Friday, April 30, 2010

Lend Me Your Ears

By John Gilstrap
www.johngilstrap.com

Everyone is born with different gifts. I’ll tell you right now that I was at the end of the line when athletic prowess was being bestowed. I can’t hit, throw, kick or dribble worth a lick. Honest to God, in elementary school, the kid with braces on his legs was chosen for teams before I was. I’m not making that up.

I did okay in all things nerdy, though. I’ve been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember, and an aspiring writer since first grade. I still have some of the stories I wrote back in elementary school, and when I read them now, I become ever more appreciative that my parents spared me the truth and encouraged me anyway. At that age, I guess passion counts more than ability.

By the time I got to high school, writing well was about my only talent, granting me a certain measure of nerdy notoriety. Teachers loved me and jocks hated me for screwing up the bell curve in English class. In my sophomore year, I discovered a new talent: public speaking. Trophies in forensics and debate led to coveted roles like emceeing school talent shows. Turns out that public speaking is a great confidence-builder.

Fast forward thirty-five years, and here I am writing this blog entry on a flight to San Diego, where next week I will deliver three separate speeches as part of my big-boy job. I can’t wait. Truthfully, when I read that public speaking ranks among the top five phobias in people’s lives, I just don’t get it. Being in front of an audience is like living at a higher plane.

Which brings me to my point for today’s post:

We’ve spilled significant cyber ink over the past couple of years talking about the horrors and frustrations of book tours and store signings, and Lord knows I’ve lived my share. I hate sitting at that front table while people walk past as if I’m invisible, thoroughly absorbed in their pursuit of Michelle Gagnon’s next book. “We’re both in the G section,” I yell, but they just don’t care. The problem with most in-store signings is that I just don’t sell many books.

Give me a crowd to talk to, though, and I can sell a ton. Earlier this week, I spoke to the Charlottesville Newcomers, a luncheon group of about 100 ladies gathered at the Glenmore Country Club in Keswick, Virginia. I have a number of presentations in my repertoire, but the one I delivered on Tuesday is called “Dare to Dream.” It starts out as a funny look behind the scenes of the book and film businesses, and ends with a great inspirational message for anyone who’s ever been talked out of pursuing their artistic dreams. The audience was terrific. They could not have been more gracious. At the end, the applause rolled on way past polite, and into the range of genuinely appreciative. Several of the attendees told me that I was the best speaker they’d ever had. (At the risk of sounding grotesquely immodest, I get that a lot.)

And I sold a ton of books. More to the point, Barnes & Noble sold a ton of books. I’d arranged to have them bring stock to the luncheon and to set up in the back of the room. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I signed for a good 40 minutes.

It goes this way every time I get to work an audience. The problem is finding the audiences. If book tours were built around a speaking circuit, I’d willingly tour for weeks on end. Hell, lots of people earn serious cash by delivering speeches. How do you break into that market without first surviving a plane crash or being snatched by pirates? What a terrific way to earn a living! (The question is not rhetorical, by the way. If you know how to break into the speaking circuit, please share.)

So, what about you, dear Killzoners? Is the thought of delivering a speech—say, a commencement speech—the stuff of dreams or nightmares?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The iPad: Is it really all that?

by Michelle Gagnon

ibooks_hero_20100403.jpgI'll start by saying that I don't completely understand the Apple mystique, in fact I'm a little perplexed by their cult following. I appreciate my iPod and iPhone as much as the next person (although AT&T easily takes the prize for the worst network). But in my experience, some of the Apple products leave much to be desired. My husband finally convinced me to switch from a PC to a Mac last year--which has absolutely been a mixed bag. Some of the programs, like iPhoto and Scrivener, I love. Yet I can't fathom why there isn't a blogging program for Macs that holds a candle to Live Writer. On the plus side: fewer viruses and crashes. But I sorely miss Microsoft Outlook.

So with all the hoopla surrounding the release of the iPad, I was skeptical. It looked big, for one thing. What I like about the Kindle and the Sony Reader is that they manage to mimic the experience of reading a book. You open something, hold it in both hands. In comparison the iPad appears unwieldy, roughly the size of a dinner plate. I couldn't imagine holding this big flat thing and reading off it.

But then a friend brought one over for me to test drive. Wow. It has all the features of the Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader. It's light and comfortable to hold. The pages actually appear to turn, which is a neat trick. And that's just the beginning.

There's been a lot of chatter about eBooks and what they mean for the industry. Most of the debate has centered around issues like the recent Amazon/Macmillan pricing standoff, and what kind of ebook rights authors should be getting. There are those who claim that within a decade print books will be a rarity, limited editions published exclusively for collectors. Others say that's an exaggeration, books are here to stay.

What's been lost in the debate (because until now it was largely irrelevant) was how books and the entire reading experience could change. The Kindle and the Sony Reader were great, but they basically just enabled a reader to experience a book the same way they always had. The main benefit was that the font size could be adjusted, and the reader could hold a full library. Neither offered true interactivity, a bridge between books and other media.

That bridge is exactly what the iPad provides.

Check out this video of the iPad version of Alice in Wonderland (but be forewarned, it's a little frenetic. I'd advise against clicking on the link if you're prone to seizures).

Wow. Seeing that, I finally grasped the iPad's potential. For one thing, it could revolutionize children's books (although I'm hard pressed to name a parent who would hand a relatively fragile $500 device over to their child). And for graphic novels, this is a complete game changer. aliceforipad041610b.jpg

On my book tour for THE GATEKEEPER, I assembled a PowerPoint display of real-life settings from the book and other materials to provide a frame of reference for readers. Just imagine if that information could actually be incorporated into the text itself.

It reminded me of reading The Da Vinci Code while vacationing in Costa Rica. I found it maddening that when so much of the plot was focused on specific paintings and statues, there were no images included in the text. With the iPad, a book could include those, plus links to video interviews with the author, related sources- really, the sky is the limit.

