True Crime Thursday – Could a Parrot Testify?

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer 

Hannah Dickens-Unsplash

 

In 1958, Erle Stanley Gardner wrote a story where a chatty parrot’s “testimony” helped solve a murder. It became an episode of the Perry Mason TV show entitled “The Case of the Perjured Parrot,” teleplay by Marian B. Cockrell.

 

A real-life crime in 2015 gave a starring role to another talking parrot.

An African Grey parrot named Bud might have witnessed the murder of his owner and repeated what were perhaps the last words of the dying victim.

In May, 2015, Glenna Duram shot her husband Martin five times, killing him in their Sand Lake, Michigan home. She then turned the gun on herself, causing a non-fatal head wound. She recovered and was charged with Martin’s murder.

Pet parrot Bud was apparently present during the crime. Afterwards, family members say Bud mimicked Martin’s voice and said, “Don’t f**king shoot!”

According to Martin’s mother, “That bird picks up everything and anything, and it’s got the filthiest mouth around.”

During Glenna’s trial, the prosecutor attempted to include Bud’s words in court but that request was denied. Even without the parrot’s testimony, there was enough evidence to find Glenna guilty of murder. She was sentenced to life in prison in August, 2017.

Here’s a video of Bud.

TKZers, what do you think? Is Bud a convincing witness?

5+

First Page Critique: The List

 

Image from GoDaddy

 

Hop in, fellow travelers. Today we’re off on a short, shocking car ride with the protagonist of The List. I hope you’ll take a few moments to read my critique, then add your own comments.

The List

Everyone has lists. I might have too many. I could probably be accused of living my life according to lists. There are the usual: a shopping list, a bucket list, ToDo lists, vacation packing list, followup email list, books to read list, etc. I even have a list of lists, so I don’t forget I have a particular list. But the list I’m thinking about right now is my I-More-Than-Hate-You list. This is the list of people that I plan to take with me if I ever cross thatline. You know the one. The line where you no longer give a flying fuck about the consequences, because someone’s gonna die. That list. And today I’m thinking about that list a lot.

For many years there was one name at the top of my list; one piece of shit that would have to go first. But over time he was replaced by other bastards that needed to die and finally fell off the list completely because I didn’t think I would ever see him again; didn’t think anyone would. But there he was. I almost rear-ended the car in front of me doing a double take.

“No fucking way!!” I said out loud and circled the block to get another look.

Junior Moore was standing on the corner opposite the bus station looking like a gawping tourist. The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look; never more than a fuzz on his scalp and wrinkles like scars all over it. His head looked as if the skin were too big for the skull inside; like badly fitted upholstery. He also looked to have only a single eye and I could see that one ear was mostly gone. His alley-cat glare followed me around the corner. He looked right at me. There’s no way he could have recognized me after all these years, but I’m sure the astonished gasp on my face made him wonder.

“Shit!…shit…shit…” I muttered as I sped toward the Duck. Thirsty Thursday with the girls was going to be interesting.

_______________________________________________________

 

Our protagonist’s strong voice gives The List a promising start. It takes a considerable amount of practice to make every word sound like it’s coming from a fully conceived character. This character strides onto the page and–to borrow a title from Joan Rivers–enters talking. Good job, brave author.

Let’s talk a moment about the opening paragraphs. I’ve written similar paragraphs many times, and I imagine other TKZers have as well. It’s a Big Intro With a Side of Throat Clearing. Here, you’ve already got the title explained, so that’s out of the way. And you’ve told us a lot about the character. This is an obsessive person. A disturbed person. A Person Not to be Messed With. (I get a strong, post-1978 Shirley MacLaine vibe.) Plus, we have the added bonus of it setting up what’s ahead. But if we look closely, it’s not really a bonus. It’s an impediment to the action of the story.

The reader doesn’t need to be wrapped in a bubble and delivered to the action. Hook us with the action first, and offer explanations and descriptions at a later time, if at all.

Without the throat-clearing, there’s no need for a transition INTO the action. Such a transition is nearly always awkward. When we finally get to the double take/near-accident, we are yanked out of the protagonist’s spotlight monologue intro and plunged into the action. The storytelling changes completely.

Homework for all of the above: Check out James Scott Bell’s latest blog, and all will be revealed.

One of the written and unwritten rules about settings is that you should never set a scene in an automobile. Usually we see two characters talking to one another, either fighting or giving us exposition. (Ah. The stress is off. We’re in the car, gov. Let’s bring each other up to speed on the investigation.) White space would suffice. Here, you have a mix of exposition and action. Because our protagonist is driving when she sees dreaded Junior, the car is perfectly appropriate for the action. Bravo! Now just eliminate the exposition. (Caveat: If you’re reading this and have been thinking about setting a scene in a car, proceed with caution.)

I like the promise of this page. I’m interested in the character, and want to know exactly what Junior Moore did, when he did it, and how/if he’s going to pay. I would definitely read on!

A few words about word choice, punctuation, and description. (I’m not sure of the sex of this character, though from the last line I’ll guess female. Her age is also unclear. She doesn’t sound like a Millennial or younger. And the fact that she’s got a long list of people on her um, shitlist (couldn’t resist), suggests to me that she’s at least in her forties.

First paragraph: I am seeing the word “list” way too many times, and I want it to go away with the paragraph. Have one of the protagonist’s friends make fun of her lists.

There are four semicolons in the piece. I will mourn with you over the loss, but they have to go. Replace them with periods or commas, as you see fit. Oddly enough, sentence fragments are now considered more acceptable than semicolons in fiction. Crazy, right? So feel free to type: But over time he was replaced by other bastards that needed to die and finally fell off the list completely because I didn’t think I would ever see him again. Didn’t think anyone would. But there he was.

Exclamation points and speaking out loud:

“No fucking way!!” I said out loud and circled the block to get another look.”

While this quote is, indeed, an exclamation, we’re only allowed one exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Exceptions are emails and notes to friends and family, birthday cakes, texts, and anything written in sidewalk chalk.

If we are speaking, it’s redundant to say that we’re doing it out loud. (It’s only in the last couple years that I’ve dropped out loud from my own prose.)

No fucking way!” I shouted, slamming one palm against the steering wheel. I circled the block to get another look.

Junior Moore:

Oh, there’s so much to love about this description of Junior Moore. It’s full of spite and anger and fierce observation. It reminds me again of why I’d like to read more. There are a few tweaks that could tighten it up.

“Junior Moore was standing on the corner opposite the bus station looking like a gawping tourist. The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look; never more than a fuzz on his scalp and wrinkles like scars all over it. His head looked as if the skin were too big for the skull inside; like badly fitted upholstery. He also looked to have only a single eye and I could see that one ear was mostly gone. His alley-cat glare followed me around the corner. He looked right at me. There’s no way he could have recognized me after all these years, but I’m sure the astonished gasp on my face made him wonder.”

I won’t totally rewrite the paragraph, but here are some suggestions.

“The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look…”

From here it’s not clear which characteristics Junior had “always had” and which were new. This can be fixed easily with something like:

…The years hadn’t been good to him. While he’d always resembled a grizzled alley cat, now he was downright monstrous (terrifying, hideous, etc). I was stunned to see that he’d lost an eye, and that part of one ear had been torn away. Wrinkles like puckered scars swam between the islands of sparse fuzz on his scalp. One thing that hadn’t changed was the way his skin hung like badly fitted upholstery on his too-small skull. I shuddered. His catlike glare followed me as I turned the corner…

I changed “alley-cat glare” to catlike glare to get rid of the repetition. Taking out “He looked right at me.” makes the image stronger. As a gasp is a sound, you might change “astonished gasp” to astonishment.

That the protagonist is headed to Thirsty Thursday to hang out at the Duck with her girl gang made me smile. Good lead-in to the next scene/chapter.

