Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Creative Bond

by L.J. Sellers

Since there's an extra Thursday this month, Jordan and I decided to host a guest blogger. So today L.J. Sellers stops by to discuss her latest thriller, and the benefits of working in tandem...

Last fall my husband started building his seventh trike, just as I started writing the fift
h book in the Detective Jackson series (my tenth novel altogether). Dying for Justice was released last week, and yesterday Steve took his first ride on the new trike. Always having a creative project in the works is one of the bonding elements of our 23-year relationship. He listens while I talk about plots, publishing, and promotion, and I listen while he yaks about Type 1 Volkswagen engines, fiberglass bodies, and adjustable foot pegs. He reads my novels, and I take trike rides with him. I believe he gets the better deal, but I’m biased. Still, I think the three-wheeled motorcycles are so cool, I’ve given my main character, Detective Jackson, a trike-building hobby.

You wouldn’t think a three-wheeled motorcycle and a crime fiction novel have much in common, but the creative process is surprisingly similar. Both start with a concept, a simple idea that each of us has been thinking about and can’t wait to develop. For me, it could be a vivid opening scene or a
character that sparks the whole novel. For him, it’s often a type of engine or a new way to connect the two halves of his vehicle.

Next is the planning/designing phase. The first part of this process is all mental. We both spend a couple of weeks thinking about our projects, turning them over in our minds until they began to take shape. I can look at the expression on his face and know he’s thinking about his next trike. Honey
, you’re focused on your trike and haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you? On the other hand, I do a lot of my brainstorming while I’m exercising. (Those endorphins help produce some great plot twists!)

Then the tangible planning takes place. For me, it means outlining. Determining and plotting, day-by-day, what happens in the story and in the investigation, then mapping it out in a Word document. For Steve, my trike builder, planning means drawings. He starts with a pencil drawing of the whole trike, then progresses to CAD versions of all the individual components, including dozens of parts for the frame alone. We each modify our plans as we go along, seeing what works and what doesn’t.

Then he starts building and I start writing. For both of us, this is the hands-on work, the joy, and how we spend the bulk of our time. We’re both happiest in the crafting phase. Of course, we have occasions when we get stuck. I’ll realize a plot element doesn’t work because of wrong timing and have to back up and revise. He’ll recognize that two components don’t fit together the way he envisioned, so he’ll stop and redesign.

But it’s just part of the process. We know from expe
rience that we’ll work through whatever glitches we encounter. In all our years, he’s only abandoned one trike project, and I’ve only abandoned one novel. (But my agent at the time discouraged me from it, and I may finish the thing yet.)

I don’t mean to imply we’ve always worked in tandem—in fact, we’re often in different phases—but we do have a similar process and timetable. And eventually, we both end up with a finished product that we’re proud of. Some people insist that what we both do is art, but we think of our projects as crafts…and now, small businesses.

Here’s where the difference comes in. Steve sells each trike (or motorcycle) to a single individual to enjoy, and I sell my novels to thousands. But we both love what w
e do and can’t imagine our lives without a project in the works. Sharing a creative compulsion is a big part of what keeps our relationship healthy.

What is your creative process? Do you have someone you can share it with?

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and the author of the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery/suspense series. The Sex Club, Secrets to Die For, and Thrilled to Death have been highly praised by Mystery Scene and Spinetingler magazines. Her fourth Jackson story, Passions of the Dead, has just been released. L.J. also has two standalone thrillers, The Baby Thief and The Suicide Effect. When not plotting murders, she enjoys performing standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Making a Book Trailer

Ever since book trailers came out, I’ve been taking notes off the writers’ loops on how to make them, what length they should be, what to include, etc. Recently, I distilled these notes into a one page outline for using Windows Movie Maker to make my own video. I’d save money if I could do it myself, right? First I began by writing the text for upcoming mystery release, Shear Murder. I made sure to use short lines and action verbs and keep it brief.  

Now it was time to search for photos to match the lines. I went to my favorite site for royalty free pix at and started adding photos to my Lightbox. This is time consuming but fun when you find the right characters and poses to suit your story.

Next comes the music. You’ll want to find a piece that evokes the feel of your story, builds tension, and has stanzas that work where you want your images or text to change. Huh? I am not musically inclined enough to figure this out. I searched through some of the sites and found some cool melodies but they cost nearly $30 each. Clearly I wasn’t looking in the right place. Now I’d have to start all over somewhere else. I tried a new site for music, but damned if I could figure out how it works. I can play the samples, but there isn’t any Lightbox. How do you acquire the tune?

This is getting too time consuming and confusing. I really wish I could learn how to do it myself, but I am ready to give up. I look through my list of video trailer producers. There’s one who offers reasonable fees if you do some of the work. No problem; I’ve already written my text and selected most of the photos. Budget is a concern, and I don’t want to spend a whole lot for an entity that isn’t proven to drive sales. Nonetheless, I’m afraid I’ll have to bite the bullet and hire someone. My time would be better spent elsewhere.

As for learning how to do a podcast next, forget it!

See the video for Silver Serenade here:
Produced for me by author Linnea Sinclair.

How many of you are Do It Yourselfers?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


By: Kathleen Pickering

Last Thursday, Jordan Dane’s blog discussed how we stumble upon, or in the more focused minds like the scientists of NOVA, discover plots that ultimately form our stories. I’m here to answer Jordan’s ending question on motivating, strange events.

Jordan, I’m discovering the strangest things that make me think of a book plot come from my own family--my sisters and my mother. (My two brothers are currently exempt.) I’m convinced the women in my family have been sabotaging my thirty year marriage and hence, giving me fodder to plot murder mysteries.

For example, today, my bathroom sink drain wouldn’t open. So, I climbed under the cabinet to fix it and found a pair of perfumed women’s Spanx stuffed in the back. Now, mind you, Spanx are not a lacy, black thong, but a highly constructed, beige spandex body slimmer, thigh length. Not at all sexy. See what I mean?


I laugh and post the photo on Facebook because it’s too freaking funny. Between the constant flow of house guests and the occasional pet-sitter, I know there is an answer other than the obvious insinuation that my husband has been having voluptuous women over when I’m traveling. Because after all, I would have to plot a murder mystery based on his unexplained demise, should it be the truth.

A phone call from one of my five sisters solved the mystery: “Oh, Kath. Ha. Ha. That’s mine. I was wearing it at your party in January and it got too uncomfortable. Ha. Ha. I’ll bet you gave Jimmy a rash over that one! By the way, can you take the photo off Facebook?!”

Or the time, when I picked up Jim’s suit from the cleaners, only to have the man who didn’t speak English very well hand me a folded wax paper bag with a woman’s bra . . . lace . . . beige . . . not mine . . . that the cleaner had found in the breast pocket of his jacket! I had been on my way to pick Jim up for a trip to eastern Long Island at the time. Needless to say, this “find” made for some colorful conversation on our two hour trip.

What did we discover upon arrival at my mother’s? “Oh. Ha. Ha. Isn’t that funny,” says Mother. “When you were here last week, I was picking up after everyone went swimming. Saw the bra on the floor, thought it might be yours and stuffed it in Jim’s suit pocket.”