I'll save a discussion of other iPad features for another day, including apps (movies look amazing on it, though, in case you're curious). But I have to say, I'm a convert. I'll probably wait for the inevitable price drop. When that comes, (and I suspect we'll be seeing a huge decline in prices for eReaders across the board soon), Apple could corner the publishing market the same way that they basically appropriated the music industry. And along the way, they might end up changing what constitutes a book.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In the land of zombies

Recently, I watched a movie called ZOMBIELAND staring Woody Harrelson and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine). It was a fun movie with lots of laughs and clever moments like the “Zombie kill of the week” involving a grand piano, and a guest appearance by Bill Murray who played himself. Sadly, he was accidently shot and killed. Those things tend to happen in zombie movies. I’m not a zombie fan, but I enjoyed this movie.

zl1 I think it takes a lot of guts to write about zombies or vampires or werewolves. That’s because I consider those topics to be “box” stories. I feel that the moment you write the first word of a zombie story, you have placed yourself in a box. It’s hard to make a zombie more disgusting; everyone on the planet already knows how disgusting they are. Just like it’s a challenge to make a vampire more vile or a werewolf more dangerous. It’s sort of like writing about Jeffery Dahmer’s hearty appetite. You’re making the tough job of writing even tougher. The secret to great zombie stories is not the zombies, it’s the characters that must struggle to survive. Characters make the story. After all, George Lucas could have easily changed Luke Skywalker’s name to Frodo Baggins, set the story in a place called The Shire, changed the name from Star Wars to . . .well, you get the point. It would have been the same basic story because what matters are the characters, not the setting.

We don’t get to pick which one-page submissions we critique, our fearless founder Kathryn Lilley hands them out to each of us. So I may not be the best choice to comment on a zombie story simply because I don’t read them. But I can comment on the writing. And my comments follow today’s one-page anonymous submission called RUE.

They say that a person’s first memory shapes its being.

My first memory was of pain. Incredible, unending pain, beyond any possibility of relief. I tried to scream. There was no breath in my lungs to scream with, and besides, there were...things. In my throat, and in my nose. I couldn’t even think, the pain was so bad.

After a moment, or it might have been an eternity, the pain pulled back some, and I was able to grip the things – tubes, like the ones my grandmother had had in her mouth near the end (grandmother? I couldn’t remember the woman’s face, only that she had died in a hospital) and pull them out. That hurt too.

Once I was sitting upright and reasonably awake, I became aware of the hunger. It was terrible, a deep painful gnawing in my gut. I was starving.

“Hello? Is anyone there?” I called. My voice echoed out into the hospital, but there was no other sound. And there it was, the thing that had been bothering me: it was too quiet. I had been in hospitals before, and they were noisy places, polluted with the sounds of blood pressure machines and the many, many other things humans use to keep death at bay for just a little while longer.

So I got out of the bed. My feet hurt, but no more than anything else, and they would carry me. There was nobody in the hospital – or at least, nobody I could find. I kept thinking I could hear voices, just around the next corner, or the next...

I found the cafeteria, though, and helped myself. Eating with my hands like a savage I emptied three huge serving bowls of lasagne that had seen better days. It didn’t really help much. I was still starving.

I went on. It was about then that the first zombie found me. It had been a doctor once, I think. It wasn’t anymore. It was just a mindless...thing, and it was hungry. My first impression of it was confused. Lab-coat, once white, now a sort of greyish brown. Grey skin. Hair falling out in clumps, and eyes that saw nothing. And over it all a deep black chasm of hunger, laced with hopeless screams. That’s one thing the living were fortunate not to know. The walking dead are still aware. Trapped, helpless in their decaying bodies, the soul of each zombie screams endlessly for some kind of release, bound about by the endless consuming hunger of the undead.

This is a pretty good beginning although I was a bit thrown by the first line indicating this was “My first memory”. I immediately pictured an infant with a phenomenal awareness. But reading on made it clear that it was an adult or young adult. The sex is unknown.

There’s conflict right off the bat with the medical impediments and the unnerving isolation in what should be a busy place. I think it’s over-written and just needs a good, swift kick with a red pen. But overall, I’m going to assume a zombie fan would keep reading to find out if this person makes it out of the hospital. In reality, isn’t that the plot of all zombie stories?

One advantage to writing a zombie story is that the basic conflict is built-in and comes with the territory. We know there’s going to be danger around every corner and the protagonist will probably get few moments to take a breather. So overall, I’ll give this submission a B-. Get out the editing pen, clean it up, delete all the unnecessary words, and the author will have a good start here.

What do you zombie and non-zombie fans think? Would you keep reading?

Download FRESH KILLS, Tales from the Kill Zone to your Kindle or PC today.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Little things that add up to a big difference

Several years ago I did a post over at Killer Hobbies called "Stomping out your story killers," in which I discussed how the frequent repetition of small errors  can kill your manuscript. As writers we tend to commit our own particular story killers, such as the overuse of certain words and constructions. Some of my most frequent offenders are are the overuse of dashes, and using italics for emphasis in dialogue. During rewrite, I do a global search for my story killers and winnow them down so that they they don't occur as often.

Which brings me to today's critique. I enjoyed today's first page submission, but I do think it contains a couple of potential story killers that the writer may want to watch out for. My comments follow in the bullets. 

MYSTERY OF THE HEART

What could be so urgent as to have his old friend send for him so soon after their recent visit?
Witt entered the palace and a world of opulence greeted him and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. A wonderful place to visit, but not his kind of purposeful, long-term living. He much preferred the country.
A young page dressed in the red and gold finery of the Regent’s colors approached, a serious expression clouding his young features.
“Lord Witt.” The page bowed low. “The Regent awaits you. Follow me, please.”
Witt smiled. “Young Thomas, you are far too serious this evening. Why the frown? I enjoy the sound of your laughter much better than the stern look you wear.”
“You will know soon enough and you will understand.”
An edge of uneasiness rippled down his back as he followed the boy. He’d helped his old friend out of difficulties in the past, but those were around issues of war, but those days were past and he enjoyed his quiet life in the country now.
The page knocked on a heavy oak door and bowed out of the way as the door swung open. A dozen men occupied the room. All wore serious expressions.
“Who died?” he joked. But when the circle parted a man, pale and slack, lay across a chaise lounge, his face horribly disfigured.
“Charleton,” said the Regent, stepping from the circle: regal, robust and somber. “Murdered.”
“How?”
“We are not entirely sure…that’s why I sent for you. When word gets out.”
“Tell me what happened.”
Templar came forward. “It appears his face was torn to pieces.”

