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?

8+

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.

13+

The New “WestWorld”: A Show About Storytelling

fullsizerender8By Kathryn Lilley

I don’t watch many television shows, so I was surprised that I recently become addicted to a new HBO series: “Westworld”.

When I first heard that HBO was making a series based on the original concept of the Westworld film (the earlier version was written by sci-fi writer Michael Crichton), I’ll admit that I was skeptical. The original Westworld was one of the worst movies of all time, surpassed in its hideousness (despite a bravura performance by actor Yul Brynner) only by its lamentable sequel, “Futureworld”.

The premise is simple: “Westworld” is a recreation of a 19th century western town, staffed by android “hosts”, where vacationers can act out their fantasies about living in the old West. The paying guests of Westworld are told that they can live out their Wild West fantasies in complete safety. “Nothing can go wrong,” the tourists are told. Which means, of course, that everything certainly will go wrong, and fast.

Fortunately for viewers, the new HBO series far surpasses the original film. It explores issues such as the nature of consciousness, the relationship between humans and robots, and the stories we invent about our lives.

Here is the trailer for the original 1973 movie:

And here is the trailer for the 2016 HBO series.

Same premise, much more effective execution. The HBO version of Westworld is a great show for writers to watch, in particular. At its heart, Westworld is a show about storytelling. Each episode explores an aspect of telling stories, positing the notion that our memories are nothing more than the narratives we select to anchor our identities as human beings. My favorite character in the show is the writer, Lee Sizemore, a profane, alcoholic hack who is charged with writing the “depraved little fantasies” that entertain the tourists at Westworld. Sizemore’s hapless, comedic character offers a refreshing contrast to the polished perfection of the androids and robotic-seeming humans of Westworld.

Have you been watching the Westworld series on HBO? Here is a New York Times article recapping this week’s penultimate show, Episode 9. But if you haven’t been watching the series, I wouldn’t jump into one of the later episodes. Multiple timelines and unreliable narrators abound in this ambitious show, so it’s essential to watch it from the beginning. Next Sunday is the finale, and fans of Westworld are eager to know: is Arnold really dead?

Fun aspect of the new Westworld: the integration of contemporary rock music as the musical score. Here’s a clip as an example (strong language, violence advisory).

5+

One of Life’s Decidedly Less Awesome Homecomings

Burglar in house

By Kathryn Lilley

Well, Friends, I’m sorry for posting in such a rush and being a tad tardy (again!). We came home from a fantastic vacation on the East  Coast, but dis covered the following iSpurs when we arrived home:

  • A kitchen leak that warped the hardwood floor (why home builders insist on putting hardwood floors into moisture/spill-prone kitchen environments, I will never understand).Flooded interior
  • One of our cars that was parked in the driveway was ransacked, but otherwise undamaged.
  • Our vault was broken into; only one item was taken, so it appears to have been a targeted theft, according to police investigators.

SO…we’ve spent the last couple of days being interviewed by police, reviewing security camera footage, etc. NOT the best homecoming in our family’s history, but hey, we’re alive and healthy, so it’s all good.

Meanwhile, I’m casting around for additional security measures to install. We already have quite a few: 1) a monitored alarm system with multiple, motion-activated, infrared capable interior cameras; 2) motion activated LED/infrared  cameras (with two-way talk capability)  ringing the entire exterior property perimeter; 3) a large, barking, VERY  intimidating wolf-like dog who is by nature suspicious of strangers (unfortunately, Mr. K9 Centurion was on Doggie Vacay while we were out of town, so he was off duty during the burglary.)

What else is there to do? I have to admit my thoughts are currently straying to the Dark Side related to self protection strategies at this particular point. Most of my immediate southern family clan (female relatives included), are NRA trained, concealed weapons-licensed owners. After this experience, I may embrace, however reluctantly, the option of personal gun ownership. (Full disclosure: I was raised in the Deep South, which by cultralight traditional included constant exposure to gun ownership. Skeet shooting, target range practice, gun safety training, I did it all. (I drew the line at hunting, however? Even when I was taken hunting at age six, I obstinately refused to kill other living beings. (I had just watched Bambi). To this day, I Refuse to eat anything with two feet or four feet).

