Deep Dive into Craft: First Page Critique

I’ve got a special treat for you today. This Brave Writer submitted their first page for critique. Check it out. My comments will follow.

Lucky Lynx

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Carlos shook his head. He didn’t take his hands off the wheel as the battered Ford Bronco jounced over the pothole-ridden street. “You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

“He gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared.  Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Riker’s.”

That made Eduardo sit up. The seat’s rusty springs made a creak.

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

“Don’t matter what you believe. This guy can erase lives with a click. Don’t cross him, cousin. Keep that nine-iron under your jacket.”

Eduardo shifted in his seat.  The gun was a reassuring weight against his side.

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

Carlos put the vehicle in park, shut the motor off, and got out.  Eduardo followed suit. Their steps sounded abnormally loud in the sudden silence as they walked up to the fence.

Three of the four men watched warily as they approached.  The fourth one took a step forward. A pale face jutted out from beneath a black hoodie sweatshirt.  The sweatshirt hung loose around a lean, slender frame.

“The package is up against the fence, twenty yards to your right,” he said, in a young, high-pitched voice. “Either of you can pick it up and verify I’ve delivered what you want. If it checks out, then you’ll pay the agreed amount. You will not exit the premises until we signal that we have counted the bills.”

“Fine. I’ll pick it up,” Carlos said.

Eduardo scowled at the hoodie-wearing figure.

“You’re just a kid.”

A pause. “The name’s Ti. And yeah, I’m a kid. A kid who scored you your shipment.”

Brave Writer did a terrific job with this opener. S/he has a firm grasp of POV and the dialogue is easy-going and natural, though at times it took me a moment to figure out who was speaking. Easy fix, which we’ll get to in a moment. Because Brave Writer has the basics down, this gives us a great opportunity to dive a little deeper into craft.

First, let’s compare Brave Writer’s dialogue with my favorite craft book for dialogue: How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell.

In Chapter 3, Jim gives us a checklist for what dialogue should accomplish.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Story Information.

But only reveal enough information for the reader to understand the scene. Everything else can wait.

Dialogue is sometimes the more artful way to reveal story information. But here’s the key: the reader must never catch you simply feeding them exposition!

Jim gives us his two top tips…

First, determine just how much exposition you really need. Especially toward the front of your novel. Here’s one of my axioms: Act first, explain later. Readers will wait a long time for explanatory material if there is solid action going on.

In fact, by not revealing the reasons behind certain actions and dialogue, you create mystery. That works in any genre. Readers love to be left wondering.

Second, once you know what you need to reveal, put it into a tense dialogue exchange.

In other words, hide the exposition within confrontation.

For the most part, Brave Writer succeeded in this area. But the punctuation causes confusion. For example…

“You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

For clarity try something like: “You know Hector Flores? [That dirtbag who] ran with Familia Michoacana.”

“What if I do?” doesn’t sound right to this particular reader. Simple and direct works best. Example: “That dude? Punk. He’s lucky I didn’t—”

“[Anyway,] he’s gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared. Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Rikers.”

Rikers Island has no apostrophe, Brave Writer. Do your research! It took me all of two seconds to confirm. Details can make or break a story.

Careful of run-on sentences, too. Example: “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Those are two sentences that should be separated by a period.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Character.

We can tell a lot about character by the words they use. Jim gives us another checklist to keep in mind.

  • Vocabulary: What is the educational background of your characters? What words would they know that correspond to that background?
  • Syntax: When a character does not speak English as a first language, syntax (the order of words) is the best way to indicate that.
  • Regionalisms: Do you know what part of the country your character comes from? How do they talk there?
  • Peer groups: Groups that band together around a specialty—law, medicine, surfing, skateboarding—have pet phrases they toss around. These are great additions to authenticity.

Did Brave Writer accomplish this task? Let’s find out… 

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

The vocabulary, syntax, regionalism, and peer groups are all represented. Yet, something still feels off. If we look closer, Eduardo’s dialogue works really well. It’s Carlos’s dialogue that needs a minor tweak. “That’s right” is too on-the-nose. A more natural response might be, “No shit. But get this.” The rest of this short exchange works well.

Quick note about nicknames. If “primo” is the name Eduardo uses for Carlos, then be consistent. Don’t use both, especially on the first page. After all, we’re inside Eduardo’s head. If he doesn’t think of Primo as Carlos, then the reader shouldn’t either while we’re in his POV. 

  1. Dialogue Should Set the Tone (and Scene) 

The cumulative effect of dialogue on readers sets a tone for your book. Be intentional about what you want that tone to be… First, the way characters react to their surroundings tells us both about the location and the people reacting to it.

Brave Writer nailed this part. We know exactly where we are, and the tone is consistent. Great job! 

