First Page Critique: Go

By Sue Coletta

Today, we have another brave writer who submitted their first page. My comments will follow.

Title:  Go

Ch 1 Go, Said the Bird

I twirled a pencil. My second-graders rustled papers, whispered. We all watched the clock, how slow its hands moved.

The bell rang. I let out a breath.They scrambled into coats and jackets.

“…tomorrow, Miss Glass,” several shouted.

I plodded from school to the Blue Lake City cemetery. After the years I couldn’t, I now forced myself to visit my parents once a month.

“I’m fine,” I told my mother. “Really.”

I kicked at the slush of the last snow. The inside of my fur-lined boots grew wet. Someday, I’d mean those words.

A caretaker tended the graves. No gray lumps of old snow, no weeds, no trash.

I trudged back to Northside, food wrappers rattled on broken pavements, burnt out street lights, the remains of the last three snowstorms packed the gutters.

On Huron Avenue, a tall cop hustled a small, brown-skinned woman out of Ray’s Hardware.

“I did not steal,” she said.

He leaned forward. She retreated and bowed her head.

“Look at me, bitch.”

That deep voice. Redmann. I twisted my fingers together.

For years I’d avoided him, and he might not recognize in a twenty-six year old the terrified child he dragged out of the closet.

He never paid. No justice for my parents.

I ducked my head and hurried into Johnny O’s store.

A grin lit his broad ochre-colored face, and dissolved into drawn brows. “Long face, Nettie. ”

I leaned on the counter. He whipped out two pineapple popsicles and handed me one. Too sweet, the sour taste of lying to my mother, of seeing her killer, thick in my throat.

“You visit your parents today?”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Johnny O is psychic.” He clapped a hand to his heart. “But Nettie does not believe. Woe, woe.”

A smile tugged at my mouth.

“Better.” He patted my hand. “You need a boyfriend.”

“And here I thought I didn’t have a mother.” Thrusting Redmann out of my thoughts–I had to–I bought tomato soup, Swiss cheese, and bread while we made plans for dinner and checkers later in the week.

Across the street, Redmanm hauled the woman toward his car.

***

This is a tough opener for me to critique, because I get the feeling Anon is early in his/her writing journey. When we begin our writing journey, magic surrounds us. We can’t know what we don’t know, and there’s a magical beauty in that simplicity. A harsh critique at this writing stage could do more harm than good. It’s in this vein that I offer a few suggestions to help nudge this brave writer forward.

First lines

Your first sentence should entice the reader to continue on to the next sentence and the sentence after that. “I twirled a pencil.” Doesn’t accomplish that. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the sentence, except that it’s generic. Meaning, it delivers no punch, nor does it hint at the genre, nor does it promise an intriguing storyline to come. It just sort of sits there.

We’ve discussed first lines many times on the Kill Zone. Back in 2010, Joe Moore described a first line this way:

We’ve often discussed the power (or lack of) that first lines have on the reader. It can’t be emphasized enough how much a first line plays into the scope of the book. For just like first impressions, there is only one shot at a first line. It can set the voice, tone, mood, and overall feel of what’s to come. It can turn you on or put you off—grab you by the throat or shove you away. It’s the fuse that lights the cannon.

Joe nailed it! See how important your first line is, Anon? For further study, type “first line” in the search box and you’ll find numerous articles on this subject.

Point of View

Nailing Point of View is one of the hardest elements to grasp. It’s also imperative to learn, because readers connect with our main characters through the proper use of POV. 

The third sentence We all watched the clock, how slow its hands moved.” is a point of view slip. As Laura mentioned in a recent first page critique, “we” implies a rare, first-person, plural narrator. If we’re inside the teacher’s head, then we can’t know what the students are thinking i.e. “how slow its hands moved.”

You could show their boredom through the teacher’s perspective …

Carlton’s chin slipped off a half-curled palm, his elbow unable to hold the weight of his head till the bell rang. (then add a line or two of internal dialogue to show us the MC’s reaction –>) Why he insisted on sitting in the front row still baffled me.

Clarity

We never want to confuse the reader or make them re-read previous paragraphs in order to know what we’re talking about. My remarks are in red.

I plodded from school to the Blue Lake City cemetery. After the years I couldn’t, I now forced myself to visit my parents once a month.

With this sentence structure, the reader has no idea what the narrator means by “I couldn’t” until the end of the sentence. That’s too late. Easy fix, but it’s something you’ll want to look for in your writing.

Rewrite option: After years of avoiding my parents’ grave, I made it a point to swing by the cemetery once a month.

“I’m fine,” I told my mother (mother’s gravestone?). “Really.”

I kicked at the slush of the last snow. The inside of my fur-lined boots grew wet. Someday, I’d mean those words.

Here again, you’ve given us context too late. “Someday, I’d mean those words” should come before “I kicked at the slush of the last snow.” Which I love, btw. Great visual.

Dialogue

If you haven’t read How to Write Dazzling Dialogue by TKZ’s own, James Scott Bell, do it. The book’s a game-changer.

On Huron Avenue, a tall cop hustled a small, brown-skinned (<- is it your intention to show Redmann as a racist? If so, just tell us she’s Hispanic. Also “small” and “tall” are generic terms. “Petite” implies small in stature, though) woman out of Ray’s Hardware.

“I did not steal,” she said. Dialogue should sound natural. This woman sounds stiff and unconcerned. If she’s being unfairly accused of stealing, make us feel her frustration.

He leaned forward (why would he lean forward? Did you mean Redmann invaded the Hispanic woman’s personal space? Towered over her?) She retreated and bowed her head. Try to be as clear as possible. “She coward” or “quailed back” works.

Possible rewrite: Redmann invaded the petite woman’s personal space, and she coward.

“Look at me, bitch.”  Add body cue so we know who’s speaking. Perhaps something like, his spittle flew in her face.

That deep voice. Redmann. I twisted my fingers together. I don’t understand this body cue. Do you mean, my hand balled into a fist? Which implies anger.

