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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Which Handgun Should Your Character Carry?

By John Gilstrap

I just returned from my annual sojourn to Las Vegas to attend the SHOT Show (Shooting Hunting and Outdoor Technology–at best, a tortured acronym), which is sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The SHOT Show is to shooting and archery what the Detroit Auto Show is for car manufacturers, the event when new products are launched. It’s also an opportunity for me to meet with my subject matter experts face-to-face.  A highlight of the SHOT Show is Media Day at the Range, when folks like me can shoot a wide variety of weapons, while sending hundreds of rounds of free ammo downrange.

As I wandered the 17 miles (!) of display aisles, it occurred to me that the average writer–or person, for that matter–cannot comprehend the thousands of variations that exist for what we casually call a gun.  In this post, I thought I’d walk you through some of the major decisions your character would consider in deciding which firearm to carry.

Revolver, Pistol, or . . . Something Different?

For we gun porn purists, pistols and revolvers are mutually exclusive. Both are handguns, but they operate under entirely different principles.  A revolver, otherwise known as a “wheel gun”, holds its cartridges in a cylinder that rotates as the hammer comes back and prepares for each shot. The revolver in the picture features an external hammer, and can be fired double action (DA) or single action (SA), which makes it a DA/SA revolver. (Double action means that with the hammer down, a single pull of the trigger with bring the hammer back, rotate the cylinder, and then drop the hammer again, firing the gun. Single action would describe the condition where the hammer is manually cocked and remains back–“condition zero”. From this condition, the trigger is more sensitive by a large margin.)  Generally, there are no external safeties on a revolver.  The fact of the long DA trigger pull functions as a safety.  Only a fool would carry a revolver in condition zero.

Recent years have seen a growth in the popularity of the DAO (double action only) revolver.  With no external hammer to cock, every pull of the trigger is double action.  The upside of a hammerless revolver is the ease of the draw from concealment (hammers have a way of snagging on clothing).

A pistol, on the other hand, carries its load in a magazine that is inserted in the grip. As the weapon fires, the slide cycles, ejecting the spent shell casing and pushing the next round into battery. The picture at the top of this post of me at the range shows this cycling action of a Glock 36 at 1/4000 of a second–thanks to my son, Chris, for getting the picture. The pistol in the picture with the revolver has no hammer, but is rather “striker fired”–a distinction that is best left to a future post.  Striker fired pistols may or may not have external safeties.  Some pistols have external hammers, such as the Colt Defender in the picture.  As shown, the Colt is in condition one, which means cartridge in the chamber, hammer back and safety on–otherwise known as “cocked and locked.”  In yet another iteration, many manufacturers make DA/SA pistols.  The Bersa Thunder in the photo offers a very long, hard DA trigger pull for the first shot, which leaves the hammer back for a SA follow-up shot. For most DA/SA pistols, the “safety” is not a safety at all, but rather a de-cocker, which safely returns the hammer to its DA position.

What difference does it make?

There are so many variables, but consider just a few:

  1. If your character is going to shoot through a pocket or a purse, a revolver is the better choice because a pistol’s slide would likely get fouled or tangled in fabric, making a follow-up shot difficult if not impossible.
  2. It’s much more cumbersome and time consuming to reload a revolver.
  3. No modern revolver I can think of is compatible with a suppressor.
  4. For less-experienced shooters, a DA/SA revolver is generally a better choice.

What Caliber?

I’ve discussed bullet choices here in TKZ before, so I won’t regurgitate all of that here, but it is definitely a consideration. If your character is a cop or in the military, chances are that s/he won’t carry anything smaller than 9mm.  On the flip side, I don’t know anyone who carries the Harry Callahan .44 magnum (“the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow your head cleeean off), but I know lots of people who carry .45 or .357 magnum.

Where on their bodies do they carry the gun?

If your character is an on-duty cop or active duty military, where sidearms are worn in some kind of duty rig, the sky’s the limit for what they want to carry.  You can buy holsters for all kinds of hand cannons.  The choices become more limited when it’s important for your character to conceal his or her weapon. As a general rule, the larger the firearm, the harder it is to conceal. The obvious corollary is that bigger people can conceal bigger guns.