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Theme

Certainly, many writers do care about message, or theme. The danger in dialogue is to allow the characters to become mere mouthpieces for the message. This is called getting “preachy.” The way to avoid this is to place the theme into natural dialogue that is part of a confrontational moment. As with exposition, a tense exchange “hides” what you’re doing.

With such a small sample, it’s difficult to determine if Brave Writer accomplished this task or not. Just keep it in mind.

Aside from dialogue…

Sentence Variation and Rhythm

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

In this one paragraph every sentence begins with “The,” which dulls the image you’re trying to convey. By varying the sentences you’ll draw the reader into the scene. Let the writing work for you, not against you.

Example:

Carlos veered into the back-parking lot, and the Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble. Broken windows, boarded-up doorways, the headlight’s cast cylindrical spheres across the skewed faces of four men huddled next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. A chain link fence acted as an enclosure to keep this deal from going south—no one could escape unnoticed.

It’s still not great, but you get the idea.

Also, don’t rely only on sight. Add texture to the scene with smells, sounds, touch, and taste. Could there be a harbor bell in the distance? What might that sound like to Eduardo? Is he nervous and chews on his inner cheek to the point where blood trickles onto his tongue? Drag us deeper into the scene by forcing us into that Bronco.

Clarity

We never want the reader to wonder who’s speaking. An easy way to fix this is to move the dialogue up to the cue.

So, instead of this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Try this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster. “This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest. We just gotta push him.”

Or simply substitute “Eduardo” for “he.”

This raises another issue, though.

Would Eduardo really notice the sunlight gleaming off his gun as he’s holstering the weapon? Not likely. Remember Jim’s #2 tip: Dialogue Should Reveal Character. What I’m sayin’ is, you need a better opening line. We’ve discussed first lines many times on the Kill Zone. Check out this post or this one. For scene structure tips, see Jim’s Sunday post.

I better stop there. All in all, I think Brave Writer did an excellent job. The characters are real and three-dimensional, the tone is dark and pensive, and the dialogue keeps the scene active. I’d definitely turn the page.

The question is, do you agree? How many of you would turn the page to find out what happens next? What did you like most? How might you improve this first page even more?

9+

First Page Critique: The God Glasses

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Please enjoy the first 400 words of “The God Glasses” from an anonymous submitter. I’ll have my critique after the excerpt. Please contribute constructive criticism in your comments.

***

Ella raced up the stairs as fast as her twelve year old legs could carry her. She had one objective, the same one every time—to escape the terror. She stopped mid-way and listened to her mother scream at her father.

“You never listen to me! You’re buried in your work, your motorcycle, or your sports. We wait for you to come home, but you never do. When you’re here, you’re somewhere else. Why don’t you just go away and never come back? Wouldn’t be much of a change—”

A slap and a heavy fall. Mama moaned—a pitiful sound, Ella thought. Her fists balled up at her sides, her legs shook.

She crept back down to the landing and peered over the railing into the kitchen. Daddy picked Mama up by the hair and backed her tight against the wall, his other hand knotted on her breastbone, pushing cruelly. He towered over her smallness, tattooed muscles bulging under his sleeves, face mere inches from hers. He wrenched her head back, forcing her to look up.

Mama’s wide eyes met hers. She blinked and a tear wetted her bruised cheek.

Ella gripped the rail. It creaked.

Daddy jerked his head up and smiled. He moved his hand from Mama’s breastbone to her throat and leaned in, thrusting his mouth next to Mama’s ear.

“You watch your mouth or I just might leave and never come back!” he screamed. Pulling back, he said, “What would happen to you and the girl if I left? How would you like that—to have to go and beg for help from that old woman up the street? Yeah, I thought not. So straighten up. I’m going out.” He snapped her head back. She fell again with a crash, upsetting the small side table which held his liquor and glasses.

“Clean that up before I get back,” he bellowed.

“Clean it up yourself, you pig—”

Ella ran, long dark hair streaming behind her. She stumbled on the top stair and fell to her face. She picked herself up, raced to her bedroom closet, and yanked the door open. She backed into the corner and sank to the floor, hands tight against her ears.

After Daddy leaves, I’ll go see Grandmother. She’ll tell me again about her God glasses. Maybe she’ll let me wear them.

She rocked back and forth, recalling better times.

***

FEEDBACK

First impressions, I like this author’s voice and the clear concise writing with visual imagery. Good use of the senses. On the surface, there is plenty to get drawn into with Ella. I like that the author stuck with the actions of the domestic violence scene and didn’t stray into backstory or an explanation. I’m rooting for Ella and love that the author has told the story through a twelve-year-old girl’s eyes. Domestic violence through a child’s eyes can be more powerful. Readers will want to protect her, but this first scene feels rushed for the sake of action. Violence like this should be more emotional, especially from a kid’s eyes. Make us feel Ella’s fear and helplessness.