Language:

Some readers may object to the F-word, etc. I don’t have any concerns myself. In fact, “No fucking way!” is a statement I make way too often. But do check out TKZ takes on profanity. There’s plenty here. Be sure to read comments. Our own Kris Montee/P.J.Parrish takes on profanity in crime stories in a 2016 post. Jordan Dane has a First Page Critique that addresses it as well.

Okay, fellow travelers. You’ve read what I have to say (and thank you for reading!). What comments and advice do you have for our Brave Author?

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DIY Massage for Writers

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

As authors, our “sit” muscles work overtime. No wonder they ache and cramp. 

When I start earning six figures from my novels, first thing I plan to do is hire a full-time massage therapist to undo the kinks in my body from writing.

Unfortunately…I foresee a long wait before that happens.

In the meantime, I found a helpful DIY tool to counteract “writer’s slump” caused by too much time sitting hunched over a computer.

The foam roller.

This device is inexpensive, has no moving parts, and doesn’t take up much space. By simply rolling on it, you can get a deep massage from the pressure of your body weight. Two doctors I talked to use a roller themselves.

Caution #1: consult your medical provider to be sure foam roller exercise is safe for your condition.

Caution #2: Do NOT use the roller directly on joints.

Caution #3: Using the foam roller requires getting down on the floor…then eventually getting back up again! Some of my parts are not original factory equipment, so exercises on the floor require planning.

Twice a week, I attend a foam roller class at the gym. Expert instructor Amy Lavin graciously agreed to demonstrate a few exercises.

Amy adds caution #4: Always remember to breathe.

Back Exercises: 

On a mat on the floor, lie lengthwise on the roller. Your head and the entire length of your spine rest on the roller. Let your arms relax at your sides. Gravity pulls your shoulders toward the floor. The stretch across your chest should feel good, not painful.

My doctor said simply lying in this position on the roller for 10 or 15 minutes every day is beneficial for the spine, even if you don’t go through the routine that follows.

  • While lying lengthwise on the roller, gently roll back and forth a couple of inches on either side of your spine. Your core muscles tighten to maintain balance and keep you from falling off. Strengthening the core also helps support your back.
  • Still lying lengthwise on the roller, extend your arms out from your sides, palms up, forming a T. Let your shoulder blades sink toward the floor to wrap around the roller, increasing the stretch through the chest. When you begin, your elbows may not be able to touch the floor. But, after several minutes, muscles should relax and allow your elbows to rest comfortably on the floor. This position also straightens posture.
  • Raise your arms in a Y over your head. That lengthens the spine and increases the stretch for your back. Take several deep breaths.
  • Slowly move your arms as if you’re making snow angels for several repetitions. Then reverse directions for more repetitions.

 

  • Raise both arms straight up toward the ceiling. Move your arms back and forth in a scissors motion. One arm goes above your head, the other down to your side, then reverse. Repeat for a minute.

 

  • Raise both arms above your chest and bend the elbows. Keeping the elbows bent, slowly lower the arms to the floor, rest for several beats, then raise arms so they crisscross over your chest. Continue raising and lowering the bent arms for at least a minute. When you begin this movement, your elbows may not be able to touch the floor but, as you repeat, muscles should loosen enough that your elbows can rest on the floor.

 

Exercises for “sit muscles”:

  • Glutes: Sit on the roller and roll back and forth. The weight of your body presses the roller deep into your glutes. Roll on one cheek for a minute or more. Then switch to the other cheek. I find at times there is a hard knot like a round rock in the center of each cheek. Roll over that knot several times in a circular motion. Reverse and roll in the opposite direction.

 

 

  • Hamstrings: Roll from the glutes down the backs of the thighs to the knees and back up. This massages the hamstrings. Repeat for 30 seconds to a minute.

 

 

 

  • The iliotibial (IT) band is a tendon that runs down the side of the leg from hip to tibia. It can flare up from too much sitting.

Lie on your side, propping yourself up with one elbow. Position the roller horizontally under your hip. Slowly roll from hip down almost to the knee. Stop before the knee joint and do not roll on the joint. Roll up and down the side of your thigh for several minutes. Repeat on the opposite side.

When my IT band gets grumpy (which is often), this rolling may be painful. Be careful and stop if you feel it’s too much. Relief comes later.

  • Hip flexors: Lie on your stomach with the roller positioned under your hips. Shift your weight slightly to one side so the hip flexor (the crease between your thigh and pelvis) is on the roller. Roll back and forth over the hip flexor for 30 seconds to one minute. Switch to other hip and repeat.
  • Quadriceps: Lie on your stomach and use your elbows to hold your chest off the mat. Position the roller horizontally under your quadriceps (fronts of your thighs). Roll up and down from top of thigh to just above the knee. Do not roll on the knee joint. Be careful—this pressure on your quads may be painful at first. As you repeat the exercise over time, the pain should lessen.

A big THANK YOU to Amy Lavin for demonstrating a DIY massage!

 

How about you, TKZers?

Have you tried a foam roller? Did it work for you? 

Do you have a favorite exercise to help “writer’s slump”? 

 

7+

Behold! (The Power of Observation when Crafting a Mystery)


Today we have a guest post from Joanna Campbell Slan on the challenges of incorporating an animal character in a mystery novel. I hope all our TKZers will join me in welcoming Joanna and chiming in with your experiences (if any) on crafting an animal as a character in your mystery or thriller. Also all purchases of Summer Snoops go to a great cause – raising money for dogs in need!

Behold! (The Power of Observation when Crafting a Mystery)

By Joanna Campbell Slan

Writing an animal character is tricky. You don’t want to get too sappy, you don’t want to turn off non-pet people, and you shouldn’t rely on the animal to be a deus ex machina, a mystery that’s literally solved by God’s intervention. As one author in a box set with 14 authors, I wanted my puzzle to involve the dog in a realistic way, but I always wanted to use the animal’s limitations to exploit tension in my story. I didn’t want to take the easy way out and let the dog in my story be a simple sidekick. That would feel like a cop out.

The break came when a friend visited with her Golden Retriever, Mally. The big yellow dog carries around a stuffed toy in her mouth all the time. In fact, she’ll only turn loose of her toy to eat or drink. Wherever Mally goes, the toy goes, too.

So how could I use that synergy to best advantage in my story?

I considered the very nature of a dog toy. Okay, that sounds silly, but it’s not. Only by thinking carefully about our subjects can we be authentic. Details. It’s all about details. Those tiny bits of minutia encourage our readers to trust us and to give themselves over to a satisfying reading experience. So what was there to observe carefully about a dog’s toy?

Well, firstly, there’s the nature of the toy itself. In Mally’s case, it’s always a stuffed toy with fake fur. She isn’t interested in balls or sticks.

Secondly, there’s the challenge of confiscating a toy that’s been in a dog’s mouth. Some dogs are “toy aggressive.” They get all humpy when another creature tries to take their toy. In fact, at Paws 4 Play, the local doggy day care, they’ve found that the only safe toy for a group of dogs is a tennis ball. Anything else, and the dogs are liable to fight over their plaything.

Third, dog toys are usually gross. Really gross. In fact, one study by the National Safety Foundation revealed that pet toys are one of the ten germiest spots in the house. Toys are known to be a source of coliform bacteria (including Staph bacteria), yeast, and mold. Only a committed (or soon to be committed) dog lover would handle a yucky, soggy, stuffed toy.

And fourth, a dog toy is destined to be destroyed. My dog Jax loves to rip up his toys. He’ll growl menacingly as he shakes his toys in mock play. Then he’ll grab a stuffed arm, leg, neck or tail and toss the hapless stuffed creature around. As a result, I’m often left with odd parts. (One morning I woke up to a bed strewn with stuffed monkey parts. It was…creepy.) Being the thrifty person I am, I sew these stray parts back together to make Franken-toys. At the very least, I sew up the open seams that dribble stuffing all around the house.