When it comes to carrying a gun on one’s belt, the critical first choice is inside-the-waistband (IWB) vs. outside-the-waistband (OWB), and both mean exactly what the words say.  Generally, OWB carry is more detectable, but with the right holster and an effective cover garment, it can be very effective.  By contrast, IWB carry allows for concealment by means as simple as an untucked T-shirt. On the downside, the gun takes up waistband real estate that would otherwise be used by the waist.  If your character wears skinny jeans, IWB could be a problem.  IWB carry positions are referred to as positions on a clock face, where one’s navel would be 12 o’clock and the right hip would be 3 o’clock. The IWB position in the picture is referred to as “appendix carry”, and for the life of me, I don’t know how he would be able to sit down.  Shoulder rigs are popular in movies and television shows, but I have never met a real person who wore one and didn’t hate it over time. They’re hard on the shoulders, and you can never let your arms hang normally. But the deal breaker for me would be that during the draw stroke, you pretty much have to point the gun at the person behind you, and then subsequently at yourself. That violates the basic tenets of firearm safety–as do many of the specialty retention devices such as the bra holster.  ‘Nuff said, can we agree?

Now, suppose your character needs to go for deep concealment, and the weapon is merely for close-in defense? Suppose the only concealment option is a vest pocket, or perhaps a boot?  Search the Web for specialty guns that are actually well-made and very effective for what they are.  North American Arms makes a mini-revolver that easily fits in your fist, and can be chambered in .22 magnum, a round that shows very similar terminal ballistics to a .38 special, under ideal circumstances.  The tiny, nearly non-existent barrel is a problem for a shot longer than, say, 10 yards, but as a belly gun, it’s kind of impressive, and since it’s a revolver, your character gets five tries to bring justice to another character.

The Derringer lives on. Bond Arms manufactures a wide line of two-shot firearms that come chambered in nearly every caliber. One will even take 410 gauge shotgun shells. Beware, however, that there’s a direct trade-off between the weight of a firearm and the degree of felt recoil. These little guns kick like angry horses.

Questions?

At this point, rather than me blathering on answering presumed questions, let’s switch over to the real things.  Any particular problems you’re tackling in your WIP?

 

 

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It’s Going DOWN The Volcano That Gets You

1Maui-IslandPardon my posting a tad late this morning. I’ve been on quite the journey the past couple of weeks. We were scheduled to go to Maui last month, and we did go–but not before 1) I developed a major flu-like illness,; 2) I developed a severe eye infection that kept me from seeing well, which caused me to 3) fall down a significant flight of stairs, which rendered me black and blue on the left side from head to toe.

It was the head part of the bruising which caused the most consternation, travel-wise. I was forced to wear a low-brimmed hat and sunglasses, otherwise I looked like a domestic abuse victim, and people would be shooting my husband suspicious glances. The facial bruising did come in handy a couple of times, however. When we checked into the Westin 1incognitshutterstock_192787424and were told all the ocean front rooms were booked, I removed my glasses, assumed maximum pathetic expression, and told them I was there to recover and I needed to spend the week looking out at the ocean. We were instantly upgraded to an ocean front suite. (Yes, I’m not above using whatever I can use to get what I want). We spent Thanksgiving seeing an awesome Elvis impersonator performance (he had an excellent voice and physical resemblance to Elvis, right down to the aging King’s paunch).

1brocken-eber-1

Brocken’s Ghost optical effect atop Maui’s volcano

1elvis20140605210535_1967757812_10611_9It turns out that Maui has some very posh urgent care facilities specifically for tourists, called Doctors on Call. I got to know the fine medical professionals there on a first name basis, especially after I made the insane decision to go up (and more importantly, down) the hair-raising ride to Maui’s volcano. The top of the that volcano is one of only three places on earth where you can see an optical effect known as the “Specter of the Brocken,”–which means, you can see your shadow cast on the clouds below, surrounded by a rainbow. (You can also occasionally catch a glimpse of the same effect from an airplane, when the plane casts its shadow on the clouds below. Look for it sometime.)  Seeing that view and surreal, moon-surface landscape was worth the trip, even if I had to pay for the trip by tossing my cookies nonstop for the next eight hours, until Doctors on Call reopened.

At some point during the trip I felt moved to look into the world of Hawaiian literature, which for practical reasons, includes book about Hawaii. I learned to my dismay that one of my oldie Nancy Drews, MYSTERY ON MAUI, is no longer available in hardback, only e-book now.) (Too bad, too–the hardcover had Nancy sporting a killer Babes On The Beach yellow bathing suit on the cover). Although there are wonderful books available by authors who are actually from Hawaii, my favorite book, and I believe still bestselling book of all time about those islands, remains HAWAII by James Michener. The book is episodic, with each chapter written from a different character’s point of view. The story culminates with a character the writer called “The Golden Man,” a person who is culturally and racially the result of the millenia of immigration to the islands. We met many such Golden People on our trip, 1MauiOceanCenterincluding the man who drove our bus on the volcano drive. He’d grown up in “old Hawaii,” part of a large family that made its living fishing and working in the sugar fields. After a stint in the Army, he’d been transporting tourists on that volcano drive for the past 25 years. And yet still he conveyed a sense of excitement as he described the Hawaiian culture, the history of the gods and tribes that founded human culture on the islands. He was able to convey the current challenges that Maui, and other islands face–threats to native wildlife by the encroachment of development, land prices that have risen from $100 per acre to $1 million in less than one person’s lifetime. Our driver was a mixture of native Hawaiian and some European background. That’s important in Hawaii, because you have to have a minimum percentage of “native” Hawaiian ethnic background in order to qualify for some generous educational and civic opportunities that were set up specifically for Hawaiians by one of the original island queens. Our bus guide was a perfect ambassador for educating visitors about the New Hawaii. I believe he may have been the embodiment of Michener’s “Golden Man.”1James-A.-Michener-Quotes-1