We have clean copy and a solid start, but let’s dig deeper from a bird’s eye view to see how we can strengthen this scene.

ANOTHER OPENING SUGGESTION – The author has a choice to start with action (as in this case) or ground the reader into Ella’s world before the violence happens and build towards it. Anticipation can milk the tension in ways this action opening can’t. Would readers relate to Ella more if they got a taste of her world before the shocking inevitable happens? Should the author build toward a mounting dread that her father will be home or he’s late and both mom and daughter know what that means (without telling readers)?

In this opener, it’s my gut instinct when dealing with a young protagonist to show her world in a short punchy beginning that doesn’t slow the pace. Make every word count and build on what will happen with hints of foreshadowing. As much as I like the action in this opener, I can see how an unexplained growing tension between a mother and daughter can pique a reader’s interest more. Have Ella rushing to finish her homework from the safety of her small bedroom and not quite get it done because her mother yells for her to come downstairs to set the table. That would allow the reader to know what kind of mother she is before everything erupts.

Ella and her mother look at a clock ticking on a wall. When they hear boots climbing stair outside, they tense and wait for the door to open. He steps into the small apartment and he reeks of alcohol. Have Ella read her mother’s cues. Both women know what’s coming. How do they each react? Have patience for the scene to erupt and build on the natural tension.

In this current scene, Ella’s mom aggressively goes after the angered dad and puts Ella in danger. That makes both parents look bad. Is that the intention of the author? I don’t know. Let’s talk about character motivation.

CHARACTER MOTIVATION – This feels like violence that has happened more than once. If Ella’s mother is a battered wife, why would she taunt this man into beating her? She’s overly aggressive with someone who will punch her in the face and put her daughter in danger. It doesn’t feel natural, from a motivation standpoint. If the author would show more of how this anger is triggered and how the reactions would flow, the violence would be more grounded for the reader.

Also, Ella runs scared up the stairs, but turns around and comes back to watch. That feels like a cheat to the reader, to get them into the race up the stairs, only to deflate the tension by having Ella retreat. I can totally see a young kid who might want to protect the mom, stick around to watch. But that’s not how this began.

Make the reader understand why Ella might have a reason to protect the mom. By a slower build toward the violence, we could get a glimpse into Ella’s personality. Is she feisty or a beat dog? Is she ready to fight when her mother isn’t? Ella’s character motivation could be more interesting in this opener.

As a reader, I’m questioning character motives. The author should have patience to let the reader know the hearts of these characters. Contrivances (for the sake of action and tension) don’t allow the reader to buy into the story.

DIALOGUE – There are two long dialogue groupings – the first one when the mom goes after the dad. The second comes when the dad yells back. Because these are grouped together, they feel contrived and forced. Arguments, especially when there is violence, they are more believable if there is an exchange with shorter lines. Let the action ratchet up the tension and have the dialogue be punchy and shorter. More natural.

Have the dialogue get louder. Maybe have a neighbor yell and pound the thin wall, “Shut up or I’ll call the cops.” Then finish with the violence that will stop both parents. I can see him yelling down at her as she struggles to stay conscious.

“See? You drive me crazy. You always ask for it.”

RESEARCH – Abusers often blame their victims. It wouldn’t hurt to research the psychology behind domestic violence. Good research on motivation will add authenticity. Although there are lots of good books on the subject, I often look first at online articles on any given topic. These type of articles can inspire ideas on how to add impact to a scene. Here is a link to “The Psychological Wounds of Domestic Violence.”

COMBINE THE YELLING LINES? The long diatribe has the potential of losing the interest of the reader if it’s lumped together, without much grounding. Below is an example of breaking apart the dialogue groupings and combine them, with tensions escalating toward his first assault on her.

“You never listen to me!”

“Watch your mouth.”

“You’re buried in your work, your motorcycle, or your sports. That’s what matters to you. Not us.”

“Give me something to come home to. Look at you. You’re a mess.”

“Why don’t you just go away and never come back? Wouldn’t be much of a change—”

“Oh, yeah. What would happen to you and the girl if I left? How would you like it if you had to beg for help from the old woman? You don’t know how to make it alone.”

“Being alone is better than being with you.”

“You ungrateful pig.” (He strikes her)

WHAT WOULD ELLA DO? – What options does Ella have as a twelve-year-old child? Even if you didn’t change this scene much, I wondered what was going through Ella’s mind as she sat at the top of the stairs and watched her dad beat her mother. She must be in agony. I wanted the author to show the conflicts that must be raging through her. For Ella to sit on the stairs, without lifting a finger to call police or help her mom, that did not feel normal.

