Thursday, October 31, 2013

Key Essentials for An Authentic YA (Or Adult) Voice

Jordan Dane

Purchased from Fotolia by Jordan Dane

On Oct 17th at the KILL ZONE blog, I critiqued the first page of an anonymous author’s work –A Game of Days. Some interesting comments on the YA voice came from this post and I wanted to share more on what I’ve learned from writing for the teen market. My personal epiphanies.
Writing for the Young Adult (YA) market and capturing the voice of YA is less about word choices (and getting the teen speak down) than it is about getting the age appropriate decisions and attitude right. Urban fantasy or post apocalyptic plots can build on a world that is unique and unfamiliar. Books like the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or the Divergent series by Veronica Roth can have its own voice, so teens are familiar with reading books like this.
When I went looking for solid examples of teen dialogue or introspection to share at a workshop, I searched some top selling YA books, only to find the voice I expected wasn’t there. Sure there are YA books where authors can sound authentically teen, but to keep up the realism for a whole book can be a challenge and an overabundance of “teen speak” can date the banter or be too much for adult readers to catch. (Yes, adults are HUGE readers of YA.)

As you read through this list, think about how each of these tips might also apply to writing ANY voice, even book intended for adults. Many of these tips work for cross-genre writing.
Key Essentials for An Authentic YA Voice:
1.) Use First Person or Deep Point of View (POV)—This technique of “deep” POV, or “close third” person, is used in fiction writing as a glimpse into the head of your character. In YA, I think of deep POV or close third as conversational thoughts deep inside your teen. First person POV is like reading someone’s diary.

2.) Don’t be afraid to mix POVs—You can mix POVs (for example, first person for your storyteller and third person for other characters), but since it’s your story, only you can decide how you want it to be told. Many YA stories are in first person, but more authors are exploring a mix. By adding in the element of third person for other characters, you can let the reader in on what is happening outside your character’s head and add twists to your plot more effectively. Plus if you have secondary characters or villains who may threaten your protagonist, letting the reader in on what’s in their head can make the reader more fearful for your hero/heroine. (Most adult books are not in first POV, but first POV is very intimate and fun to write. My current adult book project has first POV for the main character, but third for everyone else. Very liberating.)

3.) Don’t worry about your vocabulary. Today’s teen reader can handle it. There’s no need to simplify your choice of words or sentence structure if the character warrants it. Just be mindful of the experience level and education of the teen in your story. A homeless kid without much education won’t have an extensive vocabulary unless there’s a good reason for it. If you’re writing a futuristic dystopian book, you’ll be world building and perhaps coming up with your own vocabulary or teen life choices or social customs that would be different from a contemporary YA.

4.) Character first or story first? In my adult fiction thrillers, characters usually come at me first, but in YA I think it’s important to conceive a plot then fit the best characters to the premise. This may help you conjure the most fitting character and voice for the story, without creating a cookie-cutter teen that follows you from book to book.

5.) Don't force it. As many kinds of teens there are, that’s how many varied “voices” you can create. As long as the story is compelling and the characters draw in the reader, the voice of YA only needs to match the tone, age, and character of that story. Don’t force voice or language that doesn’t seem real to you. Your protagonist’s voice should come naturally from the story premise and the conflict, filtered through your head as the author. If you force it, it will show.

6.) How does the story and character motivation affect your storyteller’s voice? One of the biggest mistakes writers make in YA usually has to do with the sarcastic voice. Biting sarcasm alone does not make a YA story. Without a reason for this behavior, the author runs the risk of making their character unbearable, unlikeable and a real turnoff for the reader. The manuscript must have a cohesive story with solid character motivation to go along with the attitude. Even if the voice is great, what happens? Something needs to happen. And if your character starts off with a good reason to be snarky, give them a journey that will change them by the end of the book.

7.) Know your character’s motivation. Sarcasm, voice, and maturity of your character must be driven by a reason in your story to add depth. Provide a foundation for the “attitude” your character has and don’t forget a liberal dose of poignancy. A reader can tolerate a sarcastic teen if a scene ends with brutal honesty or catches the reader off guard with something gripping to make the whole thing come to a real point.  

8.) Beware of stereotypes—Avoid the cliché character (the geeky nerd, the pretty cheerleader, the dumb jock). This doesn’t only apply to YA.

9.) Can you relate to your storyteller? Peer pressure, dating, zits, kissing, sex, being an outsider, not fitting in—these are teen concerns that, as adults, we have to remind ourselves about. With each of these words, what pops into your head? Does it trigger a memory, good or bad? Sometimes the best scenes can come from these universal concerns that haven’t changed for decades. Filtered through your own experiences, a scene can carry more weight if it’s still relevant and relatable.

10.) What is your storyteller like emotionally? What effect can raging hormones do for your character? Is everything a drama? Not all teens are like this. Some are withdrawn in front of adults or in social situations. It’s important to ask yourself: What are they like around their friends and who are their friends? I would resist the urge to create a character based on a teen you know if it’s at the expense of your plot. Certain aspects or perceptions of “your teen” can influence your character, but your book is fiction. That’s why I recommend devising your plot first before you place the right teen in it.

11.) Who or what has influenced your storyteller most? Like in the movie, JUNO, the teen girl had a dry wit that sometimes referenced an older person’s humor. Not everything was “teen speak.” She was influenced by the adults in her life, using references she heard from her dad and step-mom. Her pop culture references were peppered into the humor of another generation. She still sounded young, but her dialogue appeal was more universal. Don't be afraid to make up a word or phrase to suit your character's world.