So, have you been traveling during the holidays? Enjoying life at home? Either way, what book or series best represents the place you’re visiting, or the place you call home?

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Free Advice for Writers

by Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

By the time you read this I’ll be in the air and won’t be able to respond to any comments. So instead, I have gathered together quotes from notable authors filled with free advice to anyone crazy enough to get into this writing business. Enjoy, and Happy Thanksgiving!

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” — George Orwell

“Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.” — David Ogilvy

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” ― W. Somerset Maugham

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” – Dorothy Parker

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time — or the tools — to write. Simple as that.” – Stephen King

“Notice how many of the Olympic athletes effusively thanked their mothers for their success? “She drove me to my practice at four in the morning,” etc. Writing is not figure skating or skiing. Your mother will not make you a writer. My advice to any young person who wants to write is: leave home.” — Paul Theroux

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” — Mark Twain

“The first draft of everything is shit.” — Ernest Hemingway

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.” — Harper Lee

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” ― Jack London

“If writing seems hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things people do.” — William Zinsser

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or it doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” — Neil Gaiman

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” ― Ray Bradbury

“Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.” — Anne Enright

“If writing seems hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things people do. – William Zinsser19. Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” – Oscar Wilde

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” — Kurt Vonnegut

“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” — Ernest Hemingway

“Write drunk, edit sober.” — Ernest Hemingway

“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you.” ― Neil Gaiman

“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” – Oscar Wilde

“Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.” – Lev Grossman

Have I missed any of your favorite free advice?

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Diversity, Micro-Aggression and Cultural Appropriation

One of the main themes of the recent SCBWI conference I attended was diversity in children’s literature (or rather its lack thereof!). Even though all the sessions I attended were directed towards children and YA authors, the key issues and concerns are  applicable across genres and age groups – namely how to incorporate diversity in the books we write, and how to do so in an appropriate way (that is, in ways that avoid cultural appropriation as well as what the editors termed ‘micro-aggressions’ in the books we write).

I hadn’t heard the term ‘micro-agression’ before when it came to books but the term is really about the cliches, characterizations or expressions writers can fall into (often without thinking) that perpetuate cultural stereotypes. In one of the first-page sessions the editors pointed out some of these ‘micro-aggressions’ in phrases such as sitting ‘Indian style’ and ‘Indian giver’. I’m sure in both these instances the author used these unwittingly rather than maliciously but the editors were quick to point out that, in an industry increasingly concerned about the lack of diversity in the books they publish, authors need to be especially mindful of how they incorporate diversity in their books and avoid using terms, phrases or characters that perpetuate stereotypes or inflict ‘micro aggression’ against particular cultures.

In another session I attended there was a great discussion about the issues writers face when writing about cultures or characters different to their own. The key take home message? If you write cross-culturally you MUST do your research! This includes having beta-readers from that culture to ensure that the kinds of ‘micro-agressions’ or cultural appropriations that the editors identified, did not occur.  I wholeheartedly support an increase in diversity, particularly in children’s literature, and acknowledge that writers, when tackling cross-cultural issues, must do their research to ensure that they approach the issue in an appropriate and sensitive way. I must confess, however, that after this session, given the sensitivity and complexity of the discussion, I felt more rather than less reluctant when it came to writing cross-culturally. That isn’t to say I don’t feel strongly that I should have the freedom to write whatever I chose to write about without any gender, racial or cultural constraints but, after the discussion, I did feel like the issue was more fraught than I had realized (or rather, I clearly hadn’t thought through the issues enough).

So TKZers what do you think? How do you approach the issue of diversity? Do you endeavor to write cross-culturally and if so, how do you navigate the issues raised when doing so? Do you see  ‘micro-agressions’ or cultural appropriations in the books you read?

