Saturday, April 30, 2011

Don't Follow Me. I'm Lost Too.

I would like to follow up, if I might, from James Scott Bell’s excellent contribution of Sunday last titled “What Will Book Publishing Look Like In Six Months?” I started to write a comment to that essay but it soon became long enough for a post of my own, so here it is, for what it is worth. I will tell you ahead of time that I have NO idea what book publishing will be like in six months, other than it’s going to be more chaotic than it is now. Herewith, however, are a couple of factors that are influencing things now that no one seems to want to talk about.

I read an article recently in the Wall Street Journal concerning the fact that publishers are noticing that self-published e-books offered at a two to three dollar price point are getting an increasing share of the market. Now, traditional publishers will tell you that they simply cannot offer e-books in that price range. For one thing (they say) it only costs three to four dollars per unit to physically publish a book. That may well be. There is an additional problem that traditional publishers face, however, an expense which is also factored into that publisher‘s list price. That problem is the very expensive cost of the Manhattan real estate upon which those who toil on the publishers’ behalf hang their hats each morning. The Konraths and the Crouchs and the Lockes and the Wynnes and yes, the Eislers who are doing quite well on their own are already paying for their own office space. It’s called home. The publishers, on the other hand, have to pick up their fixed cost (those expenses that remain the same whether they sell a million books or don’t sell any) somewhere, and they do it somewhere in the remaining twenty-two bucks of that hardcover you used to buy at Borders. Not all of that remaining money goes to the landlord for the lights and carpet and walls, but some of it does. And authors such James Patterson sell enough books to keep the candles burning. Those e-book prices accordingly aren’t going to be coming down any time soon (but read on).

Trad publishers also have another problem. They have to keep the gnomes of Zurich happy. The gnomes in this case are the parent companies like NewsCorp, Sony, Bertelsmann and the like who are looking at the balance sheets and figuring out how they are going to explain to their stockholders that the reason that the dividend checks aren’t as big this year because this or that publishing company did not perform to expectation. The money for those declared dividends comes out of that unit price as well. With the gents I mentioned earlier, their stockholders are their families. If an independent e-book authors take their families out for an extra nice meal, and the bills all get paid on time, they’re happy. That’s their stockholder report. But the traditional publishers have a constituency that is not so easily satisfied.

One might think, after considering the above, that the traditional publishers are accordingly stuck at a twelve dollar price point for an e-book. I mean, they have fixed costs, stockholders, and, of course, the author needs to be paid too. Actually, however, they are not stuck. At least theoretically. There is a school of thought --- one that I happen to subscribe to --- that says that at a (much) lower price point the traditional publishers could sell enough e-books to make up the difference in what they lose in selling at a higher price. It is my humble opinion that at some point, sooner rather than later, one of the traditional publishers is going to bite the bullet and price a book by one of their A list authors at three to five dollars, and then sit back with a bottle of Maalox in one hand and a .38 Special in the other, waiting to see if the sales numbers jump high enough to make up for the decrease in sales price per unit. In other words, if I’m selling one thousand books at ten dollars apiece, and I drop the price to five dollars, I have to sell two thousand books to make the same money. I think they can do it. If they do, they’ll put the Maalox to their head. If not…It will be interesting to see which publishing house will walk that plank first, and which author will be holding hands with it. And those offices in mid-town? They are the real estate equivalent of a dead man walking. I know of one gentleman who is running a very successful independent music label imprint out of a hotel lobby. He has a smartphone, a laptop, a pair of ear buds, and access to a nearby Kinkos. He farms out his publicity, promotion, booking, and marketing and he stores his artists’ music on an external hard drive that’s the size of a spiral notebook. He’s making good money. And no one even knows he’s running a business. He is the future.

As we look at the landscape, what I just described could be called the hills. What about the trees? To get a description of that we have to ask a tough question which is also being asked, and answered, by CPA bean counters in boardrooms, even as I write and you read: at what point does the percentage of e-book sales in relation to physical book sales reach the point where the manufacture and sale of physical books --- either by genre, or for the industry as a whole --- becomes a losing proposition? I have seen opinions that set that point as the moment when e-book sales constitute twenty percent of total books sales. Some genres have reached, and exceeded, that point already. My understanding is that, for the industry as a whole, e-book sales constitute thirteen percent of sales. It may well be somewhat more than that; I doubt that it is less. Whether the point has already been reached, however, or is reached six months or six years from now, it raises some tough questions. Will publishers gradually phase out physical books for all but their perennial best sellers? Will physical books be published in sharply limited qualities, marketed for collectors? There are some genre publishers that have survived quite nicely for years publishing limited editions (Subterranean Press and Cemetery Dance come to mind). But those limited editions come with expensive price tags.

I hate the thought of a world where a physical book is a luxury which can ill be afforded. But we have to consider that scenario as possible, too. The market, and the unseen hand that guides it, does not always come to rest upon a happy medium. At least for some.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Good Guy PDC

By John Gilstrap
Good morning, everyone. Now that you’ve had a chance to mingle and meet, let’s take our seats and get started. Welcome to the first annual Good Guy Professional Development conference. Mr. Grave, Mr. Rapp and Mr. Harvath, I need you to leave your weapons at the check station. You, too, Mr. Massey. Yes, all of them. Mr. al-Jawadi will take good care of them.

Mr. Rapp, I don’t appreciate that kind of talk here. Not all . . . Okay, apology accepted.

I’d like to offer a special welcome to President Ryan. It’s a real honor, sir. And congratulations on your son’s success as well. I think we all can agree that the world is a much safer—

Excuse me. Yes, Mr. Pitt? Because they’re Secret Service agents, that’s why. They are the single exception to the no weapons rule. Surely this makes sense to you. I thought it would. Thank you.

Moving along, this morning’s agenda includes—

Oh, good God. Who’s pounding on the door? Oh. Just ignore her, and maybe she’ll go away. What? No, I’m not being sexist. Jessica Fletcher is not welcome in any gathering that I run. Certainly not where food or tea is being served. It’s just not worth the risk.

Who locked the doors, anyway? Ah. And why did you do that, Inspector Poirot? Uh huh. I see. Well, technically, Inspector, there’s more than one killer in this room. Quite a lot more than one, actually. We don’t need a locked room, thanks. It’s a fire code violation.

Mr. Lockwood and Mr. Pike, please sit down. I don’t need your help. And Inspector Poirot does not “talk funny,” as you say. He’s Belgian. And meaning no offense, why are you two here in the first place? This conference is for lead characters. A sidekick conference is in the planning stages . . . My apologies, Mr. Pike, you’re absolutely right. I’d forgotten. You’re welcome to stay. But Mr. Lockwood—may I call you Win? All right, then, Mr. Lockwood, I need to ask you to leave.

Getting back to the agenda, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover, beginning with a panel presented by Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne discussing the difficulties of living a dual life. That will be moderated by Peter Parker.

I see you, Mr. Bolitar. Please put the laser pointer down. The red dot on my chest is certainly a riot, but it’s distracting. Thank you.

The dual life panel will be followed by a technical workshop called “How to Get 500 Rounds Out Of A 30-Round Magazine Without Reloading.” That will be jointly taught by two of my favorite Johns: John “Hannibal” Smith, and John Rambo.

Our luncheon speaker is the ever-entertaining Captain Ahab, whose keynote is titled, “Manic Monomania.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve been thinking about little else for days.

In the afternoon, we have . . .