12.) What journey will your storyteller take in your book? Getting the voice right is only half the challenge. Your YA book must be about something—a plot, believable world building, and the reaction and journey of a real teen amidst it all.

13.) Don’t forget the imagery. Teen readers have great imaginations and can picture things in their heads like a movie. Give them something that triggers and engages their imaginations. Picture your book scenes on the big screen and write them that way, but don’t go overboard and slow your pace. Teens get it. Give them a glimpse and move on. They’ll roll with the imagery.

14.) Turn off your parent switch—If you’re an adult and a parent writing YA, you may find it difficult to turn off your mother or father switch, but you should consider it. Kids can read between the lines if you’re trying too hard to send them a “universal parental” message about conduct and behavior. Simply focus on your story and tap into what your teen experiences were—without censorship—and without the undertone of sending kids a special message. Your story will read as more honest, without an ulterior motive.

HERE is a link on a video about one teenager’s story from The Onion News (DISCLAIMER: I had nothing to do with making this video):

For Discussion:
1.) Any other writing tips to make your YA voice read as authentic?

2.) What books have you read where the teen voice seemed very real and please share why you thought so?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The plane! Da plane!

Today we welcome J.H. Bogran as our guest blogger. José is a fellow ITW member and also serves as ITW’s Thriller Roundtable Coordinator and a contributing editor to The Big Thrill. Enjoy his thoughts on research.

Joe Moore


Just like Tattoo in the opening of Fantasy Island, I’m always excited about planes. I still recall the first time I boarded an airplane, how the Flight Attendant—I learned to call her “stewardess” back then—showed the 10 year old me how to buckle up the seatbelt, where to find the vest and how to inflate it. Excited as I was, I distinctly remember thinking it was a bit silly to go through all these regulations for a flight that lasted twenty minutes. Again, I was ten. But hey, back you could even light up a cigarette while in flight and the armrests had built-in ashtrays. Nowadays they have volume controls and 3.5 mm jacks for headsets.

With the years came more trips, longer ones, but the little thrill remained. I’m afraid my fascination with jets has transpired into my fiction. The opening chapter of TREASURE HUNT deals with the kidnapping of a Boeing 727 in mid-air, a demand for ransom, and a getaway that included a daring parachute jump, not unlike D.B. Cooper.

Back in 1997, while doing the bulk of the research for Treasure Hunt, I took advantage of the then-pioneering Internet mostly populated with corporate sites that listed their general information. I was lucky to find that Boeing took their site seriously and had pages and pages dedicated to their current and older models. Altitude, range, velocity, cabin configurations, even pictures of the instruments in the cockpit, all I need to know about a jetliner to write a novel was there. You can read the resulting scene here.

FIREFALL COVERAs if that was no enough, in my second novel FIREFALL, the life of my main character takes a twist for the worst when his wife and son perish aboard, you guessed it, a plane. I’d say it has a different approach from the previous work because the accident depicted this time is loosely based on one in real life that happened in 1972. I was born that year, but it has nothing to do with that decision, honestly. Suspense Magazine did me the honor of posting the aforementioned scene as an excerpt in their blog.

In fear of becoming “that author that always writes jetliner accidents,” I made the deliberate decision of not including a major scene aboard any aircraft in my current work-in-progress. Well, okay, I confess there is a very short one where the main characters arrives to New Orleans, but only because it was more convenient for him to fly there than to drive all the way from Houston!

As you can deduce, I love research. To me, that’s the fun part of beginning of a new project. Or maybe I’m just a frustrated pilot, or a pilot-wannabe as the current way speaking goes. It’s a fact that I can’t start the engine of my car without having plotted the entire route to my destination in my head. Something my wife is grateful for, especially during long trips as she hates reading maps as much as I hate a GPS device ordering me where to turn.

So, how about you? Do you have any pet-peeves you’re always finding ways to write into your stories?


About J. H. Bográn

J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish. He’s a member of the Short Fiction Writers Guild and the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator and contributor editor their official e-zine The Big Thrill.

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Twitter: @JHBogran

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

First page critique:
The Last Rose of Summer

By P.J. Parrish
Our critique today is titled "The Last Rose of Summer." My comments, in yellow, follow.
* * *

The naked trees snaked upward, black capillaries against a bleached, predawn sky. The ground beneath his feet was a mire of dead leaves and copper-colored mud. A cold December wind wafted through the trees, loosening raindrops from the needles of the tall pines.

Andrew stumbled as his boot sank into a puddle, the suede immediately blanketed by a thin membrane of algae. Cursing softly, he stepped free and trudged on, grabbing the thin arms of the small trees as he scaled the slippery slope. He could no longer see the orange vest of the hunter ahead and he called for him to slow down. Pausing at the crest of the hill, Andrew rested against a fallen tree, pulling up the fleece collar of his cocoa-brown jacket. He waited for the last man of his trio to puff his way up the muddy incline.

Despite the freezing temperature, Junior Resnick’s porkish face was flushed and beaded with sweat. His brown jacket, spotted with mud, looked like a sleeping bag tied around his thick belly. “Man,” Junior said, breathless, “I thought he said it was jus’ a ways out here.” He wiped his nose with this forearm. “This is fuckin’ crazy, Andy, plum fuckin’ crazy.”

Andrew allowed himself a small smile. He enjoyed seeing Junior suffer. Wiping the mud from his trousers with a gloved hand, he turned away and started down the hill. “We’ve come this far, we keep going,” he said.