My Southern upbringing inevitably led to some…er, complications later in life. Ex: When I was a freshman at Wellesley College, I thought I was being SO clever and an anti-liberal iconoclast by posting examples of my best target shooting examples  on my dorm room door. Hah! If I tried something like THAT  nowadays, I’d probably be sent straight to Mental Health for an emergency psych evaluation, and possibly expelled.

Empty many hits

But back in those days, the entire episode  was written off by the Wellesley Grandees as nothing more than a Southern country girl’s eccentric expression of door regalia.). (There Was one fallout from the whole target display thing, however. My sophisticated freshman roommate, who hailed from New York City, requested–and was granted–an immediate transfer to a different dorm room. Far Away from me. I chalked up her hasty retreat as a personal triumph, because I’d always thought she was a bit of a pseudo-intellectual, condescending brat. Plus it left me with a much sought-after single room, an unheard of privilege for freshman students).

image

But back to you: Have you ever been a victim of a burglary or other type of traumatic crime? Did any of that experience work its way into your stories? Or, have you upgraded your home or self defense strategies in response to a particular incident? Do you draw the line at any particular point, like carrying firearms?

Our back yard cannon obviously didn’t prove to be a deterrent.

image

Ceremonial antique cannon

4+

What’s your Mindset?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

On Friday night I heard a great presentation from our school district’s differentiation coach about fixed versus growth mindset and how research into this relates to how our children learn and succeed at school. Although I haven’t read the work by Carol Dweck (who pioneered much of this research) I was intrigued enough to watch her in a TED speech online (click to see here) and to place her book ‘Mindset, the New Psychology of Success’ on hold at our local library. Initially the concept of a fixed versus growth mindset didn’t seem all the radical, but when I thought a little more closely I realized it highlights many of ‘mindset’ issues we face as writers.

A fixed mindset is one which regards intelligence, talent or ability as static and innate – meaning we are either intelligent, smart, good at creative writing or we aren’t (and I guess if we aren’t we just have to accept our fate!). Scientific research over the last few decades reveals, however,  that our brains are much more flexible and fluid than that and, like any muscle, the more we use it, the stronger it gets.

At some time in our lives, I’m sure many of us have been caught within the fixed mindset trap (“I’m not good at math”; “I’m a hopeless athlete…”), or may have  had a fixed mindset imposed on us by our teachers or our peers  (“You can’t write!”; “You’ll never be able to do that!” ). Research shows that children start out in kindergarten believing they can do anything (just think of how many of us wanted to be astronauts!) but as we mature, many of us shift from a growth mindset to a fixed one. At that point we no longer want to face the possibility of failure and remain firmly entrenched in our ‘comfort zone’ of abilities.

Someone with a fixed mindset will most likely avoid challenges; give up easily; ignore feedback and feel threatened by other people’s success. Unfortunately, writing is by its very nature an ongoing challenge that more often than not results in failure – writers face a constant learning curve, which (I would argue at least) requires us to move to a growth mindset in order to succeed (or at least not go insane!)

Someone with a growth mindset embraces challenges, gives everything their best shot, learns from feedback and is inspired by others’ success. More importantly, they accept failure as a necessary part of the growth process (an admittedly difficult lesson for any of us to learn).

As both a writer and a parent, I got a great deal out of Friday’s presentation.  It made me think more closely about my own mindset and whether it was fixed or growth focused when it came to my writing, and how I can embrace  the challenges as well as the failures as I continue to grow as a writer.

So TKZers, how would you categorize your mindset when it comes to your writing?

0

When a Picture Is Worth
At Least 80,000 Words

chci-dog-thechicadvisor

The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer, you see – every scrap, even the longest and most boring of luncheon parties.– Graham Greene

By PJ Parrish

Friday, I tried to push the boulder back up the hill again.

You all know the one. James even had a picture of it here last week when he asked us what was the hardest part of writing. It’s that stone on which is engraved CHAPTER ONE. It’s that rock that feels so heavy and looms so large that you are sure it will roll back and crush you dead before you even get traction.

Especially if you haven’t got a good picture of how your story is going to open.

We talk a lot here at TKZ about crafting a good opening for your book. That it has to be compelling, that it has to grab the reader by the throat, that you can’t do this or that. But I think the single most important decision we all need to make boils down to one question:
What is the optimum moment to enter the story door? What is the best angle of approach?