Taken all together, those observations gave me a lot of good ideas. What if someone used a pet toy as a place to hide something of value? What if the toy as a sort of ersatz safe deposit box? That was the break-through idea that became the nucleus of my story.

Here are a couple of links for the book:

The universal book link: https://www.summersnoops.com/?fbclid=IwAR2ZRDaIZO8MixYXdqUX9MtZo-FoCfOY8-d6lo2Dw_bD6ToN9dy5cDYu-HI   And a shortened link: http://bit.ly/2TCQ3si

 

4+

Writing In Medias Res

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

If you regularly read books and articles on the craft of fiction you’ll often come across the term in medias res. That’s Latin for “in the middle of things.” (As opposed to writing in puris naturalibus, or “stark naked,” about which I have no advice.)

Many times the context in which in medias res is used is the all-important opening chapter. As you all well know, here at TKZ we’re big on helping writers get out of the gate grabbingly (I love making up words. And BTW, you can study past examples here.)

My own formulation of in medias res is act first, explain later. You don’t need a lot of exposition up front. Most authors, knowing their story world and characters’ backgrounds, think the reader also has to have a bunch of that info from the get-go in order to be fully engaged. Wrong. Readers will happily wait a long time for those essentials if what’s happening in front of them is tense, exciting, compelling, mysterious, active, or otherwise interesting.

Here’s an example from one of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, A Purple Place For Dying. The opening paragraph:

She took the corner too fast, and it was definitely not much of a road. She drifted it through the corner on the gravel, with one hell of a drop at our left, and then there was a big rock slide where the road should have been. She stomped hard and the drift turned into a rough sideways skid, and I hunched low expecting the white Alpine to trip and roll. But we skidded all the way to the rock and stopped with inches to spare and a great big three feet between the rear end and the drop-off. The skid had killed the engine.

That’s in medias res. We have some unanswered questions: Who is She? Why is she driving so fast on a gravel road when death is just a few feet to the left? What is McGee doing in that car?

Do you want to read on to find out? I do.

“What a stinking nuisance,” Mona Yeoman said.

Okay, at least now we have a name.

The cooling car made tinkling sounds. A noisy bird laughed at us. A lizard sped through the broken rock.

“End of the line?”

“Goodness, no. We can walk it from here. It’s a half-mile, I guess. I haven’t been up here in ever so long.”

“How about my gear?”

“It didn’t seem to me you had very much. I guess you might as well bring it along, Mr. McGee. Perhaps you might be able to roll enough of this rock over the edge so you can get the jeep by. Or I can send some men to do it.”

“If we’re going to keep this as quiet as possible, I better give it a try.”

Still more questions. What’s this about a jeep? Why does she have the ability to send “some men”? Most of all, why do they have to keep things as quiet as possible?

It is not until the bottom of page two that MacDonald begins to fill in some blanks:

She had met me at noon at an airport fifty miles away, quite a distance from her home base. She said she had a place I could stay, a very hidden place, and we could do all our talking after we got there. Ever since meeting her I had been trying to figure her out.

So have we! Which is the point. MacDonald dangles little bits for us to chew on, just enough to whet our appetite for more. Which is why we keep reading.

Try this: Make a copy of your opening chapter and strikethrough all exposition and backstory. Cut any necessary descriptions to one line. See if that edited scene doesn’t move better. If you feel you need some essential exposition or backstory, limit yourself to three sentences, either all at once or spaced out.

Also: Try pretending Chapter Two is your opening chapter. You may be pleasantly surprised.

In media res can also be used in any chapter opening, to quicken the pace. Simply give us the action before you give us the setting.

Suppose we have a scene in a judge’s chambers between a young lawyer from Dewey, Cheatham & Howe and an angry judge. Let’s use first-person, with the lawyer as the POV character.

The next morning I was in Judge Crotchetti’s chambers. It had two leather chairs in front of an immaculate mahogany desk, and a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf covering one wall. Judge Crotchetti was standing behind his swivel chair. On the wall above him, an oil-on-canvas Oliver Wendell Holmes glared at me.

“I won’t have that in my courtroom!” Crotchetti said, slapping the back of his chair. “Do you understand me, counsel?”

“Clearly,” I said, and smiled.

“Young man, are you trying to show contempt for this court?”

“No, Your Honor. I’m doing my best to conceal it.”

To quicken the pace, go in media res by leading with the action (note: dialogue is a form of action):

“I won’t have that in my courtroom!” Judge Crotchetti said, slapping the back of his chair. “Do you understand me, counsel?”

“Clearly,” I said, and smiled.

“Young man, are you trying to show contempt for this court?”

“No, Your Honor. I’m doing my best to conceal it.”

It was Monday morning and we were in Judge Crotchetti’s chambers. It had two leather chairs in front of an immaculate mahogany desk…

When revising, take special notice of the opening paragraphs of each chapter in your book. Do you tend to open the same way? Go for variety. Open with some form of action. Move description further down the page. Get a little more medias into your res.

Have you ever thought about in medias res? Do you strive for variety in your chapter openings?

11+

How To Create A Good Leader

By Mark Alpert

Some thrillers don’t need leaders. The novel’s hero might be a lone mercenary, a rogue agent, or a private detective with a business too small or unsuccessful to have anyone on the payroll. But other thrillers feature protagonists who are police captains, military commanders, spy chiefs, or heads of state. If you’re writing that kind of novel and you want readers to admire and avidly follow your characters, you have to know how to create a good leader.

Let’s start with some examples of good leaders in genre fiction. Think of Painter Crowe, the super-competent and compassionate task-force commander in James Rollins’s Sigma Force thrillers. Think of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books, Gandalf and Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Duke Leto Atreides in Dune, Queen Serafina Pekkala in The Golden Compass, or Captain Jack Aubrey in Master & Commander. Or, going farther back, think of Beowulf and Shakespeare’s King Henry V. Why do we like these characters so much? What qualities do they have in common?

I’ll try to make a list, although it’ll be far from comprehensive:

A good leader has respect for the people who serve under him or her. I learned this important truth way back in 1984, during the first week of my job as a newspaper reporter for the Claremont Eagle Times in New Hampshire. It was my first real job and I didn’t know what I was doing yet. I completely ignored an important story, or at least it was something that seemed very important in the context of local news. I don’t remember the details, but maybe it was some new business opening or housing development that had been announced at a town meeting? Whatever the details, the story soon appeared in a rival newspaper, and the Eagle’s editor was furious that I hadn’t written about it. But he didn’t blow up and start yelling at me in the newsroom. Instead, he led me to an office upstairs and chewed me out in private. Even though I was just a 23-year-old screw-up, he had respect for me, enough to realize that it wouldn’t be right to embarrass me in public.

A bully, in contrast, has no respect for subordinates and doesn’t receive any in return. We’ve all seen bosses like that, right? They rail at their underlings and treat them like dirt, and then they wonder why nothing gets done right. And they never learn.

A good leader is smart and patient. Remember the TV cop show NYPD Blue? It ran from 1993 to 2005 and was considered pretty daring for its time, especially for its warts-and-all portrayal of Detective Andy Sipowicz, who in the early episodes was an openly racist alcoholic. To Sipowicz’s dismay, the boss of his precinct’s detective squad is a black lieutenant named Arthur Fancy. In one of my favorite scenes from the TV series, Lieutenant Fancy teaches Sipowicz to have some empathy for the black people he interrogates. He takes Andy to dinner at a rib joint that looks a lot like Sylvia’s, the famous soul-food restaurant in Harlem. Nowadays Harlem has become largely gentrified and Sylvia’s is full of tourists and white people, but I remember going there in the early 1990s (when the NYPD Blue episode aired) and being the only white person in the place. Sipowicz finds himself in the same situation, and he squirms uncomfortably in his seat as he eats dinner with his boss. Lieutenant Fancy asks Sipowicz why he seems so distressed: “You’re being served, aren’t you, Andy? They cooked those ribs for you. Maybe they wanted to spit in the plate, but they didn’t. They served your white ass just like they would anyone else who came in here. Even though some of them hate your guts. So why would you feel uncomfortable, Andy? You got your meal. What difference does it make what they’re thinking? That they don’t like you, that’s just an opinion. Why should that bother you?”