For years I’d avoided him, and he might not recognize in a twenty-sixyearold the terrified child he dragged out of the closet. Delete the MC’s age. Or make it less obvious that you’re sneaking in information. Something like: For twenty years, I’d avoided him. Little did he know, I wasn’t the same terrified six-year-old who huddled in the closet while he murdered my family. Soon, he and I would reconnect.

Good luck dragging me out of the closet by my hair now, asshole. (Please excuse the foul language. I’m trying to show Anon how to use inner dialogue to portray rage, and the nickname works to prove my point.)

Sparse Writing

There’s a big difference between writing tight and writing that’s too sparse.

He never paid. No justice for my parents.

Here again, my initial reaction was, paid what? Sure, you cleared up the confusion in the second sentence, but that’s too late. Be concise. Don’t let your writing get in the way. “Redmann never paid the price for killing my parents” works just fine.  

I’m going to stop there. All in all, I like where the story is headed. A schoolteacher runs into the killer who murdered her family. Intriguing premise!

Favorite line: I kicked at the slush of the last snow. 

TKZ family, please add your thoughtful and gentle suggestions for this brave writer.

 

5+

12-Archetypes: A Framework for Creating a Cast of Memorable Characters

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Wikimedia Commons-Falkue

How do characters come to you? For me, each book can be different. I don’t have a set method, nor do I want to nail my process down. I’ve awakened in the middle of the night with a character speaking to me about his or her story. I leap from bed and rush to the bathroom with pen and paper in hand to jot down notes.

Sometimes from my preliminary research, I can meld 2-3 ideas together and a character might spring from that work. For example, I might realize I need an adventurer hero, a love interest and one of them might need a scientific background or have other special cognitive skills to pull off the plot that’s developing. Those characters come at me slowly and build, where I sometimes throw in fun hobbies or weirdness to keep the plot interesting.

Have you ever gone back into a novel you’ve already written and examined character archetypes?

You can also do this deep dive for themes you generally write about, even if it’s not a conscious awareness you have when you first start your project. I write from a gut level. Too much structure might inhibit my process, but I do find it interesting to take a closer look after I finish writing a book, especially if it sells well and the feedback is good from industry professionals. It’s helpful to dig into a plot I created organically to find threads of themes I love to explore.

Let’s take a closer look at character archetypes. In researching this post, I found a more comprehensive list of 99 Archetypes & Stock Characters that Screen Writers Can Mold that screenwriters might utilize in their craft. Archetypes are broader as a foundation to build on. Experienced editors and industry professionals can hear your book pitch and see the archetypes in their mind’s eye. From years of experience, it helps them see how your project might fit in their line or on a book shelf.

But to simplify this post and give it focus, I’ll narrow these character types down to Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung‘s 12-Archetypes. Listed below, Jung developed his 12-archetypes, as well as their potential goals and what they might fear. Goals and fears can be expanded, but think of this as a springboard to trigger ideas.

TYPE/GOAL/FEAR

1.) Innocent

GOAL – Happiness

FEAR – Punishment

2.) Orphan

GOAL – Belonging

FEAR – Exclusion

3.) Hero

GOAL – Change World

FEAR – Weakness

4.) Caregiver

GOAL – Help Others

FEAR – Selfishness

5.) Explorer

GOAL – Freedom

FEAR – Entrapment

6.) Rebel 

GOAL – Revolution

FEAR – No Power

7.) Lover

GOAL – Connection

FEAR – Isolation

8.) Creator

GOAL – Realize Vision

FEAR – Mediocrity

9.) Jester

GOAL – Levity & Fun

FEAR – Boredom

10.) Sage

GOAL – Knowledge

FEAR – Deception

11.) Magician

GOAL – Alter Reality

FEAR – Unintended Results

12.) Ruler

GOAL – Prosperity

FEAR – Overthrown

I recently sold a series to The Wild Rose Press. Book 1 is called THE CURSE SHE WORE – A Trinity LeDoux novel.

TRINITY – When I looked back at my heroine, Trinity appeared to be a combination of two archetypes, until I gave her a closer look. On the surface, she’s an innocent AND an orphan, but when I examined her from the GOAL and FEAR angles, I saw her clearly as an ORPHAN. No family. She’s homeless and living on the streets of New Orleans. She hasn’t known much happiness and punishment would only make her more stubborn. Her soft underbelly lies in her own thoughts on where she belongs and what she deserves. She keeps her life at a distance from others–her self-imposed exclusion. She thinks she doesn’t need anyone until she meets Hayden, but what she has planned for him, there won’t be anything left to build on. Loyalty can be a double-edged sword.

HAYDEN – My hero Hayden Quinn doesn’t fall neatly into the HERO category. Because of his psychic ability, he’s become a CAREGIVER to a small needy Santeria community in New Orleans. But his gift didn’t help him when he needed it most. He’s drawn to help others, but his ability only reminds him of the worst day of his life.

CROSSED PATHS – As a child of the streets, Trinity exploits Hayden’s guilt and grief to get what she wants. He’s unable to say no because of his guilt. For an author, it’s not easy to walk a line of conflict that I wanted to sustain throughout the first novel in this series. Surprises and unexpected outcomes twist through the plot until the very last page of book 1. The roots of their conflict grow deeper and extend into book 2.

SUMMARY: Whether you use these 12-archetypes to analyze a completed manuscript or consider them when you begin framing a new story, these building blocks can sustain an effective character study and get you thinking. It helped me dive deeper into my characters and this will help me develop the series. Any series needs the stakes to escalate and it all springs from a foundation of knowing your characters well. You have to keep punishing them. Show the reader why your characters deserve star status.

Can you see how you might utilize a list if archetypes to infuse your creative process?

When you consider these basic types, imagine pitting them against one another for sustained conflict. In the case of Trinity and Hayden, she risks putting his life at risk out of her loyalty to a dead friend. Any hope she had for a future is snuffed out by her own decisions.

For him, the very gift that had been a blessing failed him at the worst time of his life. Now his gift might kill him, but he can’t resist protecting Trinity. It’s in his nature.