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How to write your first novel

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

It seems like every time I meet someone and they learn that I’m a writer, they always comment that they had often thought of writing a book, too. Sometimes I think the prospect of being a published author may be the number one goal or dream of everyone who has ever been excited by a good novel. It’s natural to think, “I could do that.” And in reality, they can. But most don’t or won’t. Why? Because the dream far exceeds the labor. Like most specialized occupations, the average would-be author will remain in the dreaming stage. Few proceed to the next step: actually sitting down and writing a publishable, contemporary work of fiction.

But for those that really want to take the next step, here are a few tips on getting that novel “inside us all” onto the page.

First, become an avid reader with the eyes of a writer. Read as many novels as you can get your hands on. But try to read from a writer’s viewpoint. Read for technique and style and voice. Keep asking questions like: Why did the author use that particular verb? Why is the writer using short, choppy sentences? Or long, thick description? As you choose new books to read, cross over genre lines. The genre you wind up writing might not be the one you first imagined. Reading other’s work can also be inspiring. It is a source of ideas and helps to get the creative juices flowing.

Next, know the marketplace and write for it. The end product must be sellable. This goes back to being familiar with your chosen genre. You may love westerns, for instance, but they can be way down the sells chart and not a good choice for a debut author. Having said that, any story in any genre can be a hit if it’s built on strong characters. Always remember that your characters make your story, not the plot. Stay on top of sub-genres and if your work falls into them. Example: Do you what upmarket fiction is?* How about YA crossover?* Middle grade fiction?* Many agents are looking for these right now.

A third tip is to be true to yourself. Don’t try to push against what you feel in your heart and soul when it comes to your story. This may sound like the opposite of the previous tip, but that one deals with the business side of writing; this one the emotional. Beyond understanding the market, realize that if your heart is not in the words, the reader will know it. You can’t hide your lack of love for your writing.

Another tip is to have proper training. Being a devoted reader is only a portion of the task. I’ve had the opportunity (or drudgery) of reading many first-time writer’s work. It’s astounding how many people simply don’t know how to write. I’m not talking about style or content. Forget coming up with a cool plot or unique cast of characters. I’m talking about constructing a sentence with proper use of grammar and punctuation.

If you’re still in school, make sure you give your writing classes as much attention as possible. After all, they teach you the tools of your future trade. If you’re out of school or later in life, consider taking an adult course in basic English and perhaps in creative writing. They won’t teach you how to write a bestseller but can help you get your thoughts down on paper properly. Consider it a refresher course. Some colleges and universities offer degrees in writing. This is by no means a requirement to writing a novel, but it’s always a direction to go if you feel the need. And don’t forget attending writer’s workshops, conferences and joining a local critique group. Workshops are usually taught by pros; conferences have lectures and topic panels dedicated to strengthening your skills; and critique groups offer a new, fresh set of eyes to help improve your work.

Finally, once you’ve finished the first pass through your manuscript, the real work begins: rewriting, editing, polishing, and finishing. There’s nothing that will turn off an agent or editor quicker than an unpolished manuscript. There are tons of books available out there on how to self-edit your work including outstanding books by James Scott Bell, Larry Brook and TKZ emeritus Jodie Renner. And getting others to take a look at it will help to reveal possible problems you missed. Edit, revise, edit, revise, repeat.

There’s a saying that everyone has at least one book inside them. But writing a book is hard. It takes firm commitment and dedication. Let your story out, but do it by following these logical steps. Skipping one of them usually results in frustration, disappointment and a half-finished manuscript collecting dust in the bottom of a drawer.

So what about you guys? How did you managed to finish your first book? Were you able to skip a step and jump right to a publishing contract and advance check? Any other tips to pass along to first-time authors?

* Upmarket fiction blends the line between commercial and literary. YA crossover targets adults but are likely to be of interest/suitable for teens. Middle grade fiction targets ages 8-12 and has content restrictions such as no profanity, graphic violence or sexuality other than crushes.

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First Page Critique -The Lunar Lifestyle

THE LUNAR LIFESTYLE

We booked the cheapest seats on the rocket, which meant that neither of us faced a window. If I craned my neck, I could see the other couples sitting in the expensive seats, ogling at space and Earth through their window views. I didn’t let it bother me. Once we got to the moon, everything would be free.

I turned to Matt and pointed out a leftover drop of puke drying on his chin. He wiped it away with his sleeve. He didn’t do so well with g-forces.

“Any regrets?” I asked him.

Matt shook his head. “We can always video chat my parents. Or your aunt. And we’ll make new friends up here.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“Besides, Clara, it’s a fresh start. Think of it that way. A start for our family, you know?”
Matt yawned and thumbed through the Rocket Passenger Safety Handbook as we waited to disembark. It occurred to me that there was no point in reading the Rocket Passenger Safety Handbook at the conclusion of a one-way trip. But he’d had a rough flight, so I didn’t say anything.