I struggle with this question every time I start a new book because I’ve learned that for me least, finding this prime entry angle affects the whole trajectory of my story. I keep going back to my metaphor of the astronauts in the movie Apollo 13. The three guys are up in the capsule about to make their harrowing re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. The guys down in mission control are sweating about finding the right angle of descent. If they come in too fast and deep, they will burn up. If they come in too slow and shallow they will bounce off into the atmosphere.

It’s the same with a book opening, I think. If you come in too hard and fast, you burn up in a blaze of clichéd action and grab-me gimmicks. But if you come in too late and lazy, you lose the reader in backstory and throat-clearing.

So how do you find that right moment?

For me, it always starts with an image. I have to see something in my mind’s eye –- a person who can’t be ignored, a place that has the power to haunt the imagination, a visual that is so compelling that I have to spend 100,000 words explaining it. You often hear writers talk about “seeing” their stories unfold like films. Joyce Carol Oates has said she can’t write the first line until she knows the last. I can’t write one single word until I see the opening of my mind-movie.FINAL COVER

I can trace this process to almost every book my sister and I have written. (I usually get the opening chapter duties after we have talked things over). For our newest book, She’s Not There, the seminal image came from a vivid childhood memory of when I almost drowned at a Michigan lake one summer. I walked out into a lake, the sand gave way under my feet and I felt myself sinking slowly downward in the water until someone yanked me out by the hair. Here is the opening of our book:

 

She was floating inside a blue-green bubble. It felt cool and peaceful and she could taste salt on her lips and feel the sting of it in her eyes. Then, suddenly, there was a hard tug on her hair and she was yanked out of the bubble, gasping and crying.

This is our heroine, Amelia, who is coming out of a coma in a hospital, a literal image. But I knew in my bones that once I had that opening paragraph, I had the whole book, because it is a metaphor for the story’s theme about getting a second chance to live after you’ve lost your way.

Kelly and I take a lot of photographs for our locations and return to them for inspiration as the stories unfold. Other images that inspired our books:

getPart (1)

A potter’s field cemetery in an abandoned asylum outside Detroit, where we found that the old stone markers of the dead inmates (above) had only numbers and had been lost in the weeds. This became An Unquiet Grave.

Ice 4

This abandoned hunting lodge (left) on Mackinac Island in Michigan. Once Kelly and I saw it, the whole plot of Heart of Ice began to reveal itself.

The odd juxtaposition of a swampy stand of dead trees glimpsed from the road outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, and a nearby old white pillared mansion. This inspired Dark of the Moon.

Sitting in Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle in December, listening to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” feeling so cold that my teeth chattered like bones, watching a cellist who looked so bored that he wanted to kill someone. Which he did in The Killing Song’s first chapter.

farmhouse 60

This creepy old farmhouse near Lansing MI inspired this opening for South of Hell:

It was just south of Hell, but if you missed the road going in you ended up down in Bliss. And then there was nothing to do but go back to Hell and start over again. That’s what the kid pumping gas at the Texaco had told her, at least. Since she had not been here for a very long time, she had to trust him, because she had no memory of her old home anymore.

I feel so strongly about the power of a picture in your imagination that I use this in our writing workshops. Kelly and I have found that one of the biggest hangups for beginning writers is getting over the paralysis of finding the perfect opening. Maybe it’s because it’s been drilled into their heads that they have to come out of the gate at full gallop or no agent or editor will ever buy their books. Or maybe they get intimidated by the “rules” that preach suspense is all about adrenaline. Whatever the reason, they get all constipated and can’t make a decision about when is the right moment to start their narrative journeys.

So we give them pictures and five minutes to write the opening of a story using it. The purpose of the exercise is to get them un-stuck but it is also to force them to tap into their powers of observation. Forced to focus on one photograph, they turn up the volume on their receivers, extend their sensory antennae. They become, in the words of Graham Greene, better spies on the human experience.

The results are always amazing. Freed from the tyranny of their WIPs and under deadline to write something, they lock on an aspect of the image that moves them. And they always come up with really good stuff.  Afterwards, when we read them aloud, I see something change in their expressions, like they realize they do, indeed, have that spark inside them.

In college, I was an art major and I always struggled because I was hung up on making everything look…perfect. Even my attempts to be “modern” were perfect and thus lifeless. Then one of my teachers had us do blind contour drawing. We had to keep our eyes on the subject, never look at the sketch pad, and draw slowly and continuously without lifting the pencil. I was shocked at how good my drawing was. Psychologists call this right brain thinking. Picasso nailed it in one quote:

It takes a very long time to become young.