At the bottom of the ravine, he stopped on the banks of a rippling creek. The sun chose that moment to break through the heavy gray clouds, shooting eerie streaks of light into the morning mist. Andrew heard Junior’s footsteps coming up behind him and motioned for him to stop. A mockingbird’s haunting call sent creatures scampering from the brush as the wind whistled softly through the trees. The swirling mist floated over the damp ground, creeping over Louis’s shoes. He felt a stir of excitement. It was a fitting day to find a body.

* * *
This isn't too bad. There's some nice atmosphere established and we can figure out what is going on. But I think this is a tad overwrought, what with "naked" trees and "black capillaries" and "bleached skies." We also get "a mire" of leaves and "copper colored mud." The wind isn't merely blowing, it's "wafting." Whew...lot of imagery loaded into the crucial opening graph. Here's some more comments in yellow:

* * *
Andrew stumbled as his boot sank into a puddle,  the suede immediately blanketed by a thin membrane of algae.  The SUEDE was blanketed? Do we care what the boot is made of? While we're at it, do we care about algae? Get on with it! Cursing softly, he stepped free and trudged on, grabbing the thin arms of the small trees What's wrong with "branches"? as he scaled the slippery slope. We know its slippery; it has algae on it.  He could no longer see the orange vest of the hunter ahead and he called for him to slow down. Pausing at the crest of the hill, Andrew rested against a fallen tree, pulling up the fleece collar of his cocoa-brown jacket. He waited for the last man of his trio to puff his way up the muddy we KNOW it's muddy! incline.

Despite the freezing temperature, you already said it was cold Junior Resnick’s porkish  this is a loaded word. Tone it down to chubby?face was flushed and beaded with sweat. His brown jacket, spotted with mud, more mud? looked like a sleeping bag tied around his thick belly. Again, you already told us he's fat. “Man,” Junior said, breathless, You already told us he's breathing hard. “I thought he said it was jus’ a ways out here." I get the feeling we are in the South somewhere. Dropping G's to convey geographic dialect isn't a good idea because it is hard to read over the course of  a book and it is staring to establish a stereotype of Southern cops. He wiped his nose with this forearm. “This is fuckin’ crazy, Andy, plum fuckin' crazy." I think F word should be used VERY sparingly, as an accent, not as common venacular. It loses its impact when tossed out like this.

Andrew allowed himself a small smile. He enjoyed seeing Junior suffer. If Andrew is our hero, why make him so unlikeable so early?Wiping the mud  argh...more mud from his trousers with a gloved hand, he turned away and started down the hill. “We’ve come this far, need new graph here. we keep going,” he said. New graph here too. At the bottom of the ravine, he stopped on the banks of a rippling creek. The sun chose that moment The sun is inanimate. It can't "choose" to do anything. to break through the heavy gray clouds, shooting eerie streaks of light into the morning mist. Louis heard Junior’s footsteps coming up behind him and motioned for him to stop. A mockingbird’s haunting call sent creatures scampering from the brush not sure this even makes sense...why would the birdsong make "creatures" start? as the wind whistled softly through the trees. The swirling mist floated over the damp ground, creeping over Andrew’s shoes. Enough with the shoes already. He felt a stir of excitement. You don't need is telling not showing. It was a fitting day to find a body. Nice little ending but this last graph, coming on top of all the other description, feels self-conscious and "writerly." "Rippling, haunting, shooting, eerie, creatures whistling, swirling mists...this is all TELLING NOT SHOWING.
* * *
Okay, I know. I am being a little hard on this contributor. But I have a right to be because I wrote this way back in 1998. It got published under a new title -- DARK OF THE MOON. The hero's name changed from Andrew to Louis Kincaid. It was the book that launched the series that we are still writing today.

Sorry for not fessing up from the get-go but I just wanted to make a point. I think the critiques we do here are a damn good deal. We all seem to learn something from the give-and-take of the comments. And although it's useful to read about the craft of writing, it can be really powerful to get feedback and see "before" and "after" writing samples. I got the idea -- and courage -- to show you this from Stephen King. I've been re-reading "On Writing" this week and in the last chapter he tears apart one of his own stories, showing us his raw first draft and the finished chapter. It's an eye-opener.

I also wanted to share this because we recently got the rights back to our first book and are self-publishing it as an eBook. But in the process of getting it ready, Kelly and I took a hard look and decided that we could make it better. Don't get me wrong; we're proud of the book. But it was a freshman effort and, contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald, there ARE second acts -- if not in life than in the life of books. So rather than putting the book out there as it was originally published, we are going through it and changing some things.

Like what? Well, we're pruning some of the "writer-ly" stuff because in the last twelve years we've learned that less is usually more. Here's a good quote from "On Writing:"  
"If you want to be a successful writer you must be able to describe [it], and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition...Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Over description buried him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium."
We've also rid our book of bad dialect and gratuitous obscenities. We tweaked the secondary characters so we are not playing directly into the Southern stereotype. Yes, there are truths to be told about race in the South but it is more effective, we think now, to approach it at a thoughtful angle rather than dead-on with a hammer. And because we now know our protagonist better after living with him for twelve books, we are setting up his motivations more thoughtfully. 

