Key Ways to Give a Mystery Room to Breathe – First Page Critique – The Good Neighbor

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased by Jordan Dane

I can’t think of a better way to settle in for Thanksgiving and the holidays than with a little murder among neighbors. For your reading enjoyment–and for your constructive criticism–we have the first 400 words of THE GOOD NEIGHBOR, submitted anonymously by a gutsy author and follower of TKZ. Read and enjoy. My feedback will be on the flip side.

***

The unusual heat wave which persisted over parts of New England, long after forecasters had predicted an early end to summer, gave many of the residents an irritable disposition.

The nights didn’t bring much in the way relief to the sweltering New Englanders, who looked forward to the cooler winds from the North by this time and the promise of fishing for those by Maine’s coastline.

Tonight at 12 Rillington Lane, Kennebunk, Kaitlyn O’Donnell struggled with the heat. She tossed, turned, rolled over, then repeated it all once more.

The blending of the weather, the cicadas and that infernal scraping noise—what the hell is that, anyway?—guaranteed sleep would not come tonight.

Frustrated, she threw the thin cotton sheet back and jumped out of bed.
A half-moon in the cloudless sky enabled Kaitlyn to see without the aid of electricity and she shuffled over to the window of her bedroom on the second floor.

The scraping, it sounded like it came from…

The neighbor’s backyard.

From her vantage point Kaitlyn spotted a light in the neighbor’s yard. She assumed a battery-powered lamp.

Silhouetted against the low-light, a male figure busied himself with a shovel.

Next to the hole he dug were two oblong objects encased in a light-colored fabric.

They were the length of —

Oh, my God. Bodies, he’s burying someone!

Kaitlyn’s eyelids flared as she stared with disbelief into her neighbors yard.
The neighbor stopped digging moments later and stood erect. In a deliberate motion, he turned to face the O’Donnell home.

He’s staring at me, oh my… he’s staring…

Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins.

Kaitlyn threw a cotton nightgown over her head and ran barefooted to the hallway. “Dad, Dad,” she called.

Bursting into her parents bedroom at the end of the hallway seconds later she called again. “Dad, wake up, there’s something’s—”

The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty, the top blankets thrown on the floor but the light colored sheets were missing.

She remembered the two object wrapped in light cloth in the neighbor’s yard.

A heavy banging on the front door echoed through the O’Donnell home.

“Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…”

FEEDBACK:
Aspects of this author’s style are vivid and have set the stage for the creepiness of this introduction. The voice here has promise, but there is a feeling that the story is being rushed toward the end and the author resorts to “telling” what is happening, which diminishes the tension and pulls the reader out from inside the head of Kaitlyn. I promise you, anonymous author, that if you truly stay in the head of this horrified kid, your readers will feel the tension and may suffer a rash of goosebumps if you take your time to set up this scene through Kaitlyn’s senses.

Also, it is not recommended to start stories with the weather. Plus, the Point of View (POV) in the first line (and in other spots) is omniscient and not from the main character. This is most evident with the weather description “gave many residents an irritable disposition,” rather than focusing on Kaitlyn’s perspective of HER being irritable with the pervasive heat.

The next line is clearly not in Kaitlyn’s POV either.

“The nights didn’t bring much in the way relief to the sweltering New Englanders, who looked forward to the cooler winds from the North by this time and the promise of fishing for those by Maine’s coastline.”

But without a major rewrite, let’s take a look at how we can use the bones of the author’s story and shuffle sentences to allow the focus to start and remain with Kaitlyn.

STORY SHUFFLE:
In this intro, the author states the physical address of the house where Kaitlyn lives, but doesn’t include the State of Maine until later, after a reference to New England (a region of six states). The reader could be oriented with a quick tag line at the top of the scene to list the town and the time of day. I like using tag lines to anchor the story and reader reviews have mentioned that they like this. In a book by Tami Hoag, she used the dropping temperatures in Minnesota during the hunt for a child exposed to a deadly winter. The added tension of knowing the weather could kill the child became an effective use of tag lines that made an impression on me. So this story could start with the tag lines:

REWRITE INTRO SUGGESTION

Kennebunk, Maine
After Midnight

A full moon cast an eerie shadow of an Eastern White Pine through Kaitlyn O’Donnell’s open bedroom window that stretched onto her walls. The swaying gloom played tricks on her mind and teased her fertile imagination. When the hot night air gusted, the spindly branches of evergreen bristles scraped the side of her house like clawing fingernails, grating on her frayed nerves.

The sixteen year old girl struggled with the unusual heat that smothered her skin like a thick, dank quilt. She tossed and turned and fought her bed sheets, struggling for any comfort that would allow her to sleep. Even if she could doze off, the annoying rasp of cicadas rose and fell to keep her on edge.

Sleep would not come–not tonight. Not when something else carried on the night air.