The idea being, of course, kids know instinctively how to create. We adults…well, the spark fades and most of us live in our left lobes, never finding the synapse that lights the way back across.

I just got back from a month in France. I didn’t write a word. I had been trying hard to begin this new book and I was bone dry and defeated. So I rested and read good books by other writers. And I took photographs. I have a thing about taking photos of people in cafes, especially old ladies with dogs, which is a human sub-species in France.  When I got home, while I was going through my pictures, I happened upon one and sat down and wrote an opening about it. It was pretty darn good. It won’t make it into the new book (maybe it’s a short story?) but it got my right brain buzzing again. I started thinking about the new book again, not with dread but with anticipation. I even got this picture in my head…

But that’s another story.

EXERCISE TIME!

Just for fun, while writing this post, I sent two of my old French lady photographs to some writer friends and asked them to choose a photograph and write an opening. Thanks guys! Here are the results:IMG_0469

The old woman watched the young man cross the plaza towards her. He looked very French — cream colored neck scarf, black blazer, black coiled hair, black jeans, his jaw brushed with just enough of a beard to give the impression he’d spent the last three days in bed with a woman. If she had known how beautiful he would grow up to be, how much he would one day resemble his father, she would not have given him away thirty years ago. — my sister and co-author Kelly

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They’re all I have now that Jacques is gone. I think they miss him as much as I do, but we persevere. At least I know why it happened. Dogs, they do not understand. — SJ Rozan.

 

 

 

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The old woman came to the cafe every morning promptly at nine. She always had the morning newspaper in her right hand, and a blue bag with her small dog in it over her left shoulder. She walked in, spread the paper out on the table, and placed the bag containing the dog on the chair next to her– always the one on the right. The dog never barked, never growled, and never bothered anyone. Her order rarely varied: always a cup of black coffee, sometimes orange juice as well, with a toasted muffin with strawberry jelly, please, and a pat of butter — but she never failed to order a side of bacon for the dog, whose name was Pierre. She would feed him the bacon, cooing his name and gently scratching him behind the ears. Once the bacon was gone, Pierre would curl up inside his carrier and go to sleep while she enjoyed her newspaper and sipped her coffee, tearing the muffin to small pieces. She smelled of lilacs, always left a five dollar tip, and was always gone by ten.— Greg Herren

 

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What an ugly fucking dog, I thought, and even more unhappy than ugly. I wondered how it felt to be shoved into the old lady’s purse like that, like a spare Euro or used tissues as she shoved foie gras down her pie hole. I don’t know, maybe I was reading into it. I probably was. Wouldn’t be the first time. I was the unhappy one. Maybe the dog was Zen about it all, the foie gras eating and the bag. Like I said, I don’t know. But I couldn’t help hoping the dog would leave a present in the old lady’s purse. – Reed Farrel Coleman

 

 

What I found revealing about this exercise is that in each example you can hear the unique voice of each writer. Kelly loves to focus on lost relationships. SJ Rozan’s is just like her books, as lean but emotion-laden as a haiku. Greg’s reflects the same gentleness and attention to detail as his books. And Reed’s — well, if you have read his Moe Prager series, or his new bestselling Robert B. Parker Jesse Stone books, you’ve hear the same gritty authority at work.

Just for fun, go ahead and take your turn. Pick one of the lady pictures and write an opening. Don’t over-think it. Don’t take too long. You might surprise yourself. And if you’ll let me, here is one more picture of an old lady and her dogs in a cafe. (My husband took this one…)  A bientôt, mes amis.

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First Page Critique: Tweak, Tune, and Trim

Shutterstock photo purchased by Kathryn Lilley

Shutterstock photo purchased by Kathryn Lilley

Today we’re analyzing an anonymous, first-page submission titled WHERE I BELONG. My comments on the flip side.

*   *   *

“Do you want to know why we’re not having sex?”

My husband Sam was standing at the stove, pouring pancake batter onto the griddle, when I walked into the kitchen. He had his back turned; he spoke in an even tone. He might as well have been asking whether I wanted orange juice or cranberry.

It was a sunny Saturday morning in early September. I was dressed in sweats, my long hair pulled back in a ponytail. I had been headed to the garage to let the dog out of his pen, so I was distracted and wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly. “I’m sorry, what did you say?” I asked.