This has been extremely humbling, this process. It is also gratifying because we can see our trajectory as authors, see how much we have learned. But what does this have to do with me, you might be asking? Well, here's some things you might want to take away from my first-page self-critique here: 

1. Trust in the rewriting process. This is where your book is made. Get that first draft written, set it aside for at least a couple weeks then go back and look at it with a cold eye. If it looks, as Stephen King puts it, "like an alien relic bought at a junk shop where you can't remember shopping," you're ready to rewrite. You'll find glaring plot holes, thin character motivation, and lots of cheese. Embrace this process! "The Last Rose of Summer" was rewritten ten times before it found a publisher and now we're rewriting it again. Your first draft come from your heart. Your second, third, fourth, tenth...those all come from the head. 

2. Trust yourself to clean up your messes and misses. The original first chapter of "Dark of the Moon" is about five pages. In our latest rewrite we have cut it to three. Nothing important was sacrificed. But we really upped the pacing in the crucial opening chapters. Stephen King offers this formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%. 

3. Trust that you will find your "style." It's what makes you unique as a writer, your special voice and way of looking at the world through your fiction that no one else has. If you read "Dark of Moon" you will hear P.J. Parrish's voice but it wasn't clear and confident. Now, our tone has darkened, our writing style has become leaner, and we've found our essential themes. It's all epitomized in the two titles: Our working title, "The Last Rose of Summer" conveys the end of something but it sounds fuzzy, flowery and better suited to a romance. "Dark of the Moon," taken from a Langston Hughes poem, hit just the right note. 

4. Trust in your ability to learn. Yes, talent is important but so is craft. And craft can be learned. If you are a serious writer, you must be willing to constantly challenge yourself and never be content with what is easy and quick. You can hone your craft and you can get better. And yes, it might take a long time.

I am an old dog. I am still learning new tricks. 

Postscript: I decided to include the "new" WIP opening so you can see our "before" and "after." We used our first two chapters in a recent SleuthFest rewriting workshop we taught and if anyone would like to have a copy of the handout, I'd be glad to mail it to you. Email me at Please put Parrish Handout in the subject line.

* * *

December in Mississippi.

No sun, no warmth. 

Just a cold wet breeze, a bleached gray sky and muddy ground.

Louis Kincaid pushed through a thicket of brush and started up a slope. The fog that hovered near the ground blurred the orange vest of the hunter ahead and Louis had to quicken his pace to keep up. At the top of a hill, he looked back, waiting for the last man of the trio to puff his way up the muddy incline.

Despite the freezing temperature, Junior Resnick’s chubby face was beaded with sweat. His brown deputy sheriff’s jacket looked like a sleeping bag wrapped around his belly.

“Man,” Junior said, “I thought he said it was just a ways out here.” He wiped his nose with this forearm. “I’m sore as hell already.”

Louis turned away and started down the hill.  At the bottom of the ravine, he stopped on the bank of a rippling brown creek. The sun broke through the clouds, shooting streaks of pale light into the morning mist. Louis heard Junior’s footsteps coming up behind him and motioned for him to stop. A trill of a mockingbird drifted on the fog.

Louis felt a stir of excitement and he knew it was a macabre thought --  maybe even twisted -- but he couldn’t help think that it was a fitting morning to find a body.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Fall Break

A combination of heavy lifting prior to a major house remodel (we get to spend 2 months living in the basement...) and a fall break adventure with my boys at Legoland means that this week's blog post is MIA. Sorry! See you back here in a couple of weeks - hopefully by then I will have recovered!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Writing When You're Tired

James Scott Bell

Man, I'm tired. 

I'm sitting in one of my branch offices. It has a round green sign outside and serves coffee all day and into the night. Of course, you have to pay for the coffee, but since the rent is otherwise reasonable I don't complain.

I'm tired because I didn't get enough sleep last night. I woke up at three, wide awake, knew I wouldn't get back to sleep, so I got up and watched Mike & Mike for awhile, did a little email, tried to get back to sleep, didn't.

So I'm here with cement bags behind my eyes, chugging dark roast, trying to figure out how to work on my WIP when my brain is lazing in a hammock with its hat over its eyes.

Here's what I'm going to try.

1. Work on Paper

I like writing out notes and mind maps and doodles and ideas on paper. I carry legal pads in my backpack for this purpose. So I'll do some of that. It doesn't require that I think about style or word choices. I can mess around.

2. I'll Write a Short Burst

I'll think up an emotional moment in my WIP and write in a white-hot lather for as long as I can. It might be two minutes, it might be ten, but I'll just knock off when my brain shuts down.

3. I'll Stare

I believe in creative staring. This is why, when I'm sitting in a chair at home, looking out the window, and my wife asks me what I'm doing, I can say without qualm or hesitation, "I'm working."

Here at Starbys, I stare out at the parking lot, or the outside seating area, looking at people, sometimes finding a character . . .or just letting the boys in the basement play around and send up images. If something occurs I like I write it down.

4. I'll Read Something

When in doubt, whip out the Kindle and read something. When I'm this tired, and I read, I tend to nod off. I was reading once in a soft Starbucks chair and my head went down, down . . .and when I opened my eyes there was a handwritten note on top of my open Kindle that said WAKE UP. To this day I don't know who left it.

When I'm at home, a nice power nap does wonders. But I try to avoid narcolepsy in public places.

5. I'll Eavesdrop

I get some pretty funny dialogue exchanges this way. The names are changed to protect the innocent. I once heard a couple of guys arguing, and one guy asked the other if something-or-other was "logical." The other guy gesticulated and said, "It's so logical it's ridiculous!"

6. I'll Write Another Burst

I'll try to write another burst, because getting words down is my number one priority. Write till the brain shuts down again.

7. I'll Refill My Coffee

No explanation necessary.

There, I've just written about 500 words. I'm going to stop now because I'm fading . . . fading . . .