Then the lieutenant adds the clincher: “Now what if they had badges and guns?”

This struck me as a very smart leadership technique. Instead of yelling at Sipowicz or giving him a sterile lecture, Lieutenant Fancy takes the time to vividly show him the error of his ways.

A good leader doesn’t lie. This seems like such a no-brainer that I hesitated to include it in the list, and yet so many bad leaders ignore it. How can you trust a parent or boss or politician who has a cavalier disregard for the truth? A good leader doesn’t distort the facts to make himself or herself look good. No, a good leader is honest about setbacks and freely admits mistakes.

Let’s go back to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. He was honest with Frodo about the existential threat they faced (i.e., Sauron). He didn’t sugarcoat things. And he didn’t make insincere, pandering promises. He made it very clear that the odds were against them, and that there was a good chance that none of the hobbits would return to the Shire alive. And yet the Fellowship followed him.

A good leader isn’t petty or boorish. This one seems like a no-brainer too, but unfortunately our society is starting to encourage childish behavior among adults. When it comes to fiction, though, readers continue to be disgusted by spiteful leaders and their tantrums. Would we still admire King Henry V if he was a pompous braggart? Or a draft dodger? Of course not. In Shakespeare’s play, the king does a remarkable thing on the night before the Battle of Agincourt: he dresses as a common soldier and goes among his troops to gauge how they’re feeling. This prepares him for the stirring speech he gives to his army the next day. The king acknowledges that the English soldiers are vastly outnumbered by the French, but he proclaims that this is actually an advantage: “The fewer men, the greater share of honor.” I’ll quote the end of the speech just because it’s so good:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

A good leader appeals to our best instincts, not our worst. Abraham Lincoln was perhaps our nation’s greatest leader, and even his mistakes were noble-hearted. When he became president in 1861, he still hoped to persuade the seceding Confederate states to peacefully return to the Union, as evidenced by the closing lines of his first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” As we all know, Lincoln was unduly optimistic at that time. His peace overtures were rejected, leading to four years of devastating, fratricidal warfare. In his second inaugural address, though, Lincoln was still astoundingly benevolent: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

In real life, this kind of nobility is rare. Contemporary leaders are much more likely to sow division and target scapegoats and play the zero-sum game of “us versus them.” So I think it’s up to the novelists and poets to restore our ideals of leadership. In 1939 W.H. Auden wrote a poem to commemorate the death of the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and the final lines reflect his hope that great literature can repair and revive our society:

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

——–

Leadership, both good and bad, is at the heart of my latest novel, THE COMING STORM. You can learn more about the book here.

1+

Is It Good to Open with a Dead Guy?

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

After I saw the blog title to P J Parrish’s excellent post this week (Is it Good to Open with a Bad Guy), it sparked an idea for my post today. Can a story that begins with a dead guy be worthwhile if they’re only on the page for a short scene? How can an author make a scene like that count? Or should they? How much effort should you put into one scene and a dead guy?

An author can choose to make any death be about the dead body and the unlucky stiff who finds it, or the detectives who seek justice, or the families left behind. The body can be for shock value, or be a twist in the plot of a sagging middle, but when should a victim be more?

Bottom Line – For every scene you choose to write, make every character count.

In the stories I write, I like to give a face to the dead. If I choose to open with a victim not long for this world, I have to create a vivid glimpse into their life–a quick snapshot into who they are–enough for readers to care about them. Every word and every visual has to count.

I’m not talking about TELLING the reader who the victim is. I’m talking about SHOWING their life in vivid imagery & their voice and character traits. You only have one shot to make it memorable.

In THE LAST VICTIM, I open with the murder of Nate. My psychic FBI profiler, Ryker Townsend, first “meets” Nate in a nightmare of haunting images he must decipher. As Ryker uncovers the puzzle, he must put himself into the boots of Nate to hunt his killer. Nate’s life as a young father, living on a remote island in Alaska, becomes a troubling mystery.

How could an isolated loner like Nate cross the path of a prolific serial killer known throughout the Pacific Northwest? Ryker treks into the mountains of a remote island in Alaska and as he sees more of Nate’s life, he begins to know him and grieve for his passing.

For a few reasons, I made a deliberate choice to begin THE LAST VICTIM as seen through the terrified eyes of Nate when he knows he will die. His last thoughts are of his son. I wanted the reader to care about finding this heartless killer by choosing to make the reader care about Nate.

Excerpts from THE LAST VICTIM

Beginning of the scene

The soothing murmur of an ocean ebbed through Nathan Applewhite’s mind until he felt the waves and made them real. Now as cool water lapped the sandy shore to make frothy lace at his bare feet, he looked up to a cloudless sky—the color of a robin’s egg—that stretched its reach to forever. Fragments of his senses came together. Every piece made him yearn for more. When warm skin touched his, he knew he wasn’t alone and he smiled. He held a tiny hand. His five-year old boy Tanner walked the strand of beach beside him.

The memory came to him often, but it never stayed long enough. The pain always yanked him back.

 

ENDING of Nate’s Life:

End of the Scene – as he’s dying

Nate blocked out the cruelty of the voice. Only one thing mattered now. As the familiar face above him blurred, it got replaced with another—the sweet smiling face of his little boy Tanner—and the rumble of a wave hitting the shore. Sunlight made Tanner squint when he looked up at him. His son let go of his hand and ran down the beach with a giggle trailing behind him.

Hey, little man. Wait up. Daddy’s coming.

With sand caked to his feet, Nathan took off running after his little boy. The two of them splashed in the waves and made shimmering diamonds with their feet. He never caught his son. Time had ticked down to its final precious seconds. He only had one way to say good-bye to Tanner. Nate watched him run and he listened to his little boy laugh until—

Pain let him go and set him free.

KEY “DEAD GUY” STEPS TO EXPLORE

1.) IMAGINE DEATH

If you choose to write through the eyes of someone who’s dying, what must that feel like? It’s hard to do. You must face your worst fears, yet try to put death into words that will be palatable to the reader (not overly graphic) with imagery that will haunt a reader. It takes thought to craft a scene that’s hard to forget for readers, but David Morrell, author of the Rambo series, did that for me when I first read  FIRST BLOOD.

The first time I read a story with a scene written in the POV of someone killed was written by Morrell. I don’t want to give anything away, but a key character dies by a shot gun blast to the head. Morrell wrote it from the POV of the dead guy and I never forgot it.

My first attempt to try Morrell’s scene came when I wrote my first suspense book (the 2nd book I sold to HarperCollins). In an opening scene I wrote in NO ONE LEFT TO TELL, my assassin dies at the hands of a worse killer. His throat is cut. I researched the medical descriptions of what this must be like. After all, there is no expert in dying who is still speaking and can share their wisdom. It’s a one-way ticket.

I had to imagine his assassin’s death and make choices. Death by exsanguination (loss of blood) might be similar enough to drowning. I researched drowning symptoms to pepper them into the action. Due to the violence in the scene, I also pictured a terrified rabbit in the jaws of a wolf, bleeding out. Would a rabbit mercifully lapse into shock and not feel what would happen? I wrote that kind of “rabbit shock” for my bad guy as he died in the arms of the man who butchered him.