Matt and I had lived in Lake Placid, New York. Matt taught sixth grade math, and I’d taught seventh grade geography. Eventually, they had to close the school because parents were getting concerned with the levels of radiation in the lake, so we signed up to go to the moon.

Matt and I hadn’t met at school, actually. He tells everyone that he fell in love with me at first sight. I’d stood out to him, apparently, in my bright green sundress on a warm winter’s morning at the dentist’s office. I’ve never had the heart or the courage to tell him that I’d only worn it because I’d been too lazy to do my laundry, and it was the only thing I had left. I certainly hadn’t fallen for him as I waited to be de-plaqued. Matt had grown his bushy red hair out into a bushy red mustache back then. I considered it something of a public service when I made him shave.

Our rocket docked directly inside the lunar base. There were six or seven other bases scattered around the moon-China had one, as did Russia and a few other European countries-but Matt and I would be part of the first group to settle the new American base.

My Critique by Nancy J. Cohen

Being a science fiction fan, I loved the opening. I surmise Matt and Clara are married and are about to embark on a new life on the moon. The point of view is clear, and I’m interested in these characters and their new adventure.

But then the story segues into a flashback that stops the forward motion cold. Starting with this paragraph— “Matt and I had lived in Lake Placid…” and ending at the next paragraph, “…when I made him shave”—it’s all background info that could have been woven into the story later or brought in via dialogue.

Then suddenly the rocket is docking. I would have liked to stay in the moment during their voyage to experience it with them. Their reactions would help the reader learn more about these characters via conversation and their gut responses to the trip. The voyage went too fast.

Also, you’re telling rather than showing. Instead of “Our rocket docked directly inside the lunar base,” let us share this trip through their sensory impressions as the rocket turns, descends, decelerates and docks. Does their pulse race? Their stomachs churn with anxiety as the ship tilts? Their hearts lurch as the vehicle thumps to a landing? I want to smell the rocket fuel. In other words, show—don’t tell. This could be an exciting trip told through the viewpoint of these newlyweds. But you lost me at “Matt and I…”

4+

You Have to Work Hard
To Write This Badly

 

dark-and-stormy-night

By PJ Parrish

It is a dark and stormy night. Really.

So in honor of the Erika remnant thunderstorm that is dumping its load on us down here in South Florida tonight, I got inspired and decided I had to go there…

Yes, we have to talk about bad novel openings. Now, we’ve had some really good posts lately about good openings. But it’s time to for me to get down and dirty and show you some examples of some really really really bad opening paragraphs. And for once, I am going to name names because these writers deserve the exposure.

Let’s start with this opening by a writer named Tom Billings, who lives in Minneapolis:

John thought of Kate and smiled – with any luck the tide would carry her body out to deeper water by nightfall.

And how about this gem by Belgian novelist Miriam Nys:

Walking through the northernmost souk of Marrakech, that storied and cosmopolitan city so beloved of voyagers wishing to shake the desert dust off their feet, Peter bought a French-language newspaper and realized, with dizzying dismay, that “Camille” can be a man’s name.

And then there’s this from Margo Coffman:

If Vicky Walters had known that ordering an extra shot of espresso in her grande non-fat one pump raspberry syrup soy latte that Wednesday would lead to her death and subsequent rebirth as a vampire, she probably would have at least gotten whipped cream.

What in the world were these people thinking? That they’d win an award or something?Well, they did. They are all winners or runners-up in this year’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

Edward_George_Earle_Lytton_Bulwer_Lytton,_1st_Baron_Lytton_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill

Surely, you remember Edward Bulwer-Lytton? He was an English novelist, poet, playwright, and politician (B: 1873). In his day, he was immensely popular with the reading public and got rich from a steady stream of bestselling novels. He coined the phrases “the great unwashed” “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and the infamous opening line “It was a dark and stormy night.” Here’s his infamous opening in full, by the way:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

{{{A moment of awed silence}}}

Back to our present winners. The contest has been going on for 33 years now, and as the website states, the rules are “childishly simple.” Just craft a really bad ONE SENTENCE opening line in one of many genres that include crime fiction, romance, fantasy and even kid lit. You’d think that after three decades of cheese, things might start turning stale. Wrongo, brie-breath. This year’s crop of winners is, as Spencer Tracy would say, cherse.