All Hayden and Trinity have in common is death.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) As an exercise, forge conflict between two archetypes of your choosing to create a one-liner plot pitch.

2.) Share your main character archetype from your current or latest WIP. Does the Carl Jung matrix above help you define your character?

***

The Curse She Wore – A Trinity LeDoux Novel

 They had Death in Common                                                 

Trinity LeDoux, a homeless young woman in New Orleans, has nothing to lose when she hands a cursed vintage necklace to unsuspecting Hayden Quinn at one of his rare public appearances—a wealthy yet reclusive clairvoyant she hopes to recruit for a perilous journey. She prays that the jewelry she’d stolen off a body at a funeral will telepathically transport the powerful psychic to the murder scenes of two women at the exact moment of their deaths—even though the killings take place 125 years apart and span two continents.

When the ill-fated necklace connects the brutal crimes in a macabre vision, Hayden becomes a sympathetic believer. After enduring the tragic loss of his beloved wife and child, Hayden is touched by Trinity’s vulnerability and her need for justice in the cruel slaughter of her best friend, the rightful owner of the necklace.

Hayden and Trinity are two broken people who have nothing but death in common when they take on a dangerous quest. They must stop a killer from resurrecting the grisly work of Jack the Ripper by targeting the ancestors of the Ripper’s victims. Trinity will learn the hard way that trespassing on Fate’s turf always has its reckoning.

6+

Heil Safari – First Page Critique

Today let’s welcome another Brave Anonymous Author who offers the first page of Heil Safari.

Title:  Heil Safari

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot. He had stepped to the caution line and put one foot on the other side. The caution line, marked with wooden stakes and a strand of wire across the top, warned the prisoners of war from getting too close to the wire fence fifteen feet beyond. On the fence going around the entire prison camp there were signs in English and German that read:

ATTENTION!

Forbidden to Move Inside

Restricted Area

Violators Will be Shot

The American guard in the corner watchtower shouted, “You there! On the deadline! Git back!” The guard raised a rifle to his shoulder. “I said git back!”

But Fritz didn’t move.

“You damn Nazi,” the guard yelled at Fritz. “Git back or I shoot!”

Fritz still didn’t move, apparently not taking the threat seriously. Or caring. But Beyer took it seriously. He cared.

Returning to his barracks after doing his morning toilet, Beyer now stood still, uneasy. Then he heard the click of a breech bolt coming from the guard tower at the other corner of the compound. In horror he saw a guard hunkered behind a machine gun. He was covering the south end of the compound as if at any moment there might be a general uprising. The nearby prisoners, however, remained still and only stared.

But Beyer had to do something other than stare to see how the crisis would turn out. He couldn’t afford to lose Fritz. The only mining engineer in the Officers Compound, Fritz was essential to the success of Hermes. Beyer was desperate for Hermes to succeed. Being too long cooped in the densely packed prisoners and buildings of the enclosure, Beyer, much like Fritz, was becoming unnerved. Beyer frequently broke out in night sweats, his breathing rapid and shallow, and sigh a low, agonizing moan.

Considering that Fritz might be shot, a shiver of fear raced through Beyer at the prospect of a catastrophe. Without Fritz there may not be a tunnel completion, no one would get out, all the hard work done up to now remaining unfulfilled.

“Damn you! Stop!” the guard with the rifle shouted.

The shout startled Beyer, then he noticed Fritz beginning to take mincing steps, his short height straddling the wire in his crotch.

 

Okay, let’s get to work.

Usually first pages arrive naked and unadorned at TKZ, without genre or background information. Page One must stand entirely on its own. That’s good because a strong first page is critical to whether or not a reader buys your book.

However, this submission included a synopsis. And the synopsis was intriguing. For that reason, I’m going to handle this critique a little differently than normal.

Most writers would rather endure an IRS audit than write a synopsis because it’s damn hard to do well.

In the summary, Anon explained the novel was based on a true but largely-unknown incident during World War II at Camp Trinidad in Colorado. I Googled it and found this article. Essentially, The Great Escape got turned on its head with German prisoners of war trying to escape American captors.

Show, don’t tell is oft-repeated advice for fiction. However in a synopsis, telling is permissible because it’s the most efficient way to introduce characters, lay out the story problem/conflict, and set up what’s at stake.

Anon handled that summary very well. German prisoners plot to escape a POW camp in Colorado because they are going mad from wire enclosure fever. A main character, Beyer, would rather die than endure another day in captivity. But there is dissent among prisoners, some of whom are die-hard Nazis while others are not. There are additional complications because Beyer’s friend Fritz, the chief engineer in charge of building the escape tunnel, is teetering on the brink of insanity. Anon sets up external conflict between German prisoners and American captors and among the POWs themselves, internal conflict with severe psychological stress, and a ticking clock with a race to see if the tunnel can be finished before the engineer completely loses it.

Lots of great potential for a historical thriller. Congratulations on a clear, competent synopsis, Anon.

Unfortunately, on this first page, Anon is mostly telling when s/he should be showing.

The POV character Beyer observes the events unfolding not only from a physical distance but also an emotional distance. Anon tells us he’s concerned but the reader doesn’t feel his apprehension, his helplessness, his panic that Fritz’s actions may not only lead to his death but also ruin the escape plan that can’t proceed without him.

The stakes couldn’t be higher–life or death–which is a great way to kick off a first page.

But the problem is: the reader doesn’t care.

Because we’re not inside Beyer’s skin. We don’t feel his guts churning, smell the nervous sweat under his armpits, taste the bile rising in his throat. We don’t see what he sees—the madness in the wild eyes of his friend Fritz who’s trying to commit suicide. We don’t hear the angry bark of the guard with his twitchy finger on the trigger.

We don’t feel the urgency driving both men to risk death because they can’t endure another day in captivity.

Showing is more than visual—it must be visceral and emotional.

The synopsis used the term “wire enclosure fever.” Unfortunately there is no sense of  fever in this first page.