Ha. Ha. It was my other sister’s. Or the other time, my younger sister borrowed my clothes and Jim pinched her rear-end because from the back, he thought she was me? Or the time my other sister took off her shirt in front of Jim thinking she still was wearing a bikini top? Here is a pastel of the women in my family, minus the artist—the one Jim pinched:

Mary alice pastel

The stories go on and on. So, I ask you? What kind of family would sabotage their unsuspecting brother/son-in-law with a wife in possession of an over-active imagination unless they were trying to trigger her homicidal story ideas? There’s more, but I’ve already over run my 300 word count.

The strangest things come from my family, Jordan. I will be writing an autobiography very soon.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Monday's Critique

Today's critique focuses on two particular maxims of the publishing world - show don't tell; and it's all about the voice. I think today's entry, Cold Summer, aptly raises both these issues...but more about this in my comments after the piece...

Sammy Davis Jr. was no relation to the famous twentieth century performer. For that matter few people he knew even had regular jobs, at least not legitimate jobs. Anchorage Alaska's Sammy Davis Jr. made his living as a small time drug dealer, primarily marijuana and ecstasy. He dabbled here and there with other drugs but being afraid of the stiffer penalties for cocaine or methamphetamine, neither of which he used himself, he avoided them as much as possible.

As a supplemental source of income Sammy committed the occasional burglary. For the most part he stuck it to businesses, alleviating a great deal of the guilt that straddled his conscience. He hated the thought of leaving a family’s children crying from nightmare images of a bad man breaking into their home. And he certainly didn’t want to crush a woman’s heart by stealing her wedding jewelry or some keepsake. He may be a professional criminal but he still had morals, even feelings. Hell, he even cried at movies sometimes, like when that girl died in Bridge to Terrabithia or when the farmer said "Well done pig" in Babe.

While he didn't rob the homes of families, that moral barrier didn’t include people’s cars. Wallets, purses, laptops, even an occasional gun, were all for the taking if some idiot left a car unlocked, or not locked enough. That Saturday morning though, Sammy Davis Jr. made a slight change in his routine. He'd never robbed a church or a synagogue. Sammy had always felt that while he was pretty sure he wasn’t going to make it to heaven he didn’t want to totally blow whatever chances he had by burglarizing God’s house.

Both of his parents were religious people, Messianic Jews (that is Jews who hold to Christian beliefs about Jesus). Sammy had been both Bar-Mitzvah’d and baptized as a teen. He hoped that somehow those actions and his parent’s prayers might redeem him. Churches and synagogues were out of the question. But a Mosque, that was different. Or so he had told himself.

My Critique: First off let me say that I did like the tone - a distinct voice is starting to emerge (particularly re: crying at the movies and the morals of this small town drug dealer) but at this stage it isn't quite strong enough to carry off what is essentially a first page of exposition. Starting off with nothing but narrative is a tricky thing to pull off but in order to succeed the voice must be amazing - it must be enough to lure a reader in and keep them turning the pages.

This is an incredibly difficult thing to do and I would recommend that the writer consider starting this story off with a Sammy in a compromising position which can enable the exposition and voice to come through in smaller chunks. Perhaps Sammy is trapped in the mosque he is trying to rob (?), or he is facing an angry accusatory cleaning woman there...some kind of situation (possibly farcical given the satirical edge to the piece so far) which reveals to the reader who Sammy is and also gives some action that can help draw the reader in.

At the moment the piece feels a little too stiff and forced (too much telling and not enough showing), and maybe a situation with characters, action and dialogue all in motion will help give it greater momentum. As for the voice - I think, again, some action and dialogue may help strengthen this.

The juxtaposition of Sammy's inner voice and what is happening around him could add further humor as well as tension to the piece. Voice is one of the hardest elements to explain (you kind of know it when you see it) but I do see strong glimmers here - though at the moment it seems constrained by the lack of action. My recommendation? Brainstorm some scenarios that allows this background information and voice to come through to greater effect.

So what do you all think? any other suggestions for the author of Cold Summer?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Eisler Sanction

The Liternet was abuzz this week with the news that a New York Times bestselling author, Barry Eisler, turned down half a million bones from a traditional publisher to go E.

Some are calling this a "key benchmark." Others, a "tipping point." Whatever you call it, it's a pretty big deal. Eisler giving self-pub his sanction will increase the number of name authors making the same move. It's happening even as we read.

Meanwhile, self-publishing millionaire Amanda Hocking has just signed a traditional deal for more than $2 million. Ms. Hocking, 26, explains her decision here. She's not giving up self-publishing, which is itself news—she has given herself the clout to get a traditional publisher to go along with a tandem track. What's funny is that she is the one who calls having her books traditionally published a risk—for her.

Interesting times, eh? It used to be publishers were the ones who talked about risk. Where is Lewis Carroll when you need him?

Both Alice and the Mad Hatter would agree, I think, that it's a good times for writers. As I have put a toe in the water myself,  a few thoughts are in order over several current "debates."

The Rapid Rise v. The Tailing Off Debate

Digital publishing is moving faster than most expected a year ago, and that makes this a good  move for Eisler. He can have more books come out at a faster clip. He's in a position to rake in the kind of dough Joe Konrath is (reportedly that same half a mil per year).

Can this growth be sustained? I think so. It will reach such a scale that any "tailing off" will be insignificant.

The Publishing Establishment v. Rogue Authors Debate

In a looong dialogue with Konrath, Eisler says this:

As a news junkie, it’s been fascinating for me to watch the way the publishing establishment has tried to marginalize you. First by ignoring you, and then, when ignoring you become impossible, by trying to position you as some sort of shrill, bitter, fringe player with nothing more than an axe to grind. The way legacy publishing has tried to de-position you is perfectly analogous to what The New York Times and other establishment media players have tried to do with Wikileaks.

I'm not sure one can generalize about the entire "publishing establishment"  being intentional about marginalizing Joe Konrath (Eisler, of course, is ex-CIA, so he may have some intel we don't know about).

Anyway, this is less about "who's right" than it is about objective facts and business models. The traditional model is reeling right now. They're like Jake LaMotta in his sixth bout with Sugar Ray Robinson. And it's not because "they" are mean and nasty. They simply are not an exception to the inexorable laws of innovation and economics. They have to adjust, but it is extremely difficult for major industries to change course, and especially to do it quickly in response to the sudden reshaping of market forces.

I love traditional publishing. Publishers have been, and are, very good to me and I have many friends in the industry. I've also seen friends lose their jobs. I hate that, but I also understand the business angle. Businesses have to do what they must to do to survive. So do authors.

Which is why I see no reason an author might not self-publish and work with a traditional publisher in some form or fashion (this will require two oft ignored business principles, creativity and flexibility).

My novella and short story collection, Watch Your Back, probably would not have seen publication in print. So it went live as an e-book in February, and sold well enough to show me it was worth it.  

But for this month to date, March, sales are ten times what they were in February.

To which I say, WHAT?

I'm not sure how this happened. It could be the result of a well placed blog interview, or some cumulative effect of Amazon's recommend-algorithm (you know, "If you liked this, you may like this"). Or it could be some alchemy no one can reconstruct or replicate. The one thing it does prove is the tremendous potential of E.