If you have the neighbor call the cops, the sirens could be wailing before he storms out, leaving Ella and her mom to deal with the aftermath. Ella would want to see if her mom is okay, wouldn’t she? Would she try to stop her father? The combination of Ella crying and fending off the old man, along with the cop sirens coming, could be enough to make the wife beater leave. But Ella running to hide in her closet, without checking on her mother, doesn’t seem heroic.

That’s why it matters to build on Ella’s world, even a little. A stronger foundation gets the reader in the girl’s corner from the start. We get a glimpse into her home life and how she feels toward her mother and father.

TITLE – I’m not sure what God’s Glasses have to do with the story. I like the title but I’m not sure why yet. It piqued my interest, but don’t rush to have Ella thinking about the old woman and God’s glasses. That feels like a contrivance for the sake of having a better opening scene cliffhanger. Be patient as the story unfolds. I’m sure there is something magical about God’s Glasses and Ella.

SUMMARY – This is the kind of story that would make it through a writer’s group reading with flying colors. It’s clean copy and there’s a lot to like about it. But as I read this strong opening, I had questions in my mind. Character motivation is a big one. Make it believable and real. Then ask yourself, is there a better way to start this? I don’t know if Ella will be a main character. I presume so, given the title, but it’s doubly important to have the reader think favorably of her from the first page. Or at least, be intrigued enough to turn the page. Have patience to portray your character. I normally love to start with action. Many of us do, here at TKZ. But with this opening, I thought a more deft hand in Ella’s portrayal was needed. What do you think, TKZers?

DISCUSSION:

Let me know what you think of this story, TKZers. I’m pretty sure we would all turn the page of this story, but what would you do to make this intro stronger?

Do you have different ideas on how to make this opening stronger?

Are there relationship elements between Ella and her parents that would enhance this scene?

 

5+

5 Key Ways to Balance Internal Monologue with Pitfalls to Avoid

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Attribution – Niki K (Wikimedia Commons)

John Gilstrap had an excellent post yesterday on Internal Monologue that resonated with me. He gave great examples of what works and what may not, with explanations on his sage reasoning. He certainly gave me things to think about in my own writing.

I tend to write in deep POV and very tight, with sparse narratives. This is especially true when I write my novella length stories for Kindle World, which is a great exercise in writing a tight plot and keeping the pace up.

In my full novels, I reign in my internal monologue and make it focused, with the character having a journey from beginning to end of the book, as well as a journey even within each scene, so I don’t repeat the deep POV thoughts.

On the FOR WRITERS resource on my website, I have a post titled – START WITH A BANG. If you scroll down to the “Ever thought about building an onion from the inside out?” sub-heading, you’ll find a section on how I let dialogue be the starting framework and how I layer in elements to fill out a scene. Internal monologue is vital to establishing my character’s journey and emotional growth and it’s something I focus on a great deal – even when I do my final draft read – but it’s the last thing I add to any scene, because I want to control it and isolate the journey to avoid pitfalls.

Despite my own methods, I greatly admire writers like Michael Connelly (particularly his Bosch series) where his mastery of his character’s internal views feel so authentic of an experienced war weary cop. He effortlessly brings in Bosch’s personal relationships and his workload to give a 360 view of this man’s life. That’s not an easy thing to do. It requires an intense knowledge of his character Bosch.

No matter how a writer learns how to craft internal monologue, it is easily one of the areas an author can veer off course and overuse…or under use, for that matter. Have you ever read a book that is all action, devoid of emotion or insight into the character’s internal battle and conflict? This is definitely a balancing game to get internal monologue to enhance your writing and make your stories memorable for readers.

Key Points to Finding the Right Balance for Internal Monologue:

1.) DIALOGUE – If you see your narrative paragraphs stretching out onto the page in weighty clumps, look for ways to make your internal monologue lean and mean by use of dialogue. This is something I have to pay attention to, even with my sparse style. Clever dialogue is a challenge, but it can be so much fun to write.

Plus, effective dialogue can help you pace your novel and tease the reader with red herrings or mystery elements, and not a plot dump of internal thoughts.

2.) LESS IS MORE – It’s easy to get carried away with every aspect of a character’s POV. The reader doesn’t need to know every logical argument for their action or inaction. People don’t think like this, especially in the heat of the moment in an action scene.

Have patience to let the story unfold. Too much internal thought can dry up pace and bore readers. The reader doesn’t need to know everything, especially all at once in a dump.

Also be careful NOT to repeat the same thought over and over. Repeating internal strife does not constitute a journey. It only reminds the reader that the author is searching for different ways to describe the same thing. Oy.

