First-page critique: Ghost Roads

Here’s a new first-page critique. The page is below. Comments from me and freelance editor Ann Aubrey Hanson follow.

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GHOST ROADS

Chapter 1

Harlow Grafton was back in Wallace, Idaho, back at the frantic request of her mother, back to try again. The problem was that there were so many fractured memories and failed attempts that she wasn’t sure exactly what she hoped to mend, heal, or abolish. Other than the anger she never seemed able to diffuse no matter how far she ran. The only thing Harlow was sure about was that she didn’t want to be here, in Wallace, or in the woods.

Summer light, diluted and broken, filtered through the dense forest canopy. Many years ago she’d believed trails led to the homes of fairies, woodland creatures, and all things magical. But when Mike Grafton died among the tall tamaracks, she’d lost any desire to be in the mountains.

Yet here she was.

At least she wasn’t alone. This time she had a companion, a rescued dog that jerked at the leash she gripped. He jumped at bugs droning in the shafts of light, he lunged at birds flitting through branches, and then, as she tried to adjust her backpack, he charged a squirrel and pulled Harlow down on her knees. The collar slipped off the dog’s head and he was off, sprinting after the squirrel while she struggled back to her feet with the useless leash.

Furious, she bent, scooped up a stick, and threw it so hard her elbow popped.

She missed her dog’s butt by several feet.

“Damn it Weda! Get back here!”

The dog responded by launching deeper into the woods and crashing through the underbrush. His odd gold-brown color blended with the bark of the tamarack trees as he surged ahead.

Harlow charged after the dog, jumping tree roots and rocks, leaving the trail behind. The backpack thumped against her and the safety pin holding her already-fragile bra gave up. She caught the strap in a futile attempt to support one breast, and chugged uphill after Weda, breath coming hard.

“Get back here you stupid dog!” She meant to shout so loud that people three miles away in Wallace could hear echoes off the canyon walls. But the words came out in a breathless gasp, emphasis lost.

Harlow stumbled, caught a tree branch for balance on the steep, rocky slope, and stopped. Bending, she gasped for air and heard a faint shout.

Great.

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Meg’s comments:

This author has a strong voice and employs vivid imagery. I love the rhythm and phrasing of the opening sentence: “Harlow Grafton was back in Wallace, Idaho, back at the frantic request of her mother, back to try again.” That sentence delivers a dense dose of information in a pleasing cadence. The “the frantic request” of her mother – “fractured memories” – “what she hoped to mend, heal, or abolish” – all of these are great turns of phrase. I think this story could be rich and rewarding.

And I think the page will be stronger if the author does two things: (1) chooses stronger verbs in other sentences, and (2) pays attention to pacing.

(1) Word choice: Watch for generic words, especially forms of the verb “to be.” The second sentence wallows with “The problem was that there were” – a roundabout construction, as well as a string of bland, static words. Look for every instance of a “to be” verb, and try to replace it with a stronger, more dynamic verb. For example: “She wasn’t sure exactly” – the author could replace that with, “She wondered,” or “she didn’t know.” And: “She was sure” – could be replaced with, “she did know” or “she knew.”

(And does “diffuse” refer to Harlow scattering and attenuating her anger, or should the word be “de-fuse,” as in disarming it?)

As soon as the writing shifts from summary into a real scene – Harlow and the dog walking the trail – the verbs brighten, and so does the scene’s vitality. Put that vitality into every sentence.

(2) Pacing: Almost three fifths of the page consists of Harlow chasing Weda. This allows the author to extend the description of the forest, to expand on Harlow’s emotional state, and to hint at losses she has to face and drama that lies ahead. But the detail of the chase begins to drag. The dog’s escape shows Harlow’s frustration – that’s what matters. We want to know what happens when Harlow catches up with Weda. Tighten the scene. Get to that sooner.

The page’s strongest points, the ones that create suspense, are the hints of discord between Harlow and her mom, and the reference to Mike Grafton’s death. Readers will go a long way to find out what killed a guy with the same last name as the heroine. But keep moving forward with every word. Don’t skimp on the atmosphere (either physical or emotional) but give readers something new with every sentence.

Thanks to this brave author for submitting!

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Ann’s comments:

This is excellent writing. The reader is immediately drawn into the story, and the conflicts and history are conflated and established: Harlow’s conflict with her mother, the death of Mike Grafton, and Harlow’s unwillingness to be back in the woods, now chasing her dog in those woods. All in one page. Well done!