At the start of the scene, the assassin wants to retire and he pictures the beach of his dreams. After he makes one last score, it turns out to be one too many. He’s hunted in the dark, in a maze of others like him. When he finally confronts his killer and his throat is cut, he drowns in his blood. As he pictures “his” beach–in shock–he sinks to the bottom of the ocean fighting for breath. It made the killing easier for readers to take, but I needed to establish how cruel the villain of the book would be, so readers would fear more for my woman cop.

I’ve found these scenes can be a challenge, but one worth taking. Below is the end of the scene in Mickey’s POV.

Excerpt – NO ONE LEFT TO TELL

“You’re mine now.” The intimate whisper brushed by his ear. It shocked him. The familiarity sounded like it came from the lips of a lover. “Don’t fight me.”

For an instant, Mickey relaxed long enough to hope—maybe all this had been a mistake. Then he felt a sudden jerk.

Pain…searing pain!

Icy steel plunged into his throat, severing cartilage in its wake. A metallic taste filled his mouth. Its warmth sucked into his lungs, drowning him. Powerless, Mickey resisted the blackness with the only redemption possible. He imagined high tide with him adrift. He struggled for air, bobbing beneath the ocean surface. The sun and blue sky warped with a swirling eddy. Mercifully, sounds of surf rolling to shore clouded the fear when his body convulsed. Dizziness and a numbing chill finally seized him. The pounding of his heart drained his ability to move at all.

A muffled gurgle dominated his senses—until there was nothing.

2.) GIVE YOUR VICTIM A FACE

Even if your victim is on the page as a soon-to-be dead guy, you have a choice to show the reader who they are. Make them real or keep them as a cardboard stiff and a prop. If you paint a vivid enough picture of their life, you can show how they will be missed by their family or even how they touched the life of the cop who must investigate their death. It’s an opportunity to show violence in a different way and to thread the victim’s humanity throughout your story. It can also show the heroic qualities of your detective or your main character(s). Done right, you can make the reader feel their loss in different ways. Your story becomes more emotional.

3.) PLANT RED HERRINGS

Use the victim’s POV to plant mystery elements & red herrings for the reader to decipher. A victim’s death can serve to showcase clues on the identity of the killer (did he or she know their killer) OR the victim can be an unreliable narrator for the author to plant misdirection clues for the reader to stumble over. Milk that death scene for all its worth.

4.) DON’T WANT TO KILL IN A VICTIM’S POV?

If you’re squeamish about killing a victim and showing the reader what that feels like, you can opt out. You don’t have to stay in their POV. You can write up until the moment they die, in a dramatic adrenaline rush. Or if you switch from inside their head at the last second, you can change POVs to someone who is with them, forced to watch them die. That can milk the emotions of a scene as well.

5.) PEPPER YOUR SCENE WITH HUMANITY

A victim is leaving many people and memories behind. If you choose to make that unimportant–where they are only a corpse for the coroner to autopsy–you’ve missed out on an opportunity for emotion. All people who die leave something or someone behind – a wake where their life had been. If you make it important for your story, it will open your reader’s eyes to you as an author and it will showcase your character’s humanity.

In Mickey’s case in NO ONE LEFT TO TELL, I wanted to show his cocky attitude when he believed as a killer that he was invincible, but there is always someone worse. Mickey’s death paved the way for my villain to hit the stage.

In Nate’s case in THE LAST VICTIM, his son mattered most to him. Even in death, his boy is the only thought he had. It gave him peace. I wanted the reader–and my character, Ryker–to miss him.

Below is an excerpt that shows how I kept writing Nate into the story, long after he died. In this scene, my FBI profiler is hiking to a remote cabin in the mountains of an isolated island in Alaska where Nate lived. He’s there to understand Nate’s life to know how he crossed paths with a prolific serial killer.

Excerpt – THE LAST VICTIM

I listened to the hypnotic sounds of the forest and let the subtle noises close in. A light breeze jostled the treetops and birds flitted in the branches over my head. My boots made soft thuds on the decomposing sod under my feet. Nature had a palpable and soothing rhythm.

Nathan Applewhite had been where I stood now and I knew why he would’ve chosen to make his home on the island. There was a soul quenching refuge I sensed in my bones. I knew Applewhite must’ve felt the same. Perhaps like Henry David Thoreau, Nathan had sought the nurturing solitude of the woods because he ‘wished to live deliberately’ and get the most of his life.

Nate had chosen a quiet, simple life. The fact he was dead now—after being tortured and murdered—struck a harsh blow in me. It was an odd feeling to miss someone I’d never met, but the more I saw of Nate’s life, the greater I sensed the wake of his absence. Violent death was never fair. The haunting words of David Richard Berkowitz, Son of Sam, seeped from my brain.

I didn’t want to hurt them. I only wanted to kill them.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Have you written a scene in the POV of a dying person? What challenges did you have?

2.) What authors have written scenes you will never forget and why did they stick with you? Your examples don’t have to be death scenes. (With my books in boxes from my last move, I am without examples for my posts and am forced to use MY books. Sorry about that.) 

The Last Victim

When a young hunting guide from a remote island in Alaska is found brutally murdered, his naked body is discovered in the Cascade Mountains outside Seattle—the shocking pinnacle to a grisly Totem of body parts. Nathan Applewhite is the fourteenth victim of a cunning serial killer who targets and stalks young men.

FBI profiler Ryker Townsend and his team investigate and find no reason for Nate to have mysteriously vanished from his isolated home. But Townsend has a secret he won’t share with anyone—not even his own team—that sets him on the trail of a ruthless psychopath, alone.

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What to Wear To A Gunfight

By John Gilstrap

It’s been a while since I’ve written any gun porn.  This is the day the drought ends.

Here’s the scenario: Your character, Detective Dan, knows that he is marching into harm’s way to confront at least two bad guys who he knows are armed.  For our purposes here, Detective Dan is part of a small force, maybe just a partner or two.  The smart move is to wait for backup, but they can’t do that because a family of four is being held hostage and things have gone very bad very quickly.

It’s almost certain that shots will be fired.  The good news is they have a pretty good arsenal to choose from. Just to make it interesting, they have to walk a long way to get in an out, and climb a lot of stairs.  And let’s put them in regular street clothes–nothing tactical.  Think business suits.

Choose Your Weapons

Simunitions are essentially medium-velocity paint pellets that can be loaded into real weapons. Yes, they sting when they hit.

There’s an adage among the tacti-cool crowd that the only reason to carry a pistol is to fight your way back to your rifle.  Having never been in a real gunfight I can’t speak to the veracity of the adage in the real world, but my experience having been a  bad guy in Simunitions training with law enforcement agencies, I can attest to feeling woefully outgunned when I brought my 15-round Glock into play against their 30-round M4s.

M4 carbine

If I’m writing Detective Dan, he’s going to want to have a rifle with him.  If his police agency is like most that I know, he’s got an M4 stashed in the trunk of his car, right next to his ballistic vest. An M4 is the rifle you see in most pictures of soldiers and SWAT team operators.

Right about now, when he’s kitting up for the fight, Detective Dan is going to second-guess his decision not to wait.  That vest he’s putting on will stop most pistol rounds, but it’ll be useless against a rifle bullet.  In an hour, he could have the State Police there with ballistic shields, dogs and a helicopter.  Best of all, he’d have a team that’s specifically trained to do the kind of entry that he’s about to attempt.

But hey, he wouldn’t be the main character in a book if he didn’t put his life on the line from time to time.

Now, Detective Dan has some thinking to do.  Of the weaponry available to him, what should he take?

Everything is heavy.

Loaded Glock 19 magazine

A Glock 19 (common pistol for police agencies around the world) loaded with a standard 15-round magazine weighs about two pounds.  Extra mags weigh a half pound apiece.  Detective Dan normally carries two extra mags, so that’s three pounds on his belt.  It’s no wonder so many detectives wear suspenders.