And here's another thing: I am making new readers daily. Isn't that what publishers and agents are pushing authors to do? Build a platform? This is nothing but positive for an author and a traditional publisher, should they team up down the line. Which brings us to:

The Platform v. Random Acts of Discovery Argument

Konrath has made a good case, backed up by examples, of those who did not have a platform or readership before self-publishing. There are some who have blasted off, others who are doing quite well. (The majority do very little, but this has always been true).

An established base certainly doesn't hurt, but zero name recognition can be overcome with quality writing, consistent output and marketing energy. Which leads to:

The Quality vs. Persistence Argument

Is it possible for someone to just keep pumping out dreck and make some good coin? Depends on your definition of "good." A hundred bucks a year may be okay for someone. But if you want to make substantial lettuce, I say you have to produce really good books. So it's better to wait than to rush in with a lot of bad stuff. That will only hurt your long term results.

The Extinction of Traditional Publishing v. A New Model Argument

Is traditional publishing dead and just doesn't know it (as some writers, with a bit too much glee, assert)? Or will it find its way to some new equilibrium? Even the ever prescient Mike Shatzkin isn't sure:

If the legacy publishing establishment can develop tools to deliver marketing at scale, adjust its contracts to pay higher digital royalties, and, perhaps, offer a “fee for service” model alongside its “advance against royalty” model, it might, like Major League Baseball did, weaken the infrastructure that is developing that will increasingly tempt authors (and readers) to abandon it. But it also could be that U was right four years ago when I said that the general trade publishing house was a dinosaur in the emerging world of 21st century publishing. Wasn’t it a natural disaster that was the catalyst for killing the original dinosaurs as well?

Whatever the future brings, it's still going to be all about the writing. The one thing publishing can't do without is writers. The one thing readers can't do without is writers. I've worked hard at this craft for over 20 years. I love it. It's what I do. And I believe any way to make a fair exchange with readers is worthy. E-pubbing provides another way to make that exchange.

So does the Eisler Sanction feel like a "tipping point"? What do you think it means industry wide?  What does it mean to you?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Knowing Too Much and Telling It All Is Bad...

John Ramsey Miller

I once knew a man named Bill W., now dead, who was a lawyer in a small delta town in Mississippi. Bill was extremely intelligent and just a great-big-hearted man of some substance. Bill was always smiling. Bill loved art and owned the worst examples of several well-known artists. He knew a lot about art, all of it technical. In fact Bill was one of those people whose mind was a sponge, soaking up everything and maintaining every last bit of it. If you asked him how cotton gins worked, you would know every nook and cranny of a cotton gin before he finished on the subject, and you would feel like you'd worked a ten hour shift there. After that he might tell stories about cotton gin accidents, the number of bales on any farmer's harvest of whatever year, and he 'd tell you how much change Eli Whitney had in his pocket the day he started work on the first gin. I spent a lot of time around Bill because I enjoyed listening to him go on and on and on... I had lots of questions and he had the answers and more. Once his daughter was planning to go to Europe and her mother saw her reading a guide book. She told her daughter to ask her daddy about Paris, one of his favorite cities. The daughter looked up at her mother and said, "But I don't need to know that much."

It has been my privilege to have known a great number of dedicated authors. Most of the authors I have known share two things: a natural curiosity about damned near anything and knowledge spanning a wide range of subjects. It takes more than that to be a good writer, but I think those two things are necessary for successful storytellers. It isn't so much "write what you know" as it is "know what you write." And the more you know about something, the less you have to write about it to say the least that needs saying. The reader will feel that you know more about 'it" and although they will understand that there's more about "it", they as readers don't need to know any more than you tell them. I hope that makes sense.

If I know how to completely break down a Colt 1911 and reassemble it blindfolded, and have fired it thousands of times, one short sentence will make the reader understand how the gun functions to the extent it is relevant to the story. I don't need to show off my in-depth knowledge, just allow the reader believe its made its appearance and done its job. We fictionalistas aren't writing text books, biographies, true crime, or books about the Battle of Shiloh or worm farming. We write about imagined people in real or imagined places doing all manner of things that people might be doing. We are magicians pulling rabbits out of a hat, cobbling together tales that have never been told to them before. There are a finite number of situations, names, motivations, and actions, and there is some closeness of some stories to others, but each of us tells our stories in our styles and from our own perspectives––each as unique as a fingerprint.

At a cocktail party a few years ago a physician told me that as soon as he retired he was going to sit down and write novels. I told him that when I retired from writing I was going to become a surgeon. He looked at me in stunned disbelief. I told him I could be trained to do his job a lot faster than he could learn to do mine. I wasn't completely serious at the time, but I'm convinced now that I was probably telling the truth. I do know that he isn't a published author. I don't know if he tried his hand at our thing, but I doubt it.

After thinking about doing these first page critiques, I was thinking about new authors and about what advice I'd pass along.

I had no idea what the odds were when I decided to write fiction or I’d probably never have done it. I tell aspiring authors that it’s a bad business to get into. I say don’t go into writing because you expect to make a lot of money at it. You’d probably do better panning for gold on a sandbar on the Mississippi River. I once read that ninety six percent of published fiction authors don’t make a living writing novels. Also remember that being published by a reputable house doesn’t mean your book will sell. And self-published books rarely sell more than a handful of copies. A person only has a limited number of friends and relatives to market to.

The problem with most of the books I read is that they have nothing new or different to say. Books are like drugs in that the more you read the more it takes to get you to the same place. A well-written book is just another book unless the writer has a memorable voice and isn’t writing a story you can see on television every night. Style means little if the author doesn’t have a slant on a story that grabs the reader, characters that are alive, and these days a way to market a book so that it breaks out of the hundreds of thousands of books that are competing.

That said, trying to keep an author from writing, is just as futile as trying to get a teenager not to try a first beer. Every day of the week a J.K. Rowling, Stephen king, or Truman Capote is putting a pen to a piece of paper, or opening a laptop for the first time and the best of these beginners don’t give a damn about their odds. Even if the know the odds they also know in their hearts that it’s what they have to do, and they believe they will make their mark. Thank God for each and every one of them.

Friday, March 25, 2011

First Make Me Care

By John Gilstrap

I'm tackling another first page critique this week.  I'll start with the submission, and the see you on the back side with my comments in bold.
The Changeling

At five minutes past eight a.m., Amy Turner went upstairs and paused outside her son’s closed bedroom door, listening.

“Peter, this is your ten-minute warning.”

 She rapped sharply on the wood with her knuckles. “Ten minutes and we walk out the door, Mister. You got that? Or else you’re taking the bus to school.”

It was an empty threat. If Amy didn’t physically deposit her sullen 15-year-old at the front door of Venice High, he’d skip school again. Peter was about to fail the tenth grade due to his repeated absences, and it was only February. Amy sighed. Her son was incredibly smart, but after the divorce he’d become withdrawn, distant. She was at a loss what to do.