The writing is tight, though it can be tightened more, as Meg illustrates. I won’t belabor the point. The details you choose to provide are varied and keep this reader interested.

One small point to add. When addressing someone in speech, or thought, add a comma before their name. For example, “Damn it, Weda,” and, “Get back here, stupid dog.”

I have to say, the last word weakens the ending of this page. “Great” is weak. What emotions did the shout cause in Harlow? “Great” tells us next to nothing. And, given the title of the piece, “Ghost Roads,” I think the shout might be significant.

Overall, as I said, I think this is a well-crafted first page, with the caveats that Meg wrote about. Good editing means tightening your writing, and being aware of word choice even on the smallest of words.

Keep going.

First-page critique: Depot 573

Here’s a new first-page critique by me and freelance editor Ann Aubrey Hanson. The page, from the Young Adult novel Depot 573, is below. Ann’s and my comments follow. Thanks to this author for submitting.

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DEPOT 573

The Computer Science teacher droned on as James stared at the computer, but not at the coding he’d finished within the first five minutes of the lesson, but instead the tiny clock in the corner of the screen. The digits moved up in time with the slow countdown in his head. The harsh sound of the bell arrived a minute before the computer clicked over the hour, which caught James by surprise – but he was ready. Before the ringing died away, James had grabbed his bag and jacket and was running. For his life.

He burst through the classroom door, ignoring his teacher’s shouts of, ‘Holden, slow down!’ If he was to stand any chance of escape, he had to be fast. As he tore along the corridor, James felt his chest tighten and he started to struggle for breath. After only a few more steps, a stitch stabbed in his side, a precursor of the pain to come. He slowed to a fast walk, already knowing he wasn’t going to get away. He hadn’t really expected to.

Kids spilled from the classrooms and the corridors soon bustled with bodies, all eager to get home. James forced his way through the crush, risking a glance behind. He couldn’t see anyone – well, not one of them, anyway. Perhaps he had worried for nothing? Maybe they had found fresh prey? He didn’t believe it for a moment, though. Before the bell, he’d spotted the early arrival of the full moon from the classroom window, leering over the school, ready to make everyone a little crazier.

‘What’s the hurry, Holden?’ a voice shouted. A girl’s voice. Sarah. James’s pushing became more frantic. He didn’t think he was scared of Sarah, but the notch-up in his heart rate told a different story – and not without reason. Sarah Rider wasn’t just any girl. She was part of the gang who’d tormented him for months. But what set Sarah apart was that she was Darrow’s girlfriend, and even the thought of that name was enough to make James shudder.

Just as he thought he was about to be caught, a break in the crowd meant James could run again—but for how long? Wasn’t adrenaline supposed to give you superhuman strength? Hadn’t he read somewhere that people had single-handedly lifted cars off road accident victims, all down to a rush of adrenaline?

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Meg’s comments:

I like this page. It opens in the thick of a scene, immediately sets out the stakes, and gives us a sympathetic protagonist with everything to lose. Making James a teenager increases our hopes and fears for him. The author craftily presents the school as enemy territory, a hostile landscape James has only minutes to escape.

You can strengthen the page by rewriting to address two issues:

  1. Sentence construction and word choice
  2. Internal monologue that undercuts the suspense.

1. Sentence construction and word choice. Especially in the first paragraph, the sentences are long and convoluted, and some of the language is vague. The first sentence is 38 words long. It contains three clauses and a micro-flashback. Revise the paragraph. Break long sentences into shorter ones. Use evocative nouns and vivid verbs. Turn woolly words into real images. E.g., the second sentence reads: “The digits moved up in time with the slow countdown in his head.” I think you’re going for the compare/contrast of up in time→ countdown, but moving digits create no mental image. Maybe something like: “The tiny clock on the monitor ticked a countdown. 2:58:58. 2:58:59. Abruptly the bell clanged, a minute early. It startled him—but he was ready.”

2. Suspense. A story creates suspense by raising a question—and not answering it immediately. Here, you raise two questions: (a) Why is James running for his life? (b) Will he make it? Those are heavy questions, and create real suspense. But at the end of the second paragraph you release the tension: James slows, “already knowing he wasn’t going to get away.” You attempt to revive the suspense in the next paragraph—“Maybe they had found fresh prey?”—then immediately cut it again: “He didn’t believe it for a moment.” Showing James’s fear and lack of self-confidence is fine. Adding uncertainty to the scene’s outcome is necessary. Don’t undercut the suspense by reiterating that he knows he won’t escape.

