Stream of Consciousness vs Back Story Dump – First Page Critique: Storm Season

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

 

We have an anonymous submission entitled STORM SEASON. Our gratitude to the courageous author who submitted the first 400 words of their baby. Read and enjoy. I’ll have comments to follow and please feel free to provide your own constructive criticism.

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My name is Lily Storm and I’m a drug addict. My drug of choice is heroin. And, like the sticker says, its street name can be anything from Big H to Thunder, Nose Drops to Brown Sugar. I prefer Cinnamon. I can send the boys to the store for Cinnamon (wink, wink) and no one’s the wiser.

I started using about twelve years ago when I was eighteen. I’ve been through the gamut—alcohol, pot, pills, coke, meth (which I really liked but not as much as coke). Coke is a better high but doesn’t last as long, and is more expensive than meth. Smoking coke is the best but it always scared me a little—I imagined myself running down the road, doing a Richard Pryor impersonation, my hair ablaze.

Anyway, I found my taste in heroin. It’s not spooky like people want you to believe, like I originally thought it might be. It’s the place where pleasure exists. It’s chilling out on a beach and sipping margaritas with the most beautiful boy that God ever created, and this boy is all about pleasing you. He wants you to feel him, get in his head, and touch his love for you. He’s yours. You’re his. Total love. Total ecstasy. That’s how heroin feels. Like you found the love of your life and all you can do is gaze into each other’s eyes.

And I never intend to let him go.

I decided to start this blog in hopes of explaining my drug usage to people. You know, my family—mom and dad, and close friends who don’t understand, who are confused by my addiction. Or those who are disappointed in me. To that I say, F-you. It’s my issue. Deal with your own issues and get over me.

I’ve numbered these blog posts in Español. Don’t ask me why. I’m just crazy that way. BTW, if anyone else can learn from these installments, or you happen to be going through something similar, maybe this blog can be a place of experience and healing. Feel free to leave a comment.

So, you know, I’ve written quite a few of these—thirteen to be exact—which I’ve already scheduled out to publish monthly from December 2016 to December 2017, the next thirteen months. I’ve scheduled them out this way because I won’t be around much longer.

FEEDBACK

OVERALL – My first thoughts were that this type of character is a challenge to write because the reader may take time to sympathize or relate to them, if they ever do. With the reference to 13 months, I thought of the big seller – Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, where one of the main characters is a teen girl who has already committed suicide and given 13 audio tapes to the people who helped her make that fateful decision. So given that first impression, I read through this piece a few times and found the most compelling part to be in the middle where the author compares heroin to a lover. I really liked the way that part was written. Well done.

BACK STORY – The intro is in first person and has a stream of consciousness thing going on, but I found myself pulled out of this blog post concept when the author meandered through backstory or drifted off course with poorly timed dark humor (like the Richard Pryor reference or the cutesy “wink wink”). Sometimes humor can be a great punch and give insight to a character, but it can also diffuse any building emotion or distract from any traction the author has made with the reader. After I found the “lover” reference in paragraph 3, I wondered if that could provide an intriguing start that the reader might be lured into the story via that imagery.

SUGGESTED REWRITE: I tried keeping as much of the author’s work that fit into the “lover start,” but I did embellish on the tone in a few spots.

REWRITE EXAMPLE

I found a place where true pleasure exists, like chilling out on a beach and sipping margaritas with the most beautiful boy that God ever created, and this boy is all about pleasing you. He wants you to feel him, get in his head, and touch his love for you. He’s yours. You’re his. Total love. Total ecstasy. That’s how heroin feels. Like I found the love of my life and all I can do is gaze into his eyes. I never intend to let him go.

My name is Lily Storm and I’m a drug addict. Heroin is my lover, my drug of choice.

