middle of a plane crash with great aplomb in Lesser Evils:

Lesser Evils

The instant her helicopter touched down, Francine threw the door open, leaned out, and shouted, “Any survivors?”

She already knew the answer. For as far as she could see, fragments of her company’s plane littered barren, rocky terrain. In the waning-sunset gloom, scattered islands of yellow flames flickered in a huge sea of shattered metal—only the jet’s tail and two small engines intact enough to recognize. The destruction of her plane and the ten lives it had carried was absolute.

Francine suppressed a grin.

Absolute was what she’d planned.

Next on her plan was a bit of stagecraft. The sheriff’s deputy she’d yelled at stood less than a hundred feet away, but the scream of the copter’s motor as it powered down drowned out all other sound. She carefully stepped from the two person cockpit onto apple-sized volcanic rocks. Freezing in the copter’s windstorm, she pulled her jacket tight, stumbled forward on sloping ground, her pilot following closely behind.

When they reached the officer, she paused to catch her breath and almost choked on the sulfuric rotten-egg stench. The engine noise finally died. She pasted on a well-rehearsed look of anxiety and said again to the deputy, “Any survivors?”

He looked the two of them up and down. “Who are you?”

Francine’s pilot handed the cop a business card. “Ian Brack, Corporate Security, International Health Enterprises. This is Dr. Francine Duvaine. She owns the company and the plane.”

The deputy stared at her for a moment; then shook his head. “No one could have survived. Slammed into the caldera at over four hundred knots, a ton of fuel on board. Couple of folks at the tourist center fainted. Fireball was so big they thought St. Helens was erupting again.” He shook his head again. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“Please, you’re certain?” She made her voice crack. “No one?”

“No one.”

She closed her eyes, hung her head, and stood still for a few seconds. There—her work here was done. “Thank you, officer.” She began to turn away. “Thank you.”

“A real shame.” The deputy said. “Two crew and seven passengers.”

Francine whirled back toward him. “Seven?” She shot a glance at Brack and marveled at how he maintained a calm expression. Her pulse pounding in her temples, she took a deep breath. “You’re absolutely sure? Seven—not eight?”

 

I want the rest of Lesser Evils right now. I’m going to forego the usual nitpicking on it simply because the author does so much correctly in terms of storytelling. The pacing is just right. The narrative baits and sinks the hook from the first few words. This big fish was then caught and netted. Yes, there are a few typos (one near the beginning, one near the end, to name two) and if no one mentions them by close of business today (and we never close) I will jump in and note them but Anon, you are on the right track here.

Why do I love Lesser Evils? Anon drops us right into the middle of the action in a manner which entices without confusing. The introduction of two of the main characters is handled simply, but in a more interesting manner than just stating their names (which would have been fine). We know right away where the crash takes place.  There are a couple of surprises in the first page, those being 1) Francine’s hidden reaction to her company’s plane crashing and 2) the news that, apparently, not everyone died (and she’s not happy). It’s terrific. Those two elements will undoubtedly play out over at least the first few pages of the book and possibly beyond. It makes the reader wonder why Francine planned the crash, how she will be caught, when she’ll be caught, who will discover it, and the consequences. The audience will also be asking where that eighth body, breathing or otherwise, might be. I am assuming that later on Anon will explain to someone how Francine and Ian got there so quickly, where the plane took off from, and how Francine will keep from getting into trouble by landing in the middle of a crash scene, but what we have here is everything I want and could reasonably ask for in a first page: murder most foul; an intriguing villain, and a surprise or two, all wrapped in the same box without bumping into each other.

I wanted page two of Lesser Evils, then page three, and so on. I know I’ve got a good read in my hands when I feel that way. Go, Anon, go!

I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically quiet while I turn the comments, praises, and criticisms portion of this page over to our wonderful readers and visitors. Enjoy!

 

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Any Questions??

