When Verbs Go Rogue: First Page Critique

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments will follow.

Monstruo Cubano

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your first page. A public critique takes guts, and I admire your courage.

From this small sample I assume s/he is just beginning their writing journey. So, TKZers, please be gentle and kind in your comments and suggestions (I know you will).

With that in mind, I offer the following critique.

Using a foreign language on the first page is a huge risk. As someone who doesn’t speak Spanish, my eyes glazed over when I read the title of the library. It wasn’t until the second read-through that I stopped long enough to figure out “La Libreria” meant “The Library.” That’s a problem. Most readers won’t bother to read the scene a second, third, or fourth time.

For more on using foreign languages, see this 1st Page Critique.

I want to point something out that you might not be aware of, Brave Writer. Note all the words in blue…

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Look at all those strong verbs! You didn’t take the easy road, like “walked” for example. Strong verbs create a more vivid mental image. Problem is there’s way too many. In this short sample I counted at least 43 verbs. The second thing that jumped out at me was all the chaos in this first page. Don’t get me wrong, conflict is a good thing. It’s how we use it that matters. If the conflict doesn’t drive the plot in some way, then we need to rethink our opener. I’m not saying that’s what occurred here, but I want you to ask yourself…

Does the library or shopkeeper play a pivotal role in this story? What are you trying to accomplish with this scene? Does this opener set up a future scene? The answer should be yes. Otherwise, you’re wasting precious real estate.

For more on the best place to start a novel, see this post.

I love how you took advantage of smell, rather than relying only on sight. When I finished reading this submission, I felt like I needed a shower to get rid of the cat stench. Good job! We want our reader’s emotions to match our point-of-view character.

Now, take a deep breath, Brave Writer. This next part might be a bumpy road for you, but I’m hoping you’ll find value in my demonstration of how to write tighter and more concise.

Monstruo Cubano (Consider changing the title to English. Don’t limit your target audience. Back in 2014, Joe Moore wrote an excellent post on the subject.)

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. Brook Harper squeaked in horror when she stepped inside La Libreria de Juan Carolos, the closest library to her new apartment in Miami. (reworded to ground the reader) She gaped at the Rows of mildewed shelves housed lined not with books, but broken dishes and food-encrusted utensils instead of books. Did she have the right address? (added to show her confusion; for more on Show vs. Tell, see this post, which also dips a toe into distant vs. intimate/deep POV.) When she’d arrived at the airport several weeks ago, colorful displays advertised tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books, but this place didn’t even resemble those brochures.

Venturing several steps farther inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into littered the front window, the outside world obscured by a thick layer of grime.

Stay in active voice, not passive. An easy way to spot passive voice is to add “by zombies” at the end. If the sentence still makes sense, it’s passive. Example: Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window by zombies. Since the sentence still makes sense, it’s a passive construction.

Where did they keep the Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginners Spanish books? Brook hurried down an aisle, but leaped (leapt is archaic, use leaped) leapt wildly (adverbs and too many verbs and/or adjectives muddy the writing. For more on “writing tight,” see this post) into the air when a . A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches. I think “swarming” here creates a good visual, so I’m leaving it alone. Be sure to read JSB’s post, though. Too much description detracts from the action.

Brook skittered backwards (“backwards” is the British spelling of “backward.” Also, “skittered” might not be the best word choice. I’d rather you show us the action. Example: Brook’s boots shuffled backward), knocking into a shelf. Dishes crashed to the floor. (added for sentence variation; for more, see this first page critique) and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted (If Brook doesn’t even know beginners’ Spanish, how does she know SALIDA means EXIT? Something to think about).

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot wedged under peeling linoleum and she sailed through the air, landed face-first she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Cat urine coated her palms and one cheek. Vomit lurched up her throat. Why did she ever come to this hellhole? Maybe her new boss wouldn’t notice her bilingual inadequacies. Good looks had gotten her this far (or whatever fits the character).

If you’re not using dialogue between two characters, inner dialogue allows the reader to get to know Brook. Who is she? Why is she in Miami? Where is she from? Is she shy or extroverted? We don’t necessarily need to know these things, but you do. For more on building a character, see this post and this post).

Okay, I’ll stop there.

TKZers, how might you improve this first page? Please add the advice I skipped. Together we can help this brave writer up his/her game.

 

 

4+

Deep Dive into Craft: First Page Critique

I’ve got a special treat for you today. This Brave Writer submitted their first page for critique. Check it out. My comments will follow.

Lucky Lynx

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Carlos shook his head. He didn’t take his hands off the wheel as the battered Ford Bronco jounced over the pothole-ridden street. “You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

“He gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared.  Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Riker’s.”

That made Eduardo sit up. The seat’s rusty springs made a creak.

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

“Don’t matter what you believe. This guy can erase lives with a click. Don’t cross him, cousin. Keep that nine-iron under your jacket.”

Eduardo shifted in his seat.  The gun was a reassuring weight against his side.

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

Carlos put the vehicle in park, shut the motor off, and got out.  Eduardo followed suit. Their steps sounded abnormally loud in the sudden silence as they walked up to the fence.

Three of the four men watched warily as they approached.  The fourth one took a step forward. A pale face jutted out from beneath a black hoodie sweatshirt.  The sweatshirt hung loose around a lean, slender frame.

“The package is up against the fence, twenty yards to your right,” he said, in a young, high-pitched voice. “Either of you can pick it up and verify I’ve delivered what you want. If it checks out, then you’ll pay the agreed amount. You will not exit the premises until we signal that we have counted the bills.”

“Fine. I’ll pick it up,” Carlos said.

Eduardo scowled at the hoodie-wearing figure.

“You’re just a kid.”

A pause. “The name’s Ti. And yeah, I’m a kid. A kid who scored you your shipment.”

Brave Writer did a terrific job with this opener. S/he has a firm grasp of POV and the dialogue is easy-going and natural, though at times it took me a moment to figure out who was speaking. Easy fix, which we’ll get to in a moment. Because Brave Writer has the basics down, this gives us a great opportunity to dive a little deeper into craft.

First, let’s compare Brave Writer’s dialogue with my favorite craft book for dialogue: How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell.

In Chapter 3, Jim gives us a checklist for what dialogue should accomplish.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Story Information.

But only reveal enough information for the reader to understand the scene. Everything else can wait.

Dialogue is sometimes the more artful way to reveal story information. But here’s the key: the reader must never catch you simply feeding them exposition!

Jim gives us his two top tips…

First, determine just how much exposition you really need. Especially toward the front of your novel. Here’s one of my axioms: Act first, explain later. Readers will wait a long time for explanatory material if there is solid action going on.

In fact, by not revealing the reasons behind certain actions and dialogue, you create mystery. That works in any genre. Readers love to be left wondering.

Second, once you know what you need to reveal, put it into a tense dialogue exchange.

In other words, hide the exposition within confrontation.

For the most part, Brave Writer succeeded in this area. But the punctuation causes confusion. For example…

“You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

For clarity try something like: “You know Hector Flores? [That dirtbag who] ran with Familia Michoacana.”

“What if I do?” doesn’t sound right to this particular reader. Simple and direct works best. Example: “That dude? Punk. He’s lucky I didn’t—”

“[Anyway,] he’s gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared. Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Rikers.”

