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

Posted by Sue Coletta

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

1st Page Critique

 

“Coming Home”

“Did I tell you I knew your father?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mommy.”

“In a minute.” 

Bam! Right off, we feel the tension mounting. 

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

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

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

Let’s read on …

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

As if I could ever count on him anyway.

Ding.

The response from her friend:

Sorry, Carmellas busy tnight.

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

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

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

first page critique

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

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

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Social Media, Blogging, and SEO Tips

Posted by Sue Coletta

Social Media, Blogging, and SEO tipsTo prepare for my first post as a TKZ member (yay!), I read all the social media posts on the Kill Zone (my little research addiction rearing its head :-)). Back as far as 2009, Joe Moore wrote Social Networking Showdown, which explored MySpace vs. Facebook, Shelfari vs. Goodreads, Crimespace, Gather, Bebo, LinkedIn, and the all-important email list. Even though some of these sites are nonexistent today, Joe’s advice still applies. And in 2011, he shared his perspective on using manners online. Which is critical these days.

The way we conduct ourselves on social media matters. Hence, why Jim made social media easy and why, I presume, Jodie Renner invited Anne Allen to give us 15 Do’s and Don’ts of social media as only Anne could, with her fantastic wit.

One year later, in 2016, Clare shared what’s acceptable for authors on social media and what isn’t. Jim showed us the dangers of social media, and how it can consume us if we’re not careful.

Through the years the Kill Zone authors have tried to keep us from falling into the honey trap of social media. Which brings me to the burning question Kathryn posed this past June: Writers on Social Media: Does it Even Make a Difference?

In my opinion, the correct answer is yes.

Working writers in the digital age need to have a social media presence. Fans expect to find a way to connect with their favorite author. How many of you have finished reading a thriller that blew you away, and immediately went online to find out more about the author? I know I have. It’s only natural to become curious about the authors whose books we love. Give your fans a way to find you — the first step in building an audience.

I’ve seen authors who don’t even have a website, never mind an updated blog. This is a huge mistake, IMO. It’s imperative to have a home base. Without one, we’re limiting our ability to grow.

BLOGGING

There are two types of blogging: those who blog about their daily routine and those who offer valuable content. Although both ways technically “engage” our audience, the latter is a more effective way to build and nurture a fan base.

When I first started blogging I had no idea what to do. I’ve always loved to research, so I used my blog as a way to share the interesting tidbits I’d learned along the way. For me, it was a no-brainer. I’d already done the research. Writing about what I’d learned helped me to remember what I needed for my WIP while offering valuable content to writers who despise research (Gasp!). Over time my Murder Blog grew into a crime resource blog.

Running a resource blog has its advantages and disadvantages. Be sure to look into the pros and cons before choosing this route. When I first scored a publishing deal, I realized most of my audience was made up of other writers. The question then became, how could I attract non-writers without losing what I’d built?

My solution was to widen my scope to things readers would also enjoy, like flash fiction and true crime stories. Who doesn’t like a good mystery?

With a resource blog it’s also difficult to support the writing community. Book promos go over about as well as a two-ton elephant on a rubber raft. If you decide to run a resource blog, find another way to support your fellow writers. When one of us succeeds, the literary angels rejoice.

There’s one exception to the “no book promos” rule for resource blogs, and that is research. It’s always fun to read about other writers’ experiences. Subtly place their book covers somewhere in post (with buy link). That way it benefits both your audience and the author.

The one thing we can count on is that how-to blog changes with the times. A few months ago, my publisher shared a link to an article about blogging in 2018. Because she shared the article via our private group, I’m reluctant to share the link. The gist of article is, come 2018 bloggers who don’t offer some sort of video content will be left in the dust. Only time will tell if this advice holds true, but it makes sense. The younger generation loves YouTube. By adding a video series or a Facebook Live event we could expand our audience.

It’s time-consuming to create each video episode. Hence why I had several months in between the first two episodes of Serial Killer Corner. Our first priority must be writing that next book. However, consistency is key. Weekly, monthly, bi-monthly? Choose a plan that works for you and stick with it.

