Ways to Add Humor into Suspense – First Page Critique: WOW

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

I have another first page critique. An anonymous author has submitted their first 400 words for critique at TKZ. It takes guts, folks. My feedback is below and please comment with your observations.

***

I levered the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay and a bullet slammed into my back. Below the right shoulder blade. More to the center. That difficult spot where if you’ve got a rash or insect bite it’s impossible to scratch and not look like you’re having a spastic seizure. If I knew this was the night someone was out to kill me I would have brought something up from the cellar that was more unique than a domestic Chardonnay, even though it had a pleasant balance of oak to it. There was that Nieto Senetiner Malbec from Argentina, I was holding for a special occasion, for example.

Anyway, the chard went flying, the bottle hit my hardwood floor, didn’t break, the amber liquid flowed out. As for me, the impact of the slug jolted me forward. I tripped over my feet and did a full body slam on the deck.

There I was, face down, flat on a hard wood floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps crunch their way over to me. We’re talking serious, heavy duty, outdoorsman leather soles here. All I was grateful for at this point is that I still wore my bullet proof vest from work. No, I’m not a cop, not a private dick sort of guy, no security guard, ex-military or something like that. I worked in a dentist’s officer. Name’s
Wowjewodizic, by the way.

I stayed still, bit the inside of my cheek to distract me from the pain in my back and waited. Waited for the, what’s it called, the ‘coup de – something or other,’ where the bullet enters the back of the skull and you don’t care where it goes next because you’re dead.

Then it occurred to me, this guy, or gal, probably not likely due to the heavy feet, didn’t use a silencer. This was a full on, make-a-lot-of-noise, gunshot. He wasn’t concerned about the blast drawing attention from the neighbors. Then again, my nearest neighbor was three miles away. And it was raining. It does that a lot in Portland, Oregon.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW: This story feels like a cozy mystery with liberal use of humor through the first person voice of the protagonist. in this scene, someone is shot and yet I don’t feel any danger. In the first few lines, the reader learns the protagonist is shot and yet there is far more importance placed on the awkwardness of an insect bite.

I levered the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay and a bullet slammed into my back. Below the right shoulder blade. More to the center. That difficult spot where if you’ve got a rash or insect bite it’s impossible to scratch and not look like you’re having a spastic seizure.

The author voice detracts from any suspense. If the point is the humor, I would think a whole book would make it a challenge to get through, at least for me. I want a plot to follow and characters I care about when they’re in real danger. In suspense/mystery/thrillers, I prefer a more subtle use of humor. At the foundation of every story needs to be a solid plot with escalating stakes and conflict.

STICK WITH THE ACTION – The action of the protagonist getting shot is completely masked by the mental meanderings of the voice, making leaps between wines, insect bites, the gender of the shooter by how weighty the footsteps are, and Portland weather.

In this intro, there’s a seesaw effect of telling a bit of the story, then wading into a distraction of backstory or awkward asides told through the voice of the character. It gave me the feeling of constantly treading water until I’m exhausted, trying to figure out what the story is about. When distractions outweigh the plot, a reader can lose track of the plot and not finish a book.

SETTING – There’s very little setting written into this excerpt and it takes awhile for the reader to piece together where the protag is. A wine cellar is mentioned, but it’s not until the protag mentions “my hardwood floors” that the reader sees he could be at his home. There are subtle ways to add setting without hindering the pace if the descriptions are part of the action. As a reader, I like to get a feeling for setting in books I enjoy.

LINES BEST USED IN DIALOGUE – The line below is an example of how the author could have stuck to the action of the shooting, yet gotten the humor across through dialogue with another character. Witty repartee with a detective, for example, would allow the author to pepper in humor without overdoing it.

If I knew this was the night someone was out to kill me I would have brought something up from the cellar that was more unique than a domestic Chardonnay, even though it had a pleasant balance of oak to it.

FIRST PERSON/GENDER & RAMBLING NARRATIVE – It’s not until this line (toward the end of the 3rd paragraph) that the reader knows the protag is a man–only 3 words. As a practice, I like to get the gender straight at the start whenever I write first person. I love the intimacy of that voice, but there are challenges to it. In the case of this excerpt, I think the author absolutely listened to the protag and wrote down every word they heard in their head, but in first person, you have to direct the action and what you want revealed about your character. It’s too tempting to ramble away from the plot.

No, I’m not a cop, not a private dick sort of guy, no security guard, ex-military or something like that.

RUN ON SENTENCES – I found these sentences hard to follow and the punctuation bothered me. I understand the need to write quicker thoughts in an action scene, but I don’t consider this an action scene with all the asides and random thoughts that detract from the flow. The author might consider breaking these sentences apart. Rather than one long sentence, it could make the writing flow better and improve the natural cadence.

There I was, face down, flat on a hard wood floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps crunch their way over to me.

REALISM – I found it unbelievable that the protag would lay there and wait for the shooter to finish the job, while he’s trying to figure out ‘coup de – something or other,’ determine what gender has heavier footfalls, whether the shooter used a silencer, and the rainfall in Portland, Oregon.

TYPO – Unless this is an obscure job I’ve never heard of, ‘officer’ should be ‘office.’

I worked in a dentist’s officer.

USE OF HUMOR IN BOOKS

Many authors use humor in their suspense thrillers in various ways: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Janet Evanovich, Harlen Coben, Lawrence Block, Robert Crais, Elmore Leonard, John Sanford, to name a few. There are countless more who have found ways to add humor to their books. I’ve added an excerpt from one of Carl Hiaasen’s stories below. He and Janet Evanovich tip the scale more toward humor than suspense, but have developed a great balance and a loyal reader following.

Excerpt from Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl intro:

On the first day of February, sunny but cold as a frog’s balls, a man named Lane Coolman stepped off a flight at Miami International, rented a mainstream Buick and headed south to meet a man in Key West. He nearly made it.

Twenty-seven miles from Coolman’s destination, an old green Firebird bashed his car from behind. The impact failed to trigger the Buick’s airbags, but Coolman heard the rear bumper dragging. He steered off the highway and dialed 911. In the mirror he saw the Firebird, its grille crimped and steaming, pull onto the shoulder. Ahead stood a sign that said: “Ramrod Key.”

Coolman went to check on the other driver, a woman in her mid-thirties with red hair.

“Super-duper sorry,” she said.

What the hell happened?”

“Just a nick. Barely bleeding.”She held her phone in one hand and a disposable razor in the other.

“Are you out of your mind?” said Coolman.

The driver’s jeans and panties were bunched around her knees. She’d been shaving herself when she smashed Coolman’s rental car.

“I got a date,” she explained.

“You couldn’t take care of that at home?”

“No way! My husband would get so pissed.”

In this example, Hiaasen puts his serious minded characters in outlandish situations using his tongue in cheek humor to allow things to play out. He sticks with the action of a car crash (the disturbance) until the reader finds out what caused the wreck. The dialogue lines are funny, too. The humor is downplayed and yet very present and fluid. It’s how Hiaasen sees his story unfolding. His use of humor is subtle and becomes a thread that holds the story together and creates his author voice. The idea of placing very earnest characters into a complete farce, and yet allow them to confront things in a serious-minded way, it adds an element of the absurd that becomes funny.

WAYS TO ADD HUMOR

1.) Add a funny character, whether it’s the protag or a secondary character.

2.) Have your serious-minded characters confront absurd and escalating situations without seeing the humor themselves. They are facing life or death. Only the reader gets the joke.

3.) Know how to separate or add humor into a suspense/action scene. I recently wrote a scene where I didn’t expect there to be humor. My hero is in a shootout but he gets a cell phone call from a girl. What does he do? I wrote the scene all action, then came back to add in the moments where I thought he might realistically answer that call, without him looking silly or stupid. It gave insight into him and added unanticipated humor to a tense scene. I also underplayed the phone call and made it seem normal, until you see what he’s doing while he’s talking to her.