I'm back. Hey, who left this note?

What do you do when you're tired and you have to write? 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Enduring Legend

I could be wrong but I somehow doubt that when Washington Irving took quill to parchment in 1820 he ever contemplated that his story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” would, almost two hundred years later, find life on the stages of high schools across the United States, particularly in late October. I thought about this last night as I watched Annalisa, my younger daughter, take the stage just these past Thursday and Friday nights at Westerville North High School in the female lead role of Katrina. The faculty director, an extremely talented woman named Kimberly Mollohan who has in her time graced several stages on Broadway (yes, the one in New York), wisely did not attempt to modernize the story in any way. As a result the primary characters, which have become archetypes in American literature and drama, shine through.

Ichabod Crane is the odd schoolteacher come to town, he of the strict discipline and the voracious appetite which belies his slender build. Crane, however, is outclassed by The Headless Horseman. Though he does not enter the proceedings until almost the very end,  The Horseman is owed a debt by every boogieman that you can think of, from Stephen King’s clown under the bridge in IT to the walkers on Walking Dead  to every villain Batman ever faced. Even last night, among the crowd of high school students and the parents of the actors, an involuntary scream (or two) was elicited from among those assembled.

How is it that “The Headless Horseman” has come to endure, after lo these many years?  I would say that it is because its themes are simple and universal. There is a love triangle involving Katrina (and even though it’s just a play, gentlemen, let’s not get too close to the lady, y’hear?); “Brom Bones” Van Brunt, the affable but underachieving town layabout; and Crane, whose feelings toward Katrina are influenced more by his desire to get his hands on her considerable inheritance than by her beauty.  Thus love, lust, and greed create a conflict; throw in a hint of the supernatural and you’ve got a story that survives the centuries.

As I fell asleep last night, the play still fresh in my mind, I wondered: have the great stories all been told? Can you think of a story, a novel, a play published in the last, say, fifty years that has a chance of still being read (or whatever passes for reading) and well known in 2153? What say you? And Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Reader Friday: Snippets, please!

Today, we'd like you to post a snippet from your WIP in the Comments. Let's see what everyone's working on.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

First-Page Critique – The Pink Motorcycle

by Jodie Renner

Here’s our first-page submission for today, with my comments at the end.

The title is The Pink Motorcycle.

Why did they hurt me? What? Pavement. Rough and warm, I know this, the heat feels good against my aching body.
“Rae? Rae Lynne?”

They’ve come for me. No! Not again. No.

“Hey watch out with that.”

Blinking the sleep from her eyes she was surprised to see her brother standing over her. “Billy, I’m-I’m so sorry. I must have…” She set the screw driver down sucking in a deep breath. Her hands shaking. Sweat dampened her shirt, she shivered, chilled and frightened she swallowed the rising bile. The nightmare lingered, leaving her off balanced. She breathed through it the way the psychiatrists had told her. 

“They took him away.”

Staring at the ceiling she blinked dry eyes, gritty with the need for tears. She did not cry. She couldn’t allow it. Taking a deep shivery breath she returned her attention to the motorcycle.

“Rae, did you hear me. I said they took his body away.”

“I heard you.” She rummaged through her tool box. Sucking her lips between her teeth. She kept her head down forcing the grief away.

“Come on Rae, I’ll take you home.” He knelt beside her crowding her with his need to comfort her.


Why did they hurt me? What? [I don’t really get the “What?” Maybe “What did I do?” or "What happened?" or ...?] Pavement. Rough and warm, [I’d make it a period here: “...warm.” or “Pavement under me, rough and warm.”] I know this, [or maybe “At least...”] the heat feels good against my aching body.

“Rae? Rae Lynne?”

They’ve come for me. No! Not again. No.

“Hey,* watch out with that.”

Blinking the sleep from her eyes,* she was [the switch from first person to third seems a bit jarring to me... Maybe stick with first person? (e.g., ...from my eyes, I was...) Or put the first-person, present tense thoughts above in italics to indicate direct thoughts.] surprised to see her brother standing over her.

“Billy, I’m-I’m so sorry. I must have…”

She set the screwdriver [one word] down,* sucking in a deep breath. Her hands shaking. [“Her hands shook” or “Her hands were shaking.” Or: Sucking in a deep breath, she set the screwdriver down, hands shaking.”] Sweat dampened her shirt, [I’d put a period and cap here.] she shivered, [and period and cap here] chilled and frightened,* she swallowed the rising bile. The nightmare lingered, leaving her off balanced [feeling off-balance]. She breathed through it the way the psychiatrists had told her.

“They took him away.” [Who’s talking here?]

Staring at the ceiling [ceiling? I thought she was lying on pavement...? If she’s in bed or on the couch or whatever, would it feel rough and warm under her? And why would she be holding a screwdriver in her house?] she blinked dry eyes, gritty with the need for tears. She did not cry. She couldn’t allow it. [Maybe say why not?] Taking a deep shivery breath,* she returned her attention to the motorcycle.

“Rae, did you hear me? I said they took his body away.”

“I heard you.” She rummaged through her tool box [Okay, so she’s in her (or a) garage? I’d make that clear as soon as she wakes up, where she is. And if she’s in her/a garage, would the floor feel warm under her?]. Sucking her lips between her teeth. [Attach this fragment to the one before (or after) it with a comma.] She kept her head down,* forcing the grief away.

“Come on,* Rae, I’ll take you home.” He knelt beside her,* crowding her with his need to comfort her.