3.) TIMING – pick your spots when internal monologue makes the most sense. James Scott Bell wrote a great post on What’s the Deal on Dreams in Fiction where he talks about starting a novel with a character in thought, no action or disturbance. Resist the urge to bury your reader in internal monologue right out of the gate.

In addition, if your character is in the middle of a shoot out, that would not be the most opportune time to share his feelings on getting dumped by his girlfriend, not even if she is the one shooting at him. (Although I would love to read a scene like that.) To make the danger seem real, stick with the action and minimize the internal strife until it’s logical for the character to ponder what happened after.

Plus, if you spill the exposition too early, the reader won’t retain it as well as if you had waited for the right timing, when the reveal would be most effective.

4.) SHOW DON’T TELL – Once you get into the quagmire of telling a character’s POV, it’s too easy to get carried away with the rest of your book. If you can SHOW what a character is feeling, and let the reader take what they will from the scene, you will leave an image nugget that will stick with them. TELLING doesn’t have the same impact.

5.) ACTION & DIALOGUE DEFINE CHARACTER – These are the two areas where readers will most remember a book. Unless you’re into author craft and can appreciate the internal monologue finesse of John Gilstrap and Michael Connelly and many other author favorites, you probably may not remember how effectively the author used internal monologue. It’s like the color black. It goes with everything in such a subtle way that you may not notice it.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What tips do you have to share on how you handle internal monologue in your own writing?

2.) With the key points I listed above, do any of them pose a particular challenge for you?

3.) Name a recent book you read where you noticed the author’s deft handling of internal monologue. (I would love to expand my TBR pile.)

10+

With Help from Jeffery Deaver, Let’s Rock This First Page Critique!

Posted by Sue Coletta

Greetings, TKZers! Another brave writer has submitted a first page for critique. Rather than nitpick, I’ve approached this one a little differently. My comments are below. Hope you’ll weigh in too.

1st Page Critique

 

“Coming Home”

“Did I tell you I knew your father?”

John put on his best fake smile and nodded. “Yeah, you mentioned it when I first came in. You played football together?”

Ralph continued, “Yeah. Hank was one hell of a lineman. In our senior year against Haynesworth, he knocked their quarterback six feet into the air and…”

John couldn’t help but tune out. He’d heard the stories of his dad’s glory days retold hundreds of times with varying degrees of exaggeration. It happens when you live in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. It’s even more common when your father died becoming a local hero. It was bad enough when he was a kid, but ever since John returned home after flunking out of college last month he ran into people every day who felt the need to explain their connection to his father. He knew the story of every guy his dad had ever met or arrested and every woman he dated in high school. He just didn’t expect it during a job interview.

“…the refs decided we would get the point, the crowd went crazy. That victory carried us through the rest of the school year, but I don’t think that quarterback ever walked right again.”

John struggled to picture the large man sitting across the desk playing football. He couldn’t imagine this guy lifting anything heavier than a bowl of gravy since his beet-red face was sweating from the exertion required just to have this conversation. The man had to have had help squeezing his butt between the arms of that old wooden office chair which creaked horribly every time he moved.

John pushed to get the conversation back on track. “Pops, ur…sorry, Poplawski said you were looking for someone to start immediately.”

“The sooner, the better. Jim just walked out on us. No notice or nothin’. He came back from his shift one day last week and took his uniform off right here in this office. Said ‘this job doesn’t pay enough for this kind of shit,’ threw his clothes on the floor and drove home in his skivvies. Can you believe that? Left me in a pinch. I had to go out on his calls for the rest of the week.”

* * *

Overall, I liked this piece. Loved the voice too. With a few tweaks, I think this could be a strong first page. Brave Writer has given us a peek into the main character’s background without resorting to a huge info. dump. Paragraph four dances on the edge, but not so much that it pulled me out of the story. We have a sense of who John is and some of the difficulties he’s had growing up in his deceased father’s shadow. Life in a small town isn’t easy, and that’s clear.

I’m a sucker for snarky characters, so I loved this line:

He couldn’t imagine this guy lifting anything heavier than a bowl of gravy since his beet-red face was sweating from the exertion required just to have this conversation. 

It may read better if you broke it into two sentences, but I’d rather concentrate on the bigger picture.

What this first page is missing is a solid goal, something the MC needs to achieve more than anything. Sure, he’s applying for a job, but it doesn’t seem like he cares if he gets it. Why, then, should the reader care? Our main character must be in a motivated situation with an intriguing goal or problem to overcome.

The writer may want to save this piece for later in the story, even if it’s used on page two or three, and instead draw us in with a more compelling goal. Or, show us why this job interview is so important to John. Without the job, will he lose his house? Not have food? Is he trying to escape this small town for some reason?

Also, I’m not a fan of opening with dialogue unless it’s used for a purpose. For example, to raise a story question or to intrigue the reader. Dialogue, especially when used as an opening line, needs to sparkle (I’ll show you what I mean in a second). Without context and grounding, we risk disorienting the reader.