Sam turned off the stove, faced me directly, and placed his hands flat on the counter-top between them. “I said, do you want to know why we’re not having sex?”

Is there a good answer to this question? I wondered. Doesn’t this lead to either “I’ve met someone else and we need to talk” or “I am seriously ill and we need to talk.” Either way –

“I’m not in love with you anymore,” Sam said in a monotone voice.

I felt as if I’d entered a time warp. This whole conversation was bizarre. “You just stopped loving me? This morning?” I replied lightheartedly.

Ten minutes ago I’d been singing in the shower and now I heard my husband telling me– Wait. What exactly was he telling me? Was Sam upset about something? Was this his way of letting me know he was hurt?

“Okay, what’s bothering you?” I finally said. “And, honey, how can you say we’re not having sex? Just a few weeks ago, we made love. When Lily left for the weekend. You cried afterwards and said I was the only woman you ever loved.”

Sam stared at me full on. “I told you what you wanted to hear. I wasn’t being honest. And because I knew it was the last time.”

I stood still, looking at him. This time I heard him. That message was clear. His jaw was clenched but I also saw tears in his eyes. Something was seriously wrong.

*   *   *

My comments:

The first line of this story grabbed my attention. As Joe Moore discussed in his post last week, the first line of a story plays a critical role in setting the stage for everything that follows. After reading the first line of this story, about why the couple is no longer having sex, I was hooked. That’s a strong opening.

This first page does severel other things well.  It sets up a situation that many people can identify with:  a sudden, shattering rejection. By contrasting the serious nature of the couple’s discussion against the mundane rhythm of a “normal” Saturday morning, the drama is heightened all the more. We can’t help but identify with the character as she reacts to what her husband  is saying, moving from confusion to a dawning awareness that her world is about to fall apart.

Tweak and Tune

Most of my suggestions for improvement go under the category of “tweak and tune.”

Action overload

The following sentence contains too many sequential actions:

“My husband Sam was standing at the stove, pouring pancake batter onto the griddle, when I walked into the kitchen.”

We writers have a tendency to string actions together like Christmas tree lights, in order to move through the physical mechanics of a scene. As a general rule, sentences should contain one or two actions each. Use caution when combining actions by two characters within the same sentence–that’s frequently a symptom of action overload.

The sentence in this example is further weakened because the sequence of actions is out of order. The main character sees her husband after entering the kitchen, but this sentence reverses that sequence. That note seems like a small nit, but it’s important to avoid disorienting the reader. (Another related, general rule: the most important action should always appear at the end of a sentence, not the beginning.)

Echo-ING

“Standing” and “pouring”. The use of two ING words within the same sentence is  repetitive, and weakens the line.

Batch related elements

The sentence, “…he spoke in an even tone” is an important line, but it’s located too far away from the dialogue it refers too. In general, try to keep descriptive elements in close proximity to the thing they describe.

Semicolon alert

“He had his back turned; he spoke in an even tone.”

I agree with James Scott Bell, who once said of semi-colons: “I think of semi-colons the way I think of eggplant: avoid at all costs.”

Adverb alert

“I replied lightheartedly.”

The adverb “lightheartedly” undermines the strength of this sentence. The character might try to sound lighthearted, perhaps. But seriously. Don’t use an adverb here.

Focus on action-reaction

“Okay, what’s bothering you?” I finally said. “And, honey, how can you say we’re not having sex? Just a few weeks ago, we made love. When Lily left for the weekend. You cried afterwards and said I was the only woman you ever loved.”

It would be good to enhance this snippet of dialogue with some sense of interaction between the characters. For example, perhaps the woman waits for her husband to respond to her question about what’s bothering him. When she gets no answer, she then launches into the story about the last time they made love.

Overall

All my notes and nits are relatively minor, mechanical suggestions. Overall, I was completely drawn in by the character’s situation in this story. I think it’s a strong start. Kudos to the writer, and thank you for submitting this first page!

Your turn

What do you think of this first page, TKZ’ers? Do you have any additional notes or suggestions for the writer?

 

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TKZ Spotlight: Author Terri Lynn Coop

Today I’m delighted to welcome author Terri Lynn Coop for a Q and A.