COMMENTS: This short opening definitely incites my curiosity! If you can clear up some of the confusions, I think it will make a gripping opening. I'm intrigued by the references to hurting her and the psychiatrist and taking the body away and her grief about that. I'm already empathizing with Rae Lynne and starting to worry about her - an excellent sign!

I definitely want to read more, to find out about Rae Lynne and Billy, and what's going on with them.

Maybe keep brainstorming to see if you can come up with a more compelling title?

Thanks for submitting this first page for a critique. I look forward to seeing this book in print! Good luck with your revisions!

P.S. One alternate possibility for the beginning, just to give you some ideas:

Why did they hurt me? What did I do? Where am I?

She was lying on pavement. Rough and warm, the heat felt good against her aching body.
“Rae? Rae Lynne?”

They’ve come for me. No! Not again. No.

“Hey watch out with that.”

Blinking the sleep from her eyes, she was surprised to see her brother standing over her.

Related links:

Those Critical First Five Pages

Set up Your Story in the First Paragraphs

Open Your Novel in Your Protagonist’s Head

12 Do’s and Don’ts for an Amazing First Page

More first-page critiques by Jodie

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

First-Hand Research: Arizona

Nancy J. Cohen

Do you believe in ghosts? I would like to think they exist, especially after numerous orbs came out in the photos I took on our Arizona trip. However, sites online explain the phenomenon as artifacts like cameras reflecting dust motes or water vapor droplets. Nonetheless, we visited many haunted sites on our recent trip west. The most exciting one was the Grand Hotel in Jerome. Formerly a hospital, this structure was built on a mountainside to serve the local miners. We took the nightly ghost tour and were given our own instruments to investigate.

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How does this work into the book I’m planning to write? I needed first-hand research, and it’s a good thing I went on location. When I’d put a forest in my story synopsis, I imagined the northern kind with tall trees and thick undergrowth. Man, was I off mark! Arizona forests, as least where I went, consisted of low scrub brush, scattered trees, reddish-brown dirt, and cacti. Uh-oh. Nix the victim in my story dying when a heavy branch falls on him. Instead, he’ll tumble off a mountain ledge. As mountain vistas are all around, this should be more plausible.

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Copper mines play an important role in my story, too. Little did I realize you had to be at higher elevations for this factor. My protagonists explore a mine in the story. Now I know what they should wear, what they will see, how they will face the scariness of pitch darkness below ground. As for the orbs, it’s either very dusty down there or the shafts are haunted.

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And the dude ranch where we stayed one night is the background setting for the entire story. I couldn’t possibly have written a word without being there in person, smelling the horses, having a drink in the lounge called the Dog House, and sampling the food in the dining hall. Plus interviewing the staff changed another story element. A character’s horse won’t be spooked by a snake let loose in its path anymore. Instead, someone strings a trip wire across the trail.

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We had many more adventures, from gazing at the awesome red cliffs of Sedona to an off-trail jeep ride to a recreation of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. We stayed at the dude ranch, rode down into the copper mine, and went on our own ghost hunt. I also got to tour the Desert Botanical Gardens to note the varieties of plants, trees, and cacti. All of these experiences were essential for my novel. Sometimes you can’t get what you need online or in the library. You have to go to the place to sniff around for yourself.

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You can see more of my pix here:

So what trip have you made that was essential to your research?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The role of publicists in indie publishing

Recently I received an email from a TKZ'er. He wanted to ask a follow-up question about our post discussing the Recomended Resource List for indie authors:
I have  a problem not addressed in your post--help with marketing. A clean  manuscript with a great cover means little without knowing how to  get the word out. I am more than willing to do my part in terms of  marketing my books, but as an older writer who isn't savvy about  social networks, etc., I need someone in my corner. Can you offer  any suggestions or guidance? Thanks a lot.
I might not be the best person to address this topic since I haven't used a publicist in a few years. But since the question came to me, I'll give it a shot.

When I first signed my contract with a Big 6 Publisher a number of years back, I knew that the large publishers have in-house publicists who handle author promotion. But like many of you, I'd heard horror stories about new authors who'd been ignored, neglected, or otherwise left to rot on the vine by their in-house publicists. I decided to get proactive. I hired an independent publicist. The PR company I hired offered its publicity services "A La Carte". Clients paid for a specified number of print interviews, broadcast interviews, book reviews, signings, speaking engagements, etc. I liked that approach.

Here's what I got out of the experience of using a publicist, the good and the bad:


Reduced need for self-promotion
I don't like selling myself. So I loved how the publicist freed me from the burden of arranging my own book signings and interviews. And so what if most of those interviews were with minor outlets in places like Kalamazoo? I was a newbie, so it wasn't like I was expecting Oprah to be banging down my door.

Time saver
I had spent years writing my first book, and all of a sudden I had to adjust to the demand of producing another manuscript within nine months. Had I been left to my own devices, I probably wouldn't have done a single promotional event that year.

The publicist kept everything on track for me, emailing me nifty little calendars with every event's details outlined. 

Re-introduction to media
Even though I have a (distant) background in broadcasting, it was extremely helpful to do all those radio shows (plus the rare TV appearance). I was able to hone my "author act" during those events. And it was fun. I loved talking to overcaffeinated radio hosts during their drive-time morning shows. (Since I live on the West Coast, the timing meant I usually had to down a couple of Red Bulls to project enough peppy "author energy" at 4 a.m.)

TKZ dividend
When I decided to start a writing blog in 2008, I didn't know many other writers. My publicist gave me the names of many of the writers who joined me in launching TKZ. I'll always be grateful for that assist!