4.) Throw in the unexpected. Imagine your serious character getting jolted by something he or she never saw coming. How would they handle it?

5.) Develop witty banter between characters in conflict or dare to write characters with different kinds of humor. Pit an educated cynic up against someone with crude bathroom humor in a juxtaposition of character types. You’ll find these characters take on a life of their own in your head and it’s lots of fun to write. Making each voice distinctive in humor is key.

DISCUSSION

What do you think of the anonymous submission, TKZers? Any feedback?

 

5+

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.

10+

Balancing Action with Voice – First Page Critique of Urban Patriot

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Purchased image – Croco Designs for Jordan Dane website

Hello, my fellow TKZ warriors. I’m busy cranking on the daily word count of my next release, but I have, for your consideration, an anonymous submission from a daring author and member of TKZ. The first 400 word intro to: Urban Patriot. Enjoy and join me on the flip side for my feedback and please provide your own thoughts in your comments.

Urban Patriot

Choosing a side is dangerous, especially when it comes to politics and you’re African American from a Jewish background, that is, everybody wants to either recruit you or kill you for something. When I was getting high – on life – shit was easier, the only people interested in you were those like you unless they had their own plans which everybody in tinsel town had. One minute you’re relaxing with a naked woman’s bare legs laying on your lap and the next someone throws a stack of $100 bills in at you and says there’s more where that came from, you’re gonna love it.

Instead of letting me deal with my fate on the streets of Chicago, at 15, mom got spooked and sent me off to California to join the father I’d never met and who turned out to be a bigger jerk than the Chicago idiots I was sent away from. Which wasn’t half bad until the thrill of finally meeting him caused me to want to live with him. Grandfather and Mimi took me in where we had a small swimming pool, my own bedroom, and took me on vacations with them. Hell, I even had an allowance. Quite a step-up from sharing a 3-bedroom apartment with five siblings, a single mom, and abusive step-father.

Dr. Anita Daniels, my uncles and aunts American Socialist Party affiliation’s caught my attention like a shiny new car and what they stood for was everything I’d felt being a Black Jew living in America. Working Socialist political campaigns and African American activist activities taught me a lot, to stand-up for myself and expected the worse from people. Encounters with White Supremacists, the police, and Politicians broaden my horizons to the point of rage and cunning calm.

In a sense, I guess my past prepared me for a life of risks, questionable alliances and an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Especially when my wife was shot and left for dead at the airport terminal as we arrived stateside from a five-year extended stay in the Middle East, I wanted nothing more than to personally smoke that bastard of New President and burn his administration to ground. But that opportunity would come much later if only I’m I am strong enough to do it.

“Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded as I leaned over the counter asking the clerk “where is she, is she alive” “I am sorry sir, I don’t have that information” the clerk replied.

“We must leave now Mr. Anderson; your accommodations are waiting” The agent snapped. “This is bullshit” I snapped back, “I’m going anywhere until you I get some information about my wife.” “We’ll explain everything to you later, but you’ll never know unless we get going.”

The agent was already holding the glass door open as I turned toward him, stepping into the hall he whispered: “We’re all just a bunch of bureaucrats following orders – you know that.”

FEEDBACK

Overview – The strong edgy voice drew me into this introduction. It read like a diary and appeared to be set in an alternate reality or a future America. It intrigued me. But the submission starts with lots of backstory and ends with the action of what’s happening in this opening scene. Once I learned that a man’s wife had been shot and left for dead, I wanted to stick with the action. The question of why a federal agent is ushering him away and not telling him anything about his wife intrigued me far more than the backstory that could’ve come later to fill in the gaps as the story progressed.

Housekeeping – By now, you guys know how I feel about embedding dialogue within a paragraph, but this submission goes a step further and not in a good way. Dialogue is embedded and often lines from 2-3 different people.

Example of 3 different people talking in one short paragraph – “Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded as I leaned over the counter asking the clerk “where is she, is she alive” “I am sorry sir, I don’t have that information” the clerk replied.

There’s also very poor punctuation which drives me crazy. Missing commas at end of dialogue lines (ie “Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded), the use of double quotes where a single quote should be (ie “I don’t give a fuck” attitude), and missing punctuation like in the example above where there should be question marks (ie “where is she, is she alive” or the lack of a capital letter to start those questions.

Editors and agents would be turned off at seeing so many errors in the first 400 words. Don’t give them a reason to say NO.

Stick with the Action – The meatiest part of this intro was embedded inside a paragraph and almost treated too dismissively. The words ‘when my wife was shot’ should have been the focus.

In a sense, I guess my past prepared me for a life of risks, questionable alliances and an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Especially when my wife was shot and left for dead at the airport terminal as we arrived stateside from a five-year extended stay in the Middle East

This submission seemed flipped backwards to me, in that the action was toward the end after all the backstory. I would suggest focusing on the shock he must be feeling at seeing his wife hurt or dead, then don’t let him find answers as he’s dragged away by the agent. Below is my suggestion for a rewrite. I tried to stick with what the author had written, but just re-ordered it and added more of his shock at the start.

I had her blood on my face and my hands. I couldn’t get the image of my wife out of my head. They must’ve left her for dead at the airport terminal. That’s the only thing I could figure. One minute, we were on the tail end of a five-year extended stay in the Middle East, the next we were stateside. This should’ve been home. How could this happen…here? I wanted nothing more than to smoke that bastard of a new President and burn his administration to the ground.

“Follow me,” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded.

I had to know what happened. I leaned over the nearest counter and found a reservations clerk with enough sympathy to care.

“Where is she? Is my wife alive?”

The federal agent yanked my arm and forced me to keep in step as he hauled me through the gathering crowd.

“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t have that information,” the airline clerk called after me.

 “We must leave now, Mr. Anderson. Your accommodations are waiting.” The agent picked up his pace and dragged me with him.

“This is bullshit. I’m not going anywhere until I know what happened to my wife.”

“We’ll explain everything to you later, but we have to go. Now.”

The agent held a glass door open and pushed me through it. When I stood my ground and faced him, he whispered, “We’re all just a bunch of bureaucrats following orders. You know that.”

I clenched my fists and fought a blinding rage.

The way this story started, with the intimacy of a diary, makes me wonder if this intro could stand with the action of violence, but drift back to where it all began, like the way movies begin with something horrific and back into what led up to it. If that’s not this author’s intention, I would suggest peppering in the backstory later when appropriate. I really do like the edgy voice and the ‘tude.

Names Matter – A federal agent by the name of Kelly made me think this was a woman. It wasn’t until near the end that the author lets us know the agent is a man. This is a bit nit picky, but it jarred for me to realize I had a wrong image in my head. Also, if the name Kelly will be through the whole book, that is a lot of time for the reader to forget this is a man. I also fought with another famous name – Kelly Clarkson, the singer. Her name is too similar to Kelly Carlson, the agent in this intro. I would reconsider the name.

Read your work aloud – Even with the edgy voice, there is a flow and cadence issue and typos where it reads as if the author made changes but didn’t catch all the words. If you get in the habit of reading your work aloud, you will find areas where you stumble over the words. Those are lines you should consider revising to make them flow better. Here are two examples where reading aloud would’ve helped to catch the typos:

But that opportunity would come much later if only I’m I am strong enough to do it.

“I’m going anywhere until you I get some information about my wife.”

Use of tags in dialogue – I noticed these following a dialogue line – demanded, snapped, snapped back. A whole book of words to replace a simple ‘said’ can be distracting, but in Elaine’s recent post on “The Burning Question: He said, She said,” she makes a good case to minimize even neutral tags like the word ‘said.’