SEO MATTERS

SEO — Search Engine Optimization — drives traffic to your website/blog. Without making this post 10K words long, I’m sharing a few SEO tips with added tips to expand our reach. In the future I could devote an entire post to how to maximize SEO. Would that interest you?

Tips

  • every post should have at least one inbound link and two outbound links;
  • send legacy blogs a pingback when linking to their site;
  • never link the same words as the post title or you’ll lessen the previous posts’ SEO (note how I linked to previous TKZ posts in the 1st paragraph);
  • use long-tail keywords rather than short-tail (less competition equals better traffic);
  • using Yoast SEO plug-in is one of the easiest ways to optimize a blog’s SEO;
  • self-hosted sites allow full control of SEO, free sites don’t;
  • remove stop words in the post slug (for example, see the permalink for this post); I’d also recommend removing the date, but that’s a personal preference;
  • drip marketing campaigns drive traffic to your site;
  • slow blogging drives more traffic than daily blogging (for a single author site);
  • consistency is key — if you post every Saturday, keep that schedule;
  • use spaces before and after an em dash in blog posts (not books);
  • use alt tags on every image (I use the post title, which should include the keyword); if someone pins an image, the post title travels with it;
  • link images to post and book covers to buy link;
  • white space is your friend; use subheadings, bullet points, and/or lists;
  • longer posts (800 – 1, 000 words min.) get better SEO than than shorter ones;
  • using two hashtags on Twitter garners more engagement than three or more;
  • protect your site with SSL encryption (as of this month, Google warns potential visitors if your site isn’t protected; imagine how much traffic you could lose?);
  • post a “SSL Protected” badge on your site; it aids in email sign-ups;
  • via scroll bar or pop-up, capitalize on that traffic by asking visitors to join your community, which helps build your email list;

THE 80/20 RULE

Most of us are familiar with the 80/20 rule. 80% non-book-related content; 20% books. My average leans more toward 90/10, but that may be a personal preference.

What should we share 80% of the time? The easiest thing to do is to share what we’re passionate about. When I say post about passion I don’t mean writing. Sure, we’re all passionate about writing, but I’m sure that’s not the only thing you’re passionate about. How about animals, nature, cooking, gardening, or sports?

One of the best examples of sharing one’s passion comes from a writer pal of mine, Diana Cosby, who loves photography. Every Saturday on Facebook, she holds the Mad Bird Competition. During the week she takes photos of birds who have a penetrating glare and/or fighting stance. On Saturdays, she posts two side-by-side photos and asks her audience to vote for their favorite “mad bird.” Much like boxing, the champion from that round goes up against a new bird the following week.

On Fridays, she posts formal rejection letters to birds who didn’t make the cut. With her permission, here’s an example:

Dear Mr. House Sparrow,

I regret to inform you that though your ‘fierce look’ holds merit, it far from meets the requirements for entry into the Mad Bird Competition. Please practice your mad looks and resubmit.

Sincerely,
M.R. Grackle
1st inductee into the Mad Bird Hall of Fame

It’s a blast! I look forward to these posts every week. As such, I’m curious about her books. See how that works?

My own social media tends to run a bit darker … murder & serial killers top the list, but I also share stories about Poe & Edgar, my pet crows who live free, as well as my love for nature and anything with fur or feathers. The key is to be real. Don’t try to fake being genuine. People see right through a false facade. Also, please don’t rant about book reviews, rejection letters, or anything else. Social media is not the place to share your frustrations.

As for soft marketing on social media, I like to make my own memes. It only takes a few minutes and it’s a great way to keep your fans updated on what you’re working on. In the following example I wrote: #amwriting Book 3, Grafton Series. I also linked to the series. Don’t forget to include a link to your website. The more the meme is shared, the more people see your name. Keep it small and unobtrusive. See mine in the lower-right corner?

Social Media, Blogging, and SEO Tips

In the next example, I asked, “What’s everyone doing this weekend? No words, only gifs.” Have fun on social media. The point is to engage your audience.