Comments:

  • I enjoyed this piece, especially the last line, "It appears his face was torn to pieces." However, I got thrown as I encountered three instances of the word "serious" on the very first page, plus a similar word, "somber."  Every word on the first page needs to have a purpose for being there. It needs to push the narrative forward in some way. I would suggest that the writer trim down the use of "serious" to one instance. Rather than simply repeating the fact that people seem serious, find another way to heighten the tension on the first page.
  • The description of the palace was too nonspecific to draw me into the setting. I would suggest highlighting one outstanding thing about the palace--something that's familiar to the narrator, but that underscores its opulence--to bring it to life.
 Your thoughts? And while you're at it, can you share some of your personal "story killers"?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Taking it on the Chin

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Today I return to our first page critiques and tackle an issue that is always a thorny one for writers - how to deal with feedback (or as it is all too often, criticism in disguise!) In my writing group I have witnessed at least one member halt writing her memoir completely - she was simply so overwhelmed by all the conflicting comments and feedback she had received that she couldn't progress any further with the book. While this may be an extreme example, there's no doubt that taking in feedback can be a daunting task - and taking criticism can be even harder.

By now I cope with criticism pretty well - my agent and editors have dished it out often enough and almost always their feedback has been spot on. In those instances I am merely thankful for their feedback and the opportunity to fix the manuscript! I do, however, worry about giving negative feedback to a new writer. All too often the issue is one of stylistic taste - and a new writer can so easily be put-off or overwhelmed by the range of comments received. One person loves the prologue - the next person hates it. One person loves the complex imagery - another finds it bogs down the book. The list of issues can be endless. So how is a new writer to respond to criticism? You hear of many established writers disagreeing with their editor or their agent over a manuscript - sometimes even parting the ways over it all...I have never faced that (as yet) thankfully, but still when I read our first page critiques, I am aware of the over-arching issue.

So how should a writer 'take it on the chin'?? How do you respond to criticism? How do you deal with conflicting feedback (I always think it's pretty easy when there are consistent issues coming up - then I know I need to address them - but what if no one agrees on what is right or wrong about your piece?!)

Anyway I'd be interested in finding out how people cope with feedback...and now it's on with today's first page critique. It's a piece entitled DOUBT. My comments follow as bullet points.

DOUBT

“We had a deal,” Tom said as he turned his attention back to the blonde across the table. Without waiting for an answer, he lifted the cold bottle of Heineken to his lips. The bitter liquid flowed down his throat, but couldn’t wash away the distaste of doing business with Alessandra LaFave.
Alessandra tapped her long red fingernails, one by one, on the table as she silently stared at him.

Clack…clack...clack.

The impact of acrylic against Formica echoed like deliberate shots of distant gunfire. She took a long drag off the slim cigarette, tilted her head back and blew gray smoke toward the yellow stained ceiling.

“Deals are made to be broken. Aren't they?” she asked.

“What are you talking about?” He could see the gears turning behind those icy blues. It was now a waiting game. Tom glanced out of the large glass window behind her as he waited for her reply.

The small Italian seaport was busy. Fishing trawlers docked alongside freighters from around the world in Gaeta Harbor. From where he sat, Tom could just make out the NATO base in the distance.

It was getting late and hurried workers anxious to get home for dinner yelled to each other as they offloaded boxes and fish. The salty air merged with the acrid taste of burning tobacco as diners left the small cafe with their arms full of boxes stuffed with a local specialty, Tiella, a combination of a pizza and calzone.

Tom's dinner sat untouched on his plate.

His gaze went back to Alessandra still sitting silent in front of him. Her black pantsuit cinched at the waist, curving tight around her ample hips as she moved in her chair. A very pampered Yorkshire terrier puppy snored on her lap, its nose tucked under its tiny paws.

Yes, Alessandra portrayed the softness of a woman. But he knew better. Charming one minute; chilly the next. After having done numerous transactions with her over a number of years, he was immune to her machinations.

In return, she no longer bothered with him. It was strictly business.

“Well? Deal? No deal?” asked Tom. “I have a plane to catch.”

“In a hurry are we?” She lifted a fork and pushed the now cold chicken picatta around her plate. “This isn’t cooked properly. It’s such a shame when things don’t work out the way we hope. Isn’t it, Tom?”

“Quit whatever game you're running. This was a done deal." He jabbed his finger down on the table hard. "If you don’t want my future business just say so and we can part company now.”


  • There were a number of things I thought worked well in this first page - I liked the way the dialogue interspersed with the description and I thought there was a good balance between dialogue and backstory exposition - although the description of the Italian seaport seemed to lack specificity for me - the NATO base was a teaser but still I was left wanting a little bit more local colour (beyond the menu variety).

  • What I did feel was lacking was sufficient tension. We already know by the opening line that the 'deal' whatever it is, is in jeopardy but by the end of this first page the tension really hasn't mounted all that much. We get a glimpse of Alessandra but while at first she appears cold and calculating the pampered pooch in her lap seems to detract from her initial 'sang froid'. The threat at the end of the page 'if you don't want my future business..." doesn't really seem the raise the stakes enough for me. I think perhaps the issue is one of repetition - I would perhaps just speed up the first page - delete some of the to-ing and fro-ing over the deal and cut to the chase: what's going to happen if the deal goes south.
What do you all think?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Death to Prologues?

James Scott Bell

"First thing we do, let's kill all the prologues." ––Shakespeare (hack writer Chip Shakespeare of Schenectady, NY)


Last week we discussed one of those "fiction rules" that begins to get trumpeted about until it gets chiseled in a tablet as an unbreakable command. Here's one that seems to be developing: No prologues!