***
The afternoon sessions are up to you, dear Killzoners. Let’s have some fun. Trying to stick to the voice of the speaker, post your suggested courses and presenters. Or interact some more with the attendees.
This could be a hoot.

(FYI, I’ll be away from the keyboard all day today, so I’ll be kinda quiet.)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

It's 10pm, does Steve Jobs know where you are?

by Michelle Gagnon

A bit of a brouhaha erupted this week over the discovery that Apple might be collecting data on iPhone users' locations. Apple immediately released a response firmly denying any malfeasance. However, they did acknowledge that their software contains "flaws" that affect the collection of data required for location-based services.

Don't worry, I'm not about to wander off into the conspiracy theory woods. Well, not too far at least. I'd actually be impressed if Apple managed to track my iPhone, considering the fact that I can barely get it to function properly to make calls.

And the truth is that these days, by and large people don't mind making their every move public. They're freely offering up data on nearly every aspect of their lives. Via Facebook and Twitter, I receive a slew of daily posts along the lines of: "John Doe just checked into Four Barrel," and, "Jane Doe is at SFO." (Side note: what a gift FourSquare and programs like it are for thieves and stalkers!) Some restaurants and bars encourage "checking in" like this, offering a discount or bonus for people who do it. You can apparently even become "mayor" of the place you check into most frequently.

We've become a nation of oversharing, from tweeting about the bagel we just ate to discussing how much sleep we got last night and what the doctor said about our blood pressure. And it doesn't stop there. All those little tools designed to make our lives easier also quietly file away information about us and our habits. Grocery savings cards record what you're eating and using to clean your house. Fastrak passes record your car every time it crosses a bridge (and allegedly, according to internet posts that boldly march much deeper into the conspiracy forest, they might also be tracking your movements around major cities). In many urban areas, CCTV cameras are set up to discourage criminal activity.

I recently read Cory Doctorow's excellent novel LITTLE BROTHER. The story is set in a near future, so many of the tracking tools that play into the plot already exist and are deeply rooted in our day to day lives. And as Doctorow points out, it wouldn't take much for these seemingly helpful tools to be turned against us. In his book, police are able to collate data from electronic public transportation cards (like the Clipper pass we have here in SF) to track "irregular" movement patterns. In addition to metal detectors, schools are equipped with cameras that analyze students' walking patterns, and every laptop comes with a chip that monitors key strokes.

Of course, none of this is new, as any Philip K. Dick fan knows. But we're certainly a lot closer to that potential future than we used to be. In London, the average resident is filmed 300 times a day; Britain has 4.2 million closed-circuit surveillance cameras, one for every 15 people in the country. Did you know that your computer webcam can be turned on remotely? It can. In fact, the Lower Merion School District near Philadelphia admitted to activating Webcams 42 times during a 14-month period, claiming that it did so only to track lost or stolen laptops.

But as I said, no one seems to mind. People already film the most intimate aspects of their lives for public consumption on YouTube. How do you value privacy in a culture where the prevailing dream is to become famous, even if that fame is tied to a videotaped pratfall off a ladder?

All right, I'm stepping back out of the woods. And of course,
all of this provides rich material for crime fiction writers like me to mine, so I'm hardly one to complain.

By the way, I had oatmeal for breakfast, and the doctor said I'm doing just fine. Go ahead and turn on my webcam if you want to see for yourself.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Visual Tools for Writers

Talking about the state of the publishing industry can be depressing these days, so let’s go back to why we write in the first place: We love storytelling. Many of us use visual tools when we write: collages about the main character or setting, plotting diagrams, charts, timelines, and photos. I’m just as guilty as the next writer in this regard. So here are some of the favorite ones I use, and I hope you’ll share what works for you.

PHOTOS

This is the most fun. I keep a file with pictures of people I cut out from TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, and other magazines. Then when I’m planning a novel and doing my character development, I’ll search through the pages to find the one person who looks just like my character. I used to staple these onto my character development sheets, but now I scan them into the computer and add them to my file on that person. Looking for the villain is even more fun. I’m especially fond of sneaky looking people. Perfect models won’t do. You want these profiles to be interesting and tell you something about the character. For a mystery, I’ll do the sleuth for the first book in the series, some of the continuing characters, and the suspects for each installment.

PLOTTING BOARDS

In the planning stages of a story, I’ll divide a poster board into the number of chapters I plan to fill my book and then I’ll stick Post-It notes on the poster scribbled with different plot points. This helps me see the story flow before I write the synopsis. Later, I’ll fill in the squares with ink after I’ve written the chapter. Thanks to Barbara Parker who taught me this trick, I use different colored inks for the main plotline, loose ends, clues leading to the killer, and new characters on stage.

TIMELINES

It often becomes necessary to draw a family tree. I haven’t found an easy way to do this on the computer and manage with Word. Also, when I have to calculate characters’ ages, this is where they go.

LIFE SPACE

This helps you get into the head of your character. Draw a head on a blank sheet of white paper and put your person’s name in it. Then draw cartoon-like balloons all around the head. Inside these spaces, write in what’s on your character’s mind at any given point in time. Solving a murder? Taking mother to lunch? Picking up laundry? Calling boyfriend? How many concerns are on your mind right now? Ask your character what she’s thinking about. Here’s an example from my current WIP (an artist, I am not!).



These are some of the visual aids I build when writing a story. Now let’s hear what you do.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Get The Juices Flowing . . .

By: Kathleen Pickering

DSCN1177Twice now I’ve enjoyed writing workshops presented by my friend, Heather Graham, where she uses an effective, interactive writing technique employing random words to build story ideas. My first effort resulted in the horror lampoon, “A Zombie Love Story,” which became a short story included with Heather’s and other FRW authors in the Florida Romance Writers e-book anthology, Vampires, Werewolves and Zombies, Oh, My! Pickering_SM

Heather’s great method either helps bring new story ideas to life, or move an already stalled story forward. When creating a new story, random nouns describing three people, one place and three adjectives  become the cornerstone for a full page of narrative. While we haven’t experimented with moving a current story forward with this technique, I’d suggest choosing three characters from a current story, a site they’d go to, and adjectives best used in the story’s particular theme. Using the first words that come to mind for each category works best.

Let’s test the creative juices.  My latest words drawn from Heather’s pool were:

People 1. Alligator Wrestler. 2. Ventriloquist 3. Girl Scout.

Place: an RV.

Adjectives: Crass, Distant, Startled

In the workshop, Heather supplied the lead sentence:

“Blood dripped from the wall . . .”

Just for kicks, take five minutes or less to try your hand at creating the first paragraph (or two) of a story using the above words and Heather’s sentence. I’d be curious to see what  you build. I’ll post the paragraphs I crafted from these leads later on in the day. (Fair warning: my son’s birthday is today. I’ll most probably be distracted until evening.)

Best of all, would your results entertain you enough to consider growing them into a story? Enjoy!

Monday, April 25, 2011

ANZAC day





After a marathon effort of close to 30 hours traveling to get back to Melbourne from Tucson (delays included) I awoke to ANZAC day here in Australia. At dawn this morning in almost every country town and city across the country people gathered to remember Australia's war dead.

Despite the dwindling number of servicemen still alive who served in WWI and WWII, attendance at the services and marches has grown considerably in recent years. It is touching to see how many children now march wearing the medals of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who served. My boys and I, despite our jetlag, just attended the ANZAC day march in my mother-in-law's small Victorian country town and my boys are now keen to get their great-grandfathers' medals and march themselves one day.