Rikers Island has no apostrophe, Brave Writer. Do your research! It took me all of two seconds to confirm. Details can make or break a story.

Careful of run-on sentences, too. Example: “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Those are two sentences that should be separated by a period.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Character.

We can tell a lot about character by the words they use. Jim gives us another checklist to keep in mind.

  • Vocabulary: What is the educational background of your characters? What words would they know that correspond to that background?
  • Syntax: When a character does not speak English as a first language, syntax (the order of words) is the best way to indicate that.
  • Regionalisms: Do you know what part of the country your character comes from? How do they talk there?
  • Peer groups: Groups that band together around a specialty—law, medicine, surfing, skateboarding—have pet phrases they toss around. These are great additions to authenticity.

Did Brave Writer accomplish this task? Let’s find out… 

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

The vocabulary, syntax, regionalism, and peer groups are all represented. Yet, something still feels off. If we look closer, Eduardo’s dialogue works really well. It’s Carlos’s dialogue that needs a minor tweak. “That’s right” is too on-the-nose. A more natural response might be, “No shit. But get this.” The rest of this short exchange works well.

Quick note about nicknames. If “primo” is the name Eduardo uses for Carlos, then be consistent. Don’t use both, especially on the first page. After all, we’re inside Eduardo’s head. If he doesn’t think of Primo as Carlos, then the reader shouldn’t either while we’re in his POV. 

  1. Dialogue Should Set the Tone (and Scene) 

The cumulative effect of dialogue on readers sets a tone for your book. Be intentional about what you want that tone to be… First, the way characters react to their surroundings tells us both about the location and the people reacting to it.

Brave Writer nailed this part. We know exactly where we are, and the tone is consistent. Great job! 

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Theme

Certainly, many writers do care about message, or theme. The danger in dialogue is to allow the characters to become mere mouthpieces for the message. This is called getting “preachy.” The way to avoid this is to place the theme into natural dialogue that is part of a confrontational moment. As with exposition, a tense exchange “hides” what you’re doing.

With such a small sample, it’s difficult to determine if Brave Writer accomplished this task or not. Just keep it in mind.

Aside from dialogue…

Sentence Variation and Rhythm

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

In this one paragraph every sentence begins with “The,” which dulls the image you’re trying to convey. By varying the sentences you’ll draw the reader into the scene. Let the writing work for you, not against you.

Example:

Carlos veered into the back-parking lot, and the Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble. Broken windows, boarded-up doorways, the headlight’s cast cylindrical spheres across the skewed faces of four men huddled next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. A chain link fence acted as an enclosure to keep this deal from going south—no one could escape unnoticed.

It’s still not great, but you get the idea.

Also, don’t rely only on sight. Add texture to the scene with smells, sounds, touch, and taste. Could there be a harbor bell in the distance? What might that sound like to Eduardo? Is he nervous and chews on his inner cheek to the point where blood trickles onto his tongue? Drag us deeper into the scene by forcing us into that Bronco.

Clarity

We never want the reader to wonder who’s speaking. An easy way to fix this is to move the dialogue up to the cue.

So, instead of this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Try this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster. “This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest. We just gotta push him.”

Or simply substitute “Eduardo” for “he.”

This raises another issue, though.

Would Eduardo really notice the sunlight gleaming off his gun as he’s holstering the weapon? Not likely. Remember Jim’s #2 tip: Dialogue Should Reveal Character. What I’m sayin’ is, you need a better opening line. We’ve discussed first lines many times on the Kill Zone. Check out this post or this one. For scene structure tips, see Jim’s Sunday post.

I better stop there. All in all, I think Brave Writer did an excellent job. The characters are real and three-dimensional, the tone is dark and pensive, and the dialogue keeps the scene active. I’d definitely turn the page.

The question is, do you agree? How many of you would turn the page to find out what happens next? What did you like most? How might you improve this first page even more?

9+

Where Am I? — First Page Critique

By SUE COLETTA

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. I’ll catch ya on the flipside. Enjoy!

TITLE: Sonbgird

chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building. Below me, the slow curve of it swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below. Above me, it changed into a skyscraper. The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see. So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt.

Do it. Do it now.

I screamed at myself to move, but my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. Tingling my fingertips as sweat prickled my forehead.

Even if I didn’t believe I could, I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out. But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve on fire. The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast. He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bight brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate hair over her shoulder. It draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

The genre would be fantasy, I think. Full disclosure: this is not my preferred genre. As a reader, I’m drawn to stories that are logical or at least possible (think: The Martian by Andy Weirs). Brave writer, please remember this is one reader’s opinions. Perhaps others will see something I missed.

Let’s look at this opener in more depth. My comments are in bold.

TITLE: Sonbgird I’m guessing this is a typo and you meant to write Songbird, which I liked right away.

Chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. (first two lines drew me in—good job) I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

The previous two sentences I’ve read a gazillion times and I still can’t picture where I am. Is the MC standing in an empty culvert? If so, then how does wind blow his/her hair “up the side of the building”?

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The Sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building (excellent visual). Below me, the slow curve of it (of what, the walls or tunnel? In my mind a tunnel is horizontal, not vertical. If it is a vertical structure and s/he’s looking down into a tunnel-like pit, then you need a better way to set the scene. Also, whenever possible substitute the word “it” for the object) swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below.

“Sand” threw me. I’d assumed we were in a metropolitan area due to the word “tunnel,” so you need to ground the reader to where we are.

Above me, it changed into a skyscraper.

Again, what is “it”? And how did it morph into a skyscraper? Without some context, these details don’t make sense to this reader.

The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see.

That passage reaffirms a metropolitan landscape in my mind. Unless we’re in the desert outside Vegas or somewhere similar. See why it’s important to ground the reader? Don’t make us guess. If we can’t envision the surroundings, how can we fully invest in the story?.

So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt. Those two lines intrigued me. I’m thinking concrete smokestacks. Try adding more sensory details i.e. smoke plumed into an aqua-blue sky, tangoed with a lone cloud, and filled my sinuses with burnt ashes of sulfur (or somebody’s dearly departed — kidding. 😉 ) 

Do it. Do it now. Nice. I can feel the urgency.

I screamed at myself for my feet to move, but they wouldn’t comply my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. (try to decrease the sentences that begin with “I” while remaining in a deep POV). A cold rush of panic washed over me, tingling my fingertips, as sweat prickling my forehead (changed to show how to play with rhythm to create a more visceral experience. Just a suggestion. Your call on whether to keep it).

Even if I didn’t believe I could (could what? You’re trying too hard to be mysterious), I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair. This I like. It’s mysterious yet, as a reader, I don’t feel cheated—nicely done.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out (good visuals here). But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve was on fire (removed “I felt” to stay in deep POV). The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I still say the MC is in a horizontal culvert that’s hanging over a cliff of some sort. Regardless, please make it clear where we’re at. I shouldn’t still be guessing.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited. Whoa. The MC burst into flames?