You hear this occasionally from agents and even readers. So it behooves us to ask if there's something to this mushrooming new "rule."

I think there is––and isn't.

Let me explain.

First, a definition. A prologue is a scene (or sometimes a group of scenes) that precedes in time the main plot. So the question to ask yourself is, if it isn't part of the main plot, why am I including it? And why should a reader bother with it?

Some reasons you might include a prologue:

• To start the book with intense action that hooks the reader.

• To set up an intriguing mystery that will pay off later in the book.

• To show a significant incident in the Lead's life that haunts him in the present.

• To demonstrate the evil deeds of the bad guy, setting up the stakes for the Lead.

What a prologue should not be is merely an excuse to give us backstory, the sort of information about the Lead that can wait to be revealed later. Only if the material in the prologue is absolutely essential, riveting and has real impact on the story, should it be used.

Maybe that's why agents are suspicious. They see too many prologues that don't need to be there.

Some readers report that they skip prologues. Why would they do that? Perhaps because it seems to them that it's just setup information and they want to get right on to the story.

So what should you do if you've got a great prologue that makes sense? That accomplishes just what it's suppose to?

Should you give up and bow to the blanket rule that you should never use a prologue? I don't think so.

Instead, be deceptive.

That's right. I said deceptive. You're a fiction writer, after all. That's what you do.

So here is a simple strategy: never label a prologue as "Prologue." That's an invitation for a reader, not to mention an agent or editor, to skip this part or toss aside the manuscript.

Instead, if it's in the long past, you can start with a date stamp, like this:

November 22, 1963

Or you can simply decide to call it "Chapter One."

Another option is simply not to put anything at all. I like this move. You just go halfway down the page and start your scene. Then, you can number the next scene as Chapter One. This was the strategy used by Harlan Coben in Tell No One. There is no call out that the book opens with a prologue. It simply gives us a riveting scene about a husband losing his wife and getting knocked out. Then, the next scene is headed:

1

Eight Years Later

But Coben wrote such a great opening scene that you don't stop and say, "Hey! He fooled me! That was a prologue! I want my money back!"

So here's my bottom line advice. Don't start with a prologue unless you have an absolutely clear reason for doing so. Make it short, too, unless you can justify the longer opening––as in, say, Mystic River, where the opening scenes, in the long past, are essential to understanding the plot as it unfolds. Dennis Lehane knew what he was doing.

Make sure you do, too, and then just don't call it a "Prologue." Problem solved.

Or is it? Do you tend to be let down if you see the word Prologue at the beginning of the book? Do you care? Is "Kill the Prologues" one "rule" we should nip in the bud?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

I'm enjoying this critique thingie...

John Miller


I dropped the Ramsey this week because it seemed pretentious all of the sudden. I may put it back, but I don't ever use it in my day-to-day life. My friends and neighbors call me Miller, and I prefer it to Mr. Miller, John or John Ramsey Miller. Out of a sense of boredom and thinking I should make some money for a new hen house and bullets, I applied for a job as a census worker. It's really a funny story and I did a truly shitty job on the written test, and I left the testing center (a small county library branch with none of our books in it) laughing because the guy said I could take the test as many times as I liked. I told him I didn't like taking his test the first time. Long and short is I'm getting trained Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at $15.00 an hour. So I won't be writing or authoring for a few weeks while I bother my sometimes touchy (and anti-whatever you've got) neighbors in the quiet evenings and on weekends, and no doubt will be seen as a gov'ment agent. I like honest work, especially gardening, chicken chasing, and cutting trees, etc... I have always seen writing as good hard work, but I like to get in the ditches, move dirt, rip things apart, and put things together.


Anyhow, today's page gets very little criticism from me. Other than the first line about 1918, I can live with it and I'd keep reading.




Chapter One


Atlantic City, New Jersey


"The 1918 has gone: a year momentous as the termination of the most cruel war in the annals of the human race; a year which marked, the end at least for a time, of man's destruction of man; unfortunately a year in which developed a most fatal infectious disease causing the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Medical science for four and one-half years devoted itself to putting men on the firing line and keeping them there. Now it must turn with its whole might to combating the greatest enemy of all--infectious disease," (12/28/1918).


American Medical Association final edition of 1918




He wanted it all to be over; the war in Iraq, the terrorism, the death, the killing. But it wasnít going to stop. Not anytime soon.


Explosions rocked a large market in Iraq disrupting a diplomatic visit by two senior House of Representative leaders. The in-country reporter glanced nervously over his shoulder as he searched for something to say. The scene played out on the plasma television above the bar, caught on tape by CNN cameras. Details on the forty-something U.S. soldiers killed that day scrolled along the bottom of the screen. The image changed. Visiting Representatives Jackson and Levey, draped in body armor, were being rushed from the scene by a tight knot of amour-clad soldiers.


Pete Robinson teetered on the bar stool contemplating the grizzly scene. Those political idiots were probably second-guessing their decision to parade around Iraq in support of the President and his claims that things were improving. The more he thought about the war, the more he drank, and the more he drank, the angrier he got. Heíd been perched on the bar stool for the last two hours. He was hammered and pissed-off. Just nuke the bastards.



Starts off like my kind of book. I'm along for the ride. What do you think?

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Smelly Tulip

By John Gilstrap
www.johngilstrap.com

A few hundred years ago, some English guy named Willy said, “If you call a rose a tulip, you’re not gonna change what it smells like.” Something like that, but in British.
Willy’s point was that sometimes labels don’t mean all that much. I tend to agree with him. I’d bet that most people who give it any real thought would agree, at least in principle. But only until egos get involved. Once you start messing with people’s sense of identity, labels can matter a lot.

A couple of weeks ago, I was silent witness to a writers’ board flame war that erupted over the assertion that writers and authors are different species, the definitions split by publication status. A “writer,” said one side of the conflict, may not call himself an “author” until the product of the writer’s efforts have been published. This ultimately led to a full-scale assault on the legitimacy of self-publishing as a form of “real” publishing, and it all got really ugly really fast.