 Amy flung open the door with an angry flourish. Then she froze in her tracks, staring. Peter’s room, normally a hell hole of man-boy slovenliness, looked drastically changed. It was clean. The bed was freshly made with crisp linens and hospital corners. The buntings of draped clothes, the smelly shoe piles, the debris field of chips and God-knows-what-else on the floor, had vanished. Now you could actually see the brown carpet, which had been vacuumed. The room was eerily neat, as if a guest with OCD had tidied up before clearing out.
 “Peter?” Amy’s voice sounded thin in her own ears. No answer. Peter was gone.
 Oh my God he’s run away, like he said he would. She pivoted and thundered down the stairs, her thoughts already leapfrogging to panic mode. She visualized making frantic calls to the school, interrogating her son’s friends to see if they knew where he was.
 Amy rounded the living room corner, headed for the kitchen. Then she pulled up short. At the far end of the dining room table, sat Peter. He was spooning up cereal and quietly studying some notes. A couple of school books were stacked next to his elbow.
 “Oh thank God,” she gasped.
 Peter looked up and gave his mother a distracted smile. “Sorry Mom, did you call me? I'm trying to get through these notes—can't believe I let myself fall so far behind in trig.”

“It's okay," she said. "You'll catch up.”
 Was this a joke? Peter never worried about school. She did another double-take as she registered his clothes. He had on a pair of neatly pressed chinos—chinos?—plus the Harvard sweatshirt her parents had given him the previous Christmas. Peter had thrown the gift into his bottom drawer, where it had remained. Until now.
 After pouring herself a cup of coffee, Amy studied her son from the corner of her eye. Maybe he has a new girlfriend, she thought. Either that, or a hobgoblin with a dark sense of humor had swapped out a substitute for her son. Amy held her breath, afraid of breaking the spell.

“Your room looks amazing,” she finally ventured. “You’re not planning to join the military, are you?”
 “No way,” Peter gave her his old grin, the one she hadn’t seen in months. “I just decided that pig sty was getting old.”

He reached for his ear to adjust his new Internet appliance, which he’d had for just a week. Shaped like an ear cuff, the blinking gadget was called an “e-Hook.” It was supposed to be the latest thing for connecting to the Internet. Amy hadn’t squawked about the price—she was hoping technology would make him a better multi-tasker. He needed to get better at something.
 “Hey, Mom.” The lights on Peter's e-Hook flickered through his long hair, signaling a new connection. “Can you take me for a hair cut tonight after school? It’s so shaggy, it’s blocking my signal in hot spots.”

Looking heavenward, Amy sent up a little prayer of thanks.

Okay, let’s talk first about the good stuff. I like the way this author writes about mundane morning ritual. If you’re a parent, you’ve lived the first part of this scene one way or another, and it’s not easy to write well about something so common. I could feel the clock ticking. Nicely done.

Unfortunately, there’s no payoff.

This is another example of a first chapter that should have been a second chapter. Actually, no. This should have been a fourth chapter. By starting here, the author has put herself in the position of including back story with front story in the same paragraph (Note: right or wrong, I’m assuming that the author is a woman—which means there’s a voice to the piece, which is good).

Example: If Amy didn’t physically deposit her sullen 15-year-old at the front door of Venice High, he’d skip school again. Peter was about to fail the tenth grade due to his repeated absences, and it was only February. Amy sighed. Her son was incredibly smart, but after the divorce he’d become withdrawn, distant. She was at a loss what to do.

Another example: Oh my God he’s run away, like he said he would.

Do you see how the back story stops the action of the story, and in the process feels kinda clunky?

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that the ET (ear thingy) is somehow affecting Peter’s personality. Based on that assumption, here’s my recommendation for the beginning of this story:

Start in Peter’s POV, where he’s living this same scene a day (or week) before. We’re with him as he pulls on a pair of jeans and shrugs into a sweatshirt that he pulls out from under yesterday’s underpants on the seat of his drum set. His mom is calling to him to hurry, and he shouts something teenager-y. With all his attitude, he thinks about the next math test that he’s going to flunk (who needs trigonometryto play in a band anyway?) When he finally passes his mom in the hallway, he throws off a comment about running away if she doesn’t get off his back.

Maybe the next scene belongs to Amy. As she drives him to school she tries small talk. Or, maybe she’s off to work. Anyway, we learn about her troubles with Peter.

Next scene: Peter meets the guy who gives him the ET.

Next scene: Mom and Peter at war during dinner.

Next scene: We’re back to where the author started this piece.

The point of all this is for the author to take her time developing the characters. Make me care for them before you put them in harm’s way. If we know what the normal normal is, we can start the scene where the author originally started it, and from Amy’s point of view, the change to the new normal will be genuinely frightening.

I fear sometimes that we here in The Killzone violate my overarching rule for creative writing: there are no rules. We tell people to get right to the action. Sometimes, that’s not what the story really needs. Maybe we should tell people to get right to the interesting stuff.

I faced a similar challenge when I was writing my second novel, At All Costs (to be re-released in May). My heroes have been on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for over a decade, falsely accused of mass murders they didn’t commit. A random event exposes their cover, and their mission to prove their innocence. After countless false starts to begin the novel with high energy action, I realized that that wouldn’t work for this book. I needed to begin with normalcy so that the reader could commiserate with all that the characters were losing. To make up for the lack of action, I needed to make sure that normalcy was portrayed with a very strong voice. That’s what I did.

That’s what this author needs to do.

Okay, space break. Let’s pretend that I didn’t just re-write the author’s submission. Let’s talk now about the submission on its own merits.

In my first reading, I assumed from the first paragraph that Peter was much younger than fifteen. Thus, the second sentence of the third paragraph gave me pause.

Question: The story starts with Amy going upstairs to roust Peter. It ends with Peter downstairs. How did he get downstairs without Amy seeing him? I’m just sayin’ . . .

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

NOVA Exposes the Mystery of Plotting

Yesterday I was celebrating the release of my first Young Adult book – In the Arms of Stone Angels (Harlequin Teen) – with my niece who helped me brainstorm some of the details. We had sushi which is our “thing” and Joe Moore’s post on fish yesterday probably had something to do with that decision. We also brainstormed on a new YA paranormal series proposal I was fine tuning. Joe’s topic of beta readers got me thinking about how I come up with plots and sometimes seek help to brainstorm certain aspects, once I get a general idea of what I’d like to do.

For my adult books, many have been inspired by news headlines combined with other ongoing research I do into crime fiction. But for my YA books that often enter into the realm of “Whoo Whoo” territory with ghosts, demons, and other spooky stuff, I have been amazed how my mind works to gather a plot I want to write. (Now I know this is primarily a blog for crime fiction readers and authors, but the process of finding that initial spark of an idea that turns into a full blown plot is still similar for me when I write my adult thrillers, so bear with me.)

So what do the following things have in common?

• A NOVA Science show on venomous snakes and spiders
• Elizabeth Blackburn, Nobel Prize winning Molecular Biologist, who studies the telomere of chromosomes
• Black bears in Asia being hunted for their gall bladders
• A NOVA Science show on “Decoding Immortality”
• Hopi Indians

THE ANSWER: Absolutely nothing.