On the street he goes by many names—Big H to Thunder, Nose Drops to Brown Sugar, but I prefer calling him Cinnamon, because I can send the boys to the ‘store’ for cinnamon and no one’s the wiser. I’ve been faithful to my lover since I was eighteen. Most addicts can’t handle him, but I can.

My mom and dad and close friends don’t understand. They’re disappointed in me. I wanted to tell them to fuck off to their faces, but I decided to start a blog instead. I’ll admit it. I’m a coward. I’ve numbered these blog posts in Español, to put my education to good use. I don’t know what anyone will learn from my lover and me, but feel free to post your comment somewhere else. I don’t need your opinion.

I’ve written thirteen of these gems of wisdom and I’ve scheduled them to be automatically posted from December 2016 to December 2017. Why the automatic posts, you ask?

I won’t be around by the end. No one likes cliff hangers.

ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF PLOT – In the best selling novel turned film “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” the book is written in a series of diary-type letters from a troubled teen with every letter beginning with ‘Dear Friend.’ It’s surprising how compelling it was to read the letters as the reader sees the character spiral into the dark secret he’s holding in his heart surrounding the death of an aunt. The movie rewrites the letters and turns them into a successful visual creation, but if our anonymous author plans for a series of blog posts of a heroin addict, it sounds like an interesting idea IF the character finds a way into the hearts of readers. The author must find a way to make Lily relatable and darkly likeable. It’s definitely possible to pull this off.

VOICE – To make the reader want to keep turning the page, the author must find a voice with the right amount of snark or use poignant imagery that keeps ramping the stakes up on Lily’s life. In the book and the movie – Perks of Being a Wallflower – the big reveal was heartbreaking and the author or filmmaker had to have discipline to pull off the twist as late as possible so there is a big finish to the book or film. A compelling stream of consciousness voice can carry the reader through a good book, but beware of too much backstory dump that doesn’t have a point or slows the pace. There’s a fine line to this and it will be a challenge that would be fun to pull off.

FOR DISCUSSION:

What do you think, TKZers? Would you keep turning the pages? What do you like about this submission? Where are the challenges?

VIGILANTE JUSTICE on sale from Amazon Kindle Worlds – ebook priced at $0.99

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The Perils of Author Voice

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

space-shuttle-582557_1920Today’s lesson comes via a Kill Zone first-page critique. It concerns what I call “author voice.” Let’s have a look at the submission and then we’ll discuss.

A FREE EARTH

James Klass lived alone in space, and you can be sure that he didn’t mind it so much. In his opinion – and his was the only one that mattered for at least a parsec – that dark, empty space was freedom. No distractions, no noise. A guy could hear himself think out there in the black, and James had plenty of time to think.

The only real downside to it all, James often mused, was that he couldn’t really be the one floating freely in space. It was always the ship, or a far-too-bulky space suit enjoying the fresh vacuum. As for James, he was always stuck inside, surrounded by walls of metal and plastic. It was a common topic of discussion between he, himself, and his robot as to what it would be like to be out there, allowing your body to absorb the starlight directly and to feel the touch of cold space on your skin. Death notwithstanding. The robot, Zee, had actually done it a few times, but how could an artificial being truly appreciate that experience? They couldn’t, that’s how.

At the moment, James was as close as he could get, which sadly meant he had his face nearly flattened against one of the only real windows on the ship. He strained his eyes to see the Retriever in action as it slowly grappled the nearby derelict starship, preparing to pull it inside. Sure, he could have watched a large, closeup view of the action via the large holographic cloud display that filled the whole bridge, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t real enough. Ever since those kuzon C-Specs came out…

Before C-Specs, holograms were mostly a novelty. They were always translucent, poor reflections of reality, and they rarely mapped well to their environments. There were military applications of course, but the headsets were too bulky and ugly for general use. Then a company called Prakaashan came out with the C-Specs, and the universe changed overnight. C-Specs were thin and light and easy to wear, and even attractive, but more importantly they made holograms that not only mapped perfectly to the real environment, but looked absolutely real.