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hello dear readers, the HDW (Highly Distractible Writer) for today is still thinking about today’s topic, so I’ve decided to toss my two cents into the blog.  I was wondering, what would YOU like to read about?  What is important to you as a mystery writer? What do you need to get moving on your latest WIP (work in progress)?  Thank you all for your submissions and comments.  Lynne

 

 

3+

Work Day, Sick Day

sick day

Stock photo via GoDaddy

The Thanksgiving Plague finally got me. I hadn’t had so much as a sniffle for six months. Several of my family members were sick in the days surrounding Thanksgiving–my daughter’s fiancé only came out from his room to give the 17 assembled guests a wave at the end of the feast. Fortunately, I didn’t get sick until Monday, after everyone was gone.

I don’t always work when I’m sick, but I always work when I have a deadline. In some ways, I like to write or edit when I’m ill because the illness keeps me in one place–bed, if I can manage it. As an HDW (Highly Distractible Writer, which I just made up), anything that keeps me seated for long periods of time is A Good Thing. I don’t care if it’s the kind of thing that demands two boxes of tissues and a box of Sucrets. (Do they even make Sucrets anymore? I loved those things.)

I edited for eleven hours today. I know that because I tracked it on Office Time which even keeps track of the time you’re away from your keyboard for your counting convenience. On a normal editing day, I get in about six or seven hours, with a bit of web surfing, dog walking, and errand-running at their edges. It’s amazing what a person can get done when they just toss the dogs outside and remind them to do their business, and fling ten bucks at their son so he can bring home pizza for those who can eat.

Today my protag opined about how much she likes to spend the occasional day reading in bed. Doesn’t that sound lovely? Maybe it was transferred wishful thinking on my part because, you know, deadline.

Do you write through the flu or migraines or colds or even broken body parts? Or are you sensible and take good care of yourself by putting all your mental and physical energy into getting better?

4+

Detecting Hidden Serial Killers

Photo purchased from Shutterstock

Interesting Reading 

A recent article in The New Yorker,  “The Serial Killer Detector,” has given rise to a veritable barrage of scare-headlines across social media  (“More Than 2000 Serial Killers At Large! In The United States!!”)

The article by Alec Wilkinson describes how a former journalist, Thomas Hargrove, developed a data analytics tool to identify previously undetected serial killers. Hargrove’s Murder Accountability Project (MAP) has catalogued a total of 751,785 murders since 1976 — a number that far exceeds the official tally reported by the FBI (The discrepancy between MAP and the FBI’s totals reflects the fact that many states fail to report their murder tallies accurately to the Feds. Hargrove has taken states to court to reveal those unreported numbers.)

Hargrove’s MAP tool uses an algorithm he wrote to detect patterns in unsolved murder reports within a geographical area. A high rate of unsolved murders is one indicator that a serial killer may be at large (In 2010, Hargrove spotted a pattern that suggested that a serial killer might be responsible for a series of unsolved murders in a Midwest city. Local officials brushed off Hargrove’s attempts to alert them to the potential threat; years later, a man arrested on another murder volunteered a confession that he had committed many of the earlier killings.)

Hargrove says he is still debating how and when to reach out to local police departments when MAP detects a possible serial killer within a vicinity, according to the article. But MAP has already succeeded in making the public aware that the United States is doing a poor job of solving its murder cases. (In 2016, less than 60 percent of killings were solved, down from 92 percent solved in 1965.)

If you’re adept with statistics you can run the MAP tool from their website http://www.murderdata.org  to ferret out unsolved murder patterns in your own hometown.

Have any of the crime detectives in your stories (or your favorite author’s stories) used cutting edge data analytics such as MAP to help solve a fictional crime?

 

 

 

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What Do Tom Turkey and Writing Have in Common?

by Sue Coletta

Photo by Andrea Reiman on Unsplash

Clare’s recent post got me thinking about craft and how, as we write, the story inflates like a Tom turkey. If you think about it long enough and throw in a looming deadline, Tom Turkey and story structure have a lot in common.