A few suggestions to consider as you rewrite:

Lead off with a simple dateline that immediately sets the date and location. The reader right away understands this is historical fiction set in a military environment. For example:

Camp Trinity, Colorado, 1943

Next, climb inside Beyer’s skin and stay there. Use sensory detail to bring action to life. Actions trigger Beyer’s thoughts and feelings.

As Jim Bell often recommends, “Act first, explain later.” Give the reader just enough information to set the scene and prevent confusion.

A lot of repetition can be cut and condensed. Consider the first two sentences:

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot.

These two sentences essentially repeat the same information that could be combined into a single sentence with much more punch. Again, it’s telling rather than showing. Instead of having Beyer “wonder” how to save Fritz, he should act. His action may help the situation or it may make it worse. But either way, it moves the story forward.

Every scene needs to accomplish at least five tasks:

  1. Set the scene;
  2. Reveal character;
  3. Introduce a problem or goal;
  4. Demonstrate the stakes if the problem is not solved or the goal is not met;
  5. Propel the action forward.

How do you build a compelling scene? By stringing together groups of sentences that accomplish these tasks.

How do you build a compelling book? By stringing together compelling scenes.

In a fast-paced thriller, each sentence must build on the previous one to push the plot forward. Treat each sentence as a springboard that induces the reader to jump to the next sentence to learn what’s going to happen.

Below is one possible way to rewrite this first page, using additional details gleaned from the linked article.

Captain Martin Beyer fastened the last button of the drab uniform shirt that shamed him every day with its PW insignia: “prisoner of war.” He stomped his feet on the wood steps of the officers barracks to knock the fine silt off his once-shiny Luftwaffe boots. Barbed wire surrounded this desolate, barren patch of dirt named Camp Trinity. On the fence, signs in German and English warned that anyone would be shot if they crossed the caution line, the restricted buffer zone that was fifteen feet inside the compound fence.

“Hey, Nazi, git back!”

The shout from the watchtower caught Beyer’s attention. He turned to see an American guard aiming a rifle at Beyer’s closest friend in the camp, Hans Fritz. The young second lieutenant had stepped beyond a wire stretched taut between wooden posts.

One foot over the caution line into the restricted zone.

Beyer’s gut cramped as he prayed his friend would heed the guard’s warning. Lately, he never knew if Fritz taunted the Americans for sport or if he truly sought death rather than endure another day inside the prison.

There was a wild gleam in Fritz’s wide blue eyes as he teetered on the line, one boot in life, the other in hell.

The metallic click of a breech bolt sounded from the opposite watchtower where another guard hunkered behind a machine gun. “Git back or I’ll shoot!”

“Don’t do it, Fritz,” Beyer muttered. If Fritz died, the escape tunnel plan died with him.

 

The above is about 230 words and conveys most of the same information more concisely plus gives a deeper glimpse into the POV character.

Work on sensory detail that draws the reader in. Let the reader see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the story world you’ve built.

Work on showing emotion and feelings in the POV character. It’s not enough to say he felt alarmed—show his alarm with his sensory reactions.

Examine each sentence. Ask yourself if it repeats information previously stated. If so, choose the strongest version and delete the weaker. Or combine two sentences into one.

Count how many of the five elements listed above are included in each sentence. I try to pack sentences with at least two elements, preferably more. When you compose a sentence, choose an action that reveals character as well as demonstrates the stakes. The consequences of that action either solve the problem or make it worse.

One last point: the title Heil Safari is vague and doesn’t hint at the meat of the story. “Heil” made me think of the Nazi salute so I deduced it took place during World War II. But how does that connect to “Safari”? Maybe refer to the escape tunnel to freedom. Or perhaps the perils that lie beyond the tunnel if they escape successfully. You can find a better title to convince a potential reader to click the “buy now” button.

Don’t be discouraged, Brave Author. You have a compelling storyline based on historical events that are not widely known. World War II history buffs will find this interesting. A strong foundation in fact serves as a solid platform on which to build your fictionalized version. Work on your craft and you should have a good book.

Over to you, TKZers. Suggestions and comments for our Brave Anonymous Author?

 

If you’re a member of Amazon Prime, you can read Debbie Burke’s bestselling thriller Instrument of the Devil for free. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

 

3+

Pixar Storytelling – 20 Points Writers Can Learn From Animated Stories

JordanDane
@JordanDane

I ran across this great video posted on Youtube that features the 20-pt advice of Emma Coats, a master storyboard artist with Pixar. The narrator of this video is writing coach Mike Consol. It runs through tips on storytelling. Whether you are a novice writer or a seasoned pro, you can learn a lot from these amazing gems.

For your convenience, I posted Pixar’s 20 points in summary and my paraphrasing, but it’s worth it to watch the video for more. Jot down the tips that speak to you and try some if you haven’t.

1.) Create characters that people admire for more than their successes.

2.) Write what is interesting for your readers, not just you as a writer.

3.) Create a character story arc using these basic lines:

Once upon a time there was _____
Every day _____
One day _____
Because of that _____
Until finally _____

4.) Simplification & focus is important. Simplifying the flow to the essence of the story is freedom for the writer. (This is like the ELLE method of sharp fast-paced writing used in the scenes of Law & Order TV series – Enter Late, Leave Early.)

5.) What is your character’s comfort zone, then throw them a major curve ball. Challenge them and give them a twist of fate.

6.) Create an ending BEFORE you write the middle. Endings are tough. Know them upfront.

7.) Finish your story by letting go of it. Nothing is perfect. Move on. You can do better the next time.

8.) Deconstruct a story that you like. What do you like best about it? Break it down. Recognize the elements.

9.) Put your story on paper and not just keep it in your head.

10.) Discount the first few plot/story ideas that come to you. Get the obvious stuff out of the way and clear your mind for new story ideas that will surprise you.

11.) Give your characters opinions. Passive characters are boring.

12.) Ask yourself – why must I tell THIS story? This will be the heart of your story and the essence of storytelling.