***

It’s clear from the start that we’re hearing from the author. The phrase you can be sure is direct author-to-reader. So is At the moment, James was as close as he could get, which sadly meant he had his face nearly flattened against one of the only real windows on the ship. 

So is the entire last paragraph.

Which makes this page Omniscient POV. Now, Omniscient has a range of “author intrusiveness.” The author’s voice can be muted, as in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon: 

Spade sank into his swivel-chair, made a quarter turn to face her, smiled politely. He smiled without separating his lips. All the v’s in his face grew longer.

 (Spade can’t see the v’s in his own face, so we know this is Omniscient.)

On the other side of the Omniscient spectrum, the author’s voice can take center stage. This was common in the Dickens era. An author would sometimes address the “Gentle reader,” or give us a small essay on “the best of times and the worst of times.”

Our first page here uses an author voice that is more on the side of calling attention to itself. I assume this is intentional.

So let’s spell out the dangers.

First, these days author intrusion is used almost exclusively in comic novels. Which means the writing has to be funny. Really funny. Which is about the hardest thing there is to do in life. Just ask any standup comic.

Let’s have a look at the opening lines from one of the comic masters, the late Douglas Adams. This is from Life, the Universe and Everything:

    The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was.
    It wasn’t just that the cave was cold, it wasn’t just that it was damp and smelly. It was that the cave was in the middle of Islington and there wasn’t a bus due for two million years.

We hear Adams in these lines and, indeed, all the way through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 

Thus, if A Free Earth is intended to be humorous, the author needs to really go for it, from the jump. Just remember what the old actor said: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

If this is not a comic space opera, I don’t like hearing an intrusive author voice. It distances us from the main character. Much better would be to use Third Person POV. Write everything from within the head and heart of James.

A second danger for an intrusive author is the temptation to tell us what’s going on. That’s what’s happening here. This page is almost entirely exposition and description. The only action is James looking out the window at a spaceship retrieval. But that’s only one line, and then we’re back to exposition.

My suggestion: Start with James looking out at the retrieval, then extend the action. I was intrigued by this line: It was a common topic of discussion between he, himself, and his robot as to what it would be like to be out there, allowing your body to absorb the starlight directly and to feel the touch of cold space on your skin. But instead of telling us this, give us the scene! Thus:

James Klass flattened his face against the window of the ship. He strained his eyes to see the Retriever in action as it slowly grappled the nearby derelict starship, preparing to pull it inside.

“It looks cold,” Zee said.

James whirled around and glared at his robot. “What do you know about it??

“I have been outside,” Zee said.

“But you have no skin!”

“I am sensing tension in your voice, James. Perhaps you would like your evening dose of Darnitol now?”

Now we have action and conflict. All the explanatory stuff can be dribbled in as we go along.

Act first, explain later.

So, writing friends, if you are determined to use author voice, understand that it is the nitroglycerin of POVs––one false move and it could blow the whole story up.

Now it’s your turn. What other suggestions to you have for the author?

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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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The Writer’s It Factor

Today I welcome my friend and fellow ITW member Brad Parks as our guest blogger. Brad takes on one of the most elusive yet essential elements in successful storytelling. Read on to find the answer.

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BY BRAD PARKS
@Brad_Parks

Once upon a writer’s conference, a friend of mine—who might or might not be Chantelle Aimee Osman, depending on how she feels about being described as my friend—was going around, asking folks a great question:

In Hollywood, people talk about certain actors or actresses having an “It Factor,” that special something that just draws in the eye and won’t let it go. Is there an It Factor with writing; and, if so, what is It?

I answered with one word: Voice.

Voice, I will posit, is the writing equivalent of a killer body, great hair and a mysteriously alluring smile.