Stay with me. I promise it’ll make sense, but I will ask you to take one small leap of faith — I need you to picture Tom Turkey as the sum of his parts, constructed by craft. And yes, this particular light bulb blazed on over the Thanksgiving holiday. We are now having spiral ham for Christmas dinner. 🙂

But I digress.

Story beats build Tom’s spine (hook, inciting incident, first plot point, first pinch point, midpoint, second pinch point, all is lost, second plot point, climax). The ribs that extend from Tom’s spine liken to the equal parts that expand our beats and tell us how our characters should react before, during, and after the quest.

Broken into four equal parts, 25% percent each, we call this the dramatic arc and it defines the pace of our story.

  •             Setup: Introduce protagonist, hook the reader, and setup First Plot Point (foreshadowing, establishing stakes); establish empathy (not necessarily likability) for the MC.
  •             Response: The MC’s reaction to the new goal/stakes/obstacles revealed by the First Plot Point; the MC doesn’t need to be heroic yet (retreats/regroups/doomed attempts/reminders of antagonistic forces at work).
  •             Attack: Midpoint information/awareness causes the MC to change course in how to approach the obstacles; the hero is now empowered with information on how to proceed, not merely reacting anymore.
  •             Resolution: MC summons the courage and growth to come up with solution, overcome inner obstacles, and conquer the antagonistic force; all new information must have been referenced, foreshadowed, or already in play by 2nd plot point or we’re guilty of deus ex machina.

Tom Turkey is beginning to take shape.

Characterization adds meat to his bones and interesting, conflict-driven sub-plots supply tendons and ligaments. When we layer in dramatic tension in the form of a need, goal, quest, or challenge, Tom grows skin. Obstacle after obstacle, conflict after conflict, he sprouts feathers. Utilizing MRUs — Motivation-Reaction-Units; for every action there’s a reaction — sets our story rhythm. They also aid us in heightening and maintaining suspense.

When we use MRUs, Tom Turkey fluffs those feathers. Look what happened. He grew a beak.

Providing a vicarious experience, our emotions splashed across the page, makes Tom fan his tail-feathers. The stakes add to Tom’s glee, and he prances for a potential mate. He thinks he’s got the goods to score with the ladies. He may actually get lucky this year.

Then again, we know better. Poor Tom, he’s still missing a few crucial elements in order to close the deal.

By structuring our scenes, Tom grew an impressive snood. See it dangling from his beak? The wattle under his chin needs help though. Hens are shallow. Quick, we need to imbue the story with voice.

Ah, now Tom looks sharp. What an impressive bird. Watch him prance, all full and fluffy, head held high, tail feathers fanned in perfect formation. Stud muffin.

Uh-oh. Joe Hunter leveled his shotgun at Tom. We can’t let him die before he finds a mate. We need to ensure he stays alive. But how? We’ve given him all the tools he needs, right?

Well, not quite.

Did we choose the right point of view to tell our story? If we didn’t, Tom could end up on a holiday table surrounded by drooling humans in bibs. In other words, we’ll lose our reader before we even get a chance to dazzle them with Tom’s perfect structure.

We also need narrative structure. Without it, Joe Hunter will murder poor Tom. We can’t let that happen!

Narrative structure, by the way, is almost impossible for me to define (maybe one of our craft teachers will weigh in here). I call it the “oomph” and I know it when I write it. I also know when it’s missing. Have you ever started writing a story but it didn’t have that certain something? The story was just … meh. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but it didn’t sizzle like it should for some reason.

Yeah, so have I. Those novels are now trunked. Without the oomph, the story doesn’t work. We need the oomph — aka narrative structure.

Tom needs narrative structure, too, if he hopes to escape Joe Hunter’s bullet. He also requires wings, in the form of context. Did we veer too far outside of our readers’ expectations for the genre we’re writing in? Did we give Tom a heart and soul by subtly infusing our theme? Can we boil down the plot to its core story, Tom’s innards? What about dialogue? Does Tom gobble or quack?