TVavatarTerri is a lawyer by day, writer by night, and an unapologetic geek the rest of the time. Her work appears in the “Battlespace” military fiction anthology and the spooky “No Rest for the Wicked” collection. She is a long-time member of the TKZ community.

Please describe your journey as a writer, including any challenges and obstacles you’ve had to overcome.

I didn’t write anything except exams in pursuit of my engineering degree, back then it was all about the math. By the time I hit law school, I was taking every writing class I could to avoid exams. One class, Law and Literature, stuck with me. The professor stressed how the body of American law develops like an epic novel, new chapters constantly building on the old. I developed an appreciation for some of the great legal writers and even forgave the professor for making me read Kafka. 

And it was a good thing. My nascent writing career was short-circuited in 2005 when the family antique business became embroiled in an intellectual property lawsuit. Over the next five years I probably wrote 500,000 words in briefs and motions in four courts across three states. Despite the myth that lawyers are wordy, I had to learn, and learn fast, how to persuasively tell my story, complete with all the backstory, research, and reasoning in 25-page chunks. I had a very specialized audience of one, the judge. I won the case, but it was brutal. 

During this time I also wrote the two “trunkers,” novels of such horrifying proportion that I will do everyone a favor and leave them in the darkest recesses of my hard drive. 

Everything changed in 2009 when my husband was seriously and critically injured in an accident. I was thrown into the role of full-time caregiver and primary wage-earner for two years. Even though he eventually had professional health care aides, I still worked three jobs to keep the household running. Writing was my escape then, and out of that cauldron came the first novel I would let anyone read: “Devil’s Deal”. It went on to win the 2013 Claymore Award at Killer Nashville for best unpublished novel.

Where do you live, and how does that setting inform your writing?

I live on the Kansas prairie in Fort Scott, about 100 miles south of Kansas City, but I’ve lived coast to coast and traveled widely. My settings come from my road trips. For example, in my novel, I’ve camped at that trailer park in south Texas, had breakfast in that truck stop diner, and I spent six months working in downtown Dallas. 

Here in Fort Scott, I love to sit in the local diner and listen to the locals talk. 

How does your background influence your writing?

After my Claymore win, I was interviewed by The Library Police. They asked me why so many lawyers end up as writers. I told them that as a group we are bright, literate, and bored. The practice of law is interesting and can be fulfilling, but if done correctly, is extremely routine and administrative. As a public defender, I practiced what I called “law by the pound.” It was about volume and number of cases resolved. A lot of interesting tidbits came my way, but most of it was very mundane. However, it was so immersive that it couldn’t help but influence my writing in both content and style. 

How old were you when you first felt the urge to write, and what inspired you to get serious about honing the craft?

Ignoring my high school emoting, real inspiration hit in 2003 when I joined an online writing group. I got serious about learning the craft when I wandered into venues that were considerably less impressed with me than I was. 

What are some main themes you return to when writing?

The series that kicked off with Devil’s Deal will have an underlying current of trust, betrayal, loss, and loyalty. In the first book Juliana can’t abandon her father to his fate, even though he may well deserve it. Law enforcement knew exactly how to manipulate her into risking everything to save him. She called it a “familial bomb vest strapped around her heart.” 

Which authors have most influenced your writing?

I have a spare style, terse to the point of being brusque. Most edit notes I get are to “put more in,” rather than “cut more out.” In books, I like plots that move fast and sure with well-defined reluctant heroes like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Steve Ulfelder’s Conway Sax, and John Gilstrap’s Jonathan Graves. But, I’m also intrigued by rich characters and settings like Larry’s McMurtry’s Texasville saga. So, I try to keep it moving, but also have character quirks and a lot of repartee in dialogue. 

For POV, a short work called “Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” by J.D. Rhoades completely sold me on the effectiveness of using first person for tight fast plots where the action swirls around the main character. I liked keeping the villains slightly off-stage. The bad guys drove Juliana and Ethan like puppet-masters. 

Do you have a “day job”? Tell us about that. Does it inform your writing in any way?

I’m semi-retired from practicing law. I’ll never give up my license, but I really burned out on courtroom work after some tragic cases. So these days I run the antique business I inherited from my late husband, hustle freelance writing work (including a gig writing catalog descriptions for Halloween costumes,) and hack away at my novels. I’m always on the lookout and absorbing settings, overheard snips of conversation, legal news, and other writers to incorporate into my writing. 