There’s a reason why I don’t engage in flame wars: they’re ultimately damaging to everyone involved. But, oh, they can be fun to watch. (Contributing factor number 10,497 to why I’m running behind on my current manuscript.)

Just for grins, though, I thought I’d do a little research. Okay, a very little research. I turned to my new favorite reference,
Dictionary.com, and looked up the offending words. What I found surprised me:

Writer: “a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc., esp. as an occupation or profession; an author or journalist.”

Author: “a person who writes a novel, poem, essay, etc.; the composer of a literary work, as distinguished from a compiler, translator, editor, or copyist.”


It would seem by this definition that both camps of the flame war were wrong from the outset. Dictionary.com says that “author” is the generic term, while “writer” implies payment as a professional. Who knew?

Is it okay if I don’t care?

Let’s be honest: as humans, we all like to differentiate ourselves from our respective packs. Even among published authors of books, there’s a good bit of ring-knocking based on everything from print run size to publication format, but among professionals, those distinctions actually mean something, if only in terms of commercial clout. In a news room, I would imagine that there’s similar significance to differentiating a beat reporter from an investigative reporter from a web reporter.

I guess my point is that I’m not anti-label; I am anti-meaningless label. Am I missing something here? Do any of you get wrapped around the axle on whether you’re a writer or an author?

For our Killzone denizens who are not yet published, when you’re in the company of other like-minded people—say, in a writers’ conference environment—do you hesitate to call yourself a writer or an author?

What am I missing?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lost in Translation

by Michelle Gagnon

I've been fortunate enough to have my books translated into five languages. The other night my sister asked if I had read the French editions of any them yet. I shuddered at the very thought.

Let me explain why. I recently gave my Norwegian friend an edition of THE TUNNELS in her native tongue. She started reading the bio--the BIO, mind you--and burst out laughing. When I asked why, she translated it for me. Turns out that the Norwegian editors didn't use my official book bio, they lifted the one off my website, which is fairly tongue-in-cheek. And a lot of that humor doesn't translate.

Things like, "To the delight of her parents, she gave up all these occupations for an infinitely more stable and lucrative career as a crime fiction writer," became: "Her parents were beside themselves with enthusiasm at her new career since she was finally making a fortune."

And:

"In her spare time she runs errands and indulges a weakness for stale cinema popcorn and Hollywood blockbusters," turned into, "whenever she gets the chance she races off to the cinema to the neglect of everything else."

Not good. It reminds me of discussing Kathleen Turner's voice with a French friend, who said, "What are you talking about? She sounds just like everyone else." Turns out only a handful of actors and actresses dub the movies into French, so George Clooney, Tom Cruise, and Steve Buscemi comes across as having the exact same voice.

As writers, all we can do is hope that our translators do us justice. That being said, on the off chance that mine didn't, I don't want to know about it.

Which brings us to today's anonymous first page submission.The author originally wrote THE UNTOUCHABLE in Portuguese, but translated the page for us. I've placed her original below, followed by an edited version for clarity.

The Untouchable

Police know a lot of things. But between knowing, proving and making it official, there is a huge distance.

That declaration had been credited to José Carlos Lino, one of the commissaries at the 89º district in São Paulo. It was among the notes of Jair Silvestre, a journalist murdered with five shots to the chest almost two years ago. And at the top of the notebook page, in a very round handwriting: THE UNTOUCHABLE.

The crime was never solved.

I don't know why I had remembered that. An agent from another team came to talk about the frustration his colleagues felt when they found out this guy they had taken to justice was declared innocent on court. Common thing.

Then I thought it was quite an awry declaration, that from the 89º district commissary. We knew well that not even proving was enough. I stopped believing in justice after the first two months studying at law school. I still got it wrong trying to figure out in what I should believe.

It dawned.

We arrived at the crime scene around five-thirty in the morning. It was a quiet street. A few commercial buildings and houses. All the shops were closed. A man and a woman that had been walking their dogs were standing at the corner. A biker stopped across the street to watch what was going on. The police cars parked alerted those that are used to wake up early.

Commissary Daniel went first. He made his way through the military police. He greeted the district commissary and asked for the scientific police. The man pointed ahead and we walked past the entrance to a construction site. They were preparing the foundations of a building. I noticed a chain thrown on the ground in the inside. A broken padlock.

The terrain was an L and the neighbor house still covered the crime. I recognized on of the 15º district detectives ahead, and he was looking up as if waiting for rain to fall. The sky was clear. It had rained overnight and there was a cold wind blowing.

I could hear the sound of our footsteps on the dirt ground. A hard ground. A few superficial truck tire marks. I felt an uneasiness in my stomach, and remembered I hadn't eaten for over six hours. I stopped by the commissary's side and followed everyone else's eyes. Because it was already impossible to pay attention to anything other than the body in a large hole they had started digging.

Daniel put a hand to his mouth and my partner looked away.

"Holy shit."

One of the CSI stopped his movement to look at Daniel and offer an uncertain smile. It was certainly the most appropriate at that situation. I kept staring. This morbid curiosity that we build after all these years facing two or three dead a week. Least. But the scene was indeed a bit worse then I was used to. It was a scene to remind us that we never should have gotten used to any of that.

One couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman. The body was deformed. The head a shapeless mass of blood, brain and hair. His guts were torn and formed an impossible angle with the rest of the thorax. I could see the jeans and a shirt that once probably had been of a light color. It was covered with blood, mixed with pieces of his bowels and dirt. He was barefoot, without socks. It was the only thing that still reminded a human being. Very white feet.

Had it been a city in the countryside, I would be sure it had been an attack by a wild animal. But it was São Paulo, in the Itaim Bibi neighborhood, about five blocks from the police district.

My empty stomach rolled. I looked at one of the CSIs standing by the district detective. She was staring at the victim. The expression was disgust, sleepiness and resignation. It was too early and she had to touch that rotten body. The coroner was talking to another CSI. No one seemed very happy.