I red-highlighted all the sentences that begin with “I” to make you aware of them. If this is intentional, and it may be, then fine, but be careful of overdoing it. Too many in a row can work against us.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast (this is a great way to weave in a tidbit of backstory). He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bright brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. This is a nit: whenever I read “eyes” instead of “gaze” in this context I think of disembodied eyeballs. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate-colored (added “-colored” so the reader doesn’t imagine real chocolate like I did on the first read-through. Some descriptive words are like that. Or choose a different way to describe the color i.e. deep brown) hair over her shoulder. It (Strands instead of “it”) draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

The first line indicates she has long flowing hair, then we find out she’s wearing a braid. Give us one solid image. When we’re not clear right away it causes confusion.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your work to TKZ. It’s been a pleasure critiquing this first page. I hope you found it useful.

Over to you, my beloved TKZers! Please add helpful suggestions for this brave writer.

3+

Lessons Learned from Writing True Crime

By SUE COLETTA

Have you ever considered writing true crime? With five days left of my deadline, I’ve finished the manuscript of Pretty Evil New England and am now just tightening the writing and gathering my photographs for the book. The hard part is behind me.

via GIPHY

While on this journey into true crime I learned a few lessons that might interest you.

Would I recommend true crime to new writers? The only honest answer I can give is, it depends.

The truth is, this work isn’t for everyone. Writing true crime is a huge undertaking that requires months of intense research and deep concentration. Some days I swear my brain had caught fire from overuse. Seriously, it can be physically draining to live inside a real killer’s head for months on end, never mind five killers’ heads, or the victims and their families. At the same time, my passion and excitement for the project kept me racing to work every single day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

Please indulge me for a moment. I do have a point, but you’ll need context to understand what I’m talking about. When the publisher approached me about writing Pretty Evil New England, they asked me to include 10 +/- female serial killer stories.

But I didn’t want to write 10 short stories. What fun is that? If I was to veer out of my comfort zone (psychological thrillers and mysteries), then I needed to write a story that mattered, a story that readers could sink into, spend time in the story world, and experience a visceral thrill ride. What I failed to realize at the time was that the publisher’s idea would’ve been a cakewalk compared to my over-eager proposition. But hey, I was never one to shy away from a challenge. Why start now?

In my book proposal, I outlined the book in four Parts. Part I – III focused on one female serial killer at a time, with each Part dedicated to the subject’s case, all four Parts the length of a novella. In Part IV, I zeroed in on two female serial killers — one poor, one “lady of influence” — who committed almost identical crimes. They both claimed to experience visions and prophetic dreams, both murdered the people they loved most, and both stunned the public with their heartless crimes. Yet, after they were exposed as killers, the two women’s lives ran in opposite directions. Even more shocking were the outcomes at trial. So, Part IV became not only two intriguing storylines that intertwined but it shined a (subtle) light on fairness and equality.

Not conforming to the publisher’s original vision for the book was a risk, but I backed up my argument with facts from various sources that proved true crime readers prefer quality over quantity.

Lesson #1: When pushing for your own concept, you need to provide proof that your idea will be more profitable and enjoyable than the one posed by the publisher.

Once I found my five cases, I delved into research. Now, I had no idea what to look for, so I researched everything… life in nineteenth century New England, nursing requirements back then, forensics of yesteryear, how trials worked back then, the gallows… you name it, I researched the topic to death (no pun intended). I had no direction, except for my five ladies, two of which had practically no online footprint and one who had too many articles written about her, and many with conflicting accounts that didn’t align with my early research. Which is worse, actually. It’s much more time-consuming to wade through conflicting information than to research a bare bones case.

Lesson #2: Have a plan of attack. Meaning, before you start to research plan what you’ll need for the story, like dialogue and a sense of place.

Being a fiction writer helped a lot, because I viewed the cases from a storyteller’s point of view. The worse thing we can do is to just report facts. Boring! Instead, we need to find that perfect balance between journalism and engaging storytelling. But, and this is key, we cannot change or embellish to enhance the story.

What I discovered is, there are numerous ways to write true crime. Each of my four Parts are written differently. Why? Because no true story is the same. Thus, it’s our job to be able to adapt according to the case. For example, in Part I, I used the killer’s confession and dialogue to write scenes from her perspective, the victims’ perspectives, and the dogged investigators who caught her. Using a backdrop of the historical Eastern Heatwave of 1901 enhanced the atmosphere in a creepy way. Which brings me to…

Lesson #3: Look outside the case for a sense of place. What else is happening at that time, in that area?

Lesson #4: No amount of online research can replace real-world experience.

Even if we’re writing historical true crime, we still need to visit the crime scenes, grave sites, walk where the killer walked, visit the town, or the murder house, if you’re really lucky. In my research I stumbled across a third floor that was perfectly preserved from 1881. I walked where the killer walked (in Part III of Pretty Evil), I sat where the victims sat, I laid my finger on the ivory keys of their piano and perused their bookshelves. What an incredible find! It’s an experience I will never forget. If you’d like to see the photos, I blogged about it.

The most important lesson I learned was this. Before choosing a subject to write about, ask yourself, why does this story interest me? What is it about this crime that makes it unique?

We, as writers, need to be passionate about all our projects. For true crime writers, we need to be doubly sure, because we can’t change real life. The true crime writer lives with the case for a long time… many months, sometimes years. If the writer isn’t passionate about the story, chances are readers won’t care, either. Same goes for fiction. Hence why TKZ members have written umpteen posts on concept, premise, when to keep a story idea and when to trash it.

By the time I wrote the final sentence of Part IV of Pretty Evil, I couldn’t wait to go back to page one. I missed my “characters” from Part I-III. And now that I’m just tidying up the manuscript, I feel like I’m visiting old friends, even if they are psychopaths. 😉 Their stories are part of me now, and hopefully, will become part of my readers’ lives as well.

Have you ever considered writing true crime? If you already do, please share your tips.

 

PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs hits bookstores Sept. 1, 2020. Can’t wait!

 

9+

Book Blurbs: The Good, The Bad, and The Hilarious

During the summer I had the distinct honor of blurbing a book. Not just any book, either. Larry Brooks’ new craft book, Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves. I love Larry’s (and Jim’s!) craft books, so I took my job seriously and did what any self-respecting writer would do… I Googled “How to Blurb a Book.” 🙂

The term “blurb” has amassed a number of meanings in the decades since it worked its way into our vocabulary, including a book description. But the true meaning of the word means a bylined endorsement from a fellow writer or celebrity that sings the praises of the book’s author.

There’s only two crucial steps to book blurbing.

Step 1: read the book.

Step 2: write whatever you liked about it.

That’s it. It’s not rocket science. The only way to screw up this assignment is to skip Step 1. Well, that’s not exactly true.

Don’t write the blurb to a fill-in-the-blank formula…

The Zero by Jess Walter

“Jess Walter’s The Zero is a tense and compulsively readable roller-coaster ride fraught with psychological thrills, unanticipated dips and lurches, and existential truths. The novel frightened and fascinated me in equal measures. Walter has written a neo-noirish masterpiece.” — Wally Lamb

This is also not the time to overwrite…

To The End Of The Land by David Grossman

“Very rarely you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling has opened in you that was not there before. David Grossman has the ability to look inside a person and discover the essence of her humanity; his novels are about what it means to defend this essence against a world designed to extinguish it. To The End Of The Land is his most powerful, unflinching story of this defense.” — Nicole Krauss

Nor is it the time to play with adverbs…

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

“To those who say there are no new love stories, I heartily recommend The Time Traveler’s Wife, an enchanting novel, which is beautifully crafted and as dazzlingly imaginative as it is dizzyingly romantic.” — Scott Turow

Although, if you’re as talented and creative as Jordan Dane, you might get away with adjectives…

“Riveting and haunting! Sue Coletta’s page-turning crime fiction is deliciously nuanced with delectable horror and dark humor. Unique and compelling characters make a sumptuous and satisfying meal. Save room for a decadent dessert of plot twists.”