Given today's date, I thought I would dedicate today's blog to the ANZACs and pose a few questions for American readers of TKZ on the meaning and significance of the day. Here goes...
  • What does ANZAC stand for?
  • Which famous battle are the ANZACs known for?
  • What did the wives and daughters of the ANZACs send them (hint here, I can provide a recipe for them!)
Good luck and feel free to test my own knowledge of ANZAC day in your comments too...

Sunday, April 24, 2011

What Will Book Publishing Look Like in 6 Months?


There's an old joke about a guy who goes to see his surgeon. The surgeon has bad news: they're going to have to operate. The guy says he can't afford the operation. So the surgeon says, "No problem. For a hundred bucks I'll touch up the x-rays."
Right now a lot of people think touching up the x-rays is the way to save traditional publishing. They know that major surgery is required but have no idea where to cut, what to look for, or how to make it better.
It's really no one's fault. Stuff happens. In this case, the stuff is e-publishing/reading, and it has exploded faster than most thought possible. And big industry is not built to change on a dime. It's not even built to change on an open road, especially when there are all sorts of trails and byways it has never explored, or even been equipped to explore.
Meanwhile, a bad business spiral only increases in speed.
Bookstores are closing. Revenues for print books are way down. That means fewer books published on paper. Even those that are P-published have fewer places to go. They sure ain't going to Borders.
The trend line for print is not good. According to the American Association of Publishers, in January of this year hardcover sales were down 11.3% and mass market paperbacks down 30.9%.
Further, the old way people used to find books –- browsing and being hand-sold by trusted folks in physical bookstores -- is over. Gone. Finito.
Forever.
The big publishers didn't want that to happen. 
But it has.
And we have to acknowledge the reality and not get out the Sharpies to cover spots on the x-ray film. (see also, "Sand, Ostrich Head In")
The ever insightful Mike Shatzkin sums it up:
I take no pleasure in the big publishers’ pain. It is a matter of professional pride to me to not allow my preferences to color my predictions. I love bookstores and libraries and consider the top management of the big trade houses to be intelligent, ethical, and creative people. I consider many of them friends. The fact that the transition from reading and distributing print to largely reading on screens and distributing print online makes much of their skill sets and business models obsolete is not their fault. Nor is the fact that preserving their old business, and the cash flow it still yields, sometimes interferes with inventing the new one.
The next 4 - 6 months are critical for the survival of traditional publishing in some form. It will not look like it does now. And it will never again be "the only game in town."
Meanwhile, writers write. We know there is money to be made in self-publishing e-books. I'm experiencing that now with WATCH YOUR BACK.    
This pleases me, because it is the most elemental of transactions, just like when Og the caveman got a year's worth of fox furs from the tribal chieftain for telling stories about heroic fights with the killer mastodons. We can go directly to readers, who can download us directly to their devices. 
There are many, many things traditional publishers do well, and have for a long time. But that is a bit beside the point. Typewriters did many things well, too.
Here's the $64 billion question: Which traditional publishers will turn out to be like Apple and which like Underwood? What will the new industry standard look like? 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

How Do You Deal With Writer's Block?

John Ramsey Miller

...





Friday, April 22, 2011

Shameless Self-Promotion Alert

by John Gilstrap
A few times a year (but only a few times) I devote my slice of intellectual real estate here on The Killzone to shameless self-promotion.  Today is one of those days.

This will be a three-book summer for me.  Threat Warning, the third installment of the Jonathan Grave thriller series, will hit the stands on July 1; but before that, in hopes of whetting readers' appetities, Kensington will rerelease my 1998 novel, At All Costs, on May 1 (next week!).  The pBook rerelease will follow in 2012.

We chose At All Costs for the first rerelease (Nathan's Run will come out again in eBook form in August) because it actually shares literary DNA with the Grave series.  That's the book where Irene Rivers--now the director of the FBI, codenamed Wolverine in the Grave books--was first introduced.  In At All Costs, she's my protagonists' worst nightmare as she continues to pursue them for crimes that only they know they never committed.

The rerelease strategy was my editor's suggestion--well, sort of.  During a meeting at last year's Bouchercon in San Francisco, she mentioned that she'd like to see a story about Irene's past.  When I told her that I'd already written it, but it was now out of print, Kensington re-bought the rights, and here we are.

I've blogged before that it's a daunting task to edit page proofs of a previously-published book.  In the end, I didn't change much beyond a significant reduction (but not elimination) of the F-bomb.  I tried hard to keep my substantive changes to a minimum, but a few were irresistable.  Take the throw-away reference to the "US Air Arena," which, at the time I wrote the original story, was the hope of the Washington Capitals hockey team and the Washington Bullets basketball team.  Since then, US Air became US Airways, the Bullets ceased to exist.  The facility itself was abandoned and ultimately torn down.  Last time I drove through there, it was an empty lot.  I changed the throw-away reference to "a stadium."  That should stay relevant for a while.

The most interesting part of the editing process was the realization that the story would have been largely different if I had written it today.  A huge section takes place at a hazardous waste site.  In 1996, when I was committing the story to paper, that hazmat stuff was very much a part of my life.  As I was reading through the vernacular and the images, I realized that there's a verisimilitude there that I don't think I could have created from my now-stale memories of my moon-suit days.  Forgive the immodesty, but there are passages in the book that cause me to pause and think, "Wow, that's really good."

Then there was the emotion of revisiting that creative space in my mind.  My son--now 25--was ten years old when I wrote At All Costs, and it's impossible to read some passages without being taken back to where I was in my life when I penned them.  Those were heady days, when the publishing industry was all hope an opportunity and unbridled success for me--the days when I was first meeting so many of the then-up-and-coming writers who would soon become fast friends, and staples of your local bookstore.  I'm not one to long for turning the clock back, but I'm not above bouts of nostalgia.  The act of revisiting At All Costs felt like a bit like piloting a time machine on occasion. 

As I write this, I fear that I'm not explaining it well, but it's the best I can do.

I hope you have a chance to read the book.  More than that, I hope you enjoy it if you do.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Daniel Hadley is Down in Somerville

This submission for critique has no title, but I think it shows promise. The central character has appeal. Catch my comments on the flip side.

Excerpt
"Daniel's in stable condition, but he's been shot."

I lay in bed, propped up on one elbow, the cell phone digging into my ear. I didn't even remember it ringing. Had I passed out drunk while talking to someone? But every light in my bedroom was off, save for the pale green LCD of the alarm clock: 1:45 AM. Then the part of my brain that makes sense of words - the part that I normally can't shut up when I'm trying to go to sleep - kicked in. "Shit," I said, sitting upright.

"He's stable, like I said. They're monitoring him at Mass General."

"Right," I answered. "How long?" But the phone went dead.

"Fuck," I repeated. Then I hung up and got out of bed. I padded across to the closet to pull some jeans off a hanger and yesterday's bra out of the hamper. A tanktop and a ratty Redskins sweatshirt completed the ensemble. Ninety seconds after getting off the phone I was out the door.

Somerville's a dense town, so I had to walk a block to where I'd parked my car. The autumn air sobered me up enough to realize I didn't have a plan just yet. There was one detail I could check, of course. Fishing my phone back out of my pocket, I called Daniel. "Hey, this is Daniel Hadley. I'm either on the phone or -" Damn it. Is there anything longer than a voice mail greeting when you're trying to reach someone live?

"Daniel, hey, it's Mara," I began. "It's 1:50 A.M. on, uh, Tuesday. Listen, I just got this really strange call that said you were ... um. Please call me as soon as you get this, if you're okay. If you're not, well ..."