Have we shown the three dimensions of character in order to add oxygen to Tom’s lungs? You wouldn’t want to be responsible for suffocating Tom to death, would you?

  •             1st Dimension of Character: The best version of who they are; the face the character shows to the world;
  •             2nd Dimension of Character:  The person our character shows to friends and family;
  •             3rd Dimension of Character:  Our character’s true character. If a fire broke out in a crowded theater, would she help others or elbow her way to the door to save herself?

Lastly, Tom needs a way to wow the ladies. We better make sure our prose sings. If we don’t, Tom could die of loneliness. Do we really want that on our conscience? No! To be safe, let’s review our word choices, sentence variations, paragraphing, grammar, and the way we string words together to ensure Tom lives a full and fruitful life. Don’t forget to rewrite and edit. If readers love Tom, he and his new bride could bring chicks (sequels or prequels) into the world, and we, as Tom’s creator, have the honor of helping them flourish into full-fledged turkeys.

Aww … it looks like Tom’s story will have a happy ending after all.

Over to you, TKZers. Is Tom Turkey missing anything? What would you name his mate?Can anyone define narrative structure in a more craft-appropriate way?

Want to meet more feathered friends? The antagonist in BLESSED MAYHEM has three pet crows, Poe, Allan, and Edgar. The Kindle version is on sale for a limited time.

Blessed Mayhem by Sue Coletta

 

 

4+

I Was Ready For My Big Moment

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Embed from Getty Images

Earle Hyman

Last week we lost a very dear man. Earle Hyman was known to most people as Bill Cosby’s father on The Cosby Show. But he was so much more. An accomplished stage actor, he was one of the great Othellos.

I know because I got to watch him play the role night after night.

I was a young and hungry actor, freshly arrived in New York City and living at The Leo House on West 23d. Across the street at that time was the Roundabout Theater. I walked over there one day and asked for a job. I got one, pushing around scenery for the current production, Shaw’s You Never Can Tell.

As part of the deal, I got to audition for their upcoming production of Othello.

JSB in his triumphant role as Attendant in Othello.

And I got the part! My first paid acting role! As … Attendant. No lines, but I didn’t care. I was doing Shakespeare Off-Broadway, in tights and everything!

Earle Hyman was Othello. Also in the cast was a young Powers Boothe as Roderigo.

And so we began rehearsals. I loved every minute of it, even though my part was just walking on, standing, and walking off. But when I was off, I’d listen. I’d listen to how Earle and Nick Kepros (Iago) did Shakespeare. Iago has some of the best lines in the entire canon, and I determined to play that role someday.

In fact, one night before the show I was sitting backstage with Earle. He was so generous to the young actors, down-to-earth and always willing to give advice. I mentioned I wanted to play Iago someday, and he said, “You’re perfect for it!”

“I am?” I said, wondering if some nefarious part of my personality had leaked out.

“Oh, yes,” Earle said. “You have an open, honest face.” (This, mind you, was well before I went to law school.) He explained, “Othello calls him ‘honest, honest Iago.’ It’s wrong to play the part as an obvious villain.”

I then breezily but sincerely told him I was going to mount a production of Othello someday and play Iago, and that I wanted him to play the lead.

“I’ll do it!” he said.

A lovely man.

So the show opened and was well received by the Times. I continued to listen. I was something of a voice impersonator in those days. I’d crack up the cast by doing imitations of the various actors.

Then one night it happened. My big moment.

Now, to fully appreciate what I’m about to relate it is necessary that you know the classic film All About Eve. If you have not seen it and wish to be spared knowing the plot twist, you might want to skip to the last paragraphs of this post.

In brief, All About Eve is the story of a theater diva named Margo Channing (Bette Davis). A devoted young fan named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) comes to her and pours out her heart about loving the theater and idolizing Margo. This gets her a job as Margo’s assistant.

What we come to learn is that Eve Harrington has only one thought in mind—to displace Margo as the star of a new hit play. She underhandedly snags the understudy role. And then she sets in motion an elaborate scheme so Margo will be unable to make curtain one night.