Let’s not forget the blurb master, Gary Shteyngart, who blurbed the world’s worst books. Here’s a small sampling…

Eating People is Wrong by Malcolm Bradbury

“If eating people is wrong, I don’t want to be right”—Gary Shteyngart

Castration: The Advantages and Disadvantages by Victor T. Cheney

“The ballsiest book of the year”—Gary Shteyngart

Alas, I wasn’t that creative. I just told the truth…

“Larry Brooks has done it again!!! In Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves, Brooks delivers a clear, concise, easily digestible roadmap to make our stories work.

“From the initial story seed to concept to a fully formed premise, he walks us through each part of a four-part structure, with unwavering clarity. It’s the perfect craft book to help aspiring writers turn their writing dreams into reality and an excellent refresher for seasoned novelists.”

 

If you enjoyed Story Engineering or Story Physics, you will love Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves. Did I mention Robert Dugoni wrote the foreword?

While you’re stocking the toolbox, might I recommend another fabulous craft book? The Last Fifty Pages by James Scott Bell. Like Larry’s new book, it’s a game-changer.

Too much? It felt a little heavy-handed. Sorry about that. I get so fired up over craft books. Jim and Larry’s teaching style really speaks to me. Can a writer ever have too many books on craft? Not in my world. What about yours?

 

7+

First Page Critique: Singularity Syndrome

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer has submitted their first page for critique. I’ll see you on the flipside. Enjoy!

Title:  Singularity Syndrome

It was just the kind of case I like. Someone was sipping data from Hurgle’s supposedly leakproof data cloud. Hurgle wasn’t an especially evil corporation—just average evil. So, I didn’t mind taking their coins to send sniffers loose in the data streams. I found the leak and plugged it for good with a worm that trashed the sneak thieves’ servers. They never knew what hit them, and my client and I never knew who they were. But that didn’t matter. They’d be back, or someone else would. The universe holds an infinite number of crackers.

It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water.

Then she called. And reminded me what kind of case I really like.

The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video. A woman with long scarlet hair, glossy in the style of years ago. She was beautiful, with lines around her eyes that showed she liked to smile. But not smiling now. Of course not. She wouldn’t be calling me if she had anything to smile about.

“How can I help you?” I’m the Finder, that’s what I do, so it’s obvious. But it helps them to start from the beginning.

“I’m worried about my husband.”

“He’s missing?”

“No.”

“Then what?”

A small crease furrowed her lovely forehead. “His behavior has changed.”

“How so?”

“He’s lost focus.”

“Is he dangerous? Accident prone? I’m not clear why you’ve called me. Why not a psychiatrist?”

“We run a business together. A significant company. He’s got some strange ideas, and they’re impacting our business.”

“If this is some corporate drama, I’m not interested.”

“I know about you.”

“Then you know I don’t care about the corps.”

“Unless it interests you.”

“And why would it?”

“I think his brain has been hacked.”

Okay, she was right. That was interesting. “His brain has been hacked or you just don’t like the way he thinks?”

“I don’t like the way he thinks, but it’s more than that. He’s not thinking the way he used to.”

“People change.”

“Yes, they do.” She let the silence draw out and so did I. I could be silent much longer than most people.

* * *

Excellent first page, Anon! The writing is crisp, exciting, and has an engaging voice. The dialogue is punchy and quick, sounds natural and believable. The MC’s personality shines through. There’s a solid goal and conflict, and you’ve dropped us into the story at an ideal place and time. I liked this opener so much, I wanted to keep reading.

Even without you having to tell the reader, we can assume the MC is male. We also get a good sense of who he is—a highly skilled white hat who works for a government agency in a specialized field (my guess is a cyber-tracker). That’s a lot of information that you subtly infused into this first page without clobbering us over the head with backstory. Well done! His name would be nice, but I’m willing to wait. See what good writing does? It tells the reader we’re in capable hands. If I didn’t learn his name for another ten pages, I’d still be content to go for the ride. Try to slip it in earlier than that, though. 🙂

Let’s see if we can improve this first page even more.

It was just the kind of case I like[d] add the “d” to stay in past tense here. Someone was sipping data from Hurgle’s supposedly leakproof data cloud. Hurgle wasn’t an especially evil corporation—just [an] average evil. So, I didn’t mind taking their coins to send sniffers loose in the data streams. I found the leak and plugged it for good with a worm that trashed the sneak[y] thieves’ servers. They never knew what hit them, and my client and I never knew who they were. But that didn’t matter. They’d be back, or someone else would.

The universe holds an infinite number of crackers. I brought this line down for greater impact; also, because you’ve switched to present tense, which isn’t wrong, btw. In this context, the statement still holds true. 

It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima [the Parrot, Altima, and I] sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water. Use the pronoun “I” when the person speaking is doing the action, either alone or with someone else. Use the pronoun “Me” when the person is receiving the action, either directly or indirectly. — courtesy of Webster’s Ask the Editor

Then she called. And reminded me what kind of case I really like. This line is redundant. Instead, I’d rather see you tease the reader here. I don’t know where you’re going with the story, but perhaps you could add something like: The woman that rocked my world, and not necessarily in a good way.

The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video. A woman (if you decide to use something similar to my example above, then change this to [There she sat,] with long scarlet hair, glossy in the style of years ago. She was beautiful, with lines around her eyes that showed she liked to smile (how ‘bout using “laugh” instead of “smile” here to avoid repetition, since you use “smile” at the end of this paragraph?) But not smiling now. Of course not. Not now, of course. (one sentence is tighter than two 🙂 ) She wouldn’t be calling me if she had anything to smile about.

“How can I help you?” I’m the Finder, that’s what I do, so it’s obvious (last part is unnecessary). But it helps them to start from the beginning.

“I’m worried about my husband.”

“He’s missing?”

“No.”

“Then what?” (This seems out-of-character. He’s nice enough to let her “start from the beginning,” yet here he seems agitated. How ‘bout: “Then… I’m not sure why—”)

A small crease furrowed her lovely forehead (normally I’d ding you for “lovely” because it’s a non-visual word, but here, it works to show he’s enamored with the caller). “His behavior has changed.”

“How so?”

“He’s lost focus.”

“Is he dangerous? (why would losing focus automatically make him think “dangerous”? Don’t tell us; you’ll ruin the intrigue. Just give us a hint in the right direction.) Accident prone? I’m not clear why you’ve called me. Why not a psychiatrist?” (I would delete this last question. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it. It just feels… misplaced. *shrug*) 

“We run a business together. A significant company. He’s got some strange ideas, and they’re impacting our business.”

“If this is some corporate drama, I’m not interested.”

I’d love to see her stumble over her words. “It’s not. It’s just that— What I mean is, I know about you.” “I know about you.”

“Then you know I don’t care about the corps.”

“Unless it interests you.”

“Exactly. So, lay it on me. ’Cause as it stands now, I gotta tell ya, so far this sounds like a waste of valuable time and resources.” (I added to the dialogue to increase tension. Your MC is about to hang up when the caller drops a bomb i.e. brain hack) And why would it?”