A question: does the “early arrival” of the full moon signal that this is fantasy/speculative fiction? If so, it adds an eerie element to the scene.

An aside: James Holden is a great name for a protagonist. In fact, it’s the name of a protagonist in James S.A. Corey’s science fiction novels (Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, etc.) that are coming to Syfy as the TV series The Expanse.

A nice touch: making the first tormenter to spot James a girl. That’s an unexpected twist.

This page throws the reader into the high school corridor with James, and I would turn the page to find out how he stays alive.

Ann’s Comments:

A stong first page. We are immediately thrown into a moment of danger and action, without understanding why. The why will come later. For this moment, we know that James simply must flee, and we care about whether he makes it.

One of strengths of this scene is the setting. You take what should be a secure setting and turn it dangerous. Charles Dickens was a master of that, yanking the security from his characters. I know that there is a sense that schools have become dangerous places in real life, but we all harbor the belief that children are safe at school. You have ripped that belief from us. Now, we follow James to see that he makes it safely.

I think you overwrite in some instances, however, thus diluting the power of your scene.

For example, you write:

He burst through the classroom door, ignoring his teacher’s shouts of, ‘Holden, slow down!’ If he was to stand any chance of escape, he had to be fast. As he tore along the corridor, James felt his chest tighten and he started to struggle for breath. After only a few more steps, a stitch stabbed in his side, a precursor of the pain to come. He slowed to a fast walk, already knowing he wasn’t going to get away. He hadn’t really expected to.

I think this could be tightened:

He burst through the classroom door, ignoring his teacher’s shout to slow down. He had to be fast to survive. As he tore along the corridor, his chest tightened. He struggled to breathe. A stitch stabbed his side. He slowed to a fast walk, accepting that he wouldn’t get away. He hadn’t expected to.

The pacing of the writing emphasizes the pacing of the action in this rewrite. This is the sort of thing to watch for when you edit. If you’ve said it, don’t say it again. Tighten your writing.

You write:

‘What’s the hurry, Holden?’ a voice shouted. A girl’s voice. Sarah. James’s pushing became more frantic. He didn’t think he was scared of Sarah, but the notch-up in his heart rate told a different story – and not without reason. Sarah Rider wasn’t just any girl. She was part of the gang who’d tormented him for months. But what set Sarah apart was that she was Darrow’s girlfriend, and even the thought of that name was enough to make James shudder.

I suggest:

“What’s the hurry, Holden?” A girl’s voice. Sarah. James pushed through the crowd more frantically. He didn’t think he was scared of Sarah, but his heart rate told a different story. Sarah Rider wasn’t just any girl. She was part of the gang that had tormented him for months. She was Darrow’s girlfriend. She was terrifying.

As I said, a great start, and you’ve immediately pulled me into the story. This is an excellent effort, and your edit cycle will help cut the slack.

Write on!

Meg O’Death reviews Mad Max

I’m a fan of Mad Max movies. Big time. Their wildly imagined post-apocalyptic world, plus the action, the chases, and of course Max himself — the knight-errant/lone-hero-wandering-the-wasteland — add up to an iconic film series. My novel China Lake features an argument that references The Road Warrior. It’s Evan Delaney’s favorite movie (surpassing even Armageddon). So yeah, I lined up to see the newest film, Mad Max: Fury Road, the day it opened.

And I loved it. It’s tense and thrilling. Director George Miller’s frenetic aesthetic — violent, adrenaline-pumping, literally high octane — is on glorious display. Tom Hardy is excellent as Max. And Charlize Theron is a fantastic surprise as Furiosa, a scarred, resilient new hero. She risks everything to free a group of women from sex slavery, and ends up enlisting Max as her ally. Yes: the face of Dior kicks ass.

After the credits, the Husband and I stumbled from the theater, dazed. He said it was as intense as Whiplash. I said that to calm down we needed to watch a video of puppies sleeping.

I told everybody how much I loved it. I tweeted my enthusiasm. I texted my son, words like ungodly intense and unbelievably good. I stopped texting when I realized I was going to end up on Youtube, being shown falling into a fountain. I babbled to the Husband about the script and the midpoint turn in the plot, about archetype and myth and symbols of life fighting free of a twisted culture of death.