Eve is a sensation, and from there turns her back on everyone who’s helped her as she ascends the stairway to stardom.

Back to Othello. One night, about an hour and half before curtain, a call comes in from the actor playing Montano—a minor role, but with significant lines. He was stuck in Brooklyn and wouldn’t be able to make the show. I can’t remember why, but I assure you I had nothing to do with it.

The stage manager was in a panic. There were no understudies. Then someone told him, “Jim knows the part. He knows all the parts.”

The stage manager rushed over to me and put his hands on my shoulders. “Do you? Do you really know the part?”

“What from the cape can you discern at sea?” I said, quoting Montano’s first line.

“You’re going on!”

On! Me! I was giddy as he spent twenty minutes with me on the stage, walking me through the blocking. I only half listened, for my other half was loop-quoting the Bard: “Yet heavens have glory for this victory!”

Then I was dismissed to go get ready for the performance.

As I entered the dressing room, everyone was already putting on makeup or getting into costume. The moment I appeared our Iago, Nick Kepros, in a voice dripping with droll amusement and loud enough for all to hear, said, “Well, well, if it isn’t Eve Harrington!”

The room exploded in laughter. It was the perfect line, brilliantly delivered.

So on I went.

Nailed it!

Though it was one night only and did not catapult me to stardom, it was supremely satisfying. I had spoken Shakespeare on a stage in New York! And received warm congratulations from the cast, including Mr. Earle Hyman.

All that to say, writer, be ready. The old saw about luck being the intersection of preparation and opportunity applies.

Be ready when you read. When you come across a passage that moves you or compels you to turn the page, ask yourself why that is so. Mark up the book with notes.

Be ready when you write. Listen to your book and the characters as they take on life. What are they telling you that you didn’t know before?

Be ready when you edit. By studying the craft and having tools that actually work, you become more adept at creatively fixing your manuscript.

Be ready with your elevator pitch. If anyone asks you what your book is about, you should be able to tell them in thirty seconds, and in a way that makes their eyes light up. (An elevator pitch formula may be found here.)

Do all that and you know what you’ll be ready for next? To “put money in thy purse!” (Iago, Act I, Scene 3.)

So what serendipitous event has happened in your own life? Were you ready for it?

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First-Page Critique: The Allure of World War II

By Mark Alpert

We live in a violent world, and our present-day conflicts distort our memories of past wars. With that in mind, let’s consider this first-page sample submitted by one of our anonymous TKZ contributors:

Title: Jaeger’s Dilemma

War Department Auxiliary Building, Washington, D.C.

10 July 1943

Captain Gregory Maxwell pulled at the starched uniform collar pasted to his 16-½ inch neck as he paced the room. A whirling fan bounced humid stale air off walls the color of Baked Alaska. Blackout curtains stifled the room’s dim light. Four stiff-backed wooden chairs guarded a projector and the table upon which it sat. Sweat dripped down his narrow brow stinging his eyes. He rolled his shoulders, severing the seal of the shirt clinging to his back.

A fly buzzed his right ear. He swatted it away, then checked his watch – fifteen twenty hours. Report at thirteen-thirty he’d been directed. No rhyme, no reason, no reporting official identified.

He glanced at his watch again. He would miss drinks with the Senator if he didn’t leave soon. The fly buzzed him again. He swatted and missed.

The door opened. A petite brunette, her uniform Women’s Army Corps, entered carrying a film canister, a folder, and a glass of water.

“Surviving, Captain?” She handed him the tumbler. “Isn’t cold, had to get it from a tap in the latrine. Drawing water from the hall’s drinking fountain is like a castrated bull fathering calves. Hades will freeze over first.” She grinned a white smile. “At least the war would be over.” She started to wind the film through the projector’s sprockets. “By the way, I’m Corporal Allen.”

“How much longer?” Maxwell sipped the water. Despite the slight taste of rusted iron, the tepid liquid soothed his dry throat.