Folks love to be included. Plus, I genuinely want to get to know the people who follow/friend me. Don’t you? It doesn’t take much effort to make your fans feel special. Take a few moments to mingle with them. It’s five or ten minutes out of your busy schedule, yet it may be the only thing that brightens someone’s day. In a world with so much negatively and hatred, be better, be more than, be the best person you can be … in life and on social media.

Over to you TKZers. How do you approach social media? Would you be interested in more SEO and blogging tips?

CLEAVED by Sue Coletta

 

Women impaled by deer antlers, bodies encased in oil drums, nursery rhymes, and the Suicide King. What connects these cryptic clues? For Sage and Niko, the truth may be more terrifying than they ever imagined.

CLEAVED, Grafton County Series, Book 2, is on sale for $2.99.

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Crime Writer Lives Character’s Torture…On Purpose

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Today I have the pleasure of hosting a long time and active member of TKZ – Sue Coletta – and featuring her May 3rd release, CLEAVED, published by Tirgearr Publishing. I pre-ordered her book at the great price of $0.99 ebook and can’t wait to read it. By the time you read this, her book will be officially OUT!

Sue is a talented crime fiction author of memorable characters, who writes in an evocative style tinged with horror. She’s here to talk about torturing characters and how far an author might go…on purpose. Yes, Sue would scare most normal people, but we’re writers. We can take it.

Take it away, Sue.

Being a crime writer tends to spill into everyday life. Not only do I go out of my way to drive by secluded swamps, woodlands, or bogs for potential body dump locations, but I’m also keenly alert and aware of the people around me. The shady guy who takes a few minutes too long while pretending to read magazines in the convenient store he intends to rob. The dude with white knee socks and sandals who sits alone at the lake, his gaze roaming the shoreline from behind the morning newspaper. He doesn’t fool me for a second. Obviously he’s scouting for his next victim. Then there’s the poor woman who’s clueless to her surroundings. In a few days, a breaking news report will confirm she’s Sandal Guy’s latest victim.

Do we really need to discuss driving by a wood chipper? I mean, c’mon! How many of you haven’t thought about stuffing a body in the chute?

*crickets*

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

When crime writing burrows into our DNA, the world morphs into a place of perverse secrets, malevolent acts, and sinful deeds. We can’t help but see the signs. Okay, so maybe “normal” people don’t envision quite as much danger as we do, but I think it makes us far more interesting. Our spouses get caught up in our warped realities, too. My husband’s been known to point out perfect murder sites. Or he’ll hear about a desolate locale and ask if I want to take a ride, knowing I can’t resist.

“You mean that, honey?” I skip out the door, and my excitement bubbles over. “Woohoo! Road trip!”

Research is another matter entirely. When we have no real-life experience to pull from, we’re left with two choices: research until it feels like we’ve lived the scene, or put ourselves in the same position as our character. For me, the latter is much more fun.

My new psychological thriller CLEAVED opens with a woman trapped inside an oil drum. I’ve never been ensnared in any confined space, so I found it difficult to tap into the emotions of the scene. My solution? Lock myself inside an oil drum and hang out a while.

The conversation with my husband Bob went something like this…

Me: Hey, do we have any oil drums?
Bob: Yeah. Why?
Me: Are they empty?
Bob: Yeah. Why?
Me: What size are they?
Bob: 30 and 50 gallon. Why?
Me: If I climb inside, will you close the lid for me?
Bob: Umm…
Me: Awesome. Let’s do this!

Dumbfounded, he followed me out the door. Turned out, he’d loaned the 50 gallon drum to our neighbor, so I started with the 30. The first problem I encountered was this. I couldn’t just step inside and squat. It’s way too narrow. Instead, hung on to the sides, hiked my knees to my chest, and then lowered myself to the bottom. Once crammed inside, I gave my husband the signal to lower the lid, but not secure the hasp. No need to get crazy, or give him any ideas he might regret later. 