Let’s look at an example of dialogue that works as a first line and adds conflict to the entire first page. Maybe it’ll help spark some ideas for you.

The following is from The Burial Hour by Jeffery Deaver. For clarity, my comments are in bold, the excerpt italicized.

“Mommy.”

“In a minute.” 

Bam! Right off, we feel the tension mounting. 

They trooped doggedly along the quiet street on the Upper East Side, the sun low this cool autumn morning. Red leaves, yellow leaves spiraled from sparse branches.

Mother and daughter, burdened with the baggage that children now carted to school.

In five sentences the author has grounded us in the scene. We’re right there with the characters, envisioning the scene in our mind’s eye. Without even reading the next line we can sense the urgency of the situation. Plus, we can already empathize with the characters.

Let’s read on …

Clare was texting furiously. Her housekeeper had—wouldn’t you know it?—gotten sick, no, possibly gotten sick, on the day of the dinner party! The party. And Alan had to work late. Possibly had to work late.

As if I could ever count on him anyway.

Ding.

The response from her friend:

Sorry, Carmellas busy tnight.

Jesus. A tearful emoji accompanied the missive. Why not type the god-damn “o” in tonight? Did it save you a precious millisecond? And remember apostrophes?

“But, Mommy.” A nine-year-old’s singsongy tone.

“A minute, Morgan. You heard me.” Clare’s voice was a benign monotone. Not the least angry, not the least peeved or piqued.

first page critique

Can you see why this 1st page works? The goal is clearly defined and the main character needs to achieve it. The snappy dialogue between mother and daughter creates conflict. The voice rocks, and the scene hooks the reader. We need to read on in order to find out what happens next. More importantly, we’re compelled to turn the page. Questions are raised, questions that need answers. And that’s exactly what a first page should do. Don’t let us decide whether or not we want to turn the page. Grab us in a stranglehold and force us.

Over to you, TKZers. What advice would you give to improve this brave writer’s first page?

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A Bear Won’t Eat What A Bear Can’t Smell: When Real Life Provides the Dialogue

 

(purchased from IStock)

I’m currently living in the limbo that inspires fear and loathing in many writers, and drives others to query random Magic 8 Balls with the seriousness of a sugar-drunk eight-year-old at a slumber party: I have a manuscript on submission. For the sake of my sanity, let’s step away from the constant checking of email, the extra glass of wine after dinner, and the cold-sweat certainty that there should have been One More Edit before it went out.

So, tell me things, please. Specifically, I want you to think about the sayings you have in your family. They might be well-known sayings, or something you and your siblings picked up from a long lost television episode that stuck with you for whatever reason. Or it might be a saying whose origins are lost to history, but you still use it. These sayings don’t necessarily have the gravitas or moral spin of an aphorism, but when you use colorful or shocking or sweet sayings occasionally and appropriately in your dialogue, they immediately give your reader important information about your characters.

I’ll start. Here are some that show up again and again in the Benedict family, or came from my childhood:

People in hell want ice water. (my dad)

Smooth move, Ex-Lax. (also my dad)

Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite. (my mom)

We like the moon, because it’s close to us. (this video is at least 10 years old)

Biggie fries, biggie drink. (no comment)

Pretty makes up for bad. (this showed up around the time my daughter was five)

Pretty is as pretty does. (this one gives me the same hives it gave me when was five)

Does a bear poop in the woods? (dad, again)

Is the Pope Catholic? (yep, dad)

A bear won’t eat what a bear can’t smell. (from a Saran Wrap commercial–could only find the ad with a tiger)

Measure head size before ordering. (appropriate whenever, well, ordering something–I picked it up from an Elmore Leonard novel)

Same poop, different flies. (from husband’s family)

Cam down, Linwood. (MIL’s family–she said she has no idea where it came from)

Hold ‘er, Newt. She’s headed for the barn! (also from MIL’s family–she doesn’t know where this is from either. but I did find versions online)

Scratch your ass and get happy. (heard this at a family reunion–acquired it immediately)

These three came from workshop students:

It’s a poor ass rabbit that only has one hole. (meaning is fairly obvious)

You can’t look up a hog’s ass and tell the price of lard. (heh)

She’s a real Corinthian. (wish I’d written down the origin of this one–so many possible interpretations)

Your turn!

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Vital Craft Lessons for Every Writer

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased from iStock by Jordan Dane

Purchased from iStock by Jordan Dane

No matter what genre any of us write and no matter our individual author voices, there are key elements any author needs to develop and enhance with each new project. The craft of writing is something we all strive to improve with each new book. I’ve listed the broad brush strokes I believe are vital for every author to develop as they write. Let me know if I missed anything you’d like to add.