The publicist's services didn't come cheap. It cost about $4,000 to have them arrange a semi-active calendar of book-related events. Considering that the average new author's advance (for those who even get advances anymore) is somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 to $15,000, that's a considerable chunk of change.

Bang for the Buck
Did all those paid-for radio interviews, book signings, and other events translate into increased book sales? There's no way to know, frankly. I certainly felt like I was doing a lot to spread the word that year. But there's no real way to judge the effectiveness of all that activity.

Final question: Are publicists useful for indie authors?

Could some of you here, legacy, indie, or some combination thereof, share your experiences with using a publicist? How do you think paid PR fits into the evolving indie publishing landscape?

And if you've had a positive experience with using an independent publicist, let us know in the comments. And if you've had a horror story about paying lots of money for little outcome, please share that as well. (Although it would probably make sense to omit the publicist's name in that case!)

Note: I haven't mentioned the name of the publicist I used in the past, only because I'm not sure how active she is in the industry anymore. If I get an update about her status, I'll let you know.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

How often do you hear — or feel — about a rejected novel, “I just couldn’t get into it”? A story might have a great premise and plot, but if we “just can’t get into it,” we’ll put it down and look for another one.

What are some aspects of a novel that make you yawn, go “meh,” or start thinking about what else you could be doing? I would bet that most times it’s because the author hasn’t succeeded in engaging you emotionally, in effectively sucking you into their story world, making you feel like you’re right there with the characters.

I read for entertainment and escapism, so I want to lose myself in a novel, not be a detached observer of the characters and events. Don’t you?

In my editing of fiction, I sometimes see too much general, factual exposition ("info dumps"); or neutral, mostly visual description; or a page or more of straight dialogue ("talking heads"), with little or no indication of where the characters are, what they’re doing, what they’re seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting, or how they’re feeling/reacting to others and their environment.

"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader - not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon." ~ E. L. Doctorow
In order for your story and characters to come to life on the page, your readers need to be able see what the main character is seeing, hear what he’s hearing, and smell, taste and feel along with him.

And to empathize with and bond with the character, readers also need to see/feel her reactions and thoughts. 

“If you write abstractions or judgements, you are writing an essay, whereas if you let us use our senses and form our own interpretations, we will be involved as participants in a real way.” 
~ Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction
So if you’ve written a half-page or more of nonstop dialogue, neutral information-sharing, or description that’s mainly visual, it’s time for some revisions.

To bring your scene and characters to life and engage the readers, evoke all or most of the five senses in almost every scene.

~ SIGHT. Readers need to see what your viewpoint character sees: pertinent visual impressions of the scene and people around him. And best to include only relevant information, the things that character would actually notice in that scene. We don’t need a detailed description of everything in a room, for example — they’re usually too busy acting and reacting to study the room thoroughly.

Zoom in on some telling details, like smudges on a mirror, sweat on a brow, condensation on a glass, steam from a coffee cup, fists clenched, hands shaking, shoulders hunched, etc.

A small sampling of visual descriptors: glaring, faded, dim, bright, dingy, flashing, dazzling, blurred, sparkling, brilliant, flashy, radiant, shadowy, smudged, streaked, glistening, shiny, gaudy, gleaming, glittering, gloomy, glowing, hazy, misty, shimmering, streaked, twinkling, tarnished

Example of effective visual description:

"...people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds."
- Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

~ SOUNDS. We need to hear anything your POV character can hear, including tone of voice.

Some sound verbs: swish, rattle, crash, whack, crackle, gulp, slam, hoot, clatter, crunch, fizz, grind, gurgle, blare, chime, slap, chirp, chortle, thud, chuckle, clash, croak, rumble, croon, drone,  groan, howl, jangle, knock, ping, jingle, plop, roar, rustle, sizzle, slurp, thunk, tinkle, twang, whine, whistle

Example of sounds:

“...the storm came rattling over the Heights in full fury. ... a huge bough fell across the roof, and knocked down a portion of the east chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen-fire.”
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

~ SCENTS - anything that might be pertinent or bring the scene to life —fresh coffee, an apple pie baking, bacon frying, a suspicious chemical smell, fresh-cut grass, the stench of a dead body decomposing, etc.

Some possible descriptors for scent: musty, damp, stuffy, sweet, sickly, rank, spicy, acidic, perfumed, fetid, musky, suffocating, putrid, tantalizing, mouth-watering, noxious, sharp, foul, rancid, stinky, funky, pungent, piney

Example of smells:

“…they were crammed in a tiny apartment that smelled of burning rubber and foot odor.”
~  Holes by Louis Sachar

~ TOUCH . We should feel any relevant tactile sensations of the viewpoint character.

Some tactile sensations to consider: sticky, fuzzy, slimy, clammy, hairy, silky, smooth, rough, soft, hard, rigid, fluffy, starchy, crisp, corrugated, rippled, abrasive, cracked, tough, bristly, burning, cold, cottony, damp, dry, feathery, furry, gnarled, hot, knobbed, knotted, leathery, limp, lumpy, oily, puffy, ribbed, rubbery, sandy, sharp, smooth, velvety, wet

Example of touch:

“On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy.”
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

~ TASTE.  Let us vicariously taste some of the things the character is eating or drinking.
Some descriptors for tastes: sour, bitter, oily, salty, acidic, spicy, fiery, sweet, rich, buttery, sugary, revolting, biting, fruity, full-bodied, gamy, gross, juicy, sharp, succulent, syrupy, tangy, tart, zesty, zingy

Example of taste:

“Slimy water that tasted like blenderized fishsticks slid down my throat.”
- Crown Me! by Kathryn Lay

So if you want to write riveting fiction (and who doesn't?), don’t keep your readers at a distance, impassively reading the words on the page. Suck them right into your story world, your fictive dream, by making them feel like they’re right there with your character, like they are your character. Evoke sights, sounds, smells, and tastes from the readers’ own memory banks, which will trigger emotions. Scents especially bring back feelings and memories, which readers can draw upon to be active participants in your story.