That’s what is so strange about how my mind worked to put these things together to make the plot of my next proposal. The minute I saw the start of the program on venom and snakes, my main teen boy character popped into my head. I’d also seen CNN coverage on the hunted and exploited black bears in Asia more than once and it didn’t stick (other than how sad that story was) until I realized how it related to the boy in my series, a boy who lives with a Hopi clan. Then a new disease that I’d never heard of before was mentioned in the Decoding Immortality program and that leapt into my plot too, dovetailing into Elizabeth Blackburn’s studies on telomeres and longevity that I had seen not long ago. And before I knew it, I was feverishly jotting down notes and had almost all three books in my proposed series mapped out. (I wish I could be more forthcoming with specifics, but since this is a new proposal, I’m being purposefully vague. I hope you get the idea.)

YA books have made me focus on my process for plotting, since the realm of paranormal weirdness doesn’t come naturally for me—although my mother would disagree. But the way I’ve worked the last two book concepts, I let my mind work on the pieces until something clicks and I begin taking notes. Sometimes the note taking is important for me to visually see it on paper before I can pull the parts together in a cohesive plot. I still have to write the book and make it all seem plausible and real for the characters, but the way my mind has been stretched writing YA has made me wonder if this process of weaving strange unconnected tidbits together into a story will spill over into my adult books. Not the paranormal aspects. I’m mainly talking about the way I now connect the dots between my obscure (seemingly unconnected) research and a compelling story.

But I’d like to know what triggers a story in your mind? What usually inspires you? And what are some of the strangest things that made you think of a book plot?

Jordan Dane

In the Arms of Stone Angels (Harlequin Teen, Mar 22, 2011)
Reckoning for the Dead (Avon/HarperCollins, Oct 2011)

To Betta or not to Beta

By Joe Moore

For those of you who like fish—raising, not eating—there are few more beautiful and easy to care for than a betta fighting fish. They come from Thailand and can live in as little water as what’s left behind inside a human footprint in the mud of the rice paddies. I’ve bettaowned a number of them over the years and am always amazed at their gorgeous display of color. And pound for pound, the betta is one of the most vicious, aggressive animals on the planet. They are meat eaters, and putting two males in the same bowl will result in a fight to the death. If you want a beautiful pet that takes next to nothing to raise, get a betta fighting fish. But that’s not what my post is about today.

It’s really about beta readers.

A lot of writers including myself rely on beta readers to scrub our WIP and find all the plotting holes, mistakes, and general stuff that doesn’t work. So what is a beta reader? Should you go looking for one? How do you find and qualify them? How do they differ from a critique group? What are the things to look for in their feedback?

The term beta comes from software designers who use the term alpha and beta for different stages of program development. Alpha is the rawest stage—incomplete and untested—and beta is still under development but a small number of copies are released to the public for testing. In novel writing, this might be the first completed version of the manuscript where the author has made at least one pass through to edit and tweak.

A beta reader is someone whose opinion you value, who’ll take the time to read your manuscript in a timely manner, and who’ll give you an honest assessment of your work. For starters, I would mark off your list of potential beta readers anyone who is related to you, works with you, or lives in your immediate neighborhood.

Should you utilize a beta reader(s)? It depends on whether you’re working on your first unpublished manuscript or are further along in your writing career. Most beginning authors are searching for anything that will build up their ego and confidence, and keep their hopes alive. And most new authors have manuscripts that are littered with flaws and mistakes—it’s part of the learning process. Weak or unqualified feedback from others can cause a new writer to become confused and/or discouraged. And their hopes and dreams can be crushed by negative feedback. Or their egos are so artificially inflated that negative criticism can cause friendships and relationships to crash.

At the same time, established authors know the value of real, honest, sincere feedback and will react in a professional, business-like manner. Beta readers are a solid tool toward writing a better book.

In recruiting beta readers, try to line up at least three to four that are willing to take the time to not only read your work but give you constructive feedback. It’s also good to mix male and female readers. In general, try to find age-appropriate readers that are familiar with your genre. A female teen may not give you the feedback you’re looking for if your manuscript is male action/adventure. If you write YA, a retired senior citizen might not be the best choice, either.

Try to choose beta readers who are not acquainted with one another. And they don’t have to be your best friends. In fact, casual acquaintances could work better since there might not be a hesitation that they will hurt your feelings if they don’t like what you’ve written. There’s a good chance they’ll take the whole process more seriously than a relative or close friend.

Don’t ask your beta readers to line edit your manuscript. Tell them to ignore the typos and grammar issues. What you’re interested in is: Does the story work? Does it hold together? Are the characters believable? Can you relate to them? Are there plot contradictions and errors?

Beta readers differ from members of a critique group in that they measure the WIP as a whole whereas groups usually get a story in piecemeal fashion and focus in on a chapter at a time. Most critique groups also deal with line editing.

So once you round up your bevy of beta readers and send them your WIP, then what? Start by listening to their feedback. If your beta reader has a problem or issue, chances are others will, too. And most important is when numerous readers raise the same issues. That should be a red flag that there’s a major problem to address.

Other tips: Don’t be defensive. Sure, we all love our words—after all, they’re hard to come by. But comments from your beta readers are meant to be helpful and constructive. Don’t take offense. Take what they say to heart. Think about it for a while. Consider that they have a valid point and are not trying to tear down your writing.

Finally, always remember that it’s not personal. If it is, you chose the wrong beta reader. Regard the feedback as if you were giving input to a fellow writer.

And if their feedback sounds fishy, you might have chosen a betta fighting fish by mistake.

How about the rest of you guys. Do you use beta readers? Are you a beta reader for someone else? Do you like your fish grilled or fried?

THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8, 2011.
(The Phoenix Apostles is) “packed with action and suspense!" -- James Rollins, New York Times bestselling author of THE DOOMSDAY KEY

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Miss Manners on social media

Note: Sorry I'm posting late today. My neck of the woods got hit by an Internet gremlin, so I had to repair to a local java joint to get connected.

I blocked my first person on Facebook this week. I didn't know the man--I blocked him because he made unpleasant comments about a news article (something to the effect that it would be good if the entire state of California got radiation-fried and burnt off the continent). I decided I didn't want to read any more comments by him. Ever.

I gave the guy a fair hearing before blocking him, though. I read his profile carefully--the things he'd posted there made me decide that the nuking California comment wasn't a misguided attempt at humor or a momentary  lapse in judgment. It was his actual point of view. 

That's the interesting thing about Facebook--there's always a real person attached to postings. Unlike other social media forums, where people lurk and flame behind pseudonyms such as RatBoytheTerrible, Facebook lets you interact with people by their real names. There's a certain accountability, therefore, to most of the discussions. In general people's behavior on Facebook (at least in my age and social group) reflects a certain politeness and social sensibility. It's like attending a friend's party--no one wants to be the boor who has too much to drink, starts ranting about politics, and has to have his conversation keys taken away.

I'm not talking about imposing censorship here. I'm talking about the benefits of peer pressure when it comes to encouraging us to behave ourselves. 

Of course, there's a downside to having too much "real" when it comes to revealing personal identities online. Cyberstalking and privacy invasion are concerns. And activists in oppressive nations such as China and Bahrain should be able to cloak themselves in anonymity to avoid political reprisals. But in terms of online chit chat, having real identities attached to comments makes Facebook a welcome respite from the verbal cesspools that some social media forums have become.

What do you think about manners and social media? Do we need more or less? What is your personal code of conduct?