With sweat beading her arms and face, Kaitlyn tossed the sheet off her body and sat up in bed. Without thinking, she slid off her mattress and wandered toward the open window, drawn by an odd sound that caused the cicadas to stop their incessant noise.

In this new opener, the point of view is clearly in Kaitlyn’s head and her senses show the story of her restlessness and how her mind plays tricks on her. In her current state, she could’ve imagined what comes next.

TELLING – In the action that follows, the descriptions seemed rushed to me and the author resorts to “telling” what is happening, rather than showing. The following sentences are examples of “telling” or POV issues or rushing the story.

She assumed a battery-powered lamp. (It’s not important that the lamp is battery operated. No one spying on their neighbor at night will wonder about batteries. Keep it real and stay with the mystery and tension.)

Oh, my God. Bodies, he’s burying someone! (Give time for her to see shapes and describe them. She’s only watching from the light of one lamp and the neighbor is in silhouette. How well could she see the bodies? But in this case, the author gets impatient and has Kaitlyn “tell” the reader what’s happening.

He’s staring at me, oh my… he’s staring… (Same issue of “telling” the reader. In the dark and shadows, Kaitlyn might only see his body turn toward her. She can’t possibly know that he’s staring at her. But the author should consider giving the neighbor a reason to turn, like the sound of Kaitlyn calling for her dad. Her voice and an open window could allow the sound to carry. Kaitlyn’s sense of urgency could get her into trouble before she realizes she’s alone in the house. Much scarier.)

Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins. (Kaitlyn might have a rush of chilling goosebumps caused by an adrenaline rush in the sweltering heat, but the cliched “ice water through her veins” isn’t the best word choice.)

The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty, the top blankets thrown on the floor but the light colored sheets were missing. (Would Kaitlyn notice in the shadowy room that her parents light colored sheets were missing? A scared kid would notice her parents were gone, but never do an inventory of their bed sheets.)

She remembered the two object wrapped in light cloth in the neighbor’s yard. (Here, Kaitlyn even makes a big deal of tying the light colored sheets to what she saw in her parent’s bedroom. Not remotely realistic. By rushing the ending, the author has given up details and mystery elements, like whether there is blood spatter on the walls and bed or signs of a struggle. Two people being accosted in the middle of the night by a neighbor would surely leave signs of a struggle. And–how did the neighbor get into the house? Why didn’t Kaitlyn HEAR anything if she couldn’t sleep? This intro needs work to make it more plausible.)

THE RUSHED ENDING – The ending is especially rushed. A vital part of suspense is the element of anticipation (something Hitchcock knew well). As an example of this – picture a teen babysitter creeping toward the front door with every movie goer screaming at the big screen “DON’T OPEN THE DOOR!” Once the door is open, the tension is deflated and everything becomes known. To keep the tension building, add some level of detail to build suspense.

A heavy banging on the front door echoed through the O’Donnell home. (The neighbor presumably invaded Kaitlyn’s house to attack her parents or take them to bury in his yard. Why is he knocking this time?)

“Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…” (I don’t believe it’s necessary to have the neighbor say “It’s your neighbor.” He doesn’t need to give his name, because she would know it. So the dialogue here is a bit cheesy and definitely “telling.” Another question – if the neighbor killed her parents, why stop at them? Why not take Kaitlyn too?)

KEY WAYS TO GIVE THIS MYSTERY ROOM TO BREATHE

There’s not enough plausible motivation for this rushed story. If this is a mystery, the details that are not addressed deflates the suspense in a big distracting way. How did the man take her parents from their bed? Why didn’t she hear any struggle? Are their signs of a struggle in the bedroom?

The author has a good deal of fixing that needs to occur to make this intro believable. Key ways to give this mystery room to breathe – suggestions for improving this introduction (besides the ones I wrote about above):

1.) Have Kaitlyn awaken from a drugged stupor – was she drugged or did she take cold medicine to help her sleep that could’ve distorted her take on reality or stopped her from being aware of a struggle?

2.) Had Kaitlyn’s parents been next door at a party with the neighbor and never returned home? Maybe the intro could take place the next morning when she realizes her parents never came home. Their bed is unmade. No breakfast. She rushes to the neighbor’s house and he’s not home or lies to her about when her folks left. “They went straight home, honey.”

3.) Have her file a police report with no clues on how her parents disappeared and the cops are skeptical. She begins spying on the neighbor – as in REAR WINDOW. This plot has been done before, but the idea is to create a compelling mystery that readers care about. A teen alone to deal with her missing parents.

4.) Give the girl a handicap where she is wheelchair bound and reliant on her parents for care. Who would she go to for help?

5.) Make Kaitlyn a suspect in the eyes of the police. Maybe she is a rebellious kid who’s been suspended from high school for fighting. What has given her a big chip on her shoulder?