Loaded 30-round M4 magazine

His loaded M4 weighs 8.5 pounds and each extra 30-round magazine weighs about one pound.  Detective Dan decides to carry four extra mags to feed his M4. The good news here is that his vest–which itself weighs 5 to 8 pounds (or more)–has pouches specifically designed to hold extra mags with that weight distributed across his shoulders.

Single-point rifle sling. I think the rifle itself is an AR15.

Detective Dan will use a single-point sling for his M4 to help distribute that weight, as well.  Then there’s the radio, handcuffs and whatever other hardware Detective Dan carries.  All of it bounces around and rattles when he moves.

Tough choices.

Does Detective Dan really need 45 rounds for his pistol and 150 rounds for his rifle?  This mission would be a lot lighter if he cut back on ammo.  And he’d sweat a lot less without the body armor.  Suppose the fight degenerates to hand-to-hand?  He’s going to have a heck of a time maneuvering with all that stuff on him.

As the author, you have to balance what is reasonable for the character.  If you’ve established Detective Dan as a reformed alcoholic 50-something with a beer gut, the choices are much different than if you’ve established him as a 30-something ex-Special Forces operator who works out two hours a day.

The last thing Detective Dan wants is a fair fight.

This target highlights the most lethal impact points on the human body.

If Detective Dan had had the gift of time, he could have waited for darkness to fall and brought night vision into play as a force multiplier.  In any confrontation, when your team is the only one that can see anything, the odds of winning tilt decidedly in your favor. In the real world, there are no verbal warnings, and no warning shots.  When a bad guy points a firearm at a good guy, there’s going to be a gunfight.  More times than not, the shooter with the most training wins, and the loser is dead.  In that engagement, the trained shooter will aim exclusively at the bad guy’s head, torso or pelvis, because that’s where the major organs and blood vessels are.  If someone is hit in the leg or the hand, that’s because the trained shooter whiffed that shot.

Shots fired.

I don’t want to write a whole scenario here, but let’s talk about some practical considerations.  We’ve kitted out Detective Dan with lots of cool options, so when the shooting starts, he and his team can have the best possible chance of seeing dinnertime.

Once the SHTF (come on, you can figure that one out), Detective Dan does not have the luxury of panicking.  He needs to be keenly aware of the differences between cover (which prevents being hit by bullets) and concealment (which merely makes him invisible).  He needs to remember that he is responsible for every bullet he sends downrange, and that the four innocents are as susceptible to his gunfire as the unknown number of bad guys.

Every shot needs to be aimed at a known target.  And because Detective Dan is a dedicated professional, he won’t take even the perfect shot if one of the hostages is in the background and likely to get hit.  More on that later.

The bad guys, by contrast, don’t care who they kill, so they can feel free to shoot blindly.

Rifle or pistol?

The distance between the front sight and the rear sight is called the sight radius. The longer the radius, the more accurate the shooter.

There are many reasons why most people (everyone I know) shoots more accurately with a rifle than with a handgun, but mostly it boils down to the stability of the platform and the sight radius (the distance between the front and rear sights).  Holding a firearm against your shoulder is inherently more stable than holding one out at arm’s length.  That’s true of holding anything, right?

Past 15 yards for most shooters, and 25 yards for all but the most elite competitive shooters, a pistol shot is at least equal parts hope and marksmanship.  For that M4 Detective Dan is carrying, accuracy at 100 yards isn’t even a challenge if he’s had even a little bit of training.

Here’s the problem: Those rifle bullets love to fly.  That head, torso or pelvis it hit is just the beginning of its journey.  The bullet might break up, it’s trajectory will probably will destabilize and it might start tumbling, but it will still be going very fast.  The next few milliseconds could get troubling for others in the room.  Perhaps that’s not a concern if everybody in the room is a bad guy, but that’s not our scenario.  Again, those pesky hostages are the wildcard.

Given the weaponry he carries, Detective Dan must always weigh accuracy against collateral damage.  I imagine it will be stressful for him.

I cheated a little to make a point.

I gave Detective Dan weaponry he most certainly would have access to, but not necessarily his smartest choices.

The M4 I gave Detective Dan is the weapon that every cop seems to be carrying on the news during active shooter incidents.  I saw a DC subway cop carrying one on a train not too long ago.  It’s tacti-cool as all get out–makes for a badass photo op–but I think it’s the wrong gun.

A tactical 12-gauge shotgun.

If I were Detective Dan, I think I’d have taken a 12 gauge shotgun as my long gun. I’ve rarely seen a police vehicle that doesn’t have one, and it is a very effective weapon in close quarters, with less chance of over-penetration.

Uzi

A lot of police agencies employ a hybrid weapon called a pistol caliber carbine.  The Uzi and Heckler and Koch MP5 are probably the most famous of these.  Certainly, they are heralded by Hollywood.  Also called personal defense weapons (PDWs), pistol caliber carbines provide the stability of a longer frame with the ballistics of a pistol.

H&K MP5. It’s hard to see, but the stock is folded forward.

Critics (and every tactical operator I know) argue that pistol caliber carbines are overrated.  Why carry two pistols?  If the bad guy has body armor, the good guys’ advantage is reduced.  A load of 00 buckshot probably would not penetrate body armor either, but getting hit with all 9 of those .32 caliber pellets would probably take their breath away long enough for a second shot.

Okay, it’s late and I’m tired.  We’ll talk about tactical reloads and deeper tactical considerations later.  Questions and comments are all welcome.

 

8+

First Page Critique: Is It Good
To Open With A Bad Guy?

By PJ Parrish

We’re off to sunny Arizona today for our First Pager, and into the shady heart of a bad girl. Thank you, writer, for letting us read your submission today and, as always, learn along with you. And this has left me with a yen for a blue margarita. Cheers!

 

Cartel Queen Veronica Valdez 

CHAPTER 1
The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale
Onyx Bar

Monday, October 20, 2019

“Hurl! Loser!”

Eight twenty-something male golfers sat on the patio crushing beers and trading insults.
Veronica Valdez glared at the window. I didn’t come here for party-till-you-puke feral males. She sat at a high-top table and ordered a blue margarita.

An ASU freshman, Veronica’s fake driver’s license identified her as twenty-two year old Shirley Smith. Designer clothes and accessories gave the impression of a sophisticated professional.

With a smile as fake as a TV game-show host, a man appeared. “I’m Tommy Thompson. May I join you?”

“Of course, I’m Shirley Smith. What’s your first name?”

“Orville,” he whispered.

“Orville, this will be our secret.”

Swaggered over here. Has a room. Luxury watch.

Veronica nudged her scarlet Valentino tote bag off the table, and Thompson retrieved it. “Thanks, the least I can do is buy you a blue margarita.”

“Okay, but they’re on me.”

On you? You’ll forget your name when we’re finished.

Their drinks arrive minutes later.

“The Blue Curacao liqueur gives the margarita its color.” I won’t tell him it hides the Roofie’s blue tint.

They played where-are-you-from and what-do-you-do, and during an awkward lull Veronica’s left hand pulled Thompson’s head close, and the snogging began. She circled her tongue inside his mouth, dropped her left hand, and slid it under his crotch. Still kissing, she squeezed his crotch and when he whimpered, her right hand dropped a tasteless pale-green and blue-speckled, fast-dissolving roofie tablet into his blue margarita.

“Bet you can’t drain yours, Tommy.” If he’s trying to get into my pants, he’ll over-compensate. That’s what men do. Thompson finished his blue margarita in three gulps.
The bartender’s generous pour combined with an anesthetic dose of Rohypnol affected Thompson. “Thizz marga uh uh is thong. Not too thong for me. Hah!” Now you’re on your ass. Right where I want you, Orville.

Veronica paid the check and walked a babbling, unsteady Thompson to his room where she undressed him, and tucked him in bed. After checking his pulse and respiration, she left with his $30,000 White Gold Rolex GMT Master II along with his wallet, iPhone, and $789. She’d keep the cash and sell the watch, credit cards, iPhone, and driver’s license on the dark web.