Monday, March 21, 2011

First Page Critique: The Crypt Thief

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

As part of our ongoing first page critique, here's the first page of a book entitled, The Crypt Thief, with my comments/critique at the end. In essence, I think this particular entry raises important points about grounding a reader in time and space and setting up conflict that makes a reader care about the characters. More on that at the end...

The Crypt Thief

The man stood still, scanning the night for movement. Seeing none, he stepped off the cobbled path and moved through a cluster of crypts, looking for a place to rest. He found four low tombs and swept a bouquet of flowers from the edge of one before sitting down. He listened for a moment, then pulled a canvas bag onto his lap, reassured by the muffled clunk of the tools inside.

He rummaged in the bag and pulled out the map he’d drawn on his first visit to the cemetery, two weeks ago. He leaned forward and pointed his headlamp at the ground before switching it on, holding the map in its yellow glow and running his eyes over the familiar lines and circles.

A breeze passed through the trees and he heard the rustle of leaves, like sighs of relief after a long, hot day. The gentle draft reached him and ruffled the page in his hand, caressed his cheek. He clicked off the lamp and looked up, savoring the coolness, and he shut his eyes for just a moment, tipping his head back so the sweat on his throat could dry.

Behind him, a scraping sound.

He looked over his shoulder at a pair of oak trees, blacker even than the moonless night, their limbs reaching out to each other like uncertain strangers, sightless branches jostling each other to touch the wind.

He took a deep breath and turned his eyes to the concrete headstone at his back, suddenly curious about whose bones were beneath him. He switched his headlamp on and its light drew shadows out of the raised letters on a brass plaque. He mouthed the words James Douglas Morrison. Below the name it read, 1948-1971. A string of letters under the dates made no sense to him. Latin, or Greek perhaps.

He put the lamp and his map back into the bag, and pulled out a water bottle, half empty from his long and dusty journey to this place. He took a swig, then another, and put the bottle away.


My initial reaction to this was 'mild interest' - there were certain elements that had me engaged but really only because the title 'the crypt thief' was intriguing. Many of the elements that keep me wanting to turn the page weren't quite there yet - at least on this first page. In this critique, I though I would focus my attention on two main elements that I think could do with some enhancement.

First: The issue of grounding a reader in time and space

I confess I couldn't quite picture where I was or what time period I was in. We have cobbled streets in the first paragraph, so I was immediately picturing Europe. Then we had references to heat and a dry, dusty journey there which made me think of more of the Middle East. Then we had a reference to Oak trees and I started to feel a little ungrounded. I couldn't quite picture where we were. I also wasn't sure about the time frame: a canvas bag seems very old fashioned, and switching off a lamp did too (as opposed to a flashlight) but the headstone is concrete and the inscription relates to someone who died in 1971. So I guess I want to know where and when are we??

I think the amorphous nature of location is also compounded by some of the visual images that go against the reader picturing a hardened 'crypt thief'. There are breezes caressing cheeks and ruffling pages. These images sap some tension from this first page- possibly more so as we only know the character as 'the man' so we don't really have any fully formed vision or voice for him. Which leads to the second issue...

Setting up conflict and engaging the reader

It's hard for a reader to care about a character if he/she doesn't get a strong image and voice at the very beginning. At some points in the first page I wondered if I was in a paranormal mystery (the scraping sound, the weird Latin or Greek inscription), in a more traditional mystery (with all the gentle descriptions) or even in a thriller (possibly). I couldn't tell what was the essential conflict or reason for me to keep reading - and in these days that has to be there (alas, no more 19th century lead-ins to the action!).

So all in all, this first page made me interested but perhaps not enough to keep going. I needed to feel that the headstone inscription was important, that the scraping sound was important and that the reason 'the man' was in this particular cemetery was important (i.e. I should care about it)...but I just didn't get a sense of any of that yet. It all felt a bit too generic for me. What do other TKZers feel? Would you keep reading?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Training Our Competition

James Scott Bell

I'm teaching at a conference in Florida this weekend. Most of us Kill Zoners show up at the occasional conference, hobnob, teach. I've been teaching for nearly a decade and a half, and it's extremely pleasing to me to see people I've taught go on to publication. That's why I'm putting on my own seminar in June in Los Angeles. Info on that is at the end of this post.

Of course, we're in the midst of doing first page critiques for brave souls who have submitted to us. All of which raises (not begs!) a question I've fielded over the years. People have asked me, "Dude, why would you want to train your competition?"

A few responses.

First, I'm not averse to competition. It's the engine of achievement. If my teaching means I have to keep working hard on my own books and craft, so much the better for me.

You just can't become obsessed with competition, to the point where you're always comparing and stressing about what others do. This isn't a zero sum game.

The best competition is with yourself.  Keep stretching and working hard. Set goals and go after them. Teaching helps keep me on my game.

Second, I'm all for give back. I have been the beneficiary of some wonderful guidance and advice from writers and teachers who were there for me at the beginning. If I was to hoard whatever I've learned from them, it would not be kosher, karmic, Christian or any other spiritual principle you'd care to name.

One of these mentors was Lawrence Block, the crime novelist who was, for many years, the fiction columnist for Writer's Digest. I would devour his column each month as if it were a holy page. I still have binders of old WDs, all marked up, containing his columns. He had the ability to communicate not only what worked, but how a writer thinks. When I eventually got to write that very same column, I felt like Joshua taking over for Moses.

Another was the novelist Jack Cavanaugh, who became a friend and gave me priceless career advice before I had a career. And so on. In other words, I owe a debt and teaching helps me pay that off.

Third, I enjoy teaching.

Fourth, I'm good at it. As are my fellow Zoners, who are generous with their own comments and professional advice. This place is gold.

Fifth, teaching in person allows me to augment and explain many of the concepts in my writing books. It's a further way to get this information into the heads of the writers and help them get to that storied next level.

There is nothing more fun for me than being with writers and talking about the craft we love. But even better is seeing people become stronger writers, watching light bulbs going on above heads, and hearing of eventual book contracts.

Learn all you can, write all you can. That's the only formula for writing success I know.

Who have been some of the teaching influences in your writing journey, via book or live and in-person?  What did you gain from mentors or editors? Or did you get the book writing thing right the very first time? (If your answer is Yes, we'll talk after class).


My "Sell Your Novel and Screenplay Intensive" is June 4 and 5, in Los Angeles. Info can be found here. (Apparently there's an occasional IE browser incompatibility with this page, so if you need an alternative link, here it is.) 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

First Page Critique: Stress Fractures

Stress Fractures

Kevin let go of the boxcar and jumped, hit the ground hard then tucked and rolled down the steep bank. His arm throbbed and his head felt light. It was still too dark to see the blood, but he could feel it running down his arm, dripping off the fingers. He fought the dizziness, got to his feet and looked around. He should have stayed on the train, but when it slowed down he thought it best to bail out, before it picked up speed again.

His plans involved getting off in the State Park near Staatsburg around two a.m. It wouldn’t be that time yet, because he’d jumped off early. A look at the sky showed no sign of the sun yet. No kidding. Nothing there but the clear black sky, the pinpoint lights of the stars, with a few white clouds and a hazy ring around the half-moon. Something in the recesses of his brain told him that meant rain. Perfect, then he’d be wet and cold as well as hurt and tired. He scrambled back up the bank and began to walk along the tracks, following the long gone train. He twined the fingers of his left hand into the fabric of his tee shirt and grabbed the open wound on the arm with his right hand, applying direct pressure. That nearly caused him to pass out, but he fought it, kept his head above the rising tide of black nothingness, and made himself keep going.