1. SETTING – Create settings as if they were characters – It’s a fine balance to have enough setting that it lingers in the mind of the reader and becomes an integral part of the story as if it breathed. But if too much detail is written, it can be skimmed by a reader. It’s vital to have the setting as seen through the eyes of the character in the scene, to reflect on his or her nature, but allow the reader only an enticing glimpse. Leave them wanting more and give them insight into your character while triggering imagery in their mind. In the excerpt below, I wanted the essence of the grisly scene on the page without crossing over into the horror genre.

Excerpt – The Last Victim

Ryker Townsend

As the terrain leveled out, a dense canopy of Hemlock and Fir trees towered over me and blocked the steel gray of an overcast sky as a fine mist dappled my FBI windbreaker and cap. I stopped and gazed toward the next rise. I didn’t have to ask how far the crime scene was. A circle of ravens and crows had gathered. Their black winged bodies cut across the gray sky like an ominous Hitchcock montage. The eerie echo of their squawks and their frenzied aerial acrobatics told me all I needed to know.

My body tensed and I emptied my mind to brace for what I’d see as I hit the crest of the hill.

It never failed. When I looked down to the clearing below, standing shoulder to shoulder with my team, a familiar twist hit my gut. I stared at the grisly work of the Totem Killer and forced myself to look beyond the shocking horror. Every severed limb was someone not coming home—a brother, a husband, a boyfriend, a son. The violation clenched my belly, but I owed it to each of the victims not to turn away.

I would have to speak for them now.

“Dear, God,” someone muttered.

A monolith of bloodied flesh stood fifteen feet high like a statue to be idolized. Dismembered legs, arms, and faces were tied to a tree to make a macabre tower. As exhausted as I was, my eyes tricked me into seeing severed limbs that twitched and slithered like entwined snakes under the circling cloud of ravens. When I blinked, the bodies stopped writhing and I let out the breath I’d been holding, but I’d gotten a taste for the dreams that would punish me later.

“We are your sons. We are your husbands. We are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off the bodies as I recited the quote.

“Who said that?” Crowley asked.

“Ted Bundy.”

I wanted to believe in God, but standing there, I couldn’t. With what I see, I don’t hear him anymore.

2. PACE – Avoid the minute-by-minute time line and understand pace – As the author, you are the teller of the story. You choose what will be told and in what order. Most novice authors feel the need to describe every moment in a character’s life in a timeline that doesn’t break, but a reader’s mind can fill in the gaps. Enter Late and Leave Early (ELLE) – I like to call this the Law & Order tip. That TV show created great pace by having it’s cast entering a scene at the moment something major happens and they leave early and leap to the next instant where a key plot point pulls the viewer along. It’s the same for writing a book. Every scene in a book should move the plot forward with 1-3 plot points. There should be a story arc within each scene (a beginning, middle and end) that entices the reader into the scene and progresses forward with hints of things to come. If you can write a foreshadowing detail to the end of the scene, your pace will keep the reader turning the pages. For more on pace and writing a page turner, here is a link to another TKZ post I wrote with more detail on the topic – TEN TIPS on Pace & Structure of a Thriller.

3. CHARACTER – Tease the reader with how your character looks but focus on what’s in your character’s head – I tend not to focus much on my character’s appearance. I’ve learned that, no matter how much you write details, readers have their own images in their minds and there’s nothing wrong with that. I hint at his or her appearance to reflect a key takeaway I want the reader to understand about them. But the most important takeaway the reader will have is their relationship with what’s inside my character–their values, attitude, humor, biases, what makes them tick, and why they are the star of my story. Below is an excerpt from The Last Victim where Lucinda Crowley describes Ryker Townsend, her boss. I try to be a purest when it comes to descriptions and have other characters doing the describing when it fits.

Excerpt – The Last Victim

 

He had a stare with equal parts intelligence, curiosity and passion. His eyes reminded her of the sweet richness of Chai coffee—the dark and unstirred bottom half of the glass—tinged with a warm drizzle of honey. Ryker had an amazing mind, but there was an intuitive side to his nature that blew her away. To hear him delve into the psyche of the killers they hunted—as if he could connect to them or understood how they hunted their victims—his low voice often gave her chills. Her respect for him had grown over the years and her attraction had only grown stronger, but Ryker had never given her an opening and she didn’t know if she could handle it if he did.

The guy had complex layers and secrets. She knew it, but he was also a one-way trip of the heart.