“I think his brain has been hacked.”

Okay, she was right. That was interesting. (Is a brain hack something that happens every day in your story world? If not, he needs a bigger reaction. Even if it’s as simple as confusion: Whoa. Wait. Huh?) “His brain has been hacked or you just don’t like the way he thinks?”

Both I don’t like the way he thinks, but it’s more than that. He’s not thinking the way he used to.”

(Add a lame half-shrug or another body cue that shows indifference). “People change.”

“Yes, they do.” She let the silence draw out and so did I. I could be silent much longer than most people. (Delete the last line. It adds nothing. How ‘bout something snarky instead? “If she thought she could out-silence me, she obviously didn’t have the first clue about me.”)

All in all, you did a terrific job with this opener, Anon. I really enjoyed it. Be sure to let us know how things progress with your story. So far, I’m intrigued!

Over to you, my beloved TKZers. Would you keep reading? Please add your suggestions/comments of how you might improve this first page. Do you like the title? Why/why not?

 

 

7+

How (and where) To Research Historical Crime

By SUE COLETTA

A few regular readers of TKZ requested tips to help research criminal cases from the past. If the crime occurred in the 18th or early 19th century, the task becomes much more difficult. My hope is that these tips will aid you in finding reliable information.

Let’s say you only have a name, place, and approximate year for your victim or killer. The first logical step is to conduct a Google search to see what’s available online. Someone must have written about the case, right? Well, not necessarily. Sometimes you get lucky and find a couple articles, other times … *crickets* Which I happen to like, because it means the industry isn’t saturated with books on the same topic. But it’s also harder to find what we need. Not impossible; we just need to think like an investigator.

GENERAL TIPS

If you find an online article about the crime, do not solely rely on that information. Instead, within said article search for the author’s sources. Most true crime writers will either link to another source or cite where they gathered their facts from, and that’s where the gold resides.

My overly suspicious crime writer brain tends to question where bloggers and/or journalists get their facts. To satisfy my own curiosity I use a three-source rule. Meaning, if I can’t verify a fact with two other sources, then I don’t consider it a historical fact.

By the way, this is my personal rule, not an industry requirement. Although, some publishers do ask that you verify each major fact with one other source. Even if they never request the citation, their legal department might. So, be sure to keep a log of where you find information, both primary and secondary sources. It’ll save you from having to go back to find where the killer said something, or whatever.

There’s one exception to my three-source rule…

Suppose I find a newspaper article that I am able to authenticate with a trial transcript, deposition, or other court document. Because I have the primary source (court document) which says the same thing, then the newspaper article gains credibility. If I don’t have access to a primary source for verification, then I need two secondary sources to substantiate the fact(s).

True crime readers expect the truth, not our fictional interpretation. It’s our job to question a reporter’s research and not take what s/he says at face-value. They want to sell newspapers, so facts can often be embellished or sensationalized. When I first started searching through old newspapers (I’ll share where you can find them in a sec), I was shocked to find misinformation, discrepancies, untruths, and rumors stated as fact. Embellishments help to create eye-popping headlines but can also hinder a true crime writer/researcher if we’re not careful.

For example, there’s a lot of online content about one of my five female serial killers due to the fact that she rocked the nation with her cold-bloodedness. But all these articles weren’t ideal. If anything, they muddied the water. In order to separate fact from fiction I had to wade through opinions, theories, innuendoes, and rumors. You may have to do the same. My best advice is to roll up your sleeves, consider it a challenge, and dig in. 😉

PRIMARY vs. SECONDARY SOURCES

Think of research as a bullseye, with the killer and/or victim at the center. The first ring around the bullseye includes eyewitness accounts, investigative reports, court testimony, the killer’s journal and/or confession — primary sources. Moving outward, the next ring would be secondary sources, such as a newspaper article written by a journalist who interviewed someone involved with the case (killer, detective, juror, DA).

The third ring includes newspaper articles written by someone with no first-hand or second-hand knowledge. To get the article written on time they simply regurgitated information from other articles — that’s where you’ll find the most mistakes. In this ring you’ll also find bloggers, some credible, some not.

See why I created a three-source rule? If we were to write historical nonfiction using only the third ring as our primary source, the book and its author would lose all credibility among historical nonfiction readers as well as writers. I’ve read numerous snarky remarks about true crime writers who play fast and loose with the facts. Since I would never advocate to spotlight another writer’s inadequacies, I’ll leave it at that. My point is, research as though the whole world is watching. It’ll keep you honest. 🙂

HOMING IN ON PRIMARY SOURCES

One of the best places to gather historic information is the National Archives. Once called the Archival Research Catalog (ARC), which retired in 2013 and was replaced with the Online Public Access (OPA) prototype, the National Archives Catalog searches all web pages on Archives.gov and lists articles, pdf documents, books, and periodicals on a search result page. Along with catalog records, researchers are able to add notes that may cite additional sources, so during your search also be mindful of gold nuggets hidden in research notes.

The current catalog provides access to over two million electronic records in the Electronic Records Archives (ERA). These digital records aren’t available elsewhere. The National Archives is a fantastic place to find reliable primary source material.

Now, suppose the case you’re looking for hasn’t been digitalized. In that case you’ll need to Google “National Archives of [insert the state capitol where the crime occurred].” Note the email address and send a formal record request. The more information you provide, the greater your chances of gaining results. Record requests take about ten business days to complete.

If the crime you’re researching was not heard in federal court, then you’ll need to drop down to the state level. Google: “[state where crime took place] State Archives.” Example: Massachusetts State Archives. This may sound like the same place as above, but it’s not. State Archives house court records on the district court level.

Then there’s the Supreme Judicial Archives. In Boston, it’s a separate building with a separate email address. This may not always be the case, though. You’ll need to find out how it works in the state you’re researching, but you can use this example as a guide.

Prepare to spend time on the phone with law libraries and historical societies. The folks who work in these places are extremely helpful, and they love writers. The law library directed me to a wealth of information that I wouldn’t have gotten on my own, because they have access to databases that the public does not. Search for the county where your crime was committed, then add “law library.” For example, I searched for “Barnstable Law Library” for one of my female serial killers.

For my New Hampshire killer, the local historical society had diaries tucked inside an old box, with daily logs written during the string of murders. The gentleman who wrote these diaries knew the victims and the killer. Scoring a firsthand account of a centuries old murder case is difficult to find, but when it happens, it’s the best feeling ever.

See why it pays to keep digging? You never know what you might uncover next.

Most police departments are useless, as they don’t keep investigative records that long. It’s still worth sending a quick email, though. If I didn’t contact one particular department, I would have never known that the town where my killer operated housed their own independent archives that were a lot more detailed than the records I’d acquired elsewhere. It also gave me two primary sources to check facts against.

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

As you may have guessed, a great place to find old newspapers are libraries. Depending on your subject’s location, many libraries have transferred newspapers to microfiche. Be sure to have the month and date for the librarian. If the crime you’re researching made national headlines, you may even luck out at your local library.

But wait …

Before you truck down to the library, check out the Library of Congress. They list 15,273,703 digitized newspaper pages from 1789-1963. Always best to save the shoe leather whenever possible. 🙂

Remember, as you research, search for primary source material to verify your secondary or thrice-removed accounts. Readers will thank you for the added effort.