And show us what the characters are thinking and feeling, too — their inner and outer reactions to what’s going on around them. All of this enhances the readers’ experience and deepens their emotional investment with your story.

Readers and writers – Do you have any examples to share in the comment boxes below of excellent sensory descriptions? Give us the source, too - maybe your book? Thanks!

Check out these related posts by Jodie: “Show Those Character Reactions" and Phrasing for Immediacy and Power State Cause before Effect, Action before Reaction, Stimulus before Response. And see James Scott Bell's excellent post yesterday on drawing on your own memory bank of emotions to enhance your fiction.

Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller and her handy, clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website:

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Love, Loss and Emotion in Our Writing

James Scott Bell

Her name was Susan and we were in the third grade. I saw her for the first time on the playground. She had blonde hair that was almost white, and eyes as blue as a slice of sky laid atop God's light table.

She looked at me and I felt actual heat in my chest.

Remember that scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone, hiding out in Sicily, sees Appolonia for the first time? His two friends notice the look on his face and tell him, "I think you got hit by the thunder bolt!"

When it happens to us at eight years old, we don't exactly have a metaphor for it, but that's what it was––the thunder bolt. Love at first sight!

I remember the ache I felt the rest of the day. My life had changed, divided into two periods (admittedly of not too lengthy duration)—before Susan and after Susan.

Now what? Having no experience with love, I wondered what the next step was supposed to be. How did love work itself out when your mom was packing your lunches and your allowance was twenty-five cents a week?

I'd seen The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. He climbed up the vines to Maid Marian's balcony. Was that a plan? Not in Woodland Hills, California, a suburb of mostly one-story, ranch-style homes. Clearly, the balcony strategy was out.

I had also seen the 1938 version of Tom Sawyer (I was getting most of my life lessons from movies and Classics Illustrated comic books) and was enamored of his love for Becky Thatcher. And what had Tom done to impress Becky? Why, he showed off, of course.

There was my answer. I would show off in front of Susan.

What was I good at? Kickball. Athletic prowess would be my ticket into Susan's heart. So out on the playground I made my voice loud and clear when I came up for my kicks. Susan was usually nearby playing foursquare.

And every now and then we'd make eye contact. That's when I'd kick that stupid ball all the way to the fence.

Yet I was shy, afraid to talk to her directly. I mean, what was I going to say? Want to see my baseball cards, baby? How about joining me for a Jell-O at lunch? Hey, that nurse's office is really something, isn't it?

Flummoxed, I thought of Susan for weeks without ever exchanging a word with her.  She had no problem with that, it seemed. But she knew I liked her. The rumor mill at school was a fast and efficient communication system. Which only made me more embarrassed.

I considered running away and joining the circus, but my parents were against it.

Then one day circumstances coalesced and the stars aligned.

School was out and kids were heading for the gates to walk home or get picked up. I usually went out the front gate. Susan went out the back, and this day I fell in with that company and quickened my pace to get next to her. Heart pounding, I said something suave like, "Hi." I don't recall that she said anything, but at once I found we were side by side, walking down the street.

I started talking about our teacher, Mr. McMahon, who was tall and imposing and a strict disciplinarian (thus, in hallways and safely out on the playground, we referred to him, in whispered tones, as "Mr. McMonster.")

Susan said nothing. I started to get more confident. Maybe, just maybe, she was interested in what I had to say. And maybe, just maybe, oh hope of all hopes, she actually liked me back.

All of that showing off was about to pay dividends!

And then came one of those moments you never forget, that scorch your memory banks and leave a permanent burn mark. Susan turned to me and spoke for the first time. And this is what she said:

"Just because I'm walking with you doesn't mean you're my boyfriend."

It was the way she said boyfriend that did it. It dripped with derision and perhaps a bit of mockery. If I could have found a gopher hole I would have dived in, hoping for a giant subterranean rodent to eat me up and end my shame.

This all happened fifty years ago, yet I can still see it, hear it and feel it as if it were last week.

Is that not why some of us are writers? To create scenes that burn like that, with vividness and emotion, rendering life's moments in such a way as to let others experience them? 

Even if it's "only entertainment," the emotional connection that takes us out of ourselves is something we need. "In a world of so much pain and fear and cruelty," writes Dean Koontz in How to Write Best Selling Fiction, "it is noble to provide a few hours of escape." And the way into that escapism is to create emotional moments that are real and vibrant and sometimes even life-altering. 

The best way to do that is to tap into our own emotional past and translate moments for fictional purposes. Like an actor who uses emotion memory to become a character, we can take the feelings we've felt and put them into the characters we create on the page. 

Thus, Susan was part of my becoming who I am and how I write.

So Susan, my first love, wherever you are, thank you. Maybe I wasn't your boyfriend, but you taught me what it's like to love and lose. I can use that. All of life is material!

I hope you're well. I hope you've found true and lasting love, like I have. I want you to know I hold you no ill will.

But always remember this: I'm still the best kickball player you ever saw.