The Untouchable

Police know a lot of things. But there's a huge gap between knowing something and officially proving it.

That declaration by José Carlos Lino, one of the commissaries from the 89º district in São Paulo, was found among the notes of a journalist murdered almost two years ago. Jair Silvestre had taken five shots to the chest. At the top of his notebook page in very round handwriting: THE UNTOUCHABLE.

The crime was never solved.

I don't know why I remembered that. An agent from another team expressed the frustration his colleagues felt when they found out a guy they knew was responsible was declared innocent on court. It happens all the time.

I thought Lino's declaration was odd. We all knew that sometimes even proving a thing was not enough. After two months of law school, I stopped believing in justice. I'm still trying to figure out what to believe in.

We arrived at the crime scene around five-thirty in the morning. Dawn was breaking. It was a quiet street with a mix of commercial buildings and houses. All the shops were closed. The parked police cars alerted the early risers. A man and woman stood at the corner with their dogs, and a biker stopped across the street to watch what was going on.

Commissary Daniel went first, making his way through the military police. He greeted the district commissary and asked for the scientific police. The man pointed, and we walked through the entrance on to a construction site where they were laying the foundations of a building. On the ground inside, a chain lay beside a broken padlock.

The terrain was an L and the neighbor house still covered the crime (?). I recognized one of the 15º district detectives, he was looking up at the sky as if waiting for rain to fall. A cold wind was blowing.

The sound of our footsteps on the hard dirt. We were careful to avoid a few superficial truck tire marks. I felt queasy, and realized that I hadn't eaten in over six hours. I stopped by the commissary's side and followed everyone's eyes. It was impossible to pay attention to anything other than the body in the large hole.

Daniel put a hand to his mouth and my partner looked away.

"Holy shit."

One of the CSI techs looked at Daniel and offered an uncertain smile (?). I kept staring. After all these years of facing at least two or three bodies a week, we tended to be inured. But this scene was much worse than what I was used to. It was bad enough to remind us that we should never have gotten used to any of it.

The body was so deformed it was impossible to determine gender. The head was a shapeless mass of blood, brain and hair. The guts were torn and formed an impossible angle with the rest of the thorax. I could see jeans and a shirt that had probably once been white. It was covered with blood, mixed with pieces of bowels and dirt. The corpse was barefoot. Those pale feet were the only thing that still called to mind a human being.

Had it been found in the countryside, I would have categorized it as an attack by a wild animal. But this was São Paulo, in the Itaim Bibi neighborhood, about five blocks from the police district.

My stomach rolled. The CSI tech standing by the district detective was staring at the victim with an expression of disgust, sleepiness and resignation. It was too early and she had to touch that rotten body. The coroner was talking to another CSI. No one seemed very happy.

Notes:

I'm intrigued by this storyline. I think the bones of an interesting character and plotline are here in spades. I like some of the descriptive passages quite a bit.

Still, there were a lot of things I found confusing. Some of that was due to the translation, I suspect, but some might be endemic to the story itself. Firstly, why start off with the quote? It's not a particularly powerful one (at least in the English translation). I also was confused as to how the murder of the journalist played into things- does it have anything to do with the body we encounter further down the page? Does it enter the story later, and if so, why include it at the outset? At this point, I know that the main character is a lawyer, but why is she present at the scene? She also appears to be a cop, or at least sees a lot of corpses in her line of work.

Introducing a character is a tricky thing. You want to provide enough information to make them intriguing and to give a reader something to latch on to, without falling into the "information dump" trap. Here, the author has made an interesting choice. I'm told that the main character doesn't know what to believe in before I find out anything concrete about her. This could work, but I'd need more to be sold on her first.

Dialogue could be used to address some of these issues. For example, instead of having everyone standing around looking at each other, let them discuss what they're seeing.

"Nasty one," said Daniel.

I nodded but didn't respond. The only thing identifying the bloodied mass before me as human was the pair of pale feet, oddly untouched by the carnage.

The CSI tech wrinkled her nose, taking it in. "Why do the bad ones always come in when I've been up all night?"

What do the rest of you think of THE UNTOUCHABLE?








Wednesday, April 21, 2010

One-page critique of Bullet’s Name

By Joe Moore

We continue our one-page critique project at TKZ with an anonymous submission called Bullet’s Name.

August, 1937

It was just after eleven on a Sunday morning when God-fearing people were in church and reprobates were sleeping in from reprobating all night.

Jasper Green was waiting for me in a rundown colored roadhouse a few miles outside Salisbury, North Carolina. I parked the well-worn Ford sedan that I’d rented three days earlier for ten bucks a day from a less-than-honest car dealer in Charlotte. I parked just shy of sparkling Dodge coupe with a Carolina plate.

The front door stood open so I crossed the porch and walked into the dim interior. The water-stained ceiling undulated gently like the surface of the ocean. The pine floors were worn paper smooth and the place smelled of spilled beer, cigarette smoke and a hint of a shallow piss pit out back. Some of the dark-brown floor stains looked like residue from blade work.

Green sat like a king with his back in a corner, his black hair pomaded to his narrow skull like sun-baked paint. His right hand was under the table, his dusty brown eyes reflected amused disinterest. A young negress, with a lithe body that gave turned a simple cotton shift into an elegant gown, was delivering a bottle of whiskey to his table when I came in and she looked at me like I was tracking in a dog turd.

In a welcoming gesture, Jasper Green smiled disarmingly and raised his chin to invite me over. When I got to the table, he pointed at the chair opposite and said, “Sit down and take a load off, buddy.”

I would recommend that the writer proofread the work before submission. Even if this is a rough first draft, the writer could have taken a few seconds to make sure this single page was clean and devoid of errors. There are words missing: “the” or “a” before the word “sparkling”, and extra words that don’t belong: “gave” just before “turned”. We are told twice in a row that “I parked”.