Pure blackness struck me hard. Also, my ankles and neck bent at odd angles. Pain seared bone-deep. My knees pinned my chest, laboring my breath. No matter how hard I tried I could not slow the adrenaline coursing through my mind, body, and spirit. The oxygen thinned with every patter, patter, patter of my heart, my mind spinning with scenarios of dying this way.

What an awful death—trapped, alone, unable to move more than my arms.

Every few minutes Bob asked if I was okay, which really ruined the ambiance. In order to concentrate, I sent him back inside. Later, he told me he watched from the window. Though as far as I knew at the time, I was alone. No one around to save me. Perfect.

Closing my eyes, I envisioned the scene. The darkness of night. Tree frogs chirping in the canopies of leaves around the marsh. A far off screech owl’s predatory cry pierced the frigid air. The subtle swish of water lapped against my unforgiving grave, rocking me from side to side.

Next, I concentrated on how my body responded. The pressure on my lungs was like being caught under a steel girder, squeezing each pocket of air dry. No longer did I control my breathing, my chest heaving much faster than I could regulate. Thoughts of death consumed me. My remains could stay undiscovered for days, weeks, months, even years. The psychological torture alone could be enough to destroy someone. My only chance of survival was to break free.

But how?

That question lingered. Numerous “What if’s” flitted through my mind. I won’t ruin the scene by telling you how, or even if, my character escapes. Since it’s the opening chapter you can find out by reading the “Look Inside” feature HERE.

After about 20 minutes or so, I emerged from the barrel. Next, I sent Bob to ask the neighbor if the 50 gallon was also empty. I needed to experience the difference because the character is entrapped in a 50 gallon drum, not a 30. After the “incident” of begging Bob to bury me in the backyard (story for another time!), the neighbors are all too familiar with my research stunts, so this request didn’t surprise him in the least. In fact, he was oddly excited to participate. I let him duct tape the lid close. This was really more for his benefit than mine since duct tape doesn’t stick well to steel.

Compared to the 30 gallon, my new digs felt like Club Med. Much more spacious, but the body position remained unchanged, ankles and neck seared with pain, knees compressing my lungs. All in all, my time spent inside the two oil drums turned out to be very educational and I wrote a much better scene. Win win!

Some may call crime writers unique or even weird, but no one can say we’re boring.

FOR DISCUSSION:

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done in the name of research?

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CLEAVED Available NOW/$0.99 Ebook

Author Sage Quintano writes about crime. Her husband Niko investigates it. Together they make an unstoppable team. But no one counted on a twisted serial killer, who stalks their sleepy community, uproots their happy home, and splits the threads that bonds their family unit.

Darkness swallows the Quintanos whole–ensnared by a ruthless killer out for blood. Why he focused on Sage remains a mystery, but he won’t stop till she dies like the others.

Women impaled by deer antlers, bodies encased in oil drums, nursery rhymes, and the Suicide King. What connects these cryptic clues? For Sage and Niko, the truth may be more terrifying than they ever imagined.

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Evocative Suspense Author Sue Coletta on VOICE

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

WingsOfMayhem

I’m proud to have longstanding TKZ member, Sue Coletta as my guest today. This is her first time here as a featured author. Not only is she usually one of the first to comment on each post, but I’ve seen her grow as a writer. I enjoyed her first book MARRED, with its strong voice and dark eerie tone, and I’m currently reading WINGS OF MAYHEM and thoroughly enjoying the voice of her protagonist, Shawnee Daniels. Take it away, Sue, and welcome!

Sue Coletta on VOICE

When we first begin our writing journey voice is one of things that’s nearly impossible to define, never mind discover. For years I kept hoping to find my writer’s voice, but I had no idea where to look. Deep within myself? Through hours and hours of practice would it suddenly appear? What was this mysterious “voice” everyone spoke about? And why didn’t I have one?

Perhaps what agents and editors were referring to was that perfect blend of style, rhythm, and cadence that make up the mysterious writer’s voice. Maybe it’s like trying to define the difference between graffiti and street art. I may not be able to put it into words, but I’ll know it when I see it.