Setting – I wanted to know more about where this scene takes place. I can only assume it’s at an airport terminal but the writing is too sparse to get a good sense of where this happens, especially when it starts with a backstory that mentions Hollywood’s Tinsel town and Chicago. Setting can place the reader there and trigger images in their minds. It’s important to ground the reader into imagery that enhances the emotion or action of the scene. For example, if the federal agent has to whisk this guy away and dodge travelers hauling luggage or airport security rushing toward the place where the attack on his wife took place. This kind of setting or world description could add pace and emotion to what’s happening.

On Tuesday, P J Parrish had an excellent post on Your Story as Sculpture: What to Leave In, What to Leave Out. It detailed some solid information on sparse writing (similar to this submission) and how an author should think twice about what to delete and what to keep. Check it out.

DISCUSSION:

What was your reaction to this introduction, TKZers? Did it grab you? Would you turn the page?

Mr. January available in print now (210 pages). Ebook pre-order $2.99!

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

2+

White Space on the Page Can Be Your Friend – 1st Page Critique: A Pitying of Doves

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Forgive the blatant Prince/Purple Rain reference. After I read the first lines of this anonymous submission, I had purple on my mind.

Below is an anonymous submission for critique, the first 400 words or so of a project. Read & enjoy. I’ll give my thoughts on the flip side. Feel free to provide your constructive criticism in your comments. Let’s help this author with our take.

A Pitying of Doves
SATURDAY – July 14th, 2012…8:29 am

The delicate bird bobbed around in circles, oblivious to the hungry yellow eyes hidden within the greenery −a common Laughing Dove− it was searching for its own subsistence near the marble steps of the towering Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Latin name: Spilopelia senegalensis. On the fast track out of this messed up existence, Bertie thought, holding her breath and turning her D3x toward the ill-fated bird. Cha-click. Cha-click. Cha-click. Three-seconds. Three human heartbeats. It happened that fast. Death. Looking up over the top of the camera, she kept the shutter going as the lean, elegant feline blinked once in thanks before skittering off, prize in mouth, drops of blood trailing. Metaphor? Or prophesy? The pain in her gut said both as she swiveled the camera on its tripod back to the subject at hand. “Okay!” she shouted. Her assistant swung his arms about and stepped out of the frame as a burst of doves hit the air for her ravenous lens.

“You will get the perfect image I think,” said the Indian man breathlessly, scooping up the camera bag and preparing to follow her to another spot.

“It has to be perfect, Amir,” she said, still clicking, but thinking only of the killing that she’d been involved in three days ago. Murder. For the first time, she suddenly felt ill. “Khalas! That’s enough. I can’t do anymore.” She quickly abandoned her equipment for the parking lot and stumbled behind her silver Range Rover. The acrid smell of rubber and petrol made her eyes water as she held onto the bumper, pressing her black and white keffiyeh scarf across her mouth, trying to maintain her composure. Murder. The word ricocheted inside her skull. It thundered like an avalanche and threatened to bury her, just like they had buried him. “Necare,” she whispered, murder’s more attractive Latin equivalent. She usually found it soothing, translating words into the old language, perhaps because it took her back to her college years, back to a time of relative innocence. “Homicidium,” she went on, fist clenched against sternum, near panic as the tears came along with the realization that her virtue was lost forever. “What the hell have I done?”

FEEDBACK

Overview – I enjoyed the imagery of Bertie taking objective photos of a dove killed by a stalking cat. She merely observes and documents. The author eases the reader into why Bertie might view death differently. I also liked the reference “ravenous lens.” Very fitting. The last line intrigues me – “What have I done?” It makes me wonder what Bertie had to do with murder. The name Bertie seems like someone elderly and a very non-lethal person. Below are my suggestions for the author to consider:

1.) White Space & Flow – My first thoughts are to improve the use of white spacing on the page so the eye of the reader doesn’t get lost in what looks like weighty paragraphs they might skim. There are important imagery, plot details and dialogue embedded in these longer paragraphs that could be enhanced by merely showcasing them. Often, the reader’s eye looks for dialogue or (heaven forbid) they skim looking for dialogue if they see long paragraph’s ahead.

I’m a believer in steering the attention of the reader to important lines or showcasing a single line to emphasize something foreshadowing or important. I like shorter chapter lengths and using foreshadowing/cliffhanger techniques at the end of each chapter to keep the reader turning the page. I’m also suggesting the author use Bertie’s name sooner so the reader immediately knows whose head we’re in.

Here’s an example with only minor changes to tighten 1st paragraph:

Bertie spotted a delicate bird bobbing in circles, oblivious to the hungry yellow eyes hidden within the greenery. A cat searched for its own subsistence near the marble steps of the towering Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The common Laughing Dove was on the fast track out of this messed up existence.

Bertie held her breath and turned her D3x toward the ill-fated bird. Cha-click. Cha-click. Cha-click. Three-seconds. Three human heartbeats. Death happened that fast.

She looked over the top of the camera and kept the shutter going as the lean, elegant feline blinked once in thanks before skittering off, prize in mouth, drops of blood trailing. Metaphor? Or prophesy?

The pain in Bertie’s gut said both as she swiveled the camera on its tripod back to the subject at hand.

“Okay!” she shouted.

Her assistant swung his arms about and stepped out of the frame as a burst of doves hit the air for her ravenous lens.

2.) Stick with the Emotion/Show Don’t Tell – In the last long/weighty paragraph, I understand Bertie is haunted by something bad that happened. I wanted to see more of her emotion, but the clinical word translation drew me out of her head and I didn’t understand why. If this was meant to give insight into Bertie and the way she deals with things, the author must still show her emotional struggle to get the reader more invested. Perhaps her mind takes over (with the word game) while her body reacts to a dark memory, but if this is the case, it wasn’t as clear as it could have been. The author also “tells” rather than “shows” Bertie’s turmoil.

 
Here’s an example with only minor changes to tighten last paragraph:

“It has to be perfect, Amir,” she said.

Her fingers trembled as she took the shots and her stomach roiled from the memory of what happened three days ago. Hot bile rose in her belly until she thought she would throw up. She couldn’t lose it in front of Amir.

“Khalas! That’s enough. I can’t do anymore.”

Bertie abandoned her equipment and ran for the parking lot before anyone saw her break down. She stumbled behind her silver Range Rover, out of breath. Her eyes watered from the acrid smell of rubber and petrol–and something more. She held onto the rear bumper and pressed her black and white keffiyeh scarf across her mouth to stop from getting sick.

Murder. The word ricocheted inside her skull. It thundered like an avalanche and threatened to bury her, just like they had buried him.

With her eyes stinging with tears, she shut them tight to block out the images that haunted her. For days she hadn’t slept. Exhaustion had worn her down until her mind tortured her with a word game she hadn’t played since she was in college. The old language game used to soothe her. Not today.

“Necare,” she whispered, murder’s more attractive Latin equivalent. “Homicidium.”

Tears ran down her cheeks and wouldn’t stop. Bertie wrapped her trembling arms around her waist, breathing hard until her head spun. She’d crossed a line three days ago and lost the last of her innocence. How could she look anyone in the eye?

“What the hell have I done?”

Final Thoughts – All the elements are here in the submission, but by focusing on Bertie’s emotional state and showcasing certain lines, plot elements, and dialogue, this submission can become a smoother read without much effort.

Discussion: What do you think, TKZers? Please comment.

Mr. January available in print now (210 pages). Ebook pre-order $2.99!

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

7+

Publishing Trends to Watch in 2017

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Jordan Dane purchased image from Shutterstock

I’ve been involved in many “experiments” lately, like Amazon Marketing Services and Amazon Kindle Worlds. I plan to get more familiar with Kindle Unlimited with my upcoming release in Feb – Mr. January. Retaining my copyrights and self-publishing this book, I can explore more marketing tools to see how effective I can be. So I thought I would list some of these things to watch in 2017 as I see them. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on trends you see as important in 2017 or marketing efforts you have had success with. Join in the discussion in your comments.