6.) Grow the Suspect List – After this rushed intro, where would the rest of the book go? If the author made a bigger mystery of whether the neighbor is involved at all, there could be others who had motive to eliminating her parents. A fun way to create and sustain a mystery is to reveal others with motives as the story unfolds. Make a list of 4-5 individuals who are equally guilty looking. Maybe even the author doesn’t know who the real killer is until the last minute. I did this in my debut book NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM. I literally could’ve flipped a coin on which one of my 5 suspects could be guilty and I loved not knowing myself. But most importantly, having more than a crazy neighbor (who admits to guilt on the first page) allows the story plot to breathe and twist and build to a climax.

FOR DISCUSSION:

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

2.) Can you suggest other plot twists than the ones I listed in my summary?

3+

Don’t Make the Reader Guess the Important Stuff – First Page Critique – URGE

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

 

For your reading pleasure, we have an anonymous submission of 400 words. Please help with your constructive criticism by commenting. My feedback will follow. Enjoy.

***

Remnants of Sunday night trade at the Royal Derby Hotel were strewn in the gutter. Some poor bastard who didn’t get to enjoy the benefits of it would have to clean up the beer cans and broken glass. Jude stepped over vomit stains and around a bent up bicycle obstructing the footpath as it strained against the chain that kept it attached to a street pole. Cams message had been brief, “Murder in Brunswick Street, think your PI outfit could help. Meet me near corner of Cecil, 7am.” She hadn’t been able to reach him when she tried to return his call. That was an hour ago. She had left three messages for James already without any response. She willed him to come. Check your phone James. Please be on time. I need you here.

Two hundred metres further on the opposite side of the street Jude saw a gaping black hole in a shop front and stopped. Its window display had spilled across the footpath after a fire had blown out the glass. She felt a mild strangling feeling and shuddered. Fuck. Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me. Cam was standing outside the shop scratching his head and surveying the contents of the footpath. Beggars can’t be choosers she reminded herself, took a deep breath, checked for cars and stepped into the road. She was hungry to get back into some serious investigative work and wasn’t going to let a bit of queasiness get in the way.

Cam looked up and smiled warmly when he saw Jude and stepped forward to give her a peck on the cheek. “Great to see you. Thanks for coming on such short notice.”

Jude took a quick step back. What’s with the kissing, that’s a bit familiar, this is a crime scene meeting she thought as she nodded towards the shop, “Appreciate the call, what’s the story?”

Cam’s smile faded as he looked at the shop, “Fire brigade got a call around 11pm. Extinguished it by four this morning and secured the scene. Found a body at the back.” He gestured into the open black hole of the building. “Forensics are in there now, doesn’t look like an accident to me,” he nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked, “it’s, a, uh, fetish shop.”

FEEDBACK

GROUNDING THE READER – From the start we have what feels like a cop investigating a crime scene, but the reader has names without knowing what the players do or even what city they are in. (I had to look up that the Royal Derby Hotel is in Australia.) It takes work to decipher who Cam and Jude and James are. Things aren’t clearer until the very end.

Are they police? Arson investigators? News reporters? From Cam’s message, we learn that there’s a PI involved and it took a reread to see this is Jude. I’ve made a quick stab at a rewrite, trying to stay true to the scene as written, but I hope you can see how the names and job titles clarifies the intro. I might’ve started this story a different way, but I am showing this rewrite to demonstrate how important it is to orient the reader into the scene with details.

REWRITE SUGGESTION

Private investigator Jude Hawthorne stared down at the unexpected text message she had received from Homicide Detective Cameron Hunter as she stood under a pale street lamp.

Murder in Brunswick Street, think your PI outfit could help.

Meet me near corner of Cecil, 7am.

I’m here, Detective Hunter. Where are you?

Remnants of Sunday night trade at the Royal Derby Hotel were strewn in the gutter, making it hard to distinguish the trash from the explosion caused by the fire. Jude stepped over vomit stains and around a bent up bicycle obstructing the footpath as it strained against the chain that kept it attached to a street pole. As she came upon the charred remains of the storefront and shattered glass, she cringed.

Why does it have to be a fire crime? I hate fire crimes. Cam must remember that. He should’ve told me.

Readers don’t get a description of what happened until the mention of the fire blowing out a window half way down, otherwise the intro sounds like the dregs of a drunken party or Mardi Gras. In the last paragraph, there’s a mention of a ‘crime scene’ and a fire brigade with a body inside, but readers need to be oriented into the scene much sooner. In my rewrite above, I added the two red letter lines to mention the crime scene.

START WITH A DISTURBANCE – In the rewrite above, I focused on the disturbance of Jude getting an unexpected text message. She’s a PI and it would not be normal for her to get called to a homicide.