Behind the wheel of her truck, Veronica rubbed herself with the watch until she moaned and shivered.

_____________________________

I’m back. Well, looks like we’re dealing with a femme fatale here. Which gives us a chance to talk about opening your story with the antagonist. Is it a good idea or just a cliche? Should you give that first spotlight to the villain or introduce your hero first? And, to make it more complicated, what if your protagonist is also an antagonist? Books and movies are rife with successful examples of this hybrid: Darkly Dreaming Dexter, American Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, Interview With the Vampire, and one of my favorite books-cum-movies The Talented Mr. Ripley.

So who do you shove out onto the stage first?

In movies, this is called the Establishing Character Moment. Often it’s given to the protag, but sometimes, the villain goes first. I was watching Dirty Harry the other night, and of course, I was analyzing the heck out of it. It’s about a serial killer called Scorpio. The opening is terrific. (A lot of credit needs to go to cinematographer Bruce Surtees, whose seminal chiaroscuro style was artful-creepy). The scene opens with the sound of church bells. Then we get a shot of a pretty girl, sighted through a rifle scope, swimming in a rooftop pool. The shot pulls out to show the shooter taking aim…

Indulge me a moment more while we talk about how Darkly Dreaming Dexter opens. First, we get a brief orgasmic ode to the moon then comes this graph:

I had been waiting and watching the priest for five weeks now. The need had been prickling and teasing prodding at me to find one, the next one, find this priest. Three weeks I had known he was it, the next one, we belonged to the Dark Passenger, he and I together. And that three weeks I had been fighting the pressure, the growing Need rising in me like a great wave that roars up and over the beach and does not recede, only swells with every tick of the bright night’s clock.

The bad guy as protag! One of my favorite books from high school was John Fowles’s The Collector, much of it written from the abductor’s POV. Here’s the opening graph:

When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annex. She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like. When I had a free moment from the files and ledgers I stood by the window and used to look down over the road over the frosting and sometimes I’d see her. In the evening I marked it in my observations diary, at first with X, and then when I knew her name with M.I saw her several times outside too. I stood right behind her once in a queue at the public library down Crossfield Street. She didn’t look once at me, but I watched the back of her head and her hair in a long pigtail. It was very pale, silky, like Burnet cocoons. All in one pigtail coming down almost to her waist, sometimes in front, sometimes at the back. Sometimes she wore it up. Only once, before she came to be my guest here, did I have the privilege to see her with it loose, and it took my breath away it was so beautiful, like a mermaid.

I am pretty sure this paragraph was swimming around in my subconsciousness when I wrote my stand-alone serial killer The Killing Song, which opens with the murderer admiring his next victim as she sits in a concert in Paris’s Sainte Chapelle.  So…if you’re going to open with the bad guy, you better be able to get into your killer’s skin, no matter how warty it is.

Which brings us, at last, to our submission today. (Thanks for your patience, writer, but I really needed to make a point about opening with bad guys first).

Now, in such a short sample, we can’t be sure Veronica is our villain. She could be the protagonist dressed up in anti-heroine Prada. Given the title, that’s my guess. Maybe the writer can weigh in with some insight? But we can still comment on the effectiveness of this opening in catching our attention and maybe what can be done to improve things. Some general observations first:

There’s some potential here. But I really think this writer needs to slow things down. Here is what happens, just in the plot-events: We’re in a bar where we meet the main character Veronica. She is clearly there to prey on someone, complete with fake ID and fancy togs. She hones in on a victim and they have drinks, small talk, and she sort of seduces him.  She slips him a roofie, and he gets woozy and can barely talk. Somehow, they get upstairs to his room where she undresses him and tucks him into bed. She steals his watch, wallet, phone and cash. She goes downstairs and out to the parking lot to her truck. She masturbates with his Rolex.

All this in…385 words. Way too fast.

What doesn’t happen is: establishment of location. (other than a superfluous tagline); any description of surroundings (and we’re in a beautiful desert luxury hotel!); what anyone looks like or sounds like (other a fakey-smile and roofie-drunk slurring); why Veronica is there, outside of ripping off men; basic choreography of moving the characters around in space. How do they get up to his room when he’s half-passed out? How does she get to her truck?  And there is not even a hint of character motivation or insight.

That last one is a biggie. Because if you are dealing with an antagonist/protagonist or an anti-heroine, you darn well better be prepared to plumb the depths of her deepest needs, wants, fears and yes, loves. And that begins at the beginning.

If the antagonist is important enough to get her own point of view, she ought to have goals and motives driving her — same as any other character, and we need to see the beginnings of this layering in the first chapter in which she appears. One trick to writing a solid bad guy is to make him the hero of his own story. (I think this is a James credo). Few people actually consider themselves evil or bad, so even if Veronica has an iota of conscience, she will at least rationalize it.

Right now, Veronica is a cipher. The fact she’s female doesn’t make her any less a cliche in today’s crime fiction. When you find a way to make her feel like a real woman with real problems, readers will want to follow her — even if she’s a bad girl.  I suggest the writer read T. Jefferson Parker’s L.A. Outlaws. I It’s about a rookie cop who gets caught up in an affair with a Robin-Hoodish bad girl. Here’s the opening of Chapter 1, written from the female antagonist’s POV:

Here’s the deal: I am a direct descendent of the outlaw Joaquin Murrieta. He was a kickass horseman, gambler, and marksman. He stole the best horses, robbed rich anglos at gunpoint. He loved women and seduced more than a few during his twenty-three years. Some of his money went to the poor, but to be truthful most of it he spent on whiskey, guns, expensive tailored clothes, and on the women and children he left behind.

I got Joaquin Murrieta’s good looks. I got his courage and sense of justice for the poor. I got his contempt for the rich and powerful. I got his love of seduction. Like Joaquin used to, I love a good, clean armed robbery. I steal beautiful cars instead of beautiful horses.

Right now I’m about to stick up a west-side dude for twenty-four thousand dollars in cash. He won’t be happy, but he’ll turn it over.

And I’ll be richer and more famous than I already am.

My name is Allison Murrieta.

So my main advice, dear writer, is to slow down. All the action you cover in 385 words would make a good entire first chapter. And that’s not even accounting for adding better character development. Even poor Orville merits a physical description. Beyond this, you have some problems with simple confusion. Let’s do a line edit and clear up some of that up.

The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale
Onyx Bar

Monday, October 20, 2019

Generally, you should use this device for big complex plots that ricochet around in time and place. All this info could be — should be — woven into the narrative. (ie: The Onyx Bar was almost deserted, except for a quartet of young guys just coming in from the 18th green. Their cleats clacked on the wood floor and their drunken laughter echoed off the adobe walls. Veronica watched them for a moment then swiveled on her bar stool to look out  huge windows. The sun was just dipping below Pinnacle Peak. God, she loved The Four Seasons. The best resort in Scottsdale. Best views, best food, and best place for hunting men who weren’t too smart.

That’s bad but you get the idea. SHOW us where we are with choice details. Don’t TELL us in a wooden tagline.

“Hurl! Loser!” Do you really want to use up your precious first line on a nameless frat-boy who has no bearing on anything? Put the spotlight on Veronica. She is there for one thing — to find a male mark. Make her ACTIVE rather than reactive to the barf boys. 

Eight twenty-something male golfers sat on the patio crushing beers and trading insults.
Veronica Valdez glared at the window. I didn’t come here for party-till-you-puke feral males. She sat Was she standing and just now sat down or already sitting? at a high-top table and ordered a blue margarita.

An ASU freshman, Veronica’s fake driver’s license identified her as twenty-two year old Shirley Smith. Another example of TELLING instead of showing. Turn it into action, something like this:

When the waitress came over, Veronica said, “I’ll have a blue margarita.” 