The movie rang my bell.

Then a friend who’s a parent asked if teens could handle it.

I said it would be fine for a 16-year-old. The violence is so over the top that it’s cartoonish. It might not be okay for a 14-year-old — while there aren’t any sex scenes, there’s some disturbing imagery.

The Husband said: some disturbing imagery? Yeah. Chastity belts, sex slaves, women hooked to milking machines… our friend might end up explaining the birds, bees and S & M. However, the scene with parched skimpily clad ladies sucking on water hoses has a wet T shirt vibe… a 16-year-old boy would love it.

Ahem.

The Husband agreed: the story is gripping. But the movie’s a hard R, nowhere close to PG-13.

Then he noted that I saw a different movie than he did. He saw sex slavery; I saw the 1 hour plot turn. He saw wet T shirts; I saw character development.

Reminding me: sometimes writers get so immersed in the story, we don’t see the audience.

And Mad Max: Fury Road is Evan Delaney’s new favorite movie. Count on it.

First-page critique: Slow Dissolve

Here’s a new first-page critique from me and freelance editor Ann Aubrey Hanson. The page is immediately below, followed by Ann’s and my comments. Thanks to the author for submitting.

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SLOW DISSOLVE

Brody Doyle laid the small bouquet of wildflowers at the base of the headstone, picked up the dead bunch that was lying there, crushed the dried petals in his hand then let them blow away on an unusually strong wind. It felt like fall, or as close as Southern California ever got to fall. They both knew what real fall was like – the smell of molding leaves, the crackle in the air followed soon after by snow so high you could lay down in it and disappear.

He missed the snow a little. Missed the fall a lot. Missed the old days even more. Not the days back East. Those days when they were a pair and on top of the world. Just the beginning, was what people said, but it turned out to be the end. The end for both of them, in very different ways, but still the end. Who knew? If he’d known, he would have done things differently, would have savored the moments instead of rushing through them like a child turned loose in a toy store.

With a gentle, reverent touch, Brody stroked the top of the headstone then ran a single finger over the name etched in the face. Then he rearranged the flowers, photos and teddy bears that had been left there by strangers. Even in death, he drew them in.

He can’t be dead. I just saw him on TV yesterday. He’s living, breathing, smiling, captivating the camera, and in turn, the audience with his mischievous grin. And that’s the way he’ll stay forever. Never growing old. Never changing. Never having to see the disappointment in the eyes of a fan when they realize you don’t look anything like the man they remember. They’ve aged, one hundred pounds and bifocals, but still they’re surprised to find you’ve aged, too. Not such bad shape for a man of fifty. Still trim. Still blond and the eyes are still just as blue.

Dorian Gray had his portrait. We have TV.

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My comments:

This page drew me in with vivid imagery and an intriguing set-up. It starts in a good spot: in the middle of a scene (thank you!) and at a moment that naturally creates suspense. It features only one character—a tactic I usually warn writers to avoid, because scenes with a solo character tend to be static and can devolve into soggy interior monologue. But in this case, there’s a second spectral character in the picture: Brody’s dead partner. And his presence, beneath the headstone, is what creates the scene’s tension and suspense. What happened to the dead guy? It raises a primal question. Readers will turn the page to find the answer.

The writing is skilled; I feel confident that in this author’s hands, I’ll be led into a story expertly told. The author reveals details smoothly, by showing rather than telling the scene. “Then he rearranged the flowers, photos and teddy bears that had been left there by strangers,” elegantly reveals that the dead man was a celebrity. And the final line is fantastic: “Dorian Gray had his portrait. We have TV.”

My suggestions relate to adjectives. (1) Cut many of them. Write wherever possible with strong nouns and verbs that stand on their own without modifiers. (2) In a number of spots the author uses multiple adjectives where a single, more particular word might create a more vivid impression. For example, “the small bouquet of wildflowers” in the opening sentence would be stronger without “small.” Wildflowers are the distinctive thing. And “Unusually strong wind” may accurately describe the weather, but “unusually” seems bland in the situation. “swirling wind” or “savage wind” would create a stronger image. Same with “Not such bad shape for a man of fifty.” “Decent shape” or even “not bad shape” would be stronger.