What are you working on now?

I am working on the second installment of the Juliana Martin series, titled “Ride the Lightning.” After the debacle in Texas that ended the first book, Juliana is burned out, salving her wounds as the cynical manager of a Biloxi roadhouse and dance club. Everything is going fine until Ethan Price shows up on undercover with an outlaw motorcycle club. 

When did you first connect with the TKZ community, and have the discussions here had any impact on you as a writer?

 I came to TKZ in about 2007. I was going to a writers conference where John Gilstrap was a presenter and would be critiquing my writing sample. I researched him and landed here. Best decisions I ever made. First the critique, including the now famous “this sucks,” and becoming part of this community have all contributed to my writer’s life. The lessons, discussions, fellowship, and critiques have all left positive impressions on me and my work. Even when I go quiet on the comments because of some kerfuffle in real life, I’m always around. 

Many thanks to Kathryn Lilley for this chance to ramble. I’ll see you all around TKZ. I’ve also been known to blog at Readin’, Ritin’, and Rhetoric. [http://readinrittinrhetoric.blogspot.com/]

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Devil’s Deal is available through Amazon. [http://www.amazon.com/Devils-Deal-Juliana-Martin-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00N9OL3FK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415893921&sr=8-1&keywords=terri+coop] Ride the Lightning will be out by late summer.

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4 Techniques for Adding Depth to a Scene

shutterstock_187206578Have you ever wondered how to add emotional depth to a scene you’ve written? There are a number of techniques you can use to inject emotional depth and drama into a scene. Here are my top four techniques for scene deepening:

1. Ban the bland

Many writers create a bland main character surrounded by quirky, interesting secondary characters. Let your hero be the one who goes through emotional experiences in the scene. Secondary characters should play off/react to the main character’s emotions, not the other way around.

2. Heighten suspense through avoidance

Have your characters dance around an emotionally charged issue. By hinting at trouble to come rather than addressing it directly, you will avoid “on the nose” writing, plus you will create suspense for your readers.

3. One stimulus, two responses

You can inject some energy into a scene by giving your characters contrasting responses to the same situation in a scene. The following example is a bit of a cliche, but think of the veteran cop who doesn’t blink an eye at a gory murder scene, contrasted with his newbie partner who is quietly losing his lunch in the bushes.

4. The human touch

Seed your scenes with small, human moments. Think of the gruff cop who, after he throws his arrestee into the slammer, offers to buy him a bag of chips from the vending machine.

There are dozens of ways to deepen a story scene. Which techniques have you used, and can recommend?

 

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First Page Critique: El Cuco

Purchased from Shutterstock by Kathryn Lilley

Photo via Shutterstock, purchased by Kathryn Lilley

Today we are doing a critique of an anonymous first-page submission. The title is EL CUCO (THE CUCKOO). After my comments, please add your thoughts and constructive criticism. (Note: Content contains strong language).

***

It was hot as hell.   Four-thirty in the morning and it was already a fucking nightmare in her apartment.  The ceiling fan pushed warm air around the room, and the feel of it against her skin reminded Silky of the hot, stale, breath of an ex-lover she almost killed back in ’72.

She slid into a light robe and slippers, tucked her big gun into the deep side pocket, and headed for her car, where she intended to blast the A/C and smoke a joint.

When Silky pushed through the broken screen door onto the porch, Steve was standing there smoking a cigarette, his painted toes tapping a private beat against the pealing gray floorboards.

“What the fuck are you doing up this early?” she said.  “You scared the shit out of me – I thought you were that lunatic running around.”

Steve blew a column of out of the side of his mouth.  “Christ,” he said.  “What are you doing up?”

“It’s hot as fish grease in my apartment.”

Steve’s manicured eyebrows climbed into his hairline.  “Wait – what are talking about, a lunatic?”

“Some nut,” she said, waving a dismissive hand. “He’s out there slashing throats.”

“Around here?”

Silky nodded.

Steve reflexively touched his throat.  “I haven’t heard anything about a throat-slasher.”

“He’s out there,” Silky said confidently.  “Believe me.”

“That’s awful.”

“There’s all kinds of fruitcakes out there.  That’s why you never see me without this.” Silky pulled the big gun from her robe and held it up.

“Jesus!”

“And I won’t hesitate to use this,” Silky said.  She discharged the clip and showed it to Steve.  “You see?  Loaded.  I don’t fuck around.”