Publishing Trends to Watch in 2017

Marketing Power of Digital – Print books are expected to continue a comeback in 2017, but for anyone publishing fiction, e-books drive sales and are easier to promote since social media and reader websites offer more economical ways to promote. Digital is the gift that keeps giving in that each book is on a forever shelf. Any author can recreate interest in a back list novel by repackaging the work with a new cover or new content or bundling as part of a box set. (See more on this below in “Over-crowded Digital Book Shelves.”) It’s easier for an author or publisher to focus marketing efforts in the digital arena since it’s cost effective and the exposure can be much greater, but with all the e-book competition, marketing strategies will be more important in 2017.

Small Presses & Savvy Self-Publishers are Growing – The larger traditional publishers market shares are dropping each year. Over 50% of the market share is comprised of self-publishing authors, small boutique publishers, and Amazon imprints. The challenge comes when trying to navigate this new sea of 50-percenters. Simply discounting an ebook or offering it for free won’t cut it. That makes marketing and visibility more strategic in 2017. Amazon is offering their Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) to smaller houses and indie authors. With sales stats to track the effectiveness of this AMS marketing tool, it is an easy way for authors to try it and see how it results in sales vs cost to promote.

Amazon Imprints Are Dominating – In 2016, 7 out of 10 Kindle bestsellers were from Amazon Imprints. Is there an advantage to selling a book to Amazon in 2017 when it comes to their sales ranking algorithms? I don’t know, but if anyone knows how to maximize visibility and preferential marketing spots on Amazon, it would be their own imprints, don’t you think? When traditional houses offer bare minimum of support to most mid-list authors, selling to Amazon feels like an author has a leg up on marketing and promotion when the buyer is an Amazon imprint. An Amazon imprint could give any author an edge in marketing strategy in 2017.

Kindle Unlimited Expanding – More readers in 2017 will be finding benefits to the Kindle Unlimited program and Amazon markets their program effectively. This growth trend will undoubtedly affect e-book sales and I’m sure Amazon will find more incentives for authors to try their program. I see this program expanding in 2017 to keep Amazon dominating.

Kindle KDP Select Enhancements Provide Better Outreach – If you are part of the Kindle KDP Select Program, where you publish only through Amazon for a given period of time, you are automatically enrolled in Kindle Unlimited AND the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) and will earn different enhanced royalties as incentive. The KDP Select program also provides for better royalties globally (70%) in countries like Japan, India, Brazil and Mexico. Plus authors can expand their outreach through Kindle Unlimited in the US, UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, India, Japan, and Australia. (My reader fans have complained that Kindle Worlds books aren’t available for distribution yet into their countries, but until that happens, any books I have through KDP Select is available to many of my readers.)

Over-crowded Digital Book Shelves – New e-books have to compete with the over-crowded digital shelves of digital books in 2017 that never go out of inventory. The good news is that there is endless space for digital books forever. The bad news is that authors must compete with a growing mass of books competing for readership. Don’t forget your back list, authors. Redesign your covers, obtain new praise blurbs or write new book jacket copy, get new reviews, and spend marketing dollars toward generating new interest in your tried-and-true back list. The bigger your inventory for a reader to “discover,” the more visibility you can achieve and your promo dollars can go a longer way.

Audiobook Market Is Growing – I haven’t focused on this enough, but with indie authors able to use ACX to create an indie audio book, it’s worth a shot to make your own audio book in 2017 (if you haven’t sold your audio sub-rights). It’s always a good thing to make your book available in as many formats as you can – plus you get to retain your sub-rights in audio.

Marketing Strategy Will Be More Important Than Ever – This is a tough one for me and my biggest challenge. I try new things all the time to stay effective. I’ve seen good and track-able success in Amazon Marketing Services, but there are other marketing tools, such as BookBub, Freebooksy, and Bargain Booksy. In 2017, continue to expand your marketing strategies and evaluate what is working and drop what isn’t.

Facebook Ads Declining – I’ve never been a fan of Facebook. Their ads might not seem too costly, but unless you have a good metric to establish whether these ads are truly effective and result in actual sales, it doesn’t matter how much they cost. Some authors have used FB ads to increase their mailing lists, but for actual book sales, I haven’t seen anyone who can analyze this. With Amazon Marketing Services being a better option, with sales data tied to the promo, it is a much better option.

Try Expanding Your Foreign Sales in 2017 – Part of anyone’s sub-rights are foreign sales. If you have an agent, they could be marketing this for you “a la carte” or your publisher might have gotten your foreign rights when you sold to them. These foreign sub-rights have value and a potential for growth. And if you’re lucky enough to get your back list rights returned to you, try marketing to international markets. Many international buyers love American authors. If you’re an indie author on Amazon, you would notice the foreign markets they list when you set up your book, but there are other international markets. An agent or broker might be able to enhance your sales by tapping into this resource. Some may take English language “as is” or they may require language translation, but they pay an advance for the rights. It could be worth exploring in 2017 to expand beyond US and UK readers.

Authors Find Safety in Numbers – In 2017, expect to see more authors banding together in projects where marketing and promo can be shared. Co-writing books and creating box sets can generate buzz. Authors have always been generous with other authors and it warms my heart to see this, but it also makes good sense. The best part of the Amazon Kindle Worlds books comes from the cross promotion of all the launch authors banding their efforts together. We share our readerships with all the other authors, but get a lot in return. The concept of the Kindle Worlds launches and cross-promotions is a real benefit for all authors involved.

Discussion:
1.) What trends have you noticed that you’d like to share with your TKZ family?

2.) What marketing tools have you tried and had success with? Please share.

Mr. JanuaryMercer’s War Book 1 coming Feb 2017 in print and ebook

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

 

5+

A Checklist For Writing A Great Ending

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I don’t always write a “happy” ending. In the romance genre, that’s called HEA, or happy ever after. My main goal is to stay true to my character(s) and motivation. The plot can spring from the flaws of a character or be influenced by those imperfections. Since I like conflict between my main characters, that can mean their happy ending doesn’t neatly happen by the end of the novel. I don’t want to force it or contrive an ending that doesn’t remain true to my character’s story arcs.

“Happy ever afters” are popular and even if you’re not a romance reader, a satisfying ending can be important, especially if it makes the reader feel good at the turn of the last page. But there’s nothing wrong with an ambiguous ending if it fits with your character and your world. An author writes the story he or she wants to tell.

A Checklist For Writing A Great Ending

1.) Tie up the loose ends – One of my final edit reviews is when I search for subplots and key elements to tie up to make a satisfying ending. If I introduced a DNA lab result earlier in the plot, did I bring the results in later? Are all my subplots resolved? Are all my character motivations justified enough? Nothing make a more hearty meal than a good, solid ending. Don’t leave loose ends.

Word of caution – Don’t tie up everything in one long character dialogue scene. This reminds me of the cheesy Charlie Chan movies or older Sherlock Holmes films where the hero regurgitates all the clues with answers. Try to be more subtle or break up the loose end tie-ins so it doesn’t feel too contrived. Another pet peeve of mine is the villain who feels compelled to answer all the detective’s questions on his motives, gloating. Break apart these disclosures and don’t turn your diabolical villain into a chatty girlfriend who wants to bear his or her soul. Find a more realistic way for these disclosures to come out in subsequent scenes when the investigators are closing their case.

2.) Restore the world even if it’s not perfect – Redemption at the end of a book can be good as well as uplifting. I like the idea of restoring the world that an author creates, but it doesn’t always have to be the same world. Crime affects people in a bad way and it radiates out like ripples on still water with many people affected—from the victim to the family survivors to cops investigating the case. Don’t be afraid to show the aftermath. A story can feel positive if the protagonist survives, but don’t be timid in portraying how much your character has been affected.