I cut myself off there, shutting the phone and fumbling for my keys. I hadn't fully processed the news yet (Daniel had been shot; holy hell; fatigue and shock kept shoving that detail to the back of my mind, like a rookie hockey player hitting the boards).

Comment Summary on “No-title” Story:

Generally I like the voice of this woman character. She comes across as a no nonsense person who could sustain a reader’s interest with the uniqueness of her character’s attitude and her low key fashion sense. And her attachment to alcohol could prove to be interesting as baggage. But rather than starting out with the dialogue line (as I explain my objection below), I might start out with how this woman feels getting the shock of the cell phone ringing her out of her drunken stupor. No one likes getting calls in the middle of the night. It’s a relatable moment most readers will understand. These calls are NEVER good news. And establishing this character from that moment might also help in creating her “voice” and her attitude more fully from the get go.

This is a personal preference, but I wouldn’t begin a novel with a dialogue line because it feels too much like the start of any other scene. An intro dialogue line into a scene can be effective and I’ve done it, just not for the start of a book. And whoever is speaking needs to be identified in some fashion, even if it’s just someone generic, like “dispatch.” Try to ID the person as soon as you can after the dialogue.

And speaking of identification, when you write in first person, you need to ID the speaker’s gender in some way as soon as you can. The reader will get an idea in their head—like I did that the narrator is a man—who is a cross dresser, when he reaches for yesterday’s bra from the hamper. I’ve done this before too. (The name of my character was a gender neutral name and was supposed to be a teen girl. But when my beta reader read the passage, she thought it was a teen boy who was checking out another guy’s wranglers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it wasn’t my intention.) Once you write a first person POV story, you notice things to watch for. And gender at the start of a book is one of them.

I’m writing a YA book now where I have two teens speaking in first person. I identify them by using their names at the top of each scene and try to have one character per chapter where possible. It makes sense for this book and I like writing challenges.

I also wasn’t sure I understood Mara's question – “How long?” Is this her entire question? If this was intended to be a question cut short, then add punctuation like a dash to indicate this. “How long—?” or “How long…?”

And if the line goes dead, it takes a while before anyone to notice, but in this scene, the character knows immediately. If the line goes dead, make it more realistic by her rambling until she hears dial tone and gets frustrated.

Also, if you have only one character in the scene, I would try to minimize the use of tag lines identifying her. You should ID the person on the phone, but after that, there isn’t a need to clutter the scene with unnecessary tag lines like ‘I answered, I repeated, I began.’ There are four tag lines in a short segment of a scene with only one character in it after the phone goes dead.

And finally the last paragraph. The punctuation seemed odd to me and pulled me from the story. I’ve never liked the use of semi-colons. Break apart the sentence into fragments if you have to, but resist the semi-colon, especially when the character has the informal attitude this one has. (What do the rest of you think about semi-colons—readers and authors? Copy editors try to put them in and I take them out, making other changes that are more my preference.) See James Scott Bell’s post on semi-colons HERE.

I also rarely use parenthesis, except in my YA books where it can be fun to use sparingly. I prefer em-dashes for emphasis, as shown below.

And the use of the metaphor on hockey—“…fatigue and shock kept shoving that detail to the back of my mind, like a rookie hockey player hitting the boards”—didn’t seem to fit when she was referring to such a serious event as someone getting shot. It makes her sound flip about something that should be more important to her. Also, she’s a Redskins fan AND a hockey fan? I’m sure this is possible, but in one short scene, it seems excessive. You may get more mileage if you made her a super fan of one sport when it comes to her metaphors, rather than spreading her enthusiasm over many.

Even though this scene could be written better, it shows promise with a compelling character voice. I would also consider starting the novel with something else that happens prior to this scene—like maybe Daniel’s shooting. If this is crime fiction, I like to start with a crime. And I’ve also found that you can always go back to write that action scene after you’ve started the book to get a feel for the story and its characters. It might help to know Daniel before you shoot him, for example. (Wow, that sounded awful.)

Any other helpful comments for this author?

First-page critique: THE MARONITE

By Joe Moore

We’re getting down to the end of critiquing our anonymous first-page submissions. This one is called THE MARONITE. Enjoy the sample. My comments follow.

A bullet whizzed past his head as he ran down the alley. Somewhere else in the city, the sound of a gunshot would have prompted someone to call to the police. Not here, and definitely not at this hour. The man looked back, his three-piece suit sprinkled with blood. They weren’t far behind.

Fuck! They’re trying to make it look like a mugging.

The thirty-something got to the street, finally reaching his car. He shoved his right hand into his trouser pocket, frantic, his usually carefully coifed hair falling into his eyes. He wiped at the blood and sweat on his forehead. Earlier, the two men had tried to knock him out and failed. Those Krav Maga classes at Chelsea Piers had saved his life, for now. Desperate, he unlocked his car, and then, as his attackers emerged from the alley at a full sprint, dove into the driver’s seat.

Anyone could have easily mistaken the would-be killers for professional football players or ex-military, trained to kill. Both had hefty athletic builds and were over six feet tall. They’d been caught off-guard by their prey’s martial abilities when they had tried to pistol whip him near the front of his building. They wouldn’t make the same mistake twice, though. Those bonuses were too big, and they wanted them too badly. The assailant on the left broke off and situated himself in the street, diagonally from the car. He trained his pistol on the driver while his partner tried to keep their victim from closing his door. But it slammed shut and locked.

They’d failed again.

The driver turned the ignition.

The car revved.

His hand tingled as he pushed the gear shift into first. He watched the tachometer flicker then looked up. It seemed like only a few milliseconds between the explosion from the pistol’s barrel and the sound of windshield glass popping. The bullet hit him in the chest. He could feel the heat as the metal sank into a lung. Blood started rushing out onto his shirt and tie. He let go of the parking brake, disengaging it.

First, the good news. This is a heck of an opening scene. It has strong visuals, a solid sense of place, and enough tension to fill any reader’s plate. The situation is dire. We don’t know who “thirty-something” is—that’s a cliché, by the way—but by the end of the page, we’re all holding our collective breath. It would be hard to imagine someone putting this one down without turning the page. I know I would keep reading to find out if he makes it or not. So overall, I consider this an excellent, attention-grabbing start to an action-packed thriller (or mystery).

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a couple of things that bugged me about this example. It’s something we’ve discussed before, but I would refrain from dropping the F-bomb on the first page. Now, granted, if this gets published, anyone that picks up the book has already seen the cover and read the back blurb. So if the marketing department did their job well, the language might not be an issue to the potential customer. But there are a whole lot of folks out there who would see that and put the book back down. If the F-bomb was removed, would it change the story? Would it change the character?

Another thing is that there’s a good bit of telling here, and I don’t think it’s needed. Telling us that the guy is frantic and desperate is redundant to the man’s actions. This scene is so frantic and desperate, we don’t need the writer to say, “Hey, just in case you didn’t get it, let me remind you that my guy is frantic and desperate.” We get it.

Finally, I would shift the last few sentences into a more active voice and eliminate the last few words. Here’s my suggested rewrite:

He felt the hot metal sink into a lung. Blood rushed onto his shirt and tie as he released the parking brake.

Overall, I think this is a promising beginning that just needs a little editing and clean-up. Good job.

So what do you guys think? Would you keep reading?

**********

THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8. Preorder now at Amazon or B&N.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Dreams and writing

I recently began dreaming again. For a while I was taking some medication that prevented me from dreaming at night. It wasn't until the dreams came back that I realized how much I'd missed them. Not that any of my nocturnal conjurings are particularly noteworthy (especially not the one where I'm wandering the halls of Wellesley College on my way to a final exam, having missed the entire semester of class. I hate that one.)