The grand prize winner of the 33rd edition of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is Dr. Joel Phillips of West Trenton, New Jersey. According to the contest website, Joel teaches music theory and composition at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. He lives in West Trenton with his wife and their three cats, gardens with gusto, and enjoys listening to his rock-star bassist son’s original songs. He can tell you when René Magritte painted “The Castle of the Pyrenees” but not when someone is off sides in soccer.He also purposefully viewed the film “Ishtar” more than once. Here is his winning entry:

Seeing how the victim’s body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT Officer “Dirk” Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase “sandwiched” to describe such a scene when there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.

God, that’s good.

I love this contest. Almost as much as I love the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. (Sorry, you’ll have to wait until December for me to weigh in on that one). Because you know, you really have to be a good writer to write badly on purpose. It’s like Lucille Ball. In I Love Lucy, she was infamously tone-deaf. But in real life, she was a pretty decent singer.

I sort of understand this. I can’t sing a lick, but for teaching purposes, I often show “before and after” writing examples because it’s easier to see your mistakes if you can see different ways to fix things. The problem is, I will never embarrass another writer in public, so Kelly and I often have to make up “before” examples for our workshops. And you know something? It’s not as easy as you would think.

For example, here is a “before” sample from one of our PowerPoints on the subject of Show Not Tell, that Kelly made up:

She looked at Louis. He was twenty-nine and bi-racial, his father white, his mother black. She knew he had grown up as a foster child and had made peace with his mother toward the end of her life, but that his father had deserted him.

It’s okay, adequate. But here is the “after” version, as it actually appears in one of our books.

She turned toward him. God, she loved his face. Forceful, high-cheekboned, black brows sitting like emphatic accents over his gray eyes, the left one arching into an exclamation mark when he was amused or surprised. And his skin, smooth and buff-colored, a gift from his beautiful black mother whose picture he had once shown her and his white father, whom he had never mentioned.

Here’s another example of bad writing we wrote:

“Hello Joe,” he said. “Long time no see.”
“Yeah, it’s been about two months.”
“That long, eh?”
“Yeah.”
“What you been up to?” he asked.
“I was carving fishing lures, but the then the wife left me and I found myself living alone and eating and drinking too much. Then I met Sally.”
“Oh really?”

The point we were trying to teach here is to not waste dialogue on dumb stuff, that even though we are told that dialogue is the lifeblood of good writing, sometimes, simple narrative is more effective. Here is the “after” version:

He hadn’t seen Joe for two months. He looked terrible, like he had been living on Big Macs and Jim Beam. Talk around the station was that his wife had left him and he was going crazy sitting at home making fish lures.

But enough serious stuff. let’s go back to our contest winners. I’d like to share some of my favorites. You can find the whole list of winners by clicking HERE. Take a bow, good bad writers!

Grand Prize Runner up Grey Harlowe of Salem, OR

“We can’t let the dastards win,” said Piper Bogdonovich to her fellow gardener, Mr. Sidney Beckworth Hammerstein, as she clenched her gloved hands into gnarly fists, “because if I have to endure another year after which my Royal Puffin buttercups come in second place to Marsha Engelstrom’s Fainting Dove Tear Drop peonies, I will find a machine gun and leave my humanity card in the Volvo.”

Crime Fiction Runner Up from Laura Ruth Loomis:

When the corpse showed up in the swimming pool, her dead bosoms bobbing up and down like twin poached eggs in hollandaise sauce, Randy decided to call the police as soon as he finished taking pictures of his breakfast and posting them on Facebook.

Here’s my personal favorite in the crime fiction category, from E. David Moulton:

The janitor’s body lay just within the door, a small puncture wound below his right ear made with a long thin screwdriver, the kind electricians use and can often be found in the bargain bin at the hardware store and come with a pair of cheap wire cutters that you never use because they won’t cut wire worth a damn and at best will only put a small indent in the wire so you at least bend it back and forth until it breaks.

And because I have never met a bad pun I didn’t love, I will end with my favorite from the Bad Pun Category. God bless you Matthew Pfeifer of Beaman Iowa, you made my day.

Old man Dracula forgot to put his teeth in one night, so had to come home hungry, with a sort of “nothing dentured, nothing veined” look on his face.

Postscript!  I just realized that Friday marked my third anniversary here at TKZ. Time has whizzed by!  So thank you, Kathryn and Joe for inviting me in, thank you to my fellow bloggers for the camaraderie and really thank you to all you crime dogs out there who keep us going and contribute to our conversation.  Even you lurkers. Take it away, Lucy!

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Blurring the Lines
Between Heroes and Villains

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“Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph.” — Roger Ebert

By P.J. Parrish

You think it’s hard to find a good man? Try finding a really bad one.