Researching historical crime takes time and patience, but it’s also fun to piece the puzzle together. Just don’t get discouraged. For every three or four dead ends, you’ll stumble across something new and exciting that’ll set your writer brain ablaze.

I better stop there before this post morphs into a book. Do you have any research tips to share?

 

 

8+

First Page Critique: Watch All Night

By SUE COLETTA

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. Enjoy. I’ll catch you on the flipside.

WATCH ALL NIGHT

It was the other buildings that looked sinister. They slumped against each other, lining the alley in ancient, faded red-brick. Their boarded-up windows bothered Joe the most. They made the buildings look blinded. February chill, boosted by the river, let him hurry past those dead old things, still hanging round like they didn’t know their time had come and gone.

He could hear the Felbrigg changing from a warehouse to an apartment-building before he saw it. And there it was, full of life, construction crews hammering and buzzing, wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows, fancy new glass door. Fitting into the London of now.  

Joe went in.

#

Greeley, the building manager, took off his reading glasses and nodded to the two construction guys coming up the corridor where the gym and lift were going to be. The men headed for the front door. This desk station and security room made an island in the middle of the reception floor. A corridor ran all the way to the back of the building, on both sides of the island. Greeley had already run through the CCTV system in the security room, and how to change the recording. The security technology at the desk station was more or less the same. Greeley had explained about the alarm, the keys, the touchpads, the drawer contents.

Greeley looked Joe over with down-sloping grey eyes for about the fifth time. Joe knew the sight he made, six-foot-three, the extra muscle he’d put on, and his entire past in his face. Good look for a security guard; not so good, otherwise, to men like Greeley.

Now the men working on the gym had gone, he could hear Greeley’s nasal voice better through all the banging and drilling.

Greeley’s wide, soft jaw settled back into his neck. He said, “So. Think you can remember all that?”

Joe nodded.

***

The way Anon set the scene in the first two paragraphs works for this particular reader. We know where we are, and I found the dinginess of the building compelling enough to keep reading. The first line implies something terrible is about to happen within said building. Which is great. Could the sentence be stronger? Yeah, but that’s an editorial nitpick. I’d rather focus on the big picture.

The largest concern for me occurs after the hashmark. We have a couple POV hiccups and a distant narrator. A hashmark indicates a new scene, yet we’re in the same building as the previous paragraphs. See my confusion? At first, I thought we’d switched to Greeley’s POV, but it doesn’t appear that way. 

Anon, if you meant to switch to a different POV, then we have an even bigger problem. The first page should only be one scene. One POV per scene. 

Everything after the hashmark is more world-building. There’s also a lot of telling. Whenever we use words like heard, saw, thought, knew, etc., we’re not showing the story in a deep point of view. Think about how you, the writer, views the world. For all intents and purposes, you are that POV character. So, rather than tell us you heard or saw something, show us.

Example of telling (limited POV): I heard waves crashing against the rocks. I saw the salt water slash through the veil of ivory foam.

Without adding to the imagery, here’s the same example, only this time we’re in deep POV (showing): Waves crashed against the rocks, the salt water slashing through the veil of ivory foam.

See the difference? You don’t need to tell the reader that the character heard or saw the waves. It’s implied. How else would s/he know?

Okay, there’s another problem. Everything after the hashmark isn’t interesting enough to carry the first page. The building is under construction. We get it. Move on. Don’t waste precious real estate by over-describing. If you want to include the debris, then sprinkle it in later.

The first page needs to accomplish several things:

  • Raise story questions
  • Pique interest
  • Indicate genre
  • Introduce hero (or in some cases, the villain)
  • Gain empathy; not necessarily likability
  • The POV character needs a goal

I recently finished a terrific thriller entitled A Killer’s Mind by Mike Omer. Let’s look at the first paragraph as an example of how to include all of the above by showing, not telling …

The sharp scent of formaldehyde filled the room as he poured the liquid into the mixture. He had hated the smell at first. But he’d learned to appreciate it, knowing what it represented: eternity. The embalming fluid kept things from deteriorating. “Till death do us part” was an unambitious concept at best. True love should ascend beyond that point.

Did this paragraph raise story questions in my mind? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out who this killer was embalming.

Did it pique my interest? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out what this killer might do next.

Did it introduce a character in a compelling way? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out more about this killer.

Did I know the genre right away? Absolutely! It’s a serial killer thriller.

Did I have empathy for the villain? Yes! He’s looking for love and thinks the only way to keep Mrs. Right is by embalming her.

Does the villain have a goal? Absolutely! His goal is to build a life-long union with a woman who will never leave him.

And Omer accomplished all of it in one paragraph. Bam. I’m hooked! The rest of the first page drew me in even more. Powerless to fight the urge to stop reading, the world faded away as I frantically flipped pages like a junkie searching for a fix.

Check out the rest of the first page …

He added more salt than the last time, hoping for better results. It was a delicate balance; he’d learned that the hard way. The embalming fluid promised eternity, but the saline solution added flexibility.

A good relationship had to be flexible.

There was a creak beyond the locked door. The noises—a series of irregular squeaking and scraping sounds, intermingled with the girl’s labored groans—grated on his nerves. She was trying to untie herself again. Always moving, always trying to get away from him—they were all the same at first. But she’d change; he would make sure of that. There would be no more incessant movement, no muffled begging, no hoarse screams.

She would be quiet and still. And then they would learn to love each other.

Notice, too, how the killer is moving; he’s active. We’re not hearing about what he did after the fact. We’re experiencing it firsthand through the killer’s POV.

Anon, you need to do the same in your first page. Show us where Joe goes after he enters the building and why we should care. You don’t need to reveal any big mystery, but you do need to hint at it to hold our interest.

This next paragraph tells us what happened instead of letting us experience it ourselves:

Greeley had already run through the CCTV system in the security room, and how to change the recording. The security technology at the desk station was more or less the same. Greeley had explained about the alarm, the keys, the touchpads, the drawer contents.

Granted, it’s best to breeze over the boring stuff. We don’t need to know how to operate CCTV, unless it impacts the plot in some way. If the paragraph falls into the boring stuff category, then it doesn’t belong on the first page.

Ideas

What if Joe reviews last night’s tapes and sees something strange … a burglar, someone being kidnapped, UFO lights, whatever fits your genre. He shows the footage to Greeley and we’re off and running with a new mystery, a goal for our hero, and intrigue.

Or …

What if Greeley storms over to Joe’s work station with damning footage of Joe sneaking into the building last night. But Joe was at home all night. See all the story questions that might arise from that one simple action? Is someone trying to setup Joe? For what, burglary, murder, or a far more sinister scheme? Who hates him enough to frame him? And why? How’d he or she get his passcode or security card?

With the right action, it’s easy to plant questions in the reader’s mind. But you do need the right angle. We also need to plant the reader in that moment with the hero or villain, rather than the narrator telling us about it after it happened.

This paragraph confused me:

Greeley looked Joe over with down-sloping grey eyes for about the fifth time. Joe knew the sight he made, six-foot-three, the extra muscle he’d put on, and his entire past in his face. Good look for a security guard; not so good, otherwise, to men like Greeley.