13.) Ask yourself – If I were my character, how would I feel? Emotional honesty brings authenticity and credibility to your writing. If the story puts the character in over-the-top circumstances, the emotional honesty can help the reader relate to the character and draw them in.

14.) What are the stakes? Give your readers a reason to root for your character. Stack the odds against your character and make them worthy of their starring role.

15.) No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let it go and move on. The idea or writing might be used at another time when it’s more suitable.

16.) Know the difference between doing your best and fussing.

17.) A coincidence that gets your character INTO trouble is a beautiful thing, but a coincidence that gets your character OUT OF trouble is cheating. Don’t cheat.

18.) Take the building blocks of a movie or story that you do NOT like and rearrange them into a story that is better.

19.) A writer should identify with a situation or a character. Figure out what would make YOU act that way to make it read as authentic.

20.) What is the essence of your story and then figure out what is the most economical way to tell that story.

FOR DISCUSSION:
1.) What tips did you find most helpful?
2.) Are there tips listed that you are eager to try?

7+

Characters Need Redemption – First Page Critique – Angie’s Ruin

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

http://flickr.com/photos/60058591@N00/2369412952

I have a first-page critique for your consideration today. Please read and comment. My feedback is on the flip side.

***

“I can’t do this anymore I hate you. Listen to me, I really do hate you. You prick”

Angie screamed those words and cried them at the same time, it was a horrible indescribable sound but Danny didn’t seem to care.

“Well if you hate me so much then pack your bags and leave, but I’m keeping the kids, do you hear that THEY ARE MINE NOT YOURS, MINE, so go on sod off. No one likes you anyway, you waste of space”

She started to cry, uncontrollably a solemn weep that seemed to come from a place, no, a pit so very deep inside and below it could have been hell. Sitting in her new kitchen, with her beautiful babies upstairs, this man, if he actually qualified as a man was trying to finish her off altogether. He acted and spoke like a child but he was 37 and the love of her life.

They had been childhood sweethearts, next door neighbours and nobody had ever understood her like Danny. The crack the prostitution, the gambling, the shoplifting even the trafficking. All those years ago…It was another life.

Look, she new she wasn’t perfect. But Danny understood why, Danny understood her and now he was gone or he may as well have been.

He didn’t love her, he didn’t want her anymore and she felt done with love, with life with everything, it was all too much. So, she pulled herself up from the manky chair she was slumped in, her favourite velour chair that was once red, ready to go upstairs and pack up her life.

“I never loved you, you stupid, pathetic cow” Danny laughed the words in her face as if she was nothing, as if they had never had anything together, as if she was dirt under their wheelybin. PIG, she shouted in her head, because she didn’t have the energy to say it out loud, he had drained her that much, HE WAS WORSE THAN THE DIRTIEST MOST DISGUSTING FILTHY SHIT INFESTED PIG.

“You had better go right now” he said “Sharon’s coming round.” She’s been desperate for me to tell you and now I’ve done it. Why did it take me so long, he laughed, laying on the floor watching telly, to kick someone as ugly, stupid and pathetic as you out?”

FEEDBACK

I had a tough time with this submission. The lack of punctuation, the overabundance of run on sentences, typos, and writing craft issues made it a hard read. My biggest concern was for the main character of Angie. I found her overly aggressive without vulnerability. I didn’t find her redeemable in this first peek. It’s a fine line to portray real emotion in a scene, like fighting, if a writer doesn’t connect the reader with the character’s redemption and a humanity the reader can relate to. I’ll have suggestions on this below, but let’s look at basics first.

In order to submit to an editor or agent, or even self-publish, an author must know basic grammar and punctuation rules to submit a clean copy. Otherwise it would be too easy for the industry professional to reject it before they get a paragraph into it. Below are my more detailed thoughts.

Run On Sentences – Examples:

First sentence is a run on with poor punctuation.

Example 1: “I can’t do this anymore I hate you. Listen to me, I really do hate you. You prick”

Rewrite 1: “I can’t do this anymore. I hate you. Listen to me. I really do hate you. You, prick!”

Use of Internal Thought:

Example 2PIG, she shouted in her head, because she didn’t have the energy to say it out loud, he had drained her that much, HE WAS WORSE THAN THE DIRTIEST MOST DISGUSTING FILTHY SHIT INFESTED PIG.

An author should follow rules on punctuation to make the work easier for readers, who are quite knowledgeable on basic grammar. In the above example, it is one LONG run on without any punctuation. The overuse of CAPS isn’t necessary to indicate screaming. If the author picks words that ‘show’ the action, the reader will get it.

Rewrite 2:

‘Pig!’ she shouted in her head. Angie had lost the energy to say it out loud. Her husband had drained her that much. ‘He’s worse than the…’ (Break apart the run on sentence and single quote the internal monologue or italicize it. Personally, I find Angie too harsh and unlikeable. Anytime there is name calling, even if it’s in a character’s head, it makes them unsympathetic for me, as a reader.)

Typo:

Example: Look, she new she wasn’t perfect. (Knew, not new.)

No Setting:
Setting can be a big help to add color and depth to this scene of domestic abuse. What is the setting in this story? Has she been cooking all day and he shows up late and drunk? Does she keep a neat house or a sloppy one? Depression can enter into this and her house could be indicative of her emotional state.

Focus on Angie’s Vulnerability:
Unless the author envisions Angie as vulnerable and shows it, the character’s yelling and cursing in her head doesn’t make her sympathetic. If she starts out this way and the whole story is centered on an unlikeable character, a reader will not keep turning the pages. I’m not suggesting a back story dump, but at least in a solid intro, the author must show Angie as vulnerable and scared of her husband’s anger or vulnerable to his betrayal.

1.) Show her cower when he gets in her face, yelling. She physically shakes and reacts to his abuse that the reader knows has been happening over a long time.
2.) Have her concerned over kids hearing or neighbors.
3.) Have Angie show emotions of hurt and betrayal when he finally admits he’s having an affair.
4.) What does she looks like? Her appearance? Does he make her feel worse by pointing out her looks?
5.) Has he ever hit her? A victim of physical abuse acts differently than Angie does in this scene.