Regarding the writing, there’s nothing wrong with using metaphors, similes and strong description to create atmosphere and sense of place. But in this example, there are way too many. Some are confusing and some just don’t work. I don’t think using the verb “undulated” is a good way to describe a ceiling unless you’re drunk on your back staring up at it.

I would bet that beer drinkers love the smell of beer. I would even bet that they would have no issue with the aroma of spilt beer. I think what the writer meant was the odor of spilled beer from a week or a month ago—the smell of stale beer.

I assume the dark stains resulting from “blade work” mean blood spilled from past knife fights. That almost works, but for me it was too obscure.

I would suggest changing “colored roadhouse” to “negro roadhouse”. In today’s politically correct mindset, colored does not have the impact that negro would.

I’ve heard of people described as having a narrow face or even a narrow head, but a narrow skull doesn’t quite put a vivid picture in my mind. Word choice is so important. The word skull, for me at least, has a totally different connotation than head. And is pomaded the right word choice for this setting? The first page may not be the best time to send your reader running for a dictionary or the writer trying to exhibit an extended vocabulary. Remember that you are establishing your voice from page one.

From across the room, the main character could see that Jasper’s eyes were a “dusty brown”, a description I find somewhat attractive for a person the writer is trying to paint as a dark or questionable character.

The sentence that starts with “A young negress” lacks proper punctuation. It also paints a contradiction. This “lithe” girl who turns rags to royalty when it comes to her wardrobe suddenly is assumed to think in terms of turds. A complete turn-off for me.

An overall comment: you cannot describe a character into being good or bad. This can only be done through their actions and reactions. This submission tries to use description to do the job. It may be a sign that the writer doesn’t “know” the characters well enough yet.

Summary: proof read, use economy of words—less is always more, use proper punctuation, and start a story at the moment of impact where the main character is tossed out of his or her comfort zone. Chances are, an agent would not read beyond this page.

What about you? Would your read on?

Download FRESH KILLS, Tales from the Kill Zone to your Kindle or PC today.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Opening with action: Today's critique

Today we have the first page of a story called CRYSTAL WHITE. My comments follow in the bullets.


PROLOGUE

Warehouse District

Ontario, California

Assistant Special-Agent-in-Charge Nick Lafferty swore at his vibrating cell phone, trapped in the breast pocket of his suit jacket, trapped under his DEA-issued body armor. He ripped open the top Velcro strap. The noise reverberated through the warehouse. Then he contorted to fish his hand under the vest trying to reach the damn thing before it rang again.
A passing police sergeant, in gray urban fatigues, body armor and carrying an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, let him know, “Sharp shooters are in position, Agent Lafferty. Ready when you are.”

He nodded thanks. With the cell phone firmly in hand, he flipped it open. “Lafferty here.”

“Lafferty here too,” his wife, Renee, said, mimicking his stern, gruff voice, then laughing. “Except for us here is on the boat. We’re missing you. Any chance you’ll be able to join us?”

It was Sunday morning. He’d promised to take Renee and Vicki, their seven-year-old daughter, out for the day on their 32-foot Chris Craft Catalina, the YOU CAN RUN. They kept it docked at the marina off Harbor Drive in San Diego Bay. By now the sun would be full up, warm, baking the dry, gray wharf and the teak aft decking of the boat. Gulls would be circling and cawing, begging for handouts from the boaters and fishermen hanging off the piers.


A light breeze gently snapping the harbor flags, carrying with it an intoxicating aroma of salt water, wet rope and diesel fuel. He could practically hear the lapping of waves, the thump of fiberglass hulls against rubber bumpers, the creak of straining ropes.

He glanced around at the warehouse his team had commandeered for the morning’s impromptu operation. It was a far cry from the sunny marina where he wanted to be, on the water, with his family.

Instead he was here, with his Mobile Enforcement Team. They wore black fatigues and heavy bullet resistant vests under blue DEA windbreakers. With them was a Special Operations Team from the Ontario PD and the County Sheriff’s Tactical Services Team. Decked out in urban camouflage and full tactical gear and body armor, waiting, they stood around talking and checking their equipment, loading weapons and laughing at old war stories or politically incorrect jokes. Rifles and semi-automatic pistols clicked loudly as slides snapped closed. Metal clips clanged against plastic stocks, the musty air sharp with the smell of Hoppe’s No. 9 gun oil.

“I don’t know, honey,” Lafferty said into the phone. “I need to see how this thing plays out.”

***
My comments:
  • This first page seems to be a promising story--I like the sense we're getting of the main character. I would keep reading, but I did get frustrated by the fact that the opening scene lacks action and suspense. We open on an armed officer, and he's at a stakeout. This setup should be suspenseful. But then: 1) his cell phone rings; 2) his colleagues are seen standing around joking; 3) he has a conversation with his wife; 4) we get a description of his boat, which is docked someplace else, gulls circling, etc. All of these things drain the drama from the opening scene.
  • I think it would be more effective to open later into the action--open big, provide some drama and suspense, and then you can add the personal background, the wife, etc.
  • I'm not a big fan of prologues, in general. But if you do use a prologue, it should draw the reader in faster than this one does.
  • I don't think you need to have "Assistant Special-Agent-in-Charge" in the first sentence. We'll  get an idea that this character is an agent through the dialogue and action.
  • I would like to see more about the goal of the "impromptu operation," and less about the things that distract from the suspense. So I would suggest that the writer tighten the scene.
  • There's a lot of description of what everyone is wearing (vest, camouflage, body armor), but nothing that conveys what they're trying to accomplish. 
  • Is there supposed to be any tension in this scene? The fact that the men are joking and telling war stories conveys an air of relaxation, not suspense.
What do you guys think?