No matter how stressful or mundane, dreams are important to the creative process. They may even be essential. In a 2003 study, a researcher found that people who are imaginative and prone to fantasizing are more likely to remember their dreams than non-creative people. Reportedly, Paul McCartney has said that the melody of "Yesterday" came to him during a dream. 


According to another study, the REM stage of sleep (rapid eye movement) is the most conducive to making creative connections. It's also during REM stage that we dream the most, so perhaps I was right to worry that my medication-induced dream void was also suppressing my writing creativity. Normally when I wake up I do a flash review, trying to recall any fragments of dreams before they fade away. Without my dreams, I felt "flat" upon awakening. 


But now they're back. Last night's dream was nothing spectacular--I was forced to confess to an old boss that I'd lost track of an important project. Then I had to put it back together in time for a "mission critical" meeting. Ugh. I think it's the workplace version of my Wellesley-exam nightmare. But no matter: Welcome back, dreams!


Do you find that dreaming is important to your creative process? Have you ever generated a writing idea from a dream?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Developing a Character Questionnaire

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

With our recent first page critiques we've spoken a lot about the importance of a compelling main character - one that draws readers in from the very first page and which transcends (as best you can) the stereotypes common in our genre.

One tool in developing a fully-realized character is to create a questionnaire in which your character gets to answer some key questions about their background, belief and aspirations. An example of such a questionnaire can be found at The Script Lab website, but I thought it may be fun to outline some of the key questions we at TKZ believe are important to know about your character. After all, how can your readers possibly believe in a character that you, as its creator, hardly know yourself.

So here, in no particular order, are some of the key questions I think need to be included in a character questionnaire.

What is it you fear most?

What is it you want the most?

Who are the most influential people in your life, and why?

How do you feel about your mother? Your father? Other members of your family?

What were some of the defining moments in your life?

What tragedies or disappointments have you endured thus far?

What could you not live without? What is your greatest weakness?

What are your strengths?

What do you like the most/least about your appearance?

What is your home like?

How would you describe your appearance?

Do you care about what other people think about you?

Whose opinion do you value?

How do you view authority? Religion? Politics?

Describe your ideal 'mate'

How have your relationships progressed in the past?

What was your biggest heartbreak?

What gestures do you use?

What speech patterns do you use? Do you swear? Are you self conscious about how you speak?

What is the biggest chip on your shoulder?

So fellow TKZers, do you have any other questions to add to the list? (I'm sure I've forgotten something!) Do you use any software to help develop character dossiers or backgrounders? What other techniques do you use to get beneath a character's skin?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Overstuffed Dialogue

James Scott Bell


A short lesson today in the art of dialogue.

Here are the opening lines from an  old Perry Mason show, circa 1958. A couple is in their compartment on a train:

HARRIET
I still wish I were going to Mexico with you instead of staying here in Los Angeles.

LAWRENCE
This trip's going to be too dangerous, Harriet. It's some of the most rugged terrain in the Sierra Madre mountains. It's no place for a woman, especially my wife. It's almost no place for an amateur archaeologist, either. Thanks for coming with me as far as Cole Grove station.

You see what's happening? It's an example of the writers shooting information to the viewers through expository dialogue. In fairness to the writers, that was done all the time in those old days of television.

But it's death to dialogue if you do it in your fiction.

Dialogue has to sound like it's coming from one character to another, in a way that both fits the character and the moment.

The first thing to look out for is a character saying anything that both the characters already know.

In the above example, they both know they live in Los Angeles. They both know she's his wife. They both know he's an amateur archaeologist. They both know he's going into the Sierra Madre mountains. And they both know they're going as far as Cole Grove station.

Again, we understand why it was done within the confines of a one hour TV drama from the 50s. But you're writing a book, so don't you do it.

I'm at a conference this weekend, mentoring some students. One of them turned in a manuscript with the following (used by permission). A woman (Betty) has been planting bombs to avenge the death of her son.  She now has a forensic investigator (Kate, who has been closing in on her) tied up, and is threatening to kill her:

Betty looked down at Kate. The triumphant smile on her face faded into a snarl at the mention of her son’s death. “Why do you care?”

“Because if my son had died as a result of finding out about something terrible that had happened to him that I had kept hidden to protect him, I would want to blame the person responsible.” Kate thought she would try the empathy tactic. She did feel a great sorrow for Betty and her tragic story. She watched as Betty returned her statement with a hard stare. 

Here in this tense moment, Kate has revealed to Betty facts about the case, but dialogue sounds unnatural. The long line has information stuffed into it, but it feels more like it's for the reader's benefit rather than the character's.

I told the student to go back and cut all dialogue that is not absolutely true to the character and the emotional beats. What would either of them really say?

Dialogue is a tool like any other in the craft. Also, dialogue is the fastest way to improve your manuscript––or sink it. If you do it well, it creates in the reader a subliminal confidence in you. They trust you as a storyteller.

If you don't do it well, confidence flies out the window.

Great dialogue keeps readers in the fictive dream. So never have a woman answer the door and say, "Oh, hello Arthur, my family doctor from Baltimore. Come in."

You know great dialogue when you read it. Who are some of your favorite masters of this aspect of the craft? 

*The above photo, BTW, is from the classic screwball comedy His Girl Friday, which has some of the best dialogue ever recorded on film. Check it out.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

First Page Critique: Untitled aka "The Watcher"

This came with no title, so for convenience’s sake (and for reasons which will become self-evident) we will call it “The Watcher”:

The Watcher was patient, exceedingly patient. He was on the hunt. He had his prey in sight and alone walking through the Caesars Palace parking garage that was as hot as a preheated oven. The air was stale with a simmering heat that would dissipate in the winter months and then come roaring back like a lion in the spring, teeth bared and hungry. He paced his prey, following behind in his rented red Ford Mustang convertible one lane over. His disguise was in place. He wanted to be recognized and remembered for the man that he was impersonating.

It was all part of a long term plan. There she is another hapless girl who escaped from the farm. A sheep who’s lost her way, thought she could make it big in Las Vegas, get discovered and become a star. She wobbled on six inch high heels toward her car. She was quite attractive as they all had to be in Vegas. However, it was her petite frame and long red tendrils of hair that set her apart from the herd.

Thwack, thwack, thwack. The Watcher flinched as he stopped the car and looked around for the source of this noise. He had heard this noise before; it was etched in his brain. Many years earlier a ruler had been slapped across his bare knuckles, thwack, thwack, thwack, always in sets of threes. Shuddering, he looked at his hands. Those damn nuns. They used to ties his hands to his chair before they whacked his tiny four year old fingers. They always told him he was a bad boy. Told him he was a bad seed before the wood smacked the nape of his neck. You want to see bad behavior, you should see me now. They had tied his hands to his small wooden chair because if they didn’t he would scratch them; scratch their eyes out if he could reach them. No one loved him, so now he loved no one. Shaking his head the noise dissipated, for it bled only through his ears as a stinging memory of disgrace.

There are some things to love, here, others…not so much. Let’s try itemizing them:

1) The author sets the mood beautifully in this hot, steamy parking garage. I can practically feel the humidity. Defeat is then snatched from the jaws of victory with the talk about the heat going and coming over the next couple of seasons. Nobody cares what it’s going to be like in three or four months or even three or four days. The initial description --- the preheated oven simile --- was fine. The bit about the lion is overkill, for so man. There are a couple of grammatical errors here --- “man that” should be “man who,” and I would have put a common between “alone” and “walking” --- but otherwise it’s okay.