He’d been alternating resting with walking, force a few steps, stop and breathe, take a few more steps, sit and rest, when he realized he could hear and smell running water. He took a deep breath, then slid down the embankment, off the railroad tracks, pushed through the brush and waded into a stream. The water came over the tops of his boots and filled them, cooling his feet. He cupped his hand and splashed some of the cold water on his face and neck, then began to walk in the stream.


What I liked:

There is nothing like a train to get things rolling. Yes, ha ha, but seriously. Besides that, it tells us quite a bit about Kevin in just a couple of sentences. If he is riding a train in a boxcar ---- the rail equivalent of steerage --- it demonstrates that he is not a person of means, either by poor choices, bad luck, or an unfortunate combination of the two. So we start out with Kevin, who is down so deep he has to have sunlight pumped down to him, is injured to boot, and is somewhere far from where he is supposed to be. Not good, not good. And it’s going to get worse for him, almost certainly.

What needs work:

1)Jumping off of the train well short of Kevin’s intended destination just because the train slowed down doesn’t pass the smell test. Trains on their way from Point A to Point B slow down frequently for a lot of different reasons. Why jump off a good distance from your destination? The train is going to slow down anyway at some when it gets to Staatsburg (state and local law mandate so), and almost certainly as it passes by/through the state park, so why impulsively jump off prematurely? The answer of course is that the author wants Kevin to jump early in order to get him into even worse difficulty. The trick is doing that without making the author’s intent too obvious. I would have been a lot happier if Kevin had a more immediate, better reason to exit the premises, to wit: 1) someone who Kevin is sharing the boxcar with doesn’t like sharing the accommodations and physically throws Kevin out; 2) Kevin doesn’t like the way a couple of guys with whom he is sharing the boxcar are looking at him (a mixture of longing, edged with some free-floating hostility) and decides to exit; or 3) he was told by a friendly fellow rider of the rails at some point that a really nasty yard bull or park ranger or whatever rules the roost in Staatsburg, and that Kevin should get off early and hoof it the rest of the way. Or something else. Anything else. But just jumping off the train ahead of time because the train slows down doesn’t pass the smell test.

2) On what did Kevin cut his arm? I’ve done tumbles down hillside myself (well, “bounce” may be a more accurate description) and have been bruised, but not bloody.

3) How does Kevin know it isn’t 2 a.m.? Maybe the train is running slow. Does he have a watch? And if so, what time is it? Did he break his watch on the jump and then cut his arm on the glass? There! That kills two birds with one stone!

4) Why does a guy who is worried about it raining, because he’ll get wet and cold, walk through a stream? I know, to cool his feet off. But he’ll find out that it will chill him to the bone as well by page two.

Anyway…it’s an interesting set up, and for the most part a good start. It leaves you with the feeling that Kevin is in for a really, really bad night. With just a little bit of touching up I think that readers will be happy to walk with him. Or maybe a safe distance behind him.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Lost in the Forest With He, Him, Them & Her

By John Gilstrap
It's my turn to take a stab at critiquing a first page.  In this one, we'll see the downside of keeping characters' names a secret from readers.  I'll see you on the other side of the submission:
Hunter, hunted? A simple matter of perspective. His perspective changed the instant the hunted vanished over the tree lined ridge fifty yards ahead. His chest tightened, his heart skipped a beat. He tightened his grip on the stock of his weapon.

The outer shaving of the moon had already gone down, leaving a black void in its wake. Like gauze, the Southern California smog absorbed the pin pricks of star light. Trees choked out what light was left, leaving the men in darkness. Silhouettes against the shadows.

Without words the five men, broad and rigid, assembled at the crest. Their weapons were poised like stone shadows standing sentry for the world. In his electronic ear piece he heard the hunt captain address them. “We can go in tight and drawn. We will have to lure it out to get it. Any other options?”

He peered into the blackness twenty steep yards below. Something stirred rustling the branches in the abyss. It was too dark to identify the myriad of shadows below. Most would be innocuous. Forest trees and shrubs. One would be a deadly predator. Hungry for them. His breath came shallow and tight. His hand sweat against the weapon stock.

Options? There were always options. An image of black curly hair and topaz eyes flickered into his mind. His chest constricted choking his lungs so he couldn’t inhale. No. She was not an option, he quelled the thought.

The men squinted in the dark to look at each other wordlessly. None of them had a better suggestion. It was settled then. He closed his eyes for the briefest moment and forced air into his clenched chest.

“Anderson, take two o’clock” he acknowledged his assignment with a slight nod and silently stepped into position.

He released his vice grip from the fiberglass stock of his cross bow and wiggled blood back into his numb fingers. He would have liked to lower the heavy weapon long enough to stretch his cramping neck muscles and rest his burning left arm. He’d been pointing the cumbrous weapon for eight straight hours.


Before we get to content, let’s talk a bit about formatting. It doesn’t show in the translation to blogger, but this piece came to me with some really funky fonts and bizarre line spacing. Folks, the only way to go is 12-point Times New Roman or Courier (though I think that Courier might have fallen out of fashion). In its original form, the piece was formatted with 1.5 spaces between lines, and then two spaces between paragraphs. I try to keep an open mind on these things, but I confess it’s hard not to think negative thoughts from the very beginning, along the lines of, “If the writer can’t get the simple stuff right, how on earth is s/he going to be able to handle the storytelling?

Little things really do matter.

Okay, now to the story itself. Maybe the best way to critique this piece is to recreate it below, and then comment. My comments are in bold type.


Hunter, hunted? A simple matter of perspective. His perspective changed the instant the hunted vanished over the tree lined ridge fifty yards ahead. His chest tightened, his heart skipped a beat. He tightened his grip on the stock of his weapon.
I’m awash in pronouns. After presenting me with a choice between hunter and hunted—a choice that borders on cliché at its face—the author then presents me with a disembodied “his”. Whose? A beat later we learn that he sees the hunted disappear over the ridge. This is particularly confusing in light of the assertion that hunter vs. hunted all a matter of perspective.  If he can see the "hunted", then isn't he, by process of elimination, the hunter?

The outer shaving of the moon had already gone down, leaving a black void in its wake. Like gauze, the Southern California smog absorbed the pin pricks of star light. Trees choked out what light was left, leaving the men in darkness. Silhouettes against the shadows.

Full disclosure: When I’m in critique mode, I have a tendency to think too much, and maybe that’s what’s happening here, but this paragraph really doesn’t work for me. In order:

1. “The outer shaving of the moon had already gone down.” So, why report it? The author is describing something that isn’t there. And, just between us, didn’t the rest of the moon go down, too?

2. “. . . leaving a black void in its wake.” Wakes are left by movement. Doesn’t work for me here.

3. “Like gauze . . . absorbed the pinpricks of starlight.” To me, this means there are no stars showing. If there are no stars showing, then the image of pinpricks is superfluous and confusing.