Silky slowly lowered herself onto the top stoop, her knees cracking like microwave popcorn.  “And just think,” she said, “you almost got shot with this grizzly.”  She rested the gun beside her.   “Gimme a cigarette.”

Steve withdrew a cigarette from his pack and handed it to Silky.   He flicked the lighter for her.  “Me?” he said.

Silky held the cigarette against the flame until she got it going.  She leveled her gaze at Steve, raised a perfectly sharp eyebrow.

“Yeah, you ,” she said.

“I almost got shot?  When?”

“Are you high? Two minutes ago when I walked down here.  You think I was expecting to bump into someone this early in the morning?  Who else but the slasher is out this time of day?”

***

My comments:

This page has an engaging spirit to it. I think it could be much stronger after some issues are addressed. Let’s discuss the issues one at a time.

First, kill off all the adverbs

In general, it’s a good idea to be very sparing in the use of “ly” adverbs such as “Slowly,” and “confidently”. Adverbs are a weak way of conveying action.

Shorten sentence structure

Many of the sentences on this page are too long. The prose will be stronger and snappier once they are broken up. For example:

“The ceiling fan pushed warm air around the room, and the feel of it against her skin reminded Silky of the hot, stale, breath of an ex-lover she almost killed back in ’72.”

Break up as follows:

The ceiling fan pushed warm air around the room. The feel of it against her skin reminded Silky of the hot, stale, breath of an ex-lover she almost killed back in ’72.

And the following sentence:

“When Silky pushed through the broken screen door onto the porch, Steve was standing there smoking a cigarette, his painted toes tapping a private beat against the pealing gray floorboards.”

Can be broken up as follows:

“Silky pushed through the broken screen door onto the porch. She immediately felt a warm presence in the shadows. It was Steve. He stood in the shadows, smoking a cigarette, his painted toes tapping a private beat against the pealing peeling gray floorboards.”

Watch spelling

Spelling errors such as the one contained in the previous example are a death sentence for any first page submission. In addition to running spell check, the writer needs to make sure the spelling of the word is correct for its meaning in context. (“Pealing” is the sound of a bell. “Peeling” is how one removes the skin from an orange.)

Keep cause with effect

When Silky says, “I thought you were that lunatic running around,” Steve’s response to the statement should follow immediately. The way it’s currently written, he responds to the first part of her statement (regarding the hour of day) before he reacts to the important part of her speech (a lunatic running around).

Vary the language for impact

Silky says, “You scared the shit out of me – I thought you were that lunatic running around.”

Steve eventually responds by using identical language. ““Wait – what are talking about, a lunatic?”

Steve’s response should be revised to use wording that is different than hers.

Avoid repeating phrases

“Big gun” is repeated twice on the same page, which is one time too many.

Use specific language

“Big gun” is vague language. Indicate what type of gun is being used. Using specific language helps reveal character.

A note about similes

Similes and metaphors can be effective when used well. The simile in this page, “…her knees cracking like microwave popcorn” didn’t quite work for me. “Popping” might be a better gerund to use in this case, but I would still jettison the simile.

Strong language

I’m not a prude about the use of strong language in fiction, but in this instance, I don’t think the F-bomb and related terms add anything interesting to the characters or scene.

Monitor tics and jerks

For some reason, many writers, including professionals, love to use eyebrows and other tics to convey a character’s reaction. This page has a little too much eyebrow action going on.

“Steve’s manicured eyebrows climbed into his hairline.”

She…raised a perfectly sharp eyebrow.

Convey action before dialogue

In this scene, Silky tells Steve that she almost shot him, but I didn’t get a sense of that during the action that leads up to their dialogue. Before she says to Steve, “I almost shot you,” the reader needs to see her going onto the porch, feeling a presence in the shadows, raising the gun barrel, etc.

Title note

I had to look up the title, EL CUCO, on a translator to verify what it meant. That’s not good. The story title is the  first opportunity to engage a reader. If the reader doesn’t understand what the title means, that opportunity is lost.

Overall

Even though I’ve called out quite a few issues with this page, I still felt engaged by the story, and found myself liking the characters. That’s half the battle right there–everything else is fixable with careful editing.

Thank you to the writer for submitting this page for discussion.

What do you think of this first page, TKZ’ers? Any comments to add?

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