2) The author in the second paragraph changes tense in mid-stream, back and forth. Actually, there’s a bunch of things wrong with this paragraph which can easily be fixed. It’s easier to show than tell:

The original:

“It was all part of a long term plan. There she is another hapless girl who escaped from the farm. A sheep who’s lost her way, thought she could make it big in Las Vegas, get discovered and become a star. She wobbled on six inch high heels toward her car. She was quite attractive as they all had to be in Vegas.”

My suggestion:

“It was all part of a long term plan: there she was, another helpless girl who had escaped from the farm, a sheep who’d lost her way, who thought she could make it big in Las Vegas by getting discovered and becoming a star. She wobbled…”

In my suggested re-write, the tense is consistent, and there is some consistency to the order of how these things usually happen: one gets discovered, becomes a star, and thus becomes big in Vegas, as opposed to getting big in Vegas and then getting discovered and ultimately becoming as star, as the original submission would have us believe.

3) Thwack, thwack, thwack. If the woman is actually that attractive, I can pretty much guess the origin of the “thwack, thwack, thwack” and it has nothing to do with the Watcher’s past. Actually, I like the explanation; it just a)comes way too early in the story, b) goes on for a bit too long, and 3) is plagued with grammatical problems. We’re only going to deal with a) right now. To whit: The Watcher has the girl in sight and then he’s distracted by the “thwack.” Let it bother him now, and explain why later. It will give the readers a reason to keep going reading through the book. As it stands now, by the time we get done with the explanation, we’ll have a “now, where was I?” moment. Let the Watcher attack the woman or let her slip away while he is having the convulsion, or whatever, but finish the scene. There are other ways to build suspense that one can do right in the garage --- someone else comes along so the Watcher has to wait, the woman gets a phone call, etc. --- that are better than discussing the attacker’s distraction issues on the first page. I would keep the first three sentences and cut everything else out but the last sentence. Since I’m cutting everything else out I won’t even go into the problems with some of the sentence structure in that (hopefully) deleted section.

Despite having chewed all of this up (teeth bared and hungry), I would love to see what happens next, and happens later. Maybe some day I will, with a lot of work on the part of the author.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Mentor-Mentee Compact

By John Gilstrap
Twenty years ago, when I taught rookie firefighters the basics of their craft, we all understood the vast chasm that separated the sterile learning environment of the classroom from the training crucible of a real fire. On paper and in books and in training videos, even the complicated stuff looks easy—or if not easy, then at least predictable. When we took new guys into their first Rookie Roast, we knew that panic was the greatest hazard our students faced. By extension, it was my greatest hazard as an instructor, as well. (You get in trouble if you actually roast rookies in a Rookie Roast.)

Before you could emerge from the far side of rookie school, you had to prove certain proficiencies. You had to carry a really heavy load from here to there, and you had to navigate a very stressful and confining maze without showing signs of panic, all within a prescribed amount of time. And you had to, you know, raise ladders and put out fires and stuff. There was no faking the practical tests. (One day over a martini, ask me about the time when we had to test all of the battalion chiefs to the rookie standards. That was a hoot!)

I miss the simplicity of those days, when stupid was stupid, ugly was ugly, and if you screwed up, the screw-up was a source of ridicule. I have often said that if you’ve never been chewed out by a fire captain, you’ve only been mollycoddled. The sensibility at the time was that a little embarrassment ensured that mistakes were never repeated, and that as a result, the entire crew had that much better a chance of returning home whole and healthy.

For all the harshness and grab-ass, though, it was a wholesome and nurturing environment. You had to respect people to ride them hard; otherwise, you just ignored them. Mentors were everywhere, just waiting to be asked. There was a tacit, reasonable understanding that experienced firefighters knew more about firefighting than inexperienced ones, and the longer I stayed in, the more I realized how little I understood that when I was a know-it-all rookie. Come to think of it, most rookies are know-it-alls when they are fresh from the exhilaration of rookie school. It was the mentors’ job to help the new guy massage his knowledge into experience.
 I was reminded of these good old days during last week’s dust-up over allegedly mean-spirited critiques. I don’t want to reopen the wound, or even examine the specifics of that particular case, but I was stunned by the vitriol.
 I am the first to admit that I am fully self-taught in this writing gig. I know nouns and verbs and adjectives, but once you get into participles—dangling or otherwise—and pluperfect anything, it’s time for me to leave the table. I don’t know that stuff. I’ve never taken a writing class. I don’t say this with particular pride, but I say it without shame.
 My writing career, then, was built on the principle of rejecting rejection. No one ever told me what I was doing well—truth be told, I already had a good sense for that. Instead, I got rejections, the mere existence of which told me that the aggregate of what I was doing was wrong. The specifics were left to me to figure out.  I sought trusted opinions to help me ferret out the bad stuff. What wasn’t identified as bad was presumed to be good. It worked for me. It continues to work for me.

What I would have given for the kind of critiques that are offered here!  Sure, not all critiques are as helpful as others, but in all fairness, not all submissions give you a lot to work with.

When fellow authors give me a manuscript to beta-read, it never occurs to me to soft-pedal my opinion or to blow even a single ray of sunshine. They give it to me to help them find and disarm the landmines, and by agreeing to do so, I owe them the respect to be brutal. I don’t worry about bruising their fragile egos because professional writers’ egos have turned to stone by the time they’ve got three or four books under their belts.
 I believe that far too many people are lied to by their friends and their families and their teachers. Alternatively, the average friend, family member or teacher wouldn’t know commercial-quality fiction if it bit them on the nose. Either way, there are a lot of marginally talented (or talentless) people out there who are angered and embittered by their first brush with honest critique. I don’t get it. Why ask if you don’t want to hear the answer?
 Better still, why listen to an answer if you think it’s wrong? In a business where there are no rules, all that’s left is opinions. I’ve got mine. Miller’s got ’em too. Jim Bell, Joe Moore and Michelle Gagnon, and all the rest of us denizens of The Killzone have opinions, and look how often we disagree with each other. That’s all a critique is: an opinion.
 If the deliverer of an opinion has a little fun in the process—even if it makes some people squirm—so what?
 The job of a mentor is not to make someone feel good about oneself. The job is help the student master the skills that will lead to him feeling good about himself on his own.


Sometimes—let’s be honest here—that means choosing a different career. As the saying goes, if you can’t stand the heat, flee the burning building.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

First Page Critique: Untitled

by Michelle Gagnon

So we're wrapping up our semi-annual series of first page critiques. I hope that by and large they've proven helpful. As someone who's currently chewing her nails to the nub while waiting for an editor to weigh in on chapters, I can empathize with the stress of opening your work up to criticism. Even submitting anonymously can be a terrifying experience. So kudos to all those brave souls who shared their work.
Without further ado...

Untitled

Sometimes the dead will not stay in their graves but instead arise out of the ashes with the wings of a phoenix, born anew. Upon lying comatose for many years, suddenly and inexplicably, they find life, beat their way out of their casket and crawl out of the dirt until they breathe again. It had been twenty five years since the devil in Todd Meyer’s life had been buried. Now, with one burst his demon had returned to terrorize him.

The sun broke through a low floating cloud sending a wave of warmth and brightness through the people on the pier. It was an aberration, a freakishly warm sunny evening in late May on Lake Michigan where Todd and Zelda Meyer were enjoying a lazy walk on the Saint Joseph Pier.