“Hard to say,” she said, her tone Midwest apologetic. “As usual, the Colonel’s working like a crazed farmer chopping a hundred acres of wheat with a single scythe and only has two days before thunderstorms strike.”

He groaned.

“Not to worry, Captain. Senator Downey’s been given your regrets.” The corporal’s long fingers slipped the film’s edge into the slot of the take-up reel. “Done.”

Maxwell’s brow furrowed. “I didn’t send regrets.”

“I did.” The Texas twang reverberated about the closet of a room. A full bull Colonel, devoid of his military coat, stepped inside.

Maxwell snapped to attention.

“Fuck formality, Captain. I need results. Roll the film, Allen.”

_________

I have to admit: I’m a sucker for stories about World War II. I loved Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five. Two of the finest war poems of all time are Randall Jarrell’s “Eighth Air Force” and “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” And of course there are all the amazing movies about the war, from The Longest Day and The Dirty Dozen to Saving Private Ryan and Inglourious Basterds. (My personal favorite is Twelve O’Clock High, which was considered such a good primer on leadership techniques that at one time it was required viewing at West Point. General Curtis LeMay, the Eighth Air Force veteran who later talked about bombing Vietnam “back into the Stone Age,” was also a big fan of the film.)

But of the 16 million veterans of World War II, only about half a million are still alive, and they’re dying off at a rate of 2,500 per week. Can we still write compelling novels about WWII after so much time? I think we can, but it’s inevitable that the experience of more recent wars will color our stories of the so-called “Good War,” in the same way that the Vietnam War changed the depiction of the Korean War in M*A*S*H. And as all writers of historical fiction know, the author must be constantly wary of anachronisms and clichés.

For example: I grew up during the Cold War, and in my neighborhood in Queens most of the apartment buildings were plastered with yellow-and-black Fallout Shelter signs. When I looked out my bedroom window, I imagined mushroom clouds blooming over the Manhattan skyline. In 1982 I went to the epic “No Nukes” rally in Central Park, and a year later the anti-war song “99 Red Balloons” was playing on all the radio stations. I was in graduate school at the time, studying poetry, and when I tried to write a poem about nuclear apocalypse, the result was a weird mash-up of Twelve O’Clock High and Dr. Strangelove:

I dreamed of the secret bomber squadron,

seventeen jets that would start the war.

 

I dreamed, in particular, of an airfield in the jungle

on a South Pacific island, on the underside of the world,

where a sudden strike could maim the enemy

(thus spoke our generals, and we believed them).

Hidden in shadow, on the underside of the world,

where the world’s detonation would begin…

 

We trained for the mission in utmost secrecy,

six weeks that passed so quickly I never even

learned my place in the bomber. The general

asked me, “What’s your position, son?

Tail-gunner? Waist-gunner? Bombardier? Turret-gunner?”

The Plexiglas bubbles, like transparent boils

on the skin of the bomber (and in every airman’s mind

was a vision of cracked and bullet-pocked glass),

the positions of death, all my friends assigned

to one or the other. I told the general,

“I’ll be in charge of the parachutes, sir,”

but my friends didn’t think this joke was funny.

The general scowled at me, his face twisted

in anger, his breath stinking of cough drops.

 

A dozen times we loaded onto the bus

and rode down the path through the jungle,

heading for the island’s airfield. We were ready

to take flight and complete our mission,

but we turned back every time, our orders

canceled. Once, the general lost his nerve.

Another time, all the officers decided we

couldn’t attack without eating breakfast first.

So we turned the bus around

and headed back to the canteen…

 

Three women sat across the table from me,

dressed in twill uniforms like the Andrews Sisters,

curly hair spilling from their garrison caps.

I watched them flirt with the enlisted men.

I argued with them. I made a fool of myself again.

Meanwhile, my friends devoured bowls of oatmeal,

drank water from clean glasses, wiped their hands

on paper napkins. They didn’t say grace,

didn’t pat their bellies, didn’t ask for more.