I’m guessing Anon’s trying to describe Joe, but it doesn’t work. Some authors never describe their characters. They leave it up to reader-interpretation. On Facebook, a fan asked Karin Slaughter what one of her main characters looked like. Her response? He looks exactly how you picture him in your mind. Perfect answer, right?

The writer needs to know their characters intimately, including their looks, but the reader doesn’t, unless their unique style adds to their character in some way. For example, some of my characters wrongly assume Shawnee Daniels lives a gothic lifestyle. She hates the label, but I show her uniqueness to enhance her character — dressing goth-like raises questions about her. Is she hiding behind all black for a reason? Is she using makeup like a mask to shield the innocent girl who cowers inside? See where I’m going with this?

Greeley has that bulldog look. Great. Let another character tease him about his downward-sloping eyes. Men give each other s*it all the time on construction sites. Show him getting razzed by one of the guys, and then show his reaction to the ribbing. Does he fire the guy on the spot? Does he throw things? Cry? I wouldn’t let this play out on the first page, though. Just spitballin’. 😉

Anon, I see something special in the first two paragraphs. You have the writing chops to make this first page compelling. You just dropped the ball after the hashmark. Happens to the best of us. So, take a moment to curse me out, then get back to work. Make us proud, because I know you have it in you. 

Favorite line of this first page: Greeley’s wide, soft jaw settled back into his neck.

You nailed the body cue in that line. So, stop playing it safe elsewhere. 🙂

Over to you, TKZers. How might you improve this first page? Did the first two paragraphs draw you in? Could you guess the genre from this small sample? What’s your favorite line? Which, if you’re game, I’d like to include in all first page critiques. Not only will asking for a favorite line add a positive spin to the critiques but knowing where the brave writer succeeded is just as beneficial as knowing where s/he went wrong. 

4+

The Wagon Wheel of Suspense

By Sue Coletta

We have another gutsy writer who submitted their first page. Please pay special attention to the notes at the end of this post, and you’ll understand my title (I hope).

Gym Body

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. Deep breath. Step in. The cop cars outside reminded me of something that had happened long ago.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes.

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down.

Breathing in the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.”

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist, and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepen into greater and more cynical levels of boredom depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now she was pushing 11 on a bored-look scale of 10. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.”

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!”

Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars. She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

* * *

NITTY-GRITTY

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. If her hand is on the door handle, how could she feel her heartbeat in her palm? If you’d like to deepen the POV, reword like this: With my hand on the gym door handle, the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio pulsed through my hand.  Deep breath. Staccato sentence, which varies sentence structure and adds rhythm. Good job! Step in. This one may be overdoing it, but it’s a stylistic choice. The cop cars outside [the building] reminded me of something that had happened long ago. I’d love a hint to what happened. Don’t explain in detail, though. Rather, hint at it, teasing us to keep us interested. As written, it’s not enough.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes. Good. It makes me wonder why she’s so upset. I hope it’s because someone got their head bashed in with a weight and not due to a minor disagreement. Meaning, if you’re going to show us a woman racing down the stairs in tears in the opening paragraph, you ought to have a compelling reason why, a reason the reader will soon discover. This is precious real estate. Don’t waste it on meaningless conflict that has no bearing on the forthcoming quest. 

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down. Meh. I’d delete this sentence. It detracts from the next sentence, which I like. Breathing in Inhaling the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card. Bravo on using sound and smell to enhance the mental image. Too often writers forget to use these senses, and often they’re the most powerful.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.” You managed to sneak in the main character’s name, which is great. However, this dialogue is too on-the-nose. What if Trixie gossiped about why the woman ran out in tears? Again, give us a compelling reason. 

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist “Fell” indicates she had her hair up prior to this., and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepened into greater and more cynical levels of boredom, depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now, she was pushing 11 eleven on a bored-look scale of 10 ten. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.” Love the snark. This paragraph shows us Suzi’s fun personality. Very good.

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. Unless the character is shouting, lose the exclamation point. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!” <– Here too. Rather than pick away at this, I’m stopping here. Please jump to the notes below. Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars.  She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

Old Fashioned Wagon Wheel Garden Fountain

NOTES

Even if we tightened the writing, these last two paragraphs still aren’t interesting enough for the opening page. I’d rather see you use this space to hint at what Suzi will find inside her classroom. Dead body? Blood? An escaped zoo gorilla? Hordes of tarantulas from the exotic pet store next door? Prison escapee? Suzi’s ex-husband who just dumped the crying woman? My point is, the details must connect. Or show us why she fears the past might be repeating itself. Hint at the disturbance you mentioned in the first paragraph. As it stands now, the cop cars disappeared from Suzi’s mind. By including too many details about the surroundings you’ve undone the tension you started to build in the opening paragraph.

The title, I assume, is a play on words. Gym body = dead body in the gym? As a crime writer, my mind jumps to a scenario that involves murder. If this isn’t the case, then you need a new title. Preferably one that hints at the genre.

THE WAGON WHEEL OF SUSPENSE

Envision an old fashioned wagon wheel fountain (pictured above). The water rides up in the buckets, over the top of the wheel, and spills down into the same basin. The water itself never changes, even though it cycles through several buckets. In writing, especially in our opening chapter, we need to narrow our focus to one main conflict (i.e. a killer on the loose), one compelling question that the reader needs to answer (why do folks die at this specific gym?). This is how we force them to turn the page. We can and should include several disturbances along the way (in this analogy, I’m referring to the buckets), but they all should relate to that main conflict (the water) in some way.

In the opening chapter it’s crucial to stop the wheel partway. Don’t let that water escape till later, thereby raising the main dramatic story question. We still need to transfer the water from bucket to bucket on the way up the wheel (remember, conflict drives story). That’s how we build suspense, little by little, almost painfully teasing the reader till we’re ready to let the water flow.

In this opening chapter, the main conflict could be what’s inside Suzi’s classroom that’s so horrible a woman pounded down the stairs in tears after witnessing it, but you’d need to drop more clues to make us want to find out. Use the patrol cars outside the building as one disturbance. How does the past relate to present day? What sort of reaction do the lights and sirens have on Suzi? Has this gym been the scene of other murders? Hint at how these things connect to pique the reader’s interest.

Anon, please remember, if I thought you were just beginning your writing journey, you wouldn’t see this much red ink. Your grasp of POV tells me you’ve got the skills to do better. I already like Suzi enough to go for the ride. That’s a huge plus. All you need to do is give us a compelling reason to turn the page. With some tweaking, I know you can do it.

Over to you, TKZers! What advice would you give to improve this first page?

8+

A Lesson in Deep POV — First Page Critique

By SUE COLETTA

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. I’ll see ya on the flipside.

Murder Audit 

Jim Dunn, Controller of Prairie Pipeline Co., rubbed his eyes as he glanced up at the clock on the wall of his office. It was almost 7:00 pm and while this would be an early night for him, he was ready to call it quits. He had been working late hours getting ready for PPC’s annual financial statement audit and he wanted to make sure everything was in order for tomorrow’s inventory count. Although he had met with audit manager, Cynthia Webber, several weeks ago, he felt it was important he was at the office bright and early on inventory day.

            He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a half-full bottle of Crown Royal. He unscrewed the cap and poured a good jigger into his stale, cold coffee. After replacing the bottle in his desk drawer, he swirled his coffee cup and downed the concoction in three big gulps. As he planted his cup back on his desk in its usual spot he thought he heard voices. Knowing he was alone in the office, he went to his window and noticed some protesters had gathered outside the front entrance. Feeling brave from his last four mugs of “coffee Royal”, he opened the window and shouted at the protesters.