3.) Consider your series endings – There are many ways to end individual books within a series. You can have a major cliffhanger. You can hint or foreshadow something coming in the next installment. Or you can have each book end completely, yet have the growth and story lines of the characters weave a tapestry through your series. How an author develops a series (and the books within it) can be a conundrum. A key decision element might be if you plan on releasing each book back-to-back with a short period between book launches. Your readers won’t have to wait too long for each installment. But if you’re a new author and want a traditional house to consider your work to publish, unless the house is interested in buying the whole series, it might be better to write a more conservative ending without a major cliffhanger (in case the publisher doesn’t not buy the whole series).

4.) Do not clutter your ending with last minute conflicts – I would consider a last minute distraction or entanglement to be a cheat for the reader. When such a beast springs from the pages, a reader might sling your book at a wall with the contrivance. Give the reader an ability to solve the case on their own. They can’t do that if the author springs unexpected characters or plot twists that haven’t been introduced earlier. Many times I will have a certain twist in mind, but go back and lace in different clues in several spots so the reader can decipher the puzzle before the big reveal, but I never make it easy.

5.) Foreshadow a realistic future to come – If you don’t want to write a blatant romantic happy ever after, you can “hint” of a future for your characters. Often a forced romance or a contrived relationship can end with a marriage proposal that doesn’t “feel” real. But if the author foreshadows a more realistic relationship with the promise of a tomorrow, that might be enough for a reader to get the idea and feel positive about the ending.

 

6.) Stay true to your voice – If your author’s voice through the story is dark or starkly realistic, don’t explode pink glitter and unicorns all over your ending. A reader will feel betrayed by this. Whatever ending you choose for your character, make it realistic for the vibe of your book.

7.) Know your ending by genre or choose to be different – There’s always the exception to a general rule, but certain commercial genres have endings readers will expect. For example, an amateur sleuth will be expected to find who the killer is, or a romance relationship story will have the lovers together or with a future by the end. A thriller story will have the maniacal villain thwarted and the world restored. Not all successful stories follow this idea. I’ve written endings where the bad guy gets away with his crimes (Evil Without A Face & No One Left to Tell & No One Lives Forever), but if you dare to do this, you must have a reason (a potential teaser for a series) or a villainous character that the reader might accept such an ending.

8.) Don’t be afraid to explore ambiguous endings – If you’ve written a carefully plotted book that’s stays true to your character study, don’t be afraid to explore an ambiguous ending. A favorite book I read called The Piano Man by Marcia Preston is a women’s fiction book that has a realistic yet ambiguous ending. At first I wanted the ending to mean an HEA for the two main characters but that would’ve been a cheat. After I thought about it, the way it ended was perfect for the nature of the two characters and it was a beautiful story of two people whose lives crossed in a moment of tragedy. If the author gets the emotion right and the character motivation, there could be a variety of endings possible. Don’t be afraid to explore more than one ending that can add depth or a thought provoking conclusion.

 

Discussion:

1.) Have you ever written a forced ending that didn’t feel right to you? Did you correct it?

2.) What makes a good ending for you (as a reader or an author)?

3.) What are some of your favorite (most memorable) book endings? Were they happy endings or not?

5+

Put Your Setting to Work – First Page Critique – Unknown Rider

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

iStock image purchased by Jordan Dane

iStock image purchased by Jordan Dane

My last critique for 2016. I’ve enjoyed reading the anonymous submissions this year. We have some very talented authors following our blog. Thanks to all of you who participate with your comments and for all those brave souls who have submitted your work for our feedback. We all learn from the experience.

Enjoy UNKNOWN RIDER and I’ll have my feedback on the flip side. Please provide constructive criticism in your comments. Thank you.

***

Prologue

A narrow palm-lined alley led off the main boulevard to the boat docks. A warm front had blanketed the area with a thick overcast, obliterating the faint starlight on the moonless night. At one o’clock in the morning, the few functioning streetlights created a dimly lit gloom that made it hard to distinguish between the living and the nonliving as the tropical breeze animated palm fronds and various pieces of trash on the derelict street. It was still a quarter of a mile to the docks, but even at this distance the low-tide smell of spilled diesel fuel, dead fish, and decay polluted the air.

Frank Stodd walked quickly down one side of the pavement towards the water. He looked very much out of place in his dark suit and tie, but he hadn’t planned to be here. He had a growing suspicion that he had taken a wrong turn on the way back to the hotel, but he pressed on, looking over his shoulder every few seconds for the black Escalade. Then he patted the gun through his jacket for reassurance, and felt for the small package in his inside coat pocket. He was a large man, quite overweight, and in spite of the sea breeze blowing in towards the shore, he was sweating profusely underneath the stiff white collar of his shirt.

Maybe he could see the hotel when he got to the water at the end of the alley, he told himself. It was a well-lit high rise, after all, with a big red ‘Hilton’ on the side. There was too much at stake to blow it now.

They had seen him in the van outside the bar in old San Juan. He’d sped off immediately, cursing his bad luck, but they tailed him for several blocks. Finally, he lost them somewhere near his hotel, ditched the van, and continued on foot. The shortcut he’d taken past the marina and docks should have thrown them off. Yes, he was sure now that he’d lost them.

But against the wall of a building, well hidden in the shadows to Stodd’s left, was another man. In blue jeans and a t-shirt, he looked like anyone else you might see in the city, someone who had bubbled out of the melting pot of the Caribbean. He checked the cylinder of his revolver to confirm that it was fully loaded and wondered again whether the silencer screwed into the end of the barrel might affect the gun’s accuracy. But when he got a good look at the size of his target he decided it wouldn’t matter.

He raised the gun at arm’s length.

Stodd saw a flash from his left. There was a slight whooshing sound like someone had spit, the sledgehammer impact of the bullet, then he was lying on his side, his left arm and shoulder on fire. The pavement was cool in spite of the heat of the night, his vision blurred, and the pain took a back seat. He knew only that he was tired and wanted to rest. He closed his eyes.

FEEDBACK:

OVERVIEW – There are some gems in this intro. The author has a visual style and imagery is important. Often setting is overlooked, but not with this author. I like how he or she describes through use of the senses too. I can see Frank sweating as he lumbers through a shady part of town. But there is an issue with ORDER in this scene. The idea is to introduce a conflict and tension and build upon it, not deflate it. Below are some observations:

SETTING – The first paragraph is an author’s chance at establishing a voice. In this example, the author describes weather and setting without these elements being through any character. As much as I can appreciate a good setting, without a character seeing it, I tend to skim. I don’t even know where the description is supposed to be, other than it’s coastal and has palm trees and water. By mentioning San Juan and Caribbean much later, this appears to be Puerto Rico. Why not include a tag line to establish the location right away? That would make the setting an instant recognition for the reader and even establish a time of day. It’s best not to make the reader guess or have to reread because they thought the setting was somewhere else, like Florida.

REVISED START – I would consider starting with elements of paragraph 2. I like knowing Frank is out of place and uncomfortable where he’s walking. It makes me wonder what he’s up to, but make him sweat for more than weather. The example below is a rough draft and if it were mine I’d tweak it more, but I hope you get the idea. Getting into Frank’s head and the tension he’s feeling is the place to start.

Example – Frank Stodd picked up his pace as he walked toward the docks, looking out of place dressed in his dark suit and tie. He tugged at his stiff white collar with sweat trickling through his hair. Muggy heat turned the stench of low-tide into a vile smell of spilled diesel fuel, dead fish, and decay. He must’ve taken a wrong turn on his way back from the hotel and he kept glancing over his shoulder for the black Escalade. The small package he carried in his jacket pocket weighed heavy, pressed against his gun.