 

We were waiting, all of us, for the last day

to arrive, when the word would come down

and we’d get our final orders (we were so sick

and tired of all the tests and drills), when the bus

would reach the end of the jungle path

and let us off at the airfield, that broad flat clearing

with the red and green lights flashing maniacally

in the short grass on both sides of the runway.

How many days and nights did we wait?

How many of us prayed for the word to come down?

 

The dream ended. I sat up in bed, trying to

picture everyone I’d left behind on that island,

all the enlisted men and officers and their scowling general.

The end of the world — why did we pray so hard for it?

And do they still pray for it now that I’ve left them?

Maybe it was my disappearance they were waiting for

and now the planes are taking off, one by one, from the airfield

and in the fishbowl view of every gunner’s glass turret

the red and green lights are fading in the distance…

 

See what I mean about clichés? I was born in 1961, long after the heyday of the Andrews Sisters (see photo above), and yet they somehow managed to worm their way into my subconscious.

I also thought of World War II clichés when reading the opening paragraphs of this first-page submission. I love the idea of featuring a strong, outspoken WAC corporal in this novel, but Corporal Allen goes a little overboard with her Midwest farm-girl metaphors: “Drawing water from the hall’s drinking fountain is like a castrated bull fathering calves.” “As usual, the Colonel’s working like a crazed farmer chopping a hundred acres of wheat with a single scythe and only has two days before thunderstorms strike.” It’s just too much, too obvious. In this case, less is more. Also, I didn’t like the sentence, “She grinned a white smile.” Better to say something like, “She smiled. Her teeth were perfect.”

The colonel with the Texas twang doesn’t appear until the last few paragraphs of this submission, but I’m worried that he’s going to veer into cliché territory too. First of all, I was a bit thrown by the term “full bull colonel” – I assume that means the same thing as the more common term “full bird colonel” (so-called because of the eagle insignia on a colonel’s uniform), but maybe it carries the extra implication that the man is built like a bull (or full of bullshit)? Either way, I think I’ve seen this guy before in about a hundred World War II movies. In the following pages of the novel, I hope the author develops the colonel into a more original character.

But my biggest complaint with this submission is about the all-important point-of-view character, Captain Maxwell. He’s worse than a cliché — he’s a cipher. We know the size of his neck, but almost nothing about what’s going on inside his head. His main preoccupations seem to be annoyance about a buzzing fly and anxiety over missing a barroom rendezvous with a U.S. senator. From the latter, I assume the captain’s job is to be a liaison officer, a contact between the Army and Congress – why else would a lowly captain have drinks with a senator? – and that would’ve been a pretty cushy posting in July 1943 when thousands of other Army officers were dying in Sicily or the South Pacific. But I’m just guessing, you see. Because the author hasn’t told us what Maxwell is thinking, I have to make guesses, many of which are probably unflattering and unfair and make me dislike the character right off the bat.

That’s not a good way to start a novel. I’m always inclined to like the main character of a book, but the author has to give me at least an inkling of what the character is thinking and what he/she wants. Maybe Maxwell is extremely frustrated about being stationed in Washington. Maybe he’s dying to get away from his desk job and fight Hitler or Hirohito. But the author has to hint at this desire right at the beginning. Otherwise, I’m going to assume that Maxwell is just an irritable goldbricker, and I’ll probably stop reading the novel.

One more thing: Maxwell should kill the fly with a barehanded swat. It’s kind of gross, but also interesting. It would hint that he has fantastic reflexes, which might come in handy in combat scenes later on in the book. As I’ve said before on this blog, competent characters are always more interesting than incompetent ones.

Sorry, yet another thing: Despite Corporal Allen’s overactive farm metaphors, I got the sense that this petite brunette is, in 1940s lingo, “a real peach.” And yet Captain Maxwell doesn’t seem very interested in her. That was disappointing. Part of the allure of World War II stories is that their characters are usually eager to hop into bed with one another, mostly because the threat of death is so near. And giving Maxwell more of a sex drive would help to define the character and make him less of a cipher.

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