Todd often wondered what holds two people together through all of the rough and rocky times of their life. What comes to pass when the flames of hell begin to nip at their heels as fire and brimstone fall from the heavens? Does a couple cling together more fiercely to fight off the approach of the wolves? Or does their relationship fall by the wayside like a discarded toy never to be played with again. In Todd’s existence, change had been the only constant, a life filled with despair and littered with sorrow.

A sharp wind off the lake jolted Todd. “Do you feel like walking a bit farther down to the lighthouse,” asked Zelda, his wife of three years, “to watch the sunset?”

He paused for a moment, squeezed her hand and said, “With you on my arm, I’ll go anywhere.” She gave a quick smile, leaned into him and kissed him full on the lips. Letting go of his hand for a moment, she reached around his back and smacked him on the butt, “Alright, babe, let’s get going.”

Ten feet behind them, alone, a short blond Mexican followed, his gun hidden by a bright yellow and white Hawaiian shirt.

Critique:
I'm all about immediacy. I recently finished reading Daniel Woodrell's book WINTER'S BONE. An amazing novella that was extremely well written. But there were times when frankly I could have used a machete to hack my way through his metaphors. There is absolutely a place for that kind of writing. But for me as a reader, the critical thing is to strike a balance. Yes, I want to hear, see, taste, and smell what the characters are experiencing. But I also want to do that without having to re-read each sentence three times.

I found myself doing that here. This is an extraordinarily dense page, that for me only really started to pick up when we hit the short blond Mexican at the conclusion. (Side note: if you're going to make a Mexican blond, probably a bad idea to also dress him in a yellow shirt. Especially if he's trying to fly under the radar, which I gather is the case here).

I know we've been hammering away at this, but the truth is that those first few sentences are absolutely critical. They simply must be perfect for an agent (or, more likely, agent's assistant), to keep reading. We start with, "Sometimes the dead will not stay in their graves but instead arise out of the ashes with the wings of a phoenix, born anew."
Not bad. But it's followed by, "Upon lying comatose for many years, suddenly and inexplicably, they find life, beat their way out of their casket and crawl out of the dirt until they breathe again."
I'd argue that this is repetitive. There's not enough new information in that second sentence to justify its existence. Come up with a way to combine the two into something stronger.

Along those lines: be very, very wary of mixing metaphors. In the opening paragraph I'm given both a phoenix and a demon as representations of the dead. In a single page we also have discarded toys and wolves. All great images, but I would recommend parsing them out a bit.

Also: know when to hold back. I was intrigued by the sentence, "Todd often wondered what holds two people together through all of the rough and rocky times of their life." I'm intrigued by this concept too. Entire books can (and have) been devoted to precisely this question. And as I watch this couple walk along, heedless of the danger trailing at their heels, I'd love a hint of what is binding them together.

But that was followed by, "What comes to pass when the flames of hell begin to nip at their heels as fire and brimstone fall from the heavens?" The writer lost me on the second part. The scenery description is already heavy on moodiness and melodrama, setting the tone. But those types of statements push it too far. Less is more in this case, I'd say.

"Letting go of his hand for a moment, she reached around his back and smacked him on the butt, “Alright, babe, let’s get going.” This part was particularly jolting for me- the butt smack changes the entire tone that the author has been creating. Not that I'm opposed to butt smacks per se, but it felt like something that belonged on the first page of a very different novel. I surmise that this is an attempt to gain a moment of levity immediately prior to a truly terrible incident (as a thriller writer, I've already assumed that becoming attached to Zelda would probably be a mistake). But I think that what I'd prefer to experience as a reader, especially given the gravity of Todd's train of thought, is a sweet moment between the two of them. Something that illustrates that bond he's so concerned about losing. Something that makes me invest in them as people, since apparently something very, very bad lies just past the horizon.

With careful editing, I see some definite potential here. What other recommendations do people have for our intrepid author?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cassandra's Curse Critique

CASSANDRA'S CURSE: First Page Critique

Cassandra picked her way across the roof and crouched beside the knee wall. She'd already mapped her escape route. The nylon bag slid off her shoulder and kissed the concrete with only a whisper. Salt water and car exhaust permeated the cool autumn air around her.
            Two blocks north, the KNWF news van pulled up to the curb beside the decrepit church. As the reporter climbed from the passenger seat, Cassie unzipped her bag and extracted the Henry rifle. Assembly took seconds.
            Her watch said 5:11 a.m. Perfect timing.
            Saint Beatrice's Catholic Monstrosity cast a shadow over half the neighborhood, but the cameraman set up to the southeast, taking advantage of the sunbeams just now clearing the mountains. Meredith Leighton, the blonde newswoman everyone trusted, patted her hair, smoothed her red dress, and glanced up at the building behind her.
            Stained-glass windows pocked with holes gave the building a toothless look. Sloughed paint and misspelled obscenities decorated the entire facade.
            And Meredith Leighton positioned herself so that all her faithful viewers would see the horrific site and jump on her “save this building” bandwagon.
            Cassie wanted to puke. She planted her elbow on the knee wall, slid her finger off the trigger guard, and peered through the scope. The crosshairs settled between Meredith's brilliant green eyes.

*****
Now for my comments. This excerpt has some unique images and great sensory details.  I like how the nylon bag “kisses” the pavement in the first paragraph. The “windows pocked with holes gave the building a toothless look.” Nice! And the use of five senses is done well: “salt water and car exhaust permeated the air”; “sloughed paint and misspelled obscenities decorated the entire façade”. Nice imagery.

However… The first paragraph, while interesting, leaves me wondering who Cassandra is, what she’s doing there, and where “here” is. I have no idea what city we’re in. So I need a sense of place.

It’s autumn and 5:11 am. Does that mean it’s light out? How else can she see her target?

How does she feel about the impending assassination, if that’s what this is? I get no vibes about Cassie’s emotions whatsoever, except that Meredith’s pet cause disgusts her (i.e. “Cassie wanted to puke). Why does she feel this way? Does she have a  personal vendetta against the victim? Or is she a professional on assignment for someone else?

You could show her emotions when she’s assembling her weapon. Does she slide the parts together with a snap that shows her fury? Or do her hands tremble? Has she done this before? In other words, I can SEE this scene, but I can’t FEEL it.

It just so happens that my latest sci fi romance, Silver Serenade, starts with an assassination attempt, too.  Here it is, and while it may not be perfect, this excerpt does answer the five basic questions. We know Who (Silver Malloy), What (her first kill), Why (revenge), Where (on Al’ron), and How (rifle). We also know how she got there (a lucky tip). More importantly, we see how much this kill matters to Silver and that revenge is her motive. She’s also inexperienced, this being her first kill. She’s afraid she’ll lose her chance to get Bluth if she relaxes even for a second.

Despite the coolness of the woods, sweat dribbled down the back of Silver Malloy’s neck. Her muscles ached from hours spent in a crouched position, but stealth mattered more than comfort.  She’d waited for this opportunity for months--no, make that years--and wasn’t about to lose it due to a lapse in technique.  This first kill might be her last, but at least she’d complete her revenge.
Using her rifle scope, she scanned the dusty street that stretched below her hillside vantage point. The few scruffy inhabitants who trudged between the ramshackle buildings didn’t interest her. A lucky tip had brought her to Al’ron, a watering hole for space travelers. Those who visited here were not often welcome elsewhere. They came to buy arms, men, and equipment to carry out lawless raids against innocent victims, and Tyrone Bluth had earned the reputation as the cruelest bandit of all. 
Silver couldn’t wait to end his reign of terror.