The waitress’s eyes narrowed. “Can I see some ID?” 

Veronica pulled out her wallet and flipped it open to her license. She stayed cool, knowing the stupid girl couldn’t tell it was fake. Behind the license was her Arizona State student ID. That was real. As real as her Valentino Hobo Bag, Chanel boucel jacket and her Louboutin booties.

Designer clothes and accessories gave the impression of a sophisticated professional. See above blue comment. SHOW us with telling details that she presents a sophisticated front. You also might be able to slip in hints of her physical appearance. The blonde hair wasn’t real, but the breasts were. You can do something with this real vs fake thing. Which might end up standing for something larger symbolically about this woman. Plumb her depths. 

With a smile as fake as a TV game-show host, a man appeared. From where? Also, she is a predator so wouldn’t she notice him first? She’s trolling for a mark, so make her ACTIVE. What does he look like? A Chiclet smile isn’t enough. SHOW us through her eyes. “I’m Tommy Thompson. May I join you?” Do you realize all your names are alliterative? I’d change that.

“Of course, I’m Shirley Smith. What’s your first name?” I don’t understand. He just told her his name was Tommy. 

“Orville,” he whispered.

“Orville, this will be our secret.” Again, confusing. What is the secret? 

Swaggered over here. Has a room. Luxury watch. Tell us here what kind, not later. And how does she know he has a room? Maybe she sees him slip a key into his jacket before he comes over? She’s the predator here, so make her smarter. Has she done this before? Here’s a good opportunity to slip in a hint of backstory. She needs it. And be careful that she’s not a regular here or management would note. Which can also be a good backstory note, something like:

She knew all the best hotel bars, from San Francisco to Savannah. The Onyx had always been her favorite, though she was careful not to show up too often. Bartenders noticed women who drank alone. They remembered. And she couldn’t risk that.  

Veronica nudged her scarlet Valentino tote bag off the table, and Thompson retrieved it. Confusing. Did he catch her bag as it fell off the table? “Thanks, the least I can do is buy you a blue margarita.” She already ordered one. Perhaps it’s more interesting to have him ask what’s that blue thing she’s drinking? Also, your dialogue here is a little anemic. Make it work harder. Make it SAY something about Veronica. Maybe he makes some lame pick-up remark like, “What? You ordered that because it matches your eyes?” Which gets you a way of slipping in what she looks like. Or maybe she wears blue contacts? I suggest you go back and read James’s post on how Telling Details can enliven your story.

“Okay, but they’re on me.”

On you? You’ll forget your name when we’re finished.

Their drinks arrive minutes later.  Whoa. You need to slow down here. You just had these two meet, so you really can’t jump ahead with an empty time-bridge like this. What do they do? What did they say? You’re missing chances to flesh out your set-up and your main character. 

“The Blue Curacao liqueur gives the margarita its color.” I won’t tell him it hides the Roofie’s blue tint.  A non sequitur — of course she wouldn’t tell him she’s drugging his drink. The italics tells us we are in her head, and because the sentences are joined in one graph, we assume she said the thing about the Curacao?  But it’s unclear.

They played where-are-you-from and what-do-you-do, and during an awkward lull Veronica’s left hand pulled Thompson’s head close, Because this “seduction” is so rushed, I’m not buying this action. You need to set it up better to make it believable. Also, they are sitting at a high-top table in full view of a classy bar, so this is borderline unbelievable. and the snogging  Why use British slang for making out? began. She circled her tongue inside his mouth, dropped her left hand, and slid it under his crotch. Under? Still kissing, she squeezed his crotch and when he whimpered, her right hand dropped a tasteless pale-green and blue-speckled, fast-dissolving roofie tablet into his blue margarita drink..  Here is an example of wrong details. Just describe the salient action. She dropped the roofie into his glass. It dissolved before he had time to open his eyes.

“Bet you can’t drain yours, Tommy.” If he’s trying to get into my pants, he’ll over-compensate. That’s what men do. You need a new graph here: Thompson finished his blue margarita drink in three gulps. The bartender’s generous pour combined with anesthetic dose of  the Rohypnol affected Thompson. Again, why tell us when you can show us? New graph needed for dialogue “Thizz marga uh uh is thong. Not too thong for me. Hah!” New graph needed because you change to her thoughts. Now you’re on your ass. Did he fall off the chair? Right where I want you, Orville.

Re: Roofies. I did a lot of research on this drug for one of my own books, and you need to be careful in your description here. They are a depressant. Depending on the dose, it takes a good 20 to 60 minutes for them to take affect, maybe more for a man. Also, because of date rape abuse, they are no longer legally available in U.S. Maybe she got it in Mexico? Again, this could be a telling detail about your character. 

Veronica paid the check and walked a babbling, unsteady Thompson to his room where she undressed him, and tucked him in bed. You really need to slow your action down here. The roofie would make him almost unable to walk. Is he large? Is she small? Was he hard to maneuver? No one noticed this in the bar? How did she get his key card? They don’t have room numbers on them so how does she know where the room is? Sorry if this sounds niggling, but you can’t just gloss over details like this. After checking his pulse and respiration, she left with his $30,000 White Gold Rolex GMT Master II along with his wallet, iPhone, and $789. She’d keep the cash and sell the watch, credit cards, iPhone, and driver’s license on the dark web.

I have a question about iPhones that is above my pay grade. I know they are big targets of thieves who resell them, but there are also ways to guard against that and they can be traced. This makes me wonder — what kind of criminal is Veronica? The scenario here describes a petty theft because she’s not going to make a fortune reselling this stuff. Is she up to bigger things — like she’s part of phishing scheme? Then keeping the iPhone makes sense. This goes to my point about the need to start layering in some backstory here. Because a college girl drugging older guys in bars just to steal their watches and wallets isn’t very interesting. The stakes need to be bigger, I think. 

Then…out to the parking lot we go. Slow down!  One sec we’re in a hotel room, next in a car. Whiplash!

Behind the wheel of her truck, rusty Ford flatbed? Platinum Silverado? Vintage Jeep? Veronica rubbed herself with the watch until she moaned and shivered. Well, that’s quite an image, but again, slow down! Nobody likes to be rushed in a seduction, even if it’s a solo act. She gets in the truck. Give her a thought or two. Have her watch the sun go down. Maybe she thinks about poor Orville “roached-out” (that’s slang for being high on roofies) up in his fancy room (which you never described). Maybe she takes out his wallet and sees a photo of the kids.  Give us something! Humanize these characters! And then, she leans back in the seat and gazes out at the beautiful Scottsdale sunset.  It’s been good day at the “office.” She reaches into the Hobo bag and pulls out the watch. She admires it. She admires herself. She thinks something, anything! Okay, maybe we can go with the sex thing then, but it would be better with some kind of human context.  Even if her heart is black, you have to show it to us because as I said in the general comments, a villain has to be believable and multi-dimensional. She’s as blank as a blow-up doll right now. 

A final thought. Roofies are called “the forget-me-pill.”  Boy, I’d sure do something with that given your scenario. Every chapter needs a good kicker.  Poor Orville will forget, given the lasting effects of roofies.  But who’s really trying to “forget-me” here? Maybe your bad girl herself? Look for depths to plumb in your characters, especially your villains. 

That’s about it.  If this sounds harsh, please know, dear writer, I am not doing this to discourage you. I think you’re onto something here, and the spareness of your writing shows some talent. (though I still think it’s too spare). You’ve got something potent going here but I’m not sure you know what’s truly inside Veronica. I want to know more about her.  Strangely enough, I even want to like her because there’s nothing like a dame gone wrong who maybe, just maybe, finds a way to right herself.  I really encourage you to check out T. Jeff’s L.A. Outlaws. Reading good writers helps us find our way. And don’t give up. I’m hard on you because this has potential. 

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