4. “. . . men in darkness. Silhouettes against the shadows.” You need light for shadows, yet we’ve spent a paragraph describing profound darkness. Again, the images are battling each other and creating confusion.

5. Who are “the men”? Is OPKOAH (our protagonist known only as “he”) among them, or are the men in fact the hunted?
Without words the five men, broad and rigid, assembled at the crest. Their weapons were poised like stone shadows standing sentry for the world. In his electronic ear piece he heard the hunt captain address them. “We can go in tight and drawn. We will have to lure it out to get it. Any other options?”

I don’t know what broad and rigid men look like, but the sentence reads as vaguely pornographic. Weapons poised like stone shadows? Is the “he” with the earpiece the same he as OPKOAH? I don’t know what “tight and drawn” means, either.

He peered into the blackness twenty steep yards below. Something stirred rustling the branches in the abyss. It was too dark to identify the myriad of shadows below. Most would be innocuous. Forest trees and shrubs. One would be a deadly predator. Hungry for them. His breath came shallow and tight. His hand sweat against the weapon stock.

Sigh. Another unidentified he. At this point, I’m too busy triangulating POVs (since OPKOAH was watching people crest a hill, then this paragraph's he must be with the he with the earpiece, right?) to pay much attention to the action. Part of me is beginning to think that OPKOAH might be the deadly predator who’s hungry for them. But, since I don’t know who them is, most of me has stopped caring.

I don’t toss out that last line to be mean, by the way. Reading is not supposed to be hard, and fiction is not supposed to require a decoder ring.

Options? There were always options. An image of black curly hair and topaz eyes flickered into his mind. His chest constricted choking his lungs so he couldn’t inhale. No. She was not an option, he quelled the thought.

Oh, good Lord, now we have a she. With eyes and hair that make a masculine pronoun choke. (Is the masculine pronoun OPKOAH, or a new one? I don’t know, but there’s an Abbott and Costello routine in here somewhere.)

The men squinted in the dark to look at each other wordlessly. None of them had a better suggestion. It was settled then. He closed his eyes for the briefest moment and forced air into his clenched chest.

Holy shit, now we’re back with the men. And they’re squinting. Together. A choreographed Gilbert Gottfried impersonation. I’m relieved, however, that the disembodied he was able to clear the hair ball and breathe again. Do chests really clench?

“Anderson, take two o’clock” he acknowledged his assignment with a slight nod and silently stepped into position.

 “Yes sir,” Anderson replied. “And what you like me to do with two o'clock after I take it?”

Okay, I added that part. Finally, one person has a name, but I have to take in on faith that the he who acknowledged his assignment is in fact Anderson, and not the nameless being who’s in charge.

Question: Are we to assume that the he who was introduced in the first paragraph—therefore establishing him as a point of view character—is somehow overhearing this conversation from 50 yards away?
He released his vice grip from the fiberglass stock of his cross bow and wiggled blood back into his numb fingers. He would have liked to lower the heavy weapon long enough to stretch his cramping neck muscles and rest his burning left arm. He’d been pointing the cumbrous weapon for eight straight hours.

Hmm. Anderson has a crossbow? No, wait, I bet we’re back with OPKOAH. The beast, maybe? Choke-hair with gender identity issues? Really, it doesn’t matter because I’ll not be reading any further.

The importance of POV cannot be overstressed. Confusion leads to frustration, which leads to early rejection.

Note to the author: Please understand that even in poking fun, I’m coming from a respectful place. It takes guts to submit stuff to a group like this, and I admire that. I also admire your desire to improve your craft, so I hope you take this ribbing in the spirit with which it was intended.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

First Page Critique: The Puget Sounds

by Michelle Gagnon

Part of our continuing series of first page critiques...

The Puget Sounds

The scar across his cheek was itching; he didn’t like what was happening. The waters of Puget Sound were surprisingly calm that night, but since the moon was hidden behind a thick layer of overcast clouds you couldn’t tell unless you were actually in a boat. Not that Ramtin could enjoy the night sky; he wasn’t keen on boat travel. In spite of his misgivings, everything on the boat was going smoothly. The diesel engine in the next compartment sat quiet. It was normally only used to charge the large compliment of batteries for the electric drive. The electric motors, which were currently in operation, whirred without incident. The hydraulic lines that seemed to go everywhere were holding their valuable fluid, to be used when called upon by the captain. Along the sides and roof of the hull tucked into races neatly arranged near the hydraulic lines were a myriad of stainless steel braided electrical wires painted an odd shade of off white for various control and sensor operations.

To say it was claustrophobic inside was an understatement. But this wasn’t first class traveling. This wasn’t even third class. This was travel under dubious circumstance. Even though they were running under electric power, the smell from the diesel engine hung in the air like a sort of omni-presence. In a submarine, because of the enclosed space, that smell permeates everything. And it only serves to aid the claustrophobic feeling inside knowing you’re surrounded by the cold blackness that is the water just beyond the thin plating of the hull.


I'll start by saying that I love the title, PUGET SOUNDS, in general, but it seems better suited to a literary novel than a thriller or other work of crime fiction. Still, I can picture it on a cover.

There's a lot of great detail here. The reader gets a strong sense of what it's actually like to be on a submarine. That being said, the writing is too dense. I felt at times that I was wading through it. A perfect example is this sentence:
Along the sides and roof of the hull tucked into races neatly arranged near the hydraulic lines were a myriad of stainless steel braided electrical wires painted an odd shade of off white for various control and sensor operations.

I read that passage three times, and was still not exactly sure what I was supposed to imagine. Particularly when writing about something they know well, authors need to toe a fine line. You have to provide a layperson with enough detail that they can visualize something that is foreign to them, but not so much that it ends up confusing them. Some careful editing could resolve this problem.

There are also a few minor technical issues at work here. One is the double spacing between each sentence. There was a great article in Slate about this a few months ago (
Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period: 1/13/11) that emphasizes why such use is dead wrong and worse, appears dated (which, considering the average age of a NYC editor, is never a good thing). Jim also wrote a fantastic post about semi-colons. His conclusion, "Semi-colons. For academics, yes. For novelists, no," pretty much sums it up. And kicking off the first sentence with a semi-colon is a definite no-no. Always err on the side of starting a new sentence.

Another issue (and a common mistake among debut authors) is shifting between tenses and viewpoints. We start in the past with "was" and "were," but in a few places slip into the present, with "serves" rather than "served."
I'm also not a fan of employing the second person, ie, "...
knowing you’re surrounded by..." In this instance, I think it's better to stay with a close third, writing from the perspective of Ramtin.

Above and beyond these more nitpicky technical details, I have to confess that this opening didn't grab me the way I was hoping it would (despite the fact that I'm a huge fan of anything set on a submarine). Based on what little we learn on this first page, it seems like it should. The reader ends up knowing more about how well the boat is running than what kind of situation Ramtin finds himself in. I have no idea if he's stowed away in a tight compartment, or if he's helming the sub from a captain's chair. And depending on what his specific situation is, the writer could kick off with boots tramping past his hiding place, or orders given to subordinates. There needs to be something stronger and more compelling inserted here to keep me turning to the next page.
I fear that this is one of those cases where the book really needs to kick off a few pages in, when the story really gets going.