Regarding your piece, I like your descriptions; they set the scene well. But I want to know why Cassie is aiming to kill this woman. I want to get inside her head and feel her pain.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

HOW DOES YOUR SUCCESS LOOK?

By: Kathleen Pickering

success3As authors, most of us understand the on-going process behind the craft of writing. Getting the book written is no longer our challenge. Getting the book into the hands of the world is.

One of the biggest hurdles we all face is the marketing of our precious cargo—unless, of course you are of the J.K. Rowling or James Patterson ilk. Since I am newly breaking into the publishing world, I have dedicated myself to mastering Internet/Media marketing along with hand-selling because marketing will ultimately measure my books’ success. Besides, I think my stories rock and I want everyone to read them!!!

steve2[1]One champion of media marketing I’ve encountered is Steve Harrison (http://www.reporterconnection.com/). Steve and his brother, Bill, offer a treasure-trove of free information. As expected, much of this info leads to the hook where he gets you to pay big bucks for specialty services, but I say, all the power to him. When I can afford one of his five thousand dollar seminars, I will certainly attend.

What I would like to share with you today are three questions and five fast-track strategies Steve Harrison offers to help visualize and create your career goals. If you find yourself signing up at Steve’s site, please tell him I sent you. (Even though he has no earthly idea who I am, I’d like him to know I’m pitching for him.) So, if you are about to leap into your new career, or are re-vamping your present one, I encourage you to grab a pen and paper and take the time to answer these questions. Here goes:

Career Visualizing Questions:

1. What do you want from you career? Think big! How much do you want to make? What will you be doing in one year? Five? Ten? (Okay, now. You can laugh, but when I hear think big, I say, $10 million/year, movie contracts, book signings and speaking engagements on site, on radio, on TV all the while knowing I can retire, should I want to, but love my life too much to stop . . . oh, yeah!!!)

2. How many books do you want to sell? (I said, 100,000 copies per month. Hey, the man said, think big!)

3. How does your success look? Where are you? Who’s with you? What have you done? How have you been acknowledged? (I’ll let you answer. No need for me to color your opinion any further!)

Fast Track MEDIA Publicity Strategies - When you have a book/movie/event to share with the news, take action. Never underestimate the fact that interest exists for exactly what you have to offer! Here are the basic steps:

1. Contact media by email – Email is the fastest way to get responses over phones (unless you already know the person) or snail mail when contacting newspapers, TV or radio stations.

2. Offer a “timely tie-in” to a current event/holiday – Something happening “now” in the world or your community that relates to your offering/specialty creates an excellent hook to grab a radio or television station’s attention.

3. Use the “magic phrase” – When contacting radio, TV or businesses, your subject line in the email should contain the media person’s first name and use of the word ‘timely’ w/(story) for the event/date. i.e., Andrea, timely guest for Friday before Super Bowl. (The author had a “how to” piece for understanding football.)

4. Keep email short: 3-4 paragraphs describing pitch and qualifications behind it.

5. Send a hand written thank you note after interview. It’s good business!!!

Great stuff, yes? It sure helps me to focus on the business of writing. I just began this process in January to complement my website. Through Steve's free "Reporter Connection" service, I have already been featured in one e-zine article and will be interviewed on a reviewer's blog site on April 20th. (I'll be sure to post it on my Facebook page!) This morning, I sent a query for a morning radio show looking for authors to interview.

I also invested in a video camera (I love my Kodak Zi8!) to record short videos from conferences/workshops as well as interviews with authors. I post these video clips on my YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/katpickering. Reaching out to readers through the Internet or Media is not only great fun, it is one of the fastest way to earn name recognition, and hence, book sales.

I look forward to mastering this challenge of getting my books into the hands of readers. I'll update you on how these strategies work as the year unfolds. Feel free to post your answers to the questions listed above, or any media tips you would like to share.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hooking a reader

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Another first page critique and time to emphasize the importance of grabbing a reader from the very first sentence. Today's first page illustrates this point nicely - for while the page is well-written, there isn't enough of a hook to reel in this reader yet. The good news is that I can definitely hear a distinctive voice emerging, which is also critical. However, we need more action and suspense to capture our interest, and much of the information in this first page submission could wait for later and/or be introduced in a more dramatic fashion. Here is the submission - see if you agree...my more detailed critique follows:

SHADOWED

It seemed like an average Thirsty Thursday at the Ohio State University. It was about ten o’clock, and I was finishing up enough homework to call it a night. My roommate had left already to spend the weekend at her boyfriend’s, so I sat alone in the main room of our dorm. My back was facing one of the two walls of cream-colored cinderblocks; the other two were made of burry plaster. The bedroom – a shoulder-width gap between a set of bunk beds and built-in shelving – was off to the left. At least we had our own bathroom.

I had left the door open, in case someone happened to notice the euchre tournament flyer I’d put up outside my room. I’m strong enough to admit that I was having a hard time fitting in with the alcoholic inhabitants of my building. Some people call those hang-ups; I blame and thank my detective father for having raised me to know that wasn’t the life I wanted.

I heard the guys from two doors down in the hallway on their way out to a party. I sat on my futon, waiting. I grabbed a mini-football and drew my hand back to my ear, watching for shadows as they approached. Patience, I told myself. Hairy knuckles swung in front of the doorway, and I was ready. Direct hit! I let out a chuckle at my newest manner of self-entertainment.

Burnt out on homework, I decided to switch to some paying work. I had a pretty good proofreading business going, and recently I had added Jordan Bale, Private Eye to my card. I say that I was a private investigator, but basically I took calls from worried parents and jealous girlfriends. Surprisingly, the latter was the more lucrative of my ventures, but I genuinely enjoyed mulling over grammar. Most mistakes were simple, the kind that simply required a fresh pair of eyes to notice, but there were some that made me question the education system.

I was proofing one of the latter when I heard someone timidly clear her throat behind me.

My critique:

First off, there simply isn't enough suspense in this first page. All we learn is that this college girl (I am assuming this since she has a female roommate - but interestingly, the voice, didn't necessarily ring female to me), is anti-alcohol, has a detective father, and who earns extra money by proof reading and working as a PI - oh, and throwing a mini-football at her neanderthal classmates is her latest evening entertainment.

Doesn't really sound like the start to a mystery or a thriller does it? Where is the suspense? A timid throat-clearing at the end doesn't really qualify...

Second, I can't say the proof reading PI is quite juicy enough to raise a huge level of interest in me. I think I would need hints of a more interesting back story to start to feel more revved up about the protagonist. Perhaps her mother died as a result of a drunk-driving accident - that would make me a little more intrigued. There just wasn't enough in terms of interesting back story that made me want to keep reading. In fact in some ways the back story sounded too familiar - daughter of a cop drawn to being a PI etc. - which leads to the third point.

Which is...there is far too much back story and exposition. In this first page we have no real dramatic tension, action or dialogue, and I think we need some of this to hook a reader. So my recommendation is to start the story at a different point - perhaps with the girl who arrives at the end of the page. What does she need? I'm assuming she is not here for proof reading so having her announce some juicy case for the protagonist to get involved in, would be a better place to start.

So what do you all think? How can we help guide the author to finding that necessary hook to reel in the reader?

PS: my apologies but I will probably not be able to comment much as I will be on a plane across the Pacific taking my boys to visit Nan and Grandpa for Easter! My next blog post will be from sunny Tucson. Posted using BlogPress from my iPad