I’ve been looking for bad men for more than fourteen years now. I’d say my sister Kelly and I are somewhat of experts on the subject of men with, ah…issues. Over the course of our thirteen-novel career, we’ve encountered every kind of twisted, tortured, miserable example of the male species you can imagine.

But they’re our villains and we…well, I won’t say we love them but we do lavish a lot of attention on them. And we need to confess something right now –- it is getting harder and harder to make bad guys good.  Or bad women, for that matter.

Great antagonists loom large in literature. Imagine Othello without his Iago, A Clockwork Orange without the deranged Alex Delarge or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness without Kurtz. Where would Harry Potter be without Voldemort, or Dr. Jekyll without Mr. Hyde? And Milton didn’t lose Paradise without a big push from Satan.

Within the thriller genre, the villain is almost as important as the hero. And creating a truly original villain is one of our prime challenges, mainly because readers are savvy. They’ve read all the good books, seen all the forensic shows, and can smell a Hannibal Lector rip-off a mile away. We’ve always worked hard to make our villains full-bodied characters, especially when we delve into the serial killer sub-genre, which can be cliché quicksand. In reality, most criminals are as dumb as stumps. But the fiction writer’s task is to create a villain who is a worthy adversary for the hero, and in the best of our genre the villain is as complex and textured as the protagonist.

As Roger Ebert recognized, heroes and villains tend to repeat from film to film. It’s the same with mysteries and thrillers. Our fields have been tilled by so many great (and not-so-great) writers, that it’s gotten harder to create truly unique protagonists and antagonists. Just this week I started a new book by a well-known thriller writer but somewhere south of page 100, I was beset with déjà vu. No, I hadn’t read this specific book before (Yeah, I have been stupid enough to do that!) But I had read it a hundred times before by other writers.  It was the same old cop chasing the same old bad guy for the same old reasons. It gave me sympathy for agents and editors and how they must feel when they read the hundreds of queries and manuscripts they get every day. Been there, read that, bought the t-shirt. (But not the book).

img-thingI got to thinking about good villains the other night during a bout of sleeplessness, and while channel surfing happened caught The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s a nifty screen adaption (directed by Anthony Minghella) of Patricia Highsmith’s great book. I like both versions for different reasons but mostly for the portrait of the title character. In a way, Ripley is both protagonist and antagonist, in that the story centers around his arc but he also lies and murders in cold blood to get what he wants.

Ripley is smart and a quick study, but he is hollow of heart and soul. In the book, Highsmith sketches out his painful childhood as an orphan, berated by a mean aunt. But the author is more concerned with Ripley the sociopathic chameleon who will assume any shape to get what he wants. There is some of this in the movie, but Matt Damon’s character is more pathetic than lethal, desperate to fit into the world of the rich. You almost get the feeling the Matt Damon Ripley could change — if only he could find someone to love him despite his black heart. (Which he does…but even that doesn’t work out too well.) Highsmith’s Ripley is a serial killer who over the course of four more books continues his amoral ways and keeps one step ahead of the law.  (I’ve just downloaded the second Ripley novel, Ripley Under Ground where in Tom has resurfaced in France. I’m headed there soon I like to read books set where I am on vacation.)

Partly, I am going back to Ripley because I have an idea for a new book that will depend very heavily on the villain. I want to read Highsmith to see how she did it — sustain a compelling story centered not around a sympathetic traditional protagonist but his polar opposite.

The Killing SongI think we were moving toward this kind of book with our stand alone thriller THE KILLING SONG. We gave equal weight to our protagonist and our antagonist. They each had their own character arc and themes, as well. Theme and character go hand and hand for me. Whenever we start a new book, Kelly and I immediately begin searching for our themes because we believe they are the underground railroads upon which a plot runs — and they illuminate character. In THE KILLING SONG, the theme for our hero Matt Owens is: What happens when you only look away for a moment? His beloved sister disappears from a Miami nightclub when he looks away but the theme has a deeper meaning as Matt pursues her killer.

But we also had a theme for our villain, which emerged from the juxtaposition of beauty and degeneration. We decided our villain would be a classical musician, a man of grace and refined taste living in Paris, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We wanted to contrast the beauty of his “upper” world with the horrors of his “lower” world of serial murder. Laurent Demarais was a violinist in our first draft but became a cellist when we realized the cello’s deeper tone just seemed to fit his personality.

Like Tom Ripley, some of his demons were born in childhood. Laurent’s father was an acclaimed conductor who pushed his son so mercilessly to become a prodigy that the beauty of music became twisted, and then a second childhood trauma planted the seed for his evil that took two decades to mature.  Part of the plot for Matt is uncovering the clues from Laurent’s childhood so he can better understand the monster he is now hunting.