KEEP FOCUS ON EMOTION – Jude obviously has an issue with fires, yet her fear is embedded in a longer paragraph and glossed over. Make that front at center. By sticking with her emotional state, the reader gets invested in her as a character. They want to root for her. (I slapped this rewrite together as an example and cherry-picked what resonated with me. I’m sure the author could do better.)

BEFORE – Two hundred metres further on the opposite side of the street Jude saw a gaping black hole in a shop front and stopped. Its window display had spilled across the footpath after a fire had blown out the glass. She felt a mild strangling feeling and shuddered. Fuck. Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me. Cam was standing outside the shop scratching his head and surveying the contents of the footpath. Beggars can’t be choosers she reminded herself, took a deep breath, checked for cars and stepped into the road. She was hungry to get back into some serious investigative work and wasn’t going to let a bit of queasiness get in the way.

AFTER – Jude shuddered and found it hard to breathe as she stared into the gaping hole of the shop front, pitted by fire. Its window display had spilled across the footpath after a fire had blown out the glass. Her own demons were never far from the surface. Detective Hunter should have known to warn her.

Jude took a deep breath and clenched her jaw as she checked for cars and stepped into the road. She needed serious investigative work, even if the case cost her sleep and brought back nightmares she thought she’d left behind.

CHARACTER NAMES – Why does the author only mention first names in this intro? I recommend giving authority to your investigators from the beginning. Give them a job title and what relation they are to each other, as I did in the rewrite above. It took me awhile to realize that Jude is the PI, but who are the other players? Who is James?

To avoid the gender issue using the name Cam, I would mention his full name of Cameron at the start and maybe only start using ‘Cam’ when other people call him by his nickname to establish that Cam is Cameron.

I would also question why a cop would call in a private investigator to an official crime scene, but I will leave that up to the author to establish. I’m sure there is a good reason and it sounds intriguing.

POINT OF VIEW – It took me a few readings to get oriented into the POV intended here. The first two lines were through the eyes of a character, I presumed. So when I saw the name Jude, I thought this is deep POV 3rd person, but then Cam steps into the spotlight and because that name is gender neutral, I thought Cam was a woman until I get to a couple of spots and realize he’s not.

Did anyone else have an issue with gender and whose POV is central? Giving titles and orienting the reader faster would help with this confusion.

PUNCTUATION – A well placed comma can make all the difference. Remember the old grammar joke – “Let’s eat Grandma.” versus “Let’s eat, Grandma.” That comma would mean a huge difference if you’re Grandma. I would recommend reading aloud as part of an edit process. When you get to a spot where your voice naturally pauses, that’s usually where a comma goes. Just ask Grandma. There is also missing question marks and run on sentences that should be broken apart to be clearer.

Here’s a couple of examples:

BEFORE – ‘Fuck. Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me.’

Break this apart for clarity and add punctuation. I also recommend internal DEEP POV be italicized (if mixed into 3rd person POV) and I suggest that DEEP POV not be embedded into a paragraph. If it stand out more, it will draw the reader’s eye to it as if it were dialogue. Readers naturally look for dialogue when they are reading. With weighty long paragraphs, as in this submission, the reader might skim or lose important dialogue if it’s buried.

AFTER – Why does it have to be a fire crime? I hate fire crimes. Cam must remember that. He should’ve told me.

Cams message had been brief,… (Cam’s message had been brief,…)

BEFORE – Jude took a quick step back. What’s with the kissing, that’s a bit familiar, this is a crime scene meeting she thought as she nodded towards the shop, “Appreciate the call, what’s the story?”

AFTER – Jude took a quick step back, stunned.

What’s with the kissing. That’s a bit familiar. This is a crime scene, she thought.

All business, Jude nodded towards the shop and said, “Appreciate the call, what’s the story?”

LAST PARAGRAPH – I would break out the dialogue lines to allow the reader to find them more easily. But I’m still not sure why a PI would need to be called in on an arson/murder investigation, especially if it’s a fetish shop. Riddle me that, Batman.

And why is he sure it wasn’t an accident simply because it’s a fetish shop? That’s the implication. His smirk is a little sophomoric, but maybe that is intentional. Is he a professional guy or a wise cracker? We don’t know yet.

BEFORE – Cam’s smile faded as he looked at the shop, “Fire brigade got a call around 11pm. Extinguished it by four this morning and secured the scene. Found a body at the back.” He gestured into the open black hole of the building. “Forensics are in there now, doesn’t look like an accident to me,” he nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked, “it’s, a, uh, fetish shop.”

AFTER – Cam’s smile faded as he looked at the shop.

“Fire brigade got a call around eleven pm. After they extinguished the blaze by four this morning and secured the scene, they found a body at the back.”

He gestured into the charred chasm of the destroyed building.

“Forensics are in there now, but it doesn’t look like an accident to me.” He nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked, “it’s, a, uh, fetish shop.”

FOR DISCUSSION

What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?

3+

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+

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?

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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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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?

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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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