When I look back on those days I wish someone would’ve told me, with a clear definition, how to develop my voice. And then one day something magical happened. I was reading the most amazing craft book I’d ever encountered, the book that transformed my writing life in an instant. I’m referring to Story Engineering by TKZ’s own Larry Brooks.

When I learned about the three dimensions of character I found my writer’s voice. I couldn’t believe it. Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?

Today, I would describe voice as the combination of syntax, diction, punctuation, dialogue, sentence rhythm, and character development within one story or across many novels. It’s unique to you. Just as a flute doesn’t sound like a clarinet, neither does one writer from another.

How awesome is that?

We all use the same 26 letters, and yet, no two authors will write the same scene the same way. One writer might use run-on sentences that go on for miles. Whereas another loads the story with short, punchy fragments. Neither is wrong; it’s a matter of personal style.

But style isn’t the only thing that makes up the writer’s voice.

By knowing our characters intimately, by understanding their hopes, their dreams, their backgrounds, scars, flaws, nervous ticks, religious beliefs, world views, what they fear, what they strive for, what they want more than anything else…we can slip into their skin and write using their voice. Not only in dialogue, but in the narrative as well—also known as narrative voice.

Take, for instance, my protagonist in Wings of Mayhem. Shawnee Daniels is a wise-cracking, snarky chic who was raised on the city streets. The way she views the world is much different than her librarian best friend, Nadine. Shawnee is overly cautious. She swears, has huge trust issues, and in a lot of ways, she’s her own worst enemy. Where Shawnee might see danger, Nadine, who was raised in a loving and often sheltered environment, would see an opportunity. Nadine never swears. Instead, she uses words like “ship” and “fleakin’”. She’s a glass-half-full type of girl. Shawnee’s glass barely has a drop in it.

Nadine’s dialogue is filled with words like “Woot!” She waves jazz hands and bounces on her toes when she’s excited. Shawnee is her polar opposite. She would never be caught dead waving a jazz hand in the air and she certainly would never use the word “Woot.” Because she’d never do these things in the dialogue, I can’t let her do it in the narrative, either, or the story would lose its narrative voice.

In Wings of Mayhem I alternated chapters between Shawnee, Detective Levaughn Samuels, and Jack Delsin, my antagonist. Each have their own way of viewing the world around them and, more importantly, the situation they’re in. I couldn’t write the narrative in the same way or it wouldn’t be unique to each character.

Where Shawnee believes everyone is after her, Detective Levaughn Samuels is more level-headed. In his narrative I used contractions like I did with Shawnee, but the tone is different. He views the world with a calm, rational, detective’s perspective. When he looks at a crime scene his stomach doesn’t scream in protest. But Shawnee’s does.

While examining a murder victim, Levaughn would narrate the facts, the wounds/injuries, his theory of the case, etc. Shawnee would be too distracted by the blowflies. She might gape at the victim’s smeared mascara, or narrow in on the thick, bluish film veiling the victim’s eyes. But Levaughn wouldn’t mention that because all corpses develop corneal clouding. It’s a natural occurrence that develops 2-3 days after death, depending on the environment in which the body is found.

By remaining true to our characters in dialogue as well as narrative we breathe life into the story. Thus, filling it with voice.

For Discussion:
Over to you, TKZers. What tips have helped you develop your writer’s voice?

Sue Coletta

Suspense Author Sue Coletta

BIOMember of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is always searching for new ways to commit murder…on the page. She’s the author of Wings of Mayhem, Marred, Crime Writer’s Research, and 60 Ways to Murder Your Characters. She’s published in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive, Murder, USA anthology, InSinC Quarterly, and in the upcoming dark fiction anthology, RUN. The founder of #ACrimeChat, which takes place every Wed. on Twitter, Sue also runs a popular crime resource blog, where she shares her love of research…forensics, police procedures, serial killers, and true crime stories. You can learn more about Sue and her books at: www.suecoletta.com

Buy links:
Amazon Barnes & Noble  Apple iTunes  Smashwords  Google Play
Print and audio coming soon from Crossroad Press!

Social Media links:
Website/blog   Goodreads   Twitter   Facebook

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