A more vulnerable Angie would have me turning the pages, even if the fighting gets ugly. I would root for her to get out of the house or find a way to get out from under an abusive husband.

DISCUSSION:
What do you think, TKZers? What would you add? Would you keep turning the pages?

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Backstory Fatigue

Maybe it’s just my own declining attention span (thanks Jim for another reminder of the issue in yesterday’s blog post!), but I’m increasingly growing weary of complicated, anguished backstories in crime shows. I admit I haven’t been reading much in the way of mysteries lately, as I’ve been focusing on research for my latest WIP, but I often turn to TV crime shows (usually of the British variety) to relax. Lately, however, I’ve found my interest waning as the backstories in the latest crop of shows I’ve started (but not finished!) have become increasingly overwrought and intrusive.

I like to watch as characters take shape slowly over many episodes, evolving alongside their cases, rather than having a backstory thrust upon me right from the get go in a way that I find intrusive and (often times) underwhelming. The current show that’s got me peeved the Netflix original series Paranoid. In the first few episodes we get an intriguing murder but also (in my opinion) a rather heavy handed introduction to the backstory for each of the main protagonists – a panic attack ridden investigator, a know-it all junior officer with a lying alcoholic lying mother, and a female investigator who goes from cocky to crumbling wreck after her boyfriend dumps her (she wants children, she’s in her late 30s. etc. etc.). While I will probably persevere with the show, I feel like I’m already experiencing backstory fatigue and I’m only up to episode 3!

The best crime/mystery shows and novels allow the protagonist’s backstory to unfold and inform the story as well as intrigue the reader. I wonder, given the crowded marketplace, whether we’re currently experiencing a bit of ‘backstory overload’ as a means of trying to differentiate the show/story/characters. For me, however, this often feels like a character’s backstory is being foisted upon me right from the start in an effort to either impress or unnerve me (neither of which usually work!). In Broadchurch, I was willing to buy into the multitude of character ‘issues’ because their stories evolved alongside the case and thus felt organic. I’m not sure the same can be said for Paranoid (for me the jury is still out).

So how does this help inform the writing process when it comes to character development and backstory? For me, my current irritation has helped solidify the following advice…

  1. A character’s backstory needs to evolve rather than be rammed down a reader’s throat. That means no huge exposition dumps or digressions too early on and no ‘overloaded’ backstory for a character that feels imposed rather than organic.
  2. The ‘iceberg’ approach works best – let the reader know there is far more beneath the surface of the character than the tip that the reader sees initially. Let the water recede to reveal the extent and depth of the backstory as the plot/story unfolds.
  3. Make sure to consider the multifaceted nature of human beings. Sometimes genre characters can feel too ‘one note’ (the classic depressed, alcoholic loner as a detective for example) but sometimes they can also feel way too overwrought and unnatural…so make sure you feel like you’re creating a real person.
  4. Don’t try too hard to create the world’s most anguished or unusual detective. Again, this seems to be evident in TV shows more so than novels, but after a while, backstories can start to feel like gimmicks rather than genuine human foibles.

So what do you think about when creating your characters’ backstories? How do you approach backstory development? Which TV shows or novels do you think have explored backstory well, and which have given you (like me) a bit of ‘backstory fatigue’?

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Anti-Heroes: Why We Love Them & Keys Ways to Give Them Depth

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

After John Gilstrap’s post yesterday on The Code, a nostalgic reflection on storytelling in his lifetime, it got me thinking about my favorite type of protagonist – the anti-hero.

One of the first “in your face” anti-heroes I remember came from the small screen – HOUSE. He said things we might secretly wish we could and get away with it, but when TV audiences saw how deeply flawed he was, coupled with his vulnerabilities and quirky sense of right and wrong, he became endearing and very watchable.

Here are a few outstanding anti-heroes for your consideration:
Michael Corleone from the Godfather
Walter White & Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad
John McClane from the Die Hard movies
Don Draper from Mad Men
Tony Soprano from the Sopranos
Ray Donovan from the show by the same name.
Jack Bauer from 24
George Costanza from Seinfeld
Patrick Jane from the Mentalist
Dexter Morgan from Dexter

These amazingly memorable characters have introduced a broader use of gray into classic Hollywood’s black and white world of storytelling where the bad guys literally wore black hats in early films. Anti-heroes aren’t pure heroes in the classic sense. They have flaws and baggage that make them borderline villain, but not quite. It’s up to the author who creates them to infuse something redeemable, even if the author simply gives them a dog, like JOHN WICK.

So why the change toward anti-heroes and why have they become so intriguing?

You’d have to look at how much our world has changed, the complex nature of our lives has shifted our moral compass and made resolutions ambiguous. The simple white hat cowboy may appear weak unless he’s willing to confront dark villains who aren’t hindered by a moral code. Anti-heroes are “over the top” strong in their field and are willing to break conventional rules to save the day once they commit to the fight and cross the point of no return. They right the wrongs that seem insurmountable because they are larger than life and don’t let rules or laws get in the way of justice.

Why are we drawn to anti-heroes?

For me, I see them as flawed. They’re not perfect, like classic heroes in Hollywood or in literature were portrayed. I can relate to them better because it makes me feel as if, given the right circumstances, anyone can rise to the level of hero if they have a cause worth fighting for. We also want to see if they are redeemable. Give your anti-hero a chance to grab at redemption in your book and see if he takes it. Or will he find love from a strong woman? Once we get hooked on an anti-hero, we root for them and feel their pain more when they fall. We want them to get back up, because they’re “every man.” And the fact they are not cookie-cutter, and do surprising things and are unpredictable, they make the storytelling fun.

Who would have rooted for a high school teacher turned drug dealer if we hadn’t learned of his cancer, his concern for his family in the face of his financial meltdown, and his rising medical bills. He’s bucking a broken health care system like David standing before Goliath. He’s more worried over his family than his own recovery. He’s got nothing to lose.