And while I volunteered to take this guest blog spot from Joe because I have a new book to 2024657flog—it’s called THE FRAUD, and when I’m flattering myself I think it’s a fine example of a healthy narrative voice—I want to take a few minutes of your blog time to unpack this subject, because it strikes me as one that folks in the writeosphere don’t spend enough time discussing.

Which is strange. Ask any editor or agent what they’re looking for in a manuscript, and a strong, fresh, unique voice is inevitably at or near the top of that list. The same is true for readers, even if they might not be able to articulate it as such.

The proof can be found at the top of the bestseller list. I’m willing to bet I could kidnap you, drag you into the desert, beat you with sage brush and leave you to die in the brutal sun; but, if before I departed, I also left you with a stripped paperback that began…

I was arrest in Eno’s Diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

… you’d be like, “Oh, cool. Reacher.” (Or at least you would if you were a Lee Child fan, as I am).

Many of the writers whose book sales are counted in the millions have voices that are so distinct, you could wipe their names and all other identifying characteristics from their work, and yet most of us would still be able to identify their prose within a few paragraphs.

Think of Harlan Coben (where suburban suspense meets Borsht Belt shtick); or Sue Grafton (who couldn’t pick Kinsey’s chatter out of a crowd?); or James Lee Burke (you can hear Louisiana in everything that falls out of Robicheaux’s mouth); or Elmore Leonard, or Laura Lippman, or… or…

It starts with voice. And, yes, of course the writers I’ve listed do many other things well, whether it’s Coben’s great twists or Lippman’s great characters or what have you. But I would argue that voice also covers the things they don’t necessarily do well. Because when a writer has a strong voice? The reader is already buckled in, happy to be along for the ride.

This is great news for all of us who attempt to prod words into compliance. Because unlike Hollywood, where the It Factor is at least partially based on things you have to be born with—some marriage of facial symmetry, bone structure, and that certain crinkle around the eyes—voice is something that can be developed.

Let’s start from 30,000 feet up, with a simple definition of what it is we keyboard-ticklers do each day. Writing is nothing more than (and nothing less than) the task of transferring thoughts from your brain to paper.

It sounds simple enough, except when you start out, there’s this thick filter between your head and the page. And, depending on how tortured your formal education might have been—and how many misguided English teachers forced you to write keyhole-style essays or said you couldn’t end sentences in a preposition—the filter can stay thick for many years.

But if you keep working the writing muscle, the filter starts to thin out. The thoughts get to the page more readily than they did before. You start to notice little things that are dragging on your prose and you eliminate them. You read great writers and incorporate the things they do so well. You read your stuff out loud and develop an ear for what sounds clunky and what sounds cool.

Eventually, the filter disappears. Then it’s just you, in all your idiosyncratic genius. And if you accept that no two people’s thoughts are the same—yes, you really are that special snowflake—no two writers’ voices will be the same, either. Ergo, you will be that strong, fresh, unique voice that someone out there is looking for.

And, no, none of this happens particularly quickly. If you thought I was going to offer the equivalent of a miracle diet for writers—Lose 30 Pounds And Gain Your Voice In Two Easy Weeks, Guaranteed!—I’m sorry to report no such thing exists.

Personally? I started writing for my hometown newspaper when I was 14 years old and I didn’t start to develop a whimper of a voice until I was at least 19. Even then, it was probably just a subconscious imitation of the writers I admired. I didn’t start to have a voice of my own until I was probably 24. Well, okay, maybe 26.

Admittedly, I’m not the quickest study. I’m sure a brighter light could find their voice faster than I did. But, perhaps, only by a little. Writing is a journey without shortcuts, because the destination only becomes clear to you after you’ve arrived.

But at the end of this particular road, the voice—that It Factor—is waiting for you. Fact is, it’s been inside you all along, screaming to get out.

Brad Parks jacket picBrad Parks is the only author to have won the Shamus, Nero and Lefty Awards. His sixth thriller featuring investigative reporter Carter Ross released yesterday. For more, visit www.BradParksBooks.com.

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