PUT YOUR SETTING TO WORK – Rather than start with a long first paragraph to establish setting, the author might consider peppering the heat and the stench and other sensory descriptions to add to Frank’s discomfort and tension. Make the setting work by using it to escalate the tension or messing with Frank’s head. I’ve incorporated some of the setting descriptions into the revised intro to exacerbate Frank’s situation and add tension. He’s a heavy man and he’s sweating, not only because of weather and where he is. He’s anxious over his situation, so an author can drop in setting through action to enhance the intended emotion for the scene, without slowing the pace.

USE of PROLOGUE – I’ve never had an editor say they wouldn’t buy something because it had a Prologue, but when you get authors together and they talk about perceived rules, they usually are not in favor of using Prologues. If a Prologue is used properly, where the inciting incident of a story begins earlier (ie Batman as a boy when he witnesses his parents murdered before he dedicates his life to fighting crime), then make it clear it’s a short segment that is the foundation for what comes. Lately, I’ve simply started on Chapter 1, even if there is an older inciting incident, because I use tag lines to establish the time and place. But I wanted to point it out, as I’m sure others might comment. I’m indifferent, but a Prologue should be used in the right way.

STICK WITH THE ACTION – Once a story has started with action, it should stick to that action and not vacillate from what’s happening to drift away from it. The idea is to BUILD on tension and not deflate it. In the short paragraph that starts with “Maybe he could see the hotel…” – this deflates the tension established when the reader sees Frank is in trouble. He thinks of getting back to his hotel and even the line of “not blowing it now” is ‘telling’ and could be deleted to stick with the action of him being tailed.

ACTION OUT OF ORDER – The action in this opener is out of order. The author should resolve this to not lose any momentum in the action from start to finish.

“They had seen him in the van…” This is a 4th paragraph flashback to an earlier incident the same evening. The author could consider starting at that point where Frank is spotted by shady characters or by men in the Escalade and he tries to outrun them in his overweight condition, not dressed for the occasion. Or have Frank evading the Escalade and stick with the action to have the vehicle find him again. No need to go back. No matter which way the author decides, the action should gain momentum and tension should be mounted and not diffused.

KNOW YOUR WEAPON – Another point I would like to make with regard to action – once guns are drawn, there’s no time for checking for bullets in a revolver. Frank was nervous enough to pat down his pocket to make sure he had his gun. He should know if it’s loaded. I’m also a believer in adding details like the type of revolver. Most gun enthusiasts know what they are carrying. It looks novice if the author ignores the details. I’m also thinking guys who ride around in Escalades, aren’t carrying revolvers. I’d be thinking of ramping up the firepower to a semi-auto.

A SUPPRESSOR ON A REVOLVER? – A revolver has a short barrel. Between the cylinder (bullets) and the forcing cone is the cylinder gap where the gases, flames, and sound escape when fired. VIDEO ON THE MYTH The way this intro is written, very generically, most crime fiction readers would question a suppressor on a revolver unless the author can research a type of gun like the Nagant M1895, a Russian revolver, where these gases are contained. Here’s a VIDEO of someone shooting a suppressed Nagant. Look at how large this weapon is (with suppressor) and how difficult it would be for Frank to have it under his jacket. I don’t see how a suppressor enhances this scene and it actually stands out as a research error. Plus if other people are shooting back, without suppressors, what’s the point of Frank being stealthy? I tend to think of suppressed weapons as in the hands of assassins or killers who are the aggressors. Frank seems to have the weapon for defense purposes.

POV – In the sentence below, the author brings in a shooter, but since the guy is “well hidden,” how can Frank see him? It would appear to be an omniscient POV as was the first paragraph where the setting is described without being in Frank’s head. I would strongly suggest one POV in this scene, through Frank’s eyes.

“But against the wall of a building, well hidden in the shadows to Stodd’s left, was another man.”

FRANK SHOT – Frank seems like he’s resting rather than shot at the end. I know in the heat of the moment, often gunshot wounds aren’t felt (except as a punch) when the adrenaline is high, but I would consider shortening the sentences and making him feel more than tired, just to add tension for the reader. He seems too calm.

DISCUSSION:

1.) What do you think, TKZers? Comments anyone? What do you like? What would you suggest to improve this intro?

intheeyesofthedead_highres

In the Eyes of the Dead – $1.99 Ebook – Ryker Townsend FBI Profiler series

After four teens are murdered, a mysterious Santeria holy man and his devoted followers force Ryker and Athena to join forces to uncover a tragic truth.

 

5+

Stripping Away Distance to Draw on Emotion – 1st Page Critique – A Devotion of Dads

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

usmc-08340

This intriguing 400-word introduction comes to us from an anonymous author seeking feedback. Please read and enjoy. Share your comments/impressions with constructive criticism in your comments.

***

The video was grainy and dark, the images distorted.

“Can you tell who this is?” Dean pointed, his voice low, with only a slight nuance of horror.

“No,” Mabel lied, because she didn’t want her brother involved, not anymore.

The four people clustered around the laptop viewed the rest of the video in silence. Watched as one person slowly drowned while another patiently waited. The figure walking around the edge of the pool wore dark, loose clothing with a cap pulled low over their face, but not low enough to obscure their mouth. Whoever it was, and Mabel knew there was a chance she was wrong, had a lot to say to the poor soul in the water. There was no audio but you could see one set of lips moving slightly, as if calmly. The other set, when above water, was often distorted in apparent, but thankfully silent, screams.

Two things about the woman in the pool were obvious to the viewers. She couldn’t swim and was fully dressed. She hadn’t entered the water of her own free will. There was only one thing obvious about the person walking around the pool. They did not want that woman to live. Every time an attempt was made to cling to the side of the pool, her hands were stomped on, over and over and over, until she finally let go, fingers too broken to grip. It took a long time for her to die.

The final minutes showed the capped figure leave the pool area, alone, and Mabel was more sure by then who it was. But when she looked up to voice her opinion, she found herself alone in the room. She looked back at the blank screen. Could she stand to watch it one more time? She hit replay. She had to be absolutely sure.

FEEDBACK:

There is definite mystery to this creepy scene of people trying to unravel the identity of a killer, while looking at a video on a laptop and witnessing a murder. Very compelling. Without sound, it would be horrific to see something like this. Chilling. The opening scene (as written) is compelling and it triggered something in me, but I wondered if there might be a more effective way to tap into the emotion of those watching the grainy video as well as focusing more on the sheer panic of drowning.

Below are some suggestions on how to intensity the opener:

1.) CLOSE THE EMOTIONAL DISTANCE – As this 400 word submission is written now, the reader is held at a distance from the action of the scene, by the narrator describing (“telling”) what is happening on the grainy footage. The reader is being told of what’s not only happening, but also what is ‘felt’ by the witnesses. To close the distance, maybe the author could get into the head of the person most affected, Mabel, the one who appears to know the identity of the cold-hearted killer, and have her imagine what it would be like to be that helpless and dying, or perhaps trigger her worst fear of drowning.

2.) PEPPER IN DIALOGUE – More dialogue might help with the pace and the weighty paragraphs of “telling” descriptions. In a scene like this, less is more. Rather than describe what’s happening on a video, let the reader hear a dialogue line that is creepy or that they can imagine what is being seen. In my rewrite example below, lines like ‘She’d never seen anyone die before’ as the first hint of what’s happening on the video can carry a punch. Or a simple question like ‘Why isn’t he helping her?’ followed by ‘He’s killing her’ can be chilling.

3.) ADD PUNCHES OF MYSTERY – Added mystery elements, layered into the narrative, would draw the reader through this submission. In a short intro like this, I would add a question for the reader to ponder and pepper in more as the reader gets deeper into the story. In effect, it’s like being tugged from the shore by a strong current. In the rewrite example below, the mystery elements that might raise a question for the reader are lines like – She’d never seen anyone die before, or introducing the killer by adding a dialogue line ‘Why isn’t he helping her?’ followed by ‘He’s killing her’ is a nonchalant way of adding murder and mystery with a faceless guy.