            “Get outta here you granola loving hippies! This town wouldn’t be what it is today without this company. I bet half of you work for our subsidiaries and don’t even know it. Go find something better to do!” As Jim closed the window, he heard something thunk against the building. He looked at the angry mob of about 20 to see that they were throwing rocks at the building. He opened his window and shouted at the crowd.

            “I’m calling the police!”

            “Oooh, the police. We’re scared now!” one of the protesters sarcastically snapped back. By this point Jim was ready to take matters into his own hands. He was sick and tired of environmental protest groups showing up at the office and disturbing not only the normal course of business but also the time he put in after hours. It was almost as if they were stalking him. He just couldn’t understand why they would choose 7:00 pm as a time to protest. Then he remembered there was a benefit dinner happening at the University to raise funds to relocate the hundreds of thousands of birds that would be without homes if the new pipeline went ahead as planned.

Overall, I liked this piece. I can see the potential for a fast-paced story, rife with conflict. It’s because of the writer’s potential that I’ve narrowed in on POV.

What we find with this first page is a distance narrator. The following words in bold are all telling words and phrases. Remember, if we wouldn’t think it, our POV character shouldn’t either. Some writers have a difficult time with deep POV, which we’ve discussed before on TKZ. It’s one element of craft that we learn at our pace. One day it’ll just click. My hope is, this is that day for Anon.

When we tell the reader what’s happening rather than showing the events as they unfold, we’re robbing them of a vicarious experience and thus, they won’t be as invested in the story. Force them feel what our POV character is up against. If we don’t, the reader stays detached and it’s easy for them to put down the book.

Taken from the first paragraph, let’s reword into showing.

Telling:

He had been working late hours getting ready for PPC’s annual financial statement audit and he wanted to make sure everything was in order for tomorrow’s inventory count.

Showing:

In preparation for PPC’s annual financial statement audit, he’d worked ungodly hours. Everything must be perfect for tomorrow. If the inventory count was off even a fraction, he could lose his job.

See the difference? We’re now inside the MC’s head.

Let’s look at the same paragraph, last sentence.

Telling:

Although he had met with audit manager, Cynthia Webber, several weeks ago, he felt it was important he was at the office bright and early on inventory day. 

Showing:

Several weeks ago, he’d met with his audit manager. To say it didn’t go well was an understatement. For the last several days, he’d even beaten the crows to work, and their day started at dawn. The pesky buggers never missed an opportunity to raid the dumpster. What a mess they left, too.

Note the hints of environment as well as personality? Using deep POV allows the reader to get to know our MC a little at a time.

I’m including the next line for a different reason.

He looked at the angry mob of about 20 to see that they were throwing rocks at the building. 

The word “looked” in this context isn’t wrong, per se, but it is generic. Meaning, we have no idea “how” the MC is looking at the crowd below. By using a weak verb we miss an opportunity to show the MC’s reaction. Try “gaped,” which shows shock, “glared,” which shows aggravation or anger, “scowled,” which shows resentment, disgust, anger. Choose the word that best describes “how” the MC is staring at the crowd. Incidentally, don’t only concentrate on the eyes. A curled lip shows just as much disgust and paints a better picture.

2nd Paragraph

As he planted his cup back on his desk in its usual spot he thought he heard voices. Knowing he was alone in the office, he went to his window and noticed some protesters had gathered outside the front entrance. Feeling brave from his last four mugs of “coffee Royal”, he opened the window and shouted at the protesters.

Showing:

When he set the cup on the monogrammed coaster, one of the few things the ex-ball-and-chain hadn’t stolen, voices resonated below. Better not be those damn protesters again. For liquid courage, he poured another coffee royal, tossed his head back, and sucked the mug dry. (side note: I loved Jim’s coffee royal habit; my 90 y.o. Italian grandfather-in-law tipped quite a few in his day. 🙂 )

Jim shoved open the window. (Example of using a body cue instead of dialogue tag) “Get outta here, you granola-lovin’ hippies!” (Great dialogue. Good job, Anon!)

However, the following dialogue doesn’t work.

“This town wouldn’t be what it is today without this company. I bet half of you work for our subsidiaries and don’t even know it. Go find something better to do!”

The first line in the above passage is too on-the-nose. The second could work if reworded to sound more natural. Although, I’d rather see Anon use the dialogue to show us more of Jim’s personality. It’s precious real estate and shouldn’t be wasted by sneaking in backstory.

As Jim closed the window, he heard something thunk against the building. He looked at the angry mob of about 20 to see that they were throwing rocks at the building. He opened his window and shouted at the crowd.

“I’m calling the police!” 

Heard and see are telling words. The dialogue should come after the body cue, not on a separate line. Also, why have Jim close and reopen the window? Keep it open. If you need Jim away from the window, let him refill his coffee royal. Which also gives us the opportunity to show the reader how pissed off or frightened he is.

Rewritten:

Jim swiped the Crown Royal off his desk, and a pummel of tings blasted against the side of the building. He chanced a peek out the window. About twenty of the angry mob whipped rocks at the bricks, some even hit the new Prairie Pipeline Company sign. As CEO, he couldn’t let this behavior continue. Hidden by the window frame, his body flattened against the wall, his voice betrayed his confident front when it raised three octaves. “I’m calling the cops!”

Notice how I slipped in the name of the company and his job title? Here isn’t as intrusive as the first line and we won’t risk overloading our reader with information before they get a chance to know Jim.

Last paragraph:

“Oooh, the police. We’re scared now!” one of the protesters sarcastically snapped back. By this point Jim was ready to take matters into his own hands. He was sick and tired of environmental protest groups showing up at the office and disturbing not only the normal course of business but also the time he put in after hours. It was almost as if they were stalking him. He just couldn’t understand why they would choose 7:00 pm as a time to protest. Then he remembered there was a benefit dinner happening at the University to raise funds to relocate the hundreds of thousands of birds that would be without homes if the new pipeline went ahead as planned.

First, cue the reader to who’s speaking right away. “Ooh, the police,” yelled the protest leader. Barry something-or-other. This wasn’t the first time he’d had run-ins with that loud-mouthed-loser. “We’re scared now!”

The next line is all telling and does nothing to further the plot — delete.

Rewrite the rest of the paragraph to hint at the story to come.

So damn tired of environmental groups disrupting the normal work flow, never mind the time spent before and after hours, something had to give. It was almost as if they sensed when he pulled into the parking lot. Had they planted cameras? Stalked him? Oh, maybe they attended the fundraiser tonight. Bunch of tree-huggers trying to find a way to relocate birds once PPC laid the new pipeline. If only these earthy-crunchy types could disappear. Vanished. Scraped off the planet like gum on a sneaker’s sole. But how?

He smirked. Murder might be an option.

###

Overall, there’s a lot to like about this first page. If Anon deepens the POV, s/he could have an intriguing story.

Jordan passed me the music challenge gauntlet. So, I’m including the inspiration behind Paradox, my killer in SCATHED, Grafton County Series, (release date TBA). #TKZMusicChallenge

Over to you, TKZers. What tips would you give to strengthen this first page?

 

6+