Anti-heroes change our way of thinking about confrontation and empowerment. The right anti-hero can give voice to our frustrations and give us an alternative reality to find justice.

Below are tips to add depth to your anti-hero/heroine & make them sympathetic:

  1. Give Them a Reason—A reader will lose interest if your character is a complete jerk for half the book. Sprinkle in the valid reasons for them being who they are and clue the reader in on these reasons early so they can buy in, even if the other characters don’t know their motivations.
  1. Does Gender Make a Difference? In general, I’ve noticed that readers accept bad boys faster than they embrace a female lead character who isn’t perfect. I don’t know why this is, but it can make crafting your female characters a challenge.
  1. Make them human—Give them a code they live by or loyalties a reader can understand and empathize with. Even a dark anti-hero/heroine has a softer side. In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter was Clarice’s protector with his peculiar brand of loyalty.
  1. Give Them a Soft Edge—If you give even the toughest brooding character a pet or a soft spot for a kid, they will be endearing to readers. Write the darkest character and match them up with something soft and you’ve got a winning combination.
  1. Show Respect—Everyone looks up to a good leader. Show that others admire or respect your dark character and the reader will too.
  1. Stick Redemption under Their Nose—Give your anti-hero a shot at redemption. What choice will they make?
  1. Make Them Vulnerable—Pepper in a back-story that makes your anti-hero vulnerable—betrayed by love, lost an important person in their life, or other tragic experience. Make them fearful of something, perhaps even themselves.
  1. Forge Them from Weakness—Alcohol or drugs, adrenaline addict, insurmountable grief, or fear of the dark. Force them to battle with their deepest fears, making them worth someone’s struggle to win them over.
  1. Make Them Corrupted by Life—Have them see life through personal experiences that we can only imagine but they have lived through. Make trust an issue because they have been betrayed. They must be much more vulnerable than they are cynical to deserve the kind of significant other that it takes to open them up to someone else.
  1. Make Them Real—To be real, they must have honest emotions. That means you, as an author, must delve into the murky corners of your own mind to get into their heads. It’s not always an easy thing to do.

DISCUSSION:

1.) Who are some of your favorite anti-heroes and tell us why? (from TV, movies, or books)

2.) Do you have any other anti-hero crafting tips to share?

My anti-hero – Mercer Broderick as Mr. January. Preorder ebook for $2.99 at Amazon.

Zoey Meager risks her life to search for her best friend in a burning warehouse, only to cross the path of Mr. January, a mysterious man with a large black dog completely devoted to its master.

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First Page Critique: the Silencer

Happy Monday! Today we critique the first page submission entitled The Silencer. As always, kudos to those brave enough to submit. My comments follow.

The Silencer.

Friday, 9:45 a.m.

But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

James 3:8

The worst part about waiting to testify is I spend the entire time terrified the lawyers will uncover some huge mistake that screams how lazy and incompetent I am. I tell myself a hundred different ways that I always do the best I can … but I don’t really listen.

After so many appearances in court you’d think I’d have no problem when it comes time to testify. But it never fails. Every time the bailiff comes to get me from this small waiting room, the cycle begins. My therapist once told me my fear in court had more to do with my lack of control then my ineptitude as a witness. I disagree. Then again, she also said I joined the police in an effort to stop for others what I couldn’t stop for myself when I was younger.

The door swung open and a big woman with a horsey face and short gray hair stepped inside. Her uniform hugged her well-nourished figure. The web belt is off-center and sagged to her right, the holster almost resting on her thigh. She looked directly at me and I’m waiting to see if her voice sounded like John Wayne.

“Detective Rebecca Watson?” she asked in a soft voice.

“That’s me.” Like clockwork, my stomach twists into a knot, pushing its contents toward my throat as I stand and follow her into the courtroom.

The courtroom is overflowing with spectators and media. Knees trembling, my high heels echoed off the marble floor as I approach the witness stand, carrying a red binder, also known as a murder book. Today is going to be a very tough day. This is no ordinary case. The Florida Supreme Court awarded Leonard Lee Lucius a new trial or whatever verbiage they used. Some crap about tainted evidence. Anyway, his new defense team argued a crucial piece of evidence, the knife used to kill his girlfriend, Teri Goodson, was exposed to foreign fibers after being collected from the crime scene and before being signed into the evidence locker.

Apparently, neither the jurors nor his lawyers saw fit to argue this point during the previous trial. The jury found him guilty. The District Attorney sought the death penalty, but Lucius ended up with life.

All eyes in the courtroom focused on me. I kept my head straight to avoid their stares. As each foot stepped in front of the other, it feels like I’m the one on trial. This isn’t true, but I can’t wrap my head around the fact they’re judging me, even before being sworn in.

My comments

Overall I enjoyed this first page, but there were a few critical elements that held me back from being fully engaged or invested in this story. I’ve summarized these under two main headings: Character Development and Dramatic Tension. I’ll deal with each in turn.

Character Development

  • The main protagonist, Detective Rebecca Watson, seems in the first paragraph at least, to be a rookie who is understandably nervous about appearing in court. The second paragraph, however, indicates that she has appeared countless times and it sounds like her anxiety is more of a deep-rooted issue (one she sees a therapist about) based on a traumatic event in the past which is what drove her (at least in the therapist’s opinion) to being a police officer. This sense of inconsistency, makes it hard to get a handle on Rebecca as a three dimensional character . By the end of this first page I have to admit, she seems rather generic and her anxiety makes her feel less believable as a seasoned detective. This meant I wasn’t totally invested in her as the main character.
  • I also felt like I needed some action and drama rather than merely exposition about Rebecca as a character. I wanted to feel like I was in Rebecca’s head hearing her unique voice but also seeing her in action.
  • Although I feel like the writer knows his/her character, as readers we aren’t on a firm foundation (I don’t quite buy Rebecca as a detective yet). Why does she feel like she’s constantly being judged? Why does she lack confidence in her abilities – is it this case, or part of her own neuroses? If I’m going to like Rebecca and root for her as a main character, I feel like a need more depth even on this first page. This may come more in the form of intriguing specifics that can be fleshed out later but at the moment there’s not enough that goes beyond the standard ‘cop’ genre to really draw me in. Action demonstrates character far more than mere description or background.
  • Also, there seems a few contradictions on this first page – she seems nervous and anxious, yet she’s supposedly experienced. She is a detective but she says ‘new trial or whatever verbiage they used’ when speaking of the Supreme Court when, as a detective she would know exactly what was ordered.
  • We also get far too much detail about the bailiff when compared to the protagonist – If Rebecca was a detective wouldn’t she already know most of the court staff? We also don’t know whether Rebecca was involved in the initial investigation or her role in the tainted evidence question that is the reason for her court appearance (we assume).