ON REWRITES – I normally don’t like to rewrite a scene to show an author an alternative way to write it. It’s been my experience that if you can coax an author into seeing their scene in a different way, by asking them open-ended questions that could draw out a creative solution through them, the writer often finds a better way to resolve the scene than my suggestion. But on a blog, we don’t have the luxury of writing and rewriting to enhance an introduction. The following open-ended questions are designed to get the author thinking. The questions may not work or may not add anything to the scene, but in general, open-ended questions can trigger images or character motivations that could enhance the opening.

My open ended questions might be:

1.) Did Mabel ever have a close encounter with drowning? Does she see herself drowning as if she were the victim?

2.) When she sees the film over and over, who does she watch most–the victim or the killer? Does her perspective change the more she watches it?

3.) What does her answer reveal about her? Does she want to protect the killer, or is it more important to reveal the truth to the family of the dead victim?

4.) An even bigger question in my mind is – Who shot the film? Someone had taken the footage and let the killer walk away. Over the years, this mysterious someone didn’t tell anyone what happened?

REWRITE EXAMPLE:

Mabel stared down at the grainy footage on her laptop and felt the pull of the video with its distorted shadowy images. She couldn’t turn away. If she’d been alone, she might’ve succumbed to its unexplained allure and imagined she were there at poolside, watching it happen, but four others sat next to her. They were all voyeurs in the dark.

She’d never seen anyone die before.

“Can you tell who it is?” Dean broke the silence. She sensed his eyes on her, demanding an answer.

“No,” Mabel lied. She saw no point in speculating for the sake of her brother’s curiosity. What would it matter now?

The video had no sound. Thank, God. A woman, fully dressed in street clothes, floundered in the water. Her arms thrashed, but she couldn’t keep her head above water. When she gulped for air, Mabel squirmed in her seat, imagining what drowning would feel like.

You can’t do this. Help me!

Mabel swore she could read the woman’s lips as she begged for her life, pleading with the man in a cap—the only visible part of his face were his lips.

“For Christ’s sake, she’s trying to get out. Why isn’t he helping her?” A voice cut through the stillness, someone sitting next to Mabel. “Oh, no. He’s…what is he doing?”

“He’s killing her.” Mabel didn’t recognize her own voice. She wiped a tear from her cheek before anyone saw.

Mabel hadn’t believed it either, the first time she saw the video. The man, who had shoved the woman into the pool, taunted her and watched her flail and gasp for air. Whenever she reached for the side of the pool, to hoist her body up for air, he smashed his boot heel into her fingers. Blood sent dark spirals into the water.

It took the woman a long time to die.

Mabel watched the video to an ending that would always haunt her. When she looked up from the laptop, she was alone. The others had left. She never heard them go.

No one had asked who’d shot the video?

DISCUSSION:

1.) What do you think of this submission? What revision suggestions, if any, would you make?

2.) Have you used open-ended questions to enhance a scene? 

intheeyesofthedead_highres

In the Eyes of the Dead – $1.99 ebook

“He hunts killers through the eyes of the dead”

(A Ryker Townsend – FBI Profiler novella)

3+

Setting the Stage for Suspense – First Page Critique: Staying Alive

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased from Fotolia by Jordan Dane

Purchased from Fotolia by Jordan Dane

 

A brave anonymous author has submitted the first 400 words of their WIP – STAYING ALIVE. Read and enjoy. Catch you on the flip side for my feedback & your constructive criticism in comments.

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The Dobbs Hotel wasn’t much to look at, a cheap dump really, but if you were going to kill someone, it was the perfect spot.

Nestled down a dark side street in one of Miami’s rougher areas, about a half-block off Northwest Seventh Street, it was little more than a flop — not even good enough for whores and their johns — surrounded by a neighborhood of closed eyes and silent tongues. Just what Jimmy Quintana needed for this job.

He and Raúl pulled up in front. No other cars in sight. A dim streetlamp down on the corner and the vertical neon sign in front of the hotel were the only sources of light, and they weren’t much. The moon was blacked out by low clouds moving in from the Keys, assuring a late-night rain. They checked their weapons — semi-automatic pistols — each jacking a round into the chamber and affixing silencers to their barrels. Their eyes met, only briefly, but long enough to cement the bond between them and validate the act they were about to commit. They got out of their car into the steamy night.

Inside, the night clerk dozed behind an ancient front desk. Cigarette smoke of sixty years lingered in the air, staining the off-white walls and choking what life was left out of the dusty armchair and threadbare rug in the small lobby.

Wilfredo was in room ten, according to the snitch. The men tiptoed up the sagging stairs to the second story, where room ten greeted them right away. Jimmy took up position by the wall nearest the doorknob and motioned Raúl to the opposite side of the door. They drew their guns. Jimmy turned the knob slowly and soundlessly.

Locked.

He knocked on the door, a couple of light, unthreatening taps. No answer. More taps, more silence. He wiped sweat from his eyelids.

He nodded to Raúl, who pulled two long, pointed instruments from the pocket of his shirt. Inserting them into the lock, Raúl skillfully twisted them and jiggled them until he heard a soft click. He withdrew the picks and shoved the door open.

Feedback:

The strength of this submission is the way the author sets the stage for suspense and sticks with the action, without unnecessary back story dump to slow the pace. There is a lot to like about this, but here are my comments:

1.) FIRST LINE – The first line needs to grab the reader more. It has the word “you” in it, which reads like omniscient POV. To eliminate the “you” and keep the voice in Jimmy’s head, I would suggest the line be changed to:

The Dobbs Hotel looked like an unmade bed with lice, but Jimmy Quintanilla knew it was the perfect place to kill someone.

I’m sure you can tweak this into something better, but you get the idea. Place this thought into Jimmy’s head and make it more direct with a bit of his attitude. It will make the reader curious from the start. Plus the words “cheap dump” are cliche.

2.) PICK POV PER SCENE & STAY WITH IT – In the following sentences, the author jumps back into omniscient by using the word “they” to describe both Jimmy & Raul. I tend to like picking one POV per scene, usually the person with the most to lose, or the character telling the story.

BEFORE – is the sentence ‘as is.’ AFTER – is Jimmy’s POV with more focus on his state of mind and what he has to lose, with added tension and mystery as to what is about to take place.

I also added more details like the type of vehicle he drove and his weapon, and I changed word choices like “affixing” which doesn’t sound like a word Jimmy would have in his head and “semi-automatic pistols” which sounds stilted. I also tried to imagine what would be in Jimmy’s head as he stared at Raul. “Cementing the bond” and “validating the act” seemed like a stretch for something Jimmy would assume is in Raul’s head. I thought Jimmy would wonder if he could truly trust Raul and hoped he could.

One POV per scene is not a hard and fast rule, but it’s good to try something and understand it, before you disregard it entirely. You might discover something important if you stay open to new things.

BEFORE – They checked their weapons — semi-automatic pistols — each jacking a round into the chamber and affixing silencers to their barrels. Their eyes met, only briefly, but long enough to cement the bond between them and validate the act they were about to commit. They got out of their car into the steamy night.

AFTER – Sitting behind the wheel of his parked SUV, Jimmy racked the slide of his Glock 19 and chambered a round. As he attached his suppressor, he cleared his mind and let go of his last shred of conscience. His fingers worked from muscle memory as he watched the street. When he looked over at Raul, the man stared back with a grave look in his eyes. Jimmy would cross a line with Raul that few men did and forge a bond of secrecy. Raul would hold his life in his hands. Jimmy hoped he could trust him. Without a word, he opened the vehicle door and embraced the muggy heat of Miami.