But beyond childhood, we had to ask the hard question we ask of every character we create: What does Laurent want? I think this is the most important thing a writer asks herself as she goes along. If you don’t know what your characters want you can’t really articulate on the page what their motivations are. I think of this “want” as coming in layers that move from the most superficial: the hero wants to find the bad guy; to the most complex: He wants to find his own true identity. I wrote about this in length a while back. You can find the post HERE. 

On the superficial level, Laurent wants to kill. But trying to figure out what he wanted in the deepest parts of his soul — yes, even villains have them, though black and withered they may be — helped us plumb his psychological depths and make him less a cardboard monster. Laurent Demarais wears a mask of sanity. I wish I could say that is my phrase but it is the title of a great book about psychopaths written in 1941 by a doctor named Hervey Cleckley. He concluded that killers can seem sincere, intelligent, even charming. But beneath that lies a heart incapable of human emotion.

Even today, seventy years later, that mask of sanity is a great description for the classic villain whether in reality (Ted Bundy) or art. (Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction or even Hal the computer in 2001 Space Odyssey. I’m sure you can think of many other examples.)

FINAL COVERIn our new book SHE’S NOT THERE, (comes out Sept. 6 but is now available for pre-orders), we don’t have a traditional villain. There is no obvious struggle between good and evil, no ticking clock, no creep stalking a family at their cabin, no Dr. Evil trying to rule the world. It’s psychological suspense, which meant for us that all “action” had to emerge completely from character motivation. James N. Frey (author of How to Write a Damn Good Novel) calls psychological thrillers a style, rather than a subgenre. He says that good thrillers focus on the psychology of their antagonists and build suspense slowly through ambiguity. If you’re a regular here, you know how much I like ambiguity. (Link HERE).

She’s Not There was very hard to write. Not only does it have an unreliable narrator (Yeah, I loved Shutter Island, too.) It was hard to write because we couldn’t rely on the old tropes of serial killers, pebbled glass PI heroes, or power gone wild to build tension.  When the tension sagged, we couldn’t just fling another corpse onto the page. The story’s theme is: What happens to you when you drift downward into living an inauthentic life? Almost all my characters are struggling with this, pulled down by dark secrets and disappointments, and they are all fighting to break back to the surface and breathe again. Yes, people die. Yes, there are creepy moments, high tension, even a cross-country chase.

But my villain?  He’s not there. At least in the conventional sense. You won’t be able to spot him by his black hat. You won’t see him lurking in the shadows or toting an Uzi.  He’s hiding in plain sight, deep inside each of my characters, even the good ones. And for a long time, you don’t know if the good guy is really the bad guy. Or vice versa. Or both.

 

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What do you read while writing?



images-1Inspired in part by this week’s New York Times ‘Bookends’ article (What do you read while you write?) I thought I’d venture to assess my own reading habits (both good and bad) while in the midst of writing my current WIP. As both Zoe Heller and Anna Holmes acknowledge, the act of ‘reading’ while supposedly engaged in the writing process  encompasses a range of motivations – from seeking inspiration to procrastination to sheer ‘writing avoidance’.

Many writers I know avoid reading anything in the genre they are currently writing for fear that their own voice or plot might be unduly influenced, but as Zoe points out this might involve forswearing off a vast array of fiction for years (given how long it can take to finish a WIP). When I was writing my first book, I borrowed countless historical mysteries from the library, all of which I read, examined and dissected in the name of understanding the genre I was attempting. When in the thick of actually writing the final manuscript though I admit I hesitated continuing to read too many of these same books lest my own work feel derivative or a horribly cheap imitation. Sometimes the worse thing you can do is read an amazing book when you’re feeling particularly vulnerable about your own writing standards!

We can’t forget the important adage, however, that in order to be a good writer you need to read and read widely. I am ever thankful for my book group for ensuring that at least guilt alone will drive me to read outside the research I usually have to do for my novels. That research is, unfortunately, also a great excuse to do ‘writing avoidance’ reading and many an extra hour (or four!) has been spent on obscure historical research that ended up as one line (if I’m lucky) in one of my novels.

I was comforted at least to read that both Zoe Heller and Anna Holmes suffered the same weakness for ‘reading’ online when they really should be writing. Facebook status updates, trashy headlines on the The Daily Mail or ‘TV scoop’ on E-online are all traps I easily fall into when I think I’ll just ‘take a break’ and before I know it 5 minutes has turned into 20 and my brain has turned to mush.

So what about you TKZers, what do you ‘read while you write’?

  • Do you have books you turn to for inspiration?
  • Do you read or avoid books in the same genre as your current WIP?
  • How much of your ‘reading’ ends up as procrastination or writing avoidance?

 

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