4. ACTION – Write heart pumping action – It’s not easy writing an action scene that escalates and keeps the reader turning the pages. Physical fight scenes could be skim material if it’s not done right. Too much detail of every balled fist and every jab could be tedious. A car chase could work on the big screen, but too much detail in a book could kill the momentum. A good and effective action scene must hold the reader’s interest by giving enough physical movement, without overdoing the details. Any action must be seen through the eyes of the protagonist in the scene to give the reader a vital anchor point. Below is an excerpt from Evil Without a Face. This scene is only the beginning of a longer action sequence that follows.

Excerpt – Evil Without A Face

Seconds.

Precious seconds.

The SUV barreled down on her, the engine revved. No more time.

Jess held her ground, the Colt Python clutched in her hands. The muscles in her arms taut, her grip solid. Adrenaline surged through her system like coiled lightening.

“Jess? Are you okay?” Seth’s fear stricken voice shot over her earpiece.

Without hitting her com switch, she held her concentration and muttered under her breath.

“Not now, Seth.”

Glare from the headlights nearly blinded her, but once the SUV got close, she could finally see. The bastard’s face came into focus through the murky haze of the windshield. That’s where she aimed—between his eyes. When Jess saw his sudden panic, she squeezed the trigger.

The Python bucked in her grip. Once. Twice. A fierce plume of fire streaked from the muzzle. Deafening blasts echoed down the alley, magnifying the intense explosions.

Her ears rang and muffled everything that followed as holes punched through the windshield with a weighty pop. The glass splintered, sending fissures across the once smooth surface. With one last measure of desperation, she aimed at his crankcase and let the Python do its worst. Baker collapsed behind the wheel and the vehicle swerved. It hit the wall to her right, spraying shards of brick. The shriek of metal stabbed her eardrums, rippling goose bumps across her skin. In a fiery display, sparks showered the air, a giant sparkler on the Fourth of July.

5. SUSPENSE – Build suspense with anticipation – Hitchcock believed suspense didn’t have much to do with fear, but was more the anticipation of something about to happen. When I read this, it was a huge epiphany for me. The idea changed how I thought about scenes and chapter endings. Be patient with building on suspense. Tease the reader with the anticipation of something bad about to happen and hold onto that moment as long as possible. Here is a link to an older TKZ post I wrote on 8 Key Ways to Edit Suspense & Pace into your Finished Manuscript.

6. DIALOGUE – Focus on dialogue to build on conflict – Put characters together who are at odds with each other. This could be two characters who speak differently because of their upbringing or they have very different personalities. Give them a distinctive voice to carry through your book, but when you add conflict between them, it’s like creating a chess match between two key players. To focus on the dialogue, try writing the lines first before you fill in the rest of the scene. Imagine what they would say to each other first and make notes as if you’re writing a script. Here’s a TKZ post I wrote on Writing Dialogue – Tips that gives more details and talks about my technique for focusing on the lines by writing them first. I describe it as “building an onion from the inside out.”

Excerpt – Tough Target

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but the next one who moves gets buckshot.”

Geneva held as still as stone, staring at her unwanted guests. When darkness fell over the cabin, she shifted her eyes toward the only window not boarded. A wall of rain blackened the sky and would soon swallow her neck of the glades and complicate things.

Photos of Sam in happier times hung on the walls and stared back at her. She gritted her teeth and clutched at the shotgun tighter, praying she’d see her boy again.

“Be careful where you point that.” Camila didn’t take her eyes off Geneva.

“Missy, I’m a crack shot. I learned a long time ago to just shoot. Whatever I hit, that’s where I was aiming. Guess you could say I never miss.”

“Is it my men who scare you?” Camila asked. “I can ask them to wait outside.”

The woman kept her voice low and calm. Her eyes never blinked.

“I like ‘em right where they stand. A cottonmouth slitherin’ through the grass is still deadly, even if you can’t see the damned thing,” Geneva said. “You best get to speakin’ your mind, or you can leave.”

“Very well, if you insist.” Camila narrowed her eyes. “Perhaps you would deliver a message to your son.”

The approaching storm darkened the room and shadows played tricks on Geneva’s eyes when they appeared to move. As the mounting winds intensified the rain that pummeled the cabin, the noise and the thick humid smell made her edgy. She gripped the shotgun tighter.

“You picked a fine time to call. Couldn’t your message wait?”

“I’m afraid not. I’ve waited long enough.”

 

For Discussion:

1.) What writing tips have worked for you? Please share.

2.) What craft topic do you struggle with?

RedemptionForAvery_highres

Redemption for Avery now available – Susan Stoker’s Special Forces: Operation Alpha – Amazon Kindle Worlds – $1.99 ebook. While FBI Profiler Ryker Townsend investigates the shocking slaughter of a seventeen-year old girl, the tormented soul of another dead child—the murdered little sister of SEAL Sam “Mozart” Reed—appears to Ryker in broad daylight, drawing Ryker and Mozart into a more sinister conspiracy.

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