Dramatic Tension

  • A first page is first and foremost a powerful lure that draws a reader in. It has to set the scene as well as the main character and, most importantly, it needs to have dramatic tension to ensure a reader is immediately invested in the story. At the moment this first page seems more of an introduction than a dramatic entry point to the story. We learn about Leonard Lee Lucius’s new trial in a rather cumbersome way with details that should come later or should be used in the first page to greater dramatic effect (perhaps by way of a scene in which the police are confronted by the tainted evidence).
  • Overall, it felt like there was too much time spent on Rebecca’s worries/feelings of inadequacy that on establishing a dramatic scene that confronts and intrigues the reader. I was left wanting more ‘oomph’ to keep me going and a stronger, more consistent main character that had flaws as well as depth but who felt ‘real’ from the get go.
  • I also wasn’t sure how the biblical quotation at the start of the page relates to the story – while we don’t need an answer per se, I think readers would like to get a sense of how it illuminates the story to come.

So TKZers, what are some of your comments and feedback? How can we help this writer punch this first page up to the next level?

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Give your manuscript a running start

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Whenever I disclose to someone that I’m an author, the response is pretty much the same: “I’ve always wanted to write a book.” Or “I’ve got a great idea for a novel.” Despite all the would-be authors out there, not every potential novelist actually gets to the writing stage. And even fewer produce a finished product. But for the ones who not only have an idea but are burning up with a desire to put pen to paper, I’ve put together a basic outlining technique that might help get things started—a simple list of questions to kick start a book. Answering them can give writers direction and focus, and help keep them going when the wheels sometimes come off the cart along the way. To continue my Writing 101 series, here goes:

  • What distinguishes your protagonist from everyone else?
  • Does she have an essential strength or ability?
  • How could her strength cause her to get into trouble?
  • Most stories start with the protagonist about to do something? What is that “something” in your story, and what does it mean to her?
  • Is that “something” interrupted? By what?
  • Is there an external event or force that she must deal with throughout the length of the story?
  • How is it different from the original event?
  • How will the two events contrast and create tension?
  • Does she have a goal that she is trying to achieve during the course of the story?
  • Is it tied into the external event?
  • Why does she want or need to obtain the goal?
  • What obstacle does the external event place in her path?
  • What must she do to overcome the obstacle?
  • Does she have external AND internal obstacles and conflicts to overcome?
  • How will she grow by overcoming the obstacles?
  • What do you want to happen at the end of your story?
  • How do you want the reader to feel at the end?
  • What actions or events must take place to make the ending occur the way you envision?

This outline technique has less to do with plot and more to do with character development. Building strong characters around a unique plot idea is the secret to a great book. Once you’ve answered the questions about your protagonist, use the same technique on your antagonist and other central characters. It works for everyone in the story.

These are general questions that could apply to any genre from an action-adventure thriller to a romance to a tale of horror. Answering them up front can help to get you started and keep you on track. Armed with just the basic knowledge supplied by the answers, you will never be at a loss for words because you will always know what your protagonist (and others) must do next.

Can you think of any other questions that should be asked before taking that great idea and turning it into a novel?

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Diversity, Micro-Aggression and Cultural Appropriation

One of the main themes of the recent SCBWI conference I attended was diversity in children’s literature (or rather its lack thereof!). Even though all the sessions I attended were directed towards children and YA authors, the key issues and concerns are  applicable across genres and age groups – namely how to incorporate diversity in the books we write, and how to do so in an appropriate way (that is, in ways that avoid cultural appropriation as well as what the editors termed ‘micro-aggressions’ in the books we write).

I hadn’t heard the term ‘micro-agression’ before when it came to books but the term is really about the cliches, characterizations or expressions writers can fall into (often without thinking) that perpetuate cultural stereotypes. In one of the first-page sessions the editors pointed out some of these ‘micro-aggressions’ in phrases such as sitting ‘Indian style’ and ‘Indian giver’. I’m sure in both these instances the author used these unwittingly rather than maliciously but the editors were quick to point out that, in an industry increasingly concerned about the lack of diversity in the books they publish, authors need to be especially mindful of how they incorporate diversity in their books and avoid using terms, phrases or characters that perpetuate stereotypes or inflict ‘micro aggression’ against particular cultures.

In another session I attended there was a great discussion about the issues writers face when writing about cultures or characters different to their own. The key take home message? If you write cross-culturally you MUST do your research! This includes having beta-readers from that culture to ensure that the kinds of ‘micro-agressions’ or cultural appropriations that the editors identified, did not occur.  I wholeheartedly support an increase in diversity, particularly in children’s literature, and acknowledge that writers, when tackling cross-cultural issues, must do their research to ensure that they approach the issue in an appropriate and sensitive way. I must confess, however, that after this session, given the sensitivity and complexity of the discussion, I felt more rather than less reluctant when it came to writing cross-culturally. That isn’t to say I don’t feel strongly that I should have the freedom to write whatever I chose to write about without any gender, racial or cultural constraints but, after the discussion, I did feel like the issue was more fraught than I had realized (or rather, I clearly hadn’t thought through the issues enough).

So TKZers what do you think? How do you approach the issue of diversity? Do you endeavor to write cross-culturally and if so, how do you navigate the issues raised when doing so? Do you see  ‘micro-agressions’ or cultural appropriations in the books you read?

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