3.) USE THE SENSES TO SHAPE SETTING – I like adding the senses to any scene to trigger memories in the reader and make the scene real. I would like to see and hear more about the streets of Miami once Jimmy gets out of his car, or he could have his windows rolled down to let the atmosphere in as he rolls onto the street. That could enhance the paragraph starting with – ‘Nestled down a dark side street…’ if Jimmy can see and hear and smell what is happening through his life’s experience and his POV.

This author does a great job with painting a scene. Here are some examples I liked:

A.) …surrounded by a neighborhood of closed eyes and silent tongues. (This gives a face to the neighborhood that is memorable.)

B.) Inside, the night clerk dozed behind an ancient front desk. Cigarette smoke of sixty years lingered in the air, staining the off-white walls and choking what life was left out of the dusty armchair and threadbare rug in the small lobby. (I’ve been to this hotel. I can see the worn furnishings and smell the embedded smoke. Well done.)

SUMMARY:

I would definitely read on. This is an enticing crime fiction read, right up my alley. The author’s voice paints a great picture in word choice. A few things could be tightened or strengthened to punch up the voice, but there is a lot to like about this submission.

DISCUSSION:

1.) What do you think, TKZers? Would you read on?

2.) What suggestions do you have?

intheeyesofthedead_highres

In the Eyes of the DeadBook Birthday! $1.99 ebook
FBI profiler Ryker Townsend and Omega Team’s Athena Madero join forces in a small Texas border town after ritualistic murders of four teens point toward a sinister Santeria holy man and his secret believers. (31,000 words)

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First Page Critique – Miss Bryson Loses Her Hat

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Image By Frode Inge Helland - Wikipedia Commons

Image By Frode Inge Helland – Wikipedia Commons

An anonymous author has submitted the first 400 words of a work-in-progress. Please enjoy Miss Bryson Loses Her Hat and I’ll have my two cents on the flip side. Share your constructive comments to assist the author in making this intro shine.

Scene one
Once a girl crashed to the floor with a bone-shaking thud before a thousand people, it gave her a clarity of mind she lacked prior to the event. In Lara Bryson’s case, it elucidated too late the hazards of satin slippers on a freshly polished floor, and illuminated, in a flash of searing insight, the vagaries of a God who, in blessing her with an angelic voice, tempered it with the less benevolent bestowal of two left feet.

Yes, He seemed to say, in a voice Lara imagined as a rolling thunderous crack rending the heavens, she could sing as gloriously as the seraphim, just never in company, and never anywhere requiring the use of her legs.

If only He’d bothered to tell her this before she sold every possession, expended every shilling, and endured sixteen perilous hours battened to the top of a London Mail Coach.

Even a hint five minutes earlier would’ve sufficed.

Instead, Lara lay crumpled and mortified. The roar of adulation that had provoked a warm tingling sensation to cascade like a waterfall through her limbs moments before replaced with the frenzied gasps of a mob titillated by the unexpected sight of a lady splayed out like a ragdoll.

Even more lowering, the dismal conviction that her promise to her dying mother to sing for the Queen would remain forever unfulfilled settled like a rock in Lara’s heart.

The clip, clip, clip of boots dashing across a wooden floor interrupted Lara’s fit of the blue devils. She guessed she had about thirty seconds to find a dignified way out of the Ballroom before the crowd reached her.

Or she could crawl.

The odds poor she’d get upright in a graceful manner, and stay there, slinking away on all fours seemed not only the best option, but a fitting end to her wretched evening. Her decision made, Lara clamped her eyes shut, and prayed silently; God, if you wish to keep alive what little trust I still have in You right now, then at least clear a path for me to slink out of here.

“Clear a path everyone, and give the lady some air.”

Lara gasped; never before had she received such a direct answer from above. The request for air an inspired touch. An exotic woody scent drifted over her. Sandalwood. Interesting; she’d thought myrrh.

The voice spoke again, “Are you hurt?”

Feedback:

The intro is reminiscent of the beginning to a fairy tale as it starts with, “Once a girl…” The tag line Scene One reminded me of a script. I’m not sure why it’s there. But overall, I enjoyed the proper British tone of the author voice and the way the girl’s plight was detailed–it’s like Downton Abbey meets Bridget Jones–with an undertone of controlled humor. I sense a Cinderella story coming, although I can’t be sure in this short intro.

Here are a few things for the author to think about:

1.) Add More Mystery – Who are the 1,000 people? In the first sentence, we hear of the girl’s fall. The audience is not emphasized much until we get a hint at the promise she made to her dying mother, to sing for the Queen. If this is indeed a performance for the Queen, why not play that up more? Or at the very least, hint at the once in a lifetime opportunity, the titillation of the crowd, the tension as she builds to the moment where she walks out. The fall is put into the first sentence, very anti-climactic, because the author chose to focus on her mortification in great detail.

2.) Flip the Scene – Imagine this scene starting another way. As the girl’s mind prepares for her big moment (a moment the author holds back but only hints at), she’s haunted by the promise she made her mother on her deathbed. Tension builds. Her palms sweat. Every movement in her routine replays in her head as she waits in the wings of the stage or outside the ballroom, but the crowd noise and her mother’s face haunt her. She is introduced and the music starts. When she walks out under a glaring spotlight, she sees the silhouette of the Queen in the shadows. Everything is the way she visualized it and her mother’s voice fades in her mind. The stage is set for perfection, but that doesn’t happen. The end of the intro comes when she falls. Every reader will want to know – what comes next?

3.) Use of Humor – There is definitely charming humor written into this piece. It appeals to me, very much. But keep in mind that humor can diminish intrigue or lessen the danger in a scene or shift the focus if it’s used too much. (As an example, a smart mouthed detective can appear too confident and invincible if he doesn’t act afraid when a gun is pointed at him. Over time and as the pages turn, the reader becomes insulated to any danger and never fears for the protag’s life.) In this case, we are drawn into Lara’s cynical, self-deprecating humor about the wreck of her life and her big fall when she may resonate more with the reader if there’s a focus on the action, rather than her internal monologue. A sparing use of her humor could be used after the fall, but let the reader feel her anticipation of a promise fulfilled before we know what happens. I get the feeling this author is quite funny, but less can be more to make Lara endearing. Let her think big before reality sets in. It will make the punch line better.

4.) Who is her Prince? – I know this is only 400 words, but I am really intrigued by who this person is at the end. Her savior. This is a tribute to the author’s writing and the set up. There is a lot of internal monologue as the scene progresses, when what I really wanted to know is mentioned above and who this person is at the end.

5.) Scenes are Mini-Stories – I think of each scene in a book like a mini-story. There’s a beginning, middle and end. Each scene should progress the story forward with at least 1-3 plot points. If an author does this, the writing will be tight and each scene serves a purpose. There’s also a character journey within the scene where the protagonist will grow, learn something to advance the plot, or raise more questions to foreshadow what might be coming. With this in mind, I like the intro to a scene to have a strong opener, a tight middle with mystery elements to intrigue the reader, and a foreshadowing of things to come that will keep the reader turning the page. In Miss Bryson Loses Her Hat, this mini-story can be accomplished by sticking with the action building to her fall, with only a hint of how important this is to her and who she is dancing for. The big conclusion of the fall and who comes to her aid can be the foreshadowing and make a great page turner. (Another trick to make a page turner is to split a scene and carry it over into the next chapter. It’ll keep readers up late and you may get an email in the early hours saying, “I can’t stop reading.”)

Conclusion:

I really want to turn the page and read on. Kudos to the author. Overall, I love this author’s voice, but even with that talent, there is still a need for how to create and build on an introduction. Elements of mystery are very important, no matter what the genre. I like to tease the reader with questions as they read on, then build on the suspense to answer those questions as the reader finishes each paragraph. Add more mystery elements as the scene progresses and you’ll hook them deeper and in multiple ways.

Discussion:

1.) What feedback would you give this brave author, TKZers?

2.) Would you keep reading?

3.) Can you imagine this premise starting differently?

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