Propelling the Plot

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I'm in a bit of a slump today as my planned trip to London this evening has been thwarted by a volcano in Iceland (one which, BTW, my husband and I saw on our trip to Iceland a few years ago - though it was dormant at the time). I don't react well to disappointment (a trait which I need to overcome as a professional writer!), but I can hardly complain given how many people are stranded far from home. Still, I'm mourning the fact that I won't be able to spend time with my folks over a pint, a bag of crisps and a pork pie..:(

Instead, I get to work through some plot changes to my current WIP based on the terrific insight of my agent (who always seems to know exactly what is wrong with my drafts). Now plot is not one of my strong points...that's not to say nothing happens in my books (I don't suffer from that particular literary pretension), it's just that I often fail to ensure that my characters propel the plot forward. Despite being an outliner, sometimes I allow my characters to get swept up in the events that envelop them, reacting to the situation rather than creating and shaping the story themselves.

So how do I approach fixing this? After I have gone through the initial phase of despondency, hair-pulling and chocolate binging I approach the issue systematically (with my usual dose of neurosis).

These are the steps I plan to take this week to address my latest case of 'plot deficiency disorder'.


  • First, revisit the fundamentals. What are the motivations of all the key players? How do these and their desired objectives conflict? I then ask myself - how can I up the stakes in order to heighten this conflict and thwart those objectives? Given that most of my issues arise in the dreaded 'sagging middle' these questions help me focus on what needs to be accomplished.

  • This step enables me to start brainstorming plot ideas and situations that can heighten these stakes and which ensure the characters drive the action forward. In this second step I try to remain wide open to all options and constantly ask myself 'what if?'...leaving open almost all possibilities (except those that are inconsistent with the characters I have created).

  • Up until this point I make absolutely no edits to the manuscript - because usually (and this is the case at the moment) the bones of the story are solid and the characters are well developed. I usually start and end a book strongly (small comfort) but the last thing I want to do is start tinkering with the middle until I know exactly what I'm going to do. This is a delicate time as I have to ensure that any plot alterations do not destroy what is currently working well in the story.

  • Before I start editing I draw up a detailed plot map of the revised story and check that the new course of action is true to the characters motivation and that the stakes, now heightened, haven't become ludicrous or comical...

  • Then and only then do I start rewriting...hoping, of course, that the new plot permutations propel my story to a successful denouement!
So how do you approach plot issues? What steps do you take to remedy a 'sagging plot'? (All and any tips greatly appreciated as I have a long week of thinking ahead of me!)

I also strongly recommend reading the book Plot & Structure by my fellow blogger, James Scott Bell - it has some great advice which I only wish I followed more often!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Did You Just Use Italics?

James Scott Bell

Controversy? You want controversy? You thought Michelle's post about F-bombs was controversial? John's post about offending readers?

Well, step right up, cause I've got your controversy, right here: How about the use of italics?

That's right! I said italics!

I love the way writing "rules" sometimes get floated around the internet, become a meme, then move to "accepted wisdom" or even "non-negotiable truths from on high" – while, all along, it may be wrong for an across the board regulation.

Sometimes there's a kernel of truth. For example, there's a "rule" that says, No Prologues! Part of that may be simply because agents see so many bad ones. Maybe we'll discuss that in a future post.

Today I want to discuss the use of italics for rendering the inner thoughts of a character. You know how that's often done:

Susan walked into the room and saw Blake. Back in town! I don't want him to see me like this!

That's the shortest possible route to showing us the inner thought. Another alternative is to not use italics, but put in an attribution:

Susan walked into the room and saw Blake. Back in town, she thought. I don't want him to see me like this!

A third way is to use 3d Person, but filtered in such a way that we know it is Susan thinking it.

Susan walked into the room and saw Blake. So he was back in town. She didn't want him to see her like this.

That last two renderings are probably the preferred type these days. Or at least the fashion cops seem to think so. But does that mean italics should never be used for thoughts?

Never say never, especially when it comes to writing "rules." I think italics are still perfectly acceptable when used in moderation.

Note that word: moderation. The overuse of italicized thoughts gets a bit wearying.

But an italicized thought may be the best, most economical way for a character to recall a key point or phrase uttered earlier in the book. And to set it off for the reader, too.

For example, early in the book your Lead character is given a clue about the villain by someone, who says, "Baxter will be wearing cheapie shoes that squeak."

Near the end of the book, the character hears someone enter the room with squeaky shoes. You could write it the clunky way: She listened to the sound of his shoes on the tile. And she remembered what Clive had told her about Baxter, that he would be wearing inexpensive shoes that squeak.

Or you could do it quickly and easily with italics:

She listened to the sound of his shoes on the tile.

Baxter will be wearing cheapie shoes that squeak . . .

If you have a scene that is mostly interior dialogue, using italics can be a means of variety. In Lisa Scottoline's Courting Trouble, lawyer Anne Murphy has to process some shattering news. First, Scottoline uses no italics:

Could this be? Could this really be? Was Willa dead? Anne's heart stalled in her chest. Her eyes welled up suddenly, blurring the busy boardwalk . . . . She struggled against the voice and the conclusion, but she couldn't help it. Willa, dead? No!

But then, as Anne continues to try to "wrap her mind" around it, there's this:

Kevin got out, but how? Why didn't they tell her?

The switch to italics, for one line, adds a certain immediacy to the thought process. I don't think Scottoline should be arrested for using it. I don't even think she should get a ticket.

In The Hard Way by Lee Child, a man in a hooded sweatshirt who takes money off drunks is walking down the street, and sees: A big man, but inert. His limbs were relaxed in sleep.

As the hooded man moves closer, Child inserts a series of quick thoughts, between paragraphs of narrative:

His hair was clean. He wasn't malnourished.

Not a bum with a pair of stolen shoes.

[more narrative]

A prime target.

And so on. It's just an efficient way to get the point across and get out of the way. Could the same thing be done without italics? Perhaps. Should it? That's up to you.

Another jab against italics is that they are "hard to read." I don't buy that. That's why I didn't mind that Robert Crais has whole chapters in italics in L.A. Requiem. He has a reason for it, and I'm not going to call the Style Felony Hotline to report him.

Here's my pragmatic conclusion: yes, there may be some prejudice against italics. But if they're used judiciously and for good reason, I see no problem.

Do you?

Do you?