And I know the author wants to leave the dead man’s name a mystery for now, but referring to him only as “he” becomes confusing. In the third paragraph, “he” refers in one sentence to Brody, and in the next to Brody’s dead partner. This stops the reader. That would be the spot to say, “Even in death, Joe Bob drew them in.” (If Joe Bob is actually his name, let me know.)

In sum: another strong first page. I would eagerly keep reading.

Ann’s Comments:

This is an appealing first page. I am curious about the “you” in the story, and who Brody is to the main character.

One of the first comments I would make is the inconsistent us of him/you within the narration. I would suggest naming the other character early on if he is to be referred to in the third person, or stick to one point of view, rather than switching as you do at the end.

I agree with Meg’s critique comments. This is a strong opening page, and you write well, clearly, enticingly.

I also agree with the comments about adjectives. Mark Twain said to use adjectives as though you had to pay for them. That’s sage advice. (See the use of adjective there? Sometimes, adjectives are needed for emphasis. Other times, they are just useless filler.) You write, “with a gentle, reverent touch…” I would hardly expect a reverent touch to be anything but gentle…

However, you should also be aware of the cadence of your writing. I highly recommend reading it aloud. Sometimes, reading a sentence aloud will provide a better sense of the cadence of a sentence. Take this example:

“He missed the snow a little. Missed the fall a lot. Missed the old days even more. Not the days back East. Those days when they were a pair and on top of the world. Just the beginning, was what people said, but it turned out to be the end. The end for both of them, in very different ways, but still the end. Who knew? If he’d known, he would have done things differently, would have savored the moments instead of rushing through them like a child turned loose in a toy store.”

The paragraph works as it is, but it is choppy. I think some of the truncated sentences might be blended for better cadence. “Not the days back East, when they were a pair and on top of the world.” Boom. Better rhythm.

All said, however, I would continue reading. You hooked me. Well done.

I talk to BBC radio about Ruth Rendell

BBC Radio 5 Live Up All Night

Last week I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with BBC Radio 5 Live about the late Ruth Rendell — particularly about her influence and legacy in the United States. The interview is now online via the BBC iPlayer, and will be available for the next 21 days.

Check it out here [interview starts at :50 min].

Upcoming Events: Santa Barbara Writers Conference, Writers’ League of Texas, Thrillerfest

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Here’s what I have coming up in the next two months. If you’re interested in attending a writers’ conference, I’ll be speaking at these.

Santa Barbara Writers Conference
June 7-12
Santa Barbara, California
This is the big, bad, wonderful writers conference in my hometown, and I am stoked that this year I’ll be taking part.
Wednesday, June 10 7:30-8:30pm: Guest Speaker
Thursday, June 11 4-5pm: Mystery Panel

Writers’ League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference
Keynote Luncheon Speaker
Saturday, June 27, 2015 12:15 to 1:45 pm
Texas Ballroom
Hyatt Regency Austin
Austin, Texas
Open to conference registrants: Register here

Thrillerfest X
July 9-11
Grand Hyatt, New York City
Panel, “HOW MANY CAN I MURDER? Deciding On Your Body Count” Friday, July 10 2-2:50pm

“Never the Bride” — my short story in My Weekly

NeverTheBride

My Weekly is a popular British women’s magazine that has been kind to my novels (it gave Kill Chain a fantastic review). To be honest, I last read it a few years back while getting my hair cut. And since I moved to Austin, it’s not on my local newsstand.

When the magazine asked me to submit a short story for a recent issue featuring crime fiction, I was delighted — but I had a problem. My WeeklyAs I always tell people: Never submit a piece to a publisher before reading that magazine and understanding what kind of fiction they publish. (Lyrical and literary? Hard-edged pulp? Experimental 50 Shades parodies? Haiku?) And in this case, I could not find a copy of My Weekly.

Even when I went to London over the winter, I couldn’t seem to find a copy. This was good news and bad news — every newsagent I went to said they were sold out. I took the magazine’s popularity as a good sign, but it didn’t help my quest. I didn’t actually spot a copy until I was heading to my boarding gate at Heathrow, about to fly back to the States. I don’t remember much about the frenzy to grab it before anybody else could, but I clutched it in my hot little hands as I ran onto the plane.

Not long after, I sent in a short story titled “Never the Bride.”

And I knew I’d never find it on a newsstand in Austin. I had to wait for my contributor’s copy to arrive. Which it finally has. Man, I am glad I took the time to hunt down the last copy at Heathrow. As the Brits say, I’m chuffed.