Saturday, April 30, 2011

'Tis Better to Give than to Receive... Critiques

I've been blogging little lately because I've been critiquing.

As a member of a couple of different writers groups, I get the opportunity to review other people's manuscripts (and have mine reviewed) on a regular basis. 

There's a lot to be learned from critiquing other people's work, but the one thing that I'm always reminded of is that it makes my writing better.

How?  By opening my eyes to flaws in my own writing.

I couldn't count the number of times I've written comments on someone else's manuscript with wince - because as soon as I'm finished that critique I know I need to go hunt through my own for the very same flaws.

The truth is, the world I write is painted in full color for me - I know it's sights, sounds, feelings and rules.  I understand what's important and who is who.  But that's because I'll always see so much more than anyone else. 

With all that knowledge, sometimes I'm blind to what my writing actually portrays.  And sometimes I focus too much on extraneous detail because it caught my attention - whether it's important to the reader or not.

Reading someone else's book helps me see where my writing is failing the reader. It helps me identify what kinds of words and phrases are redundant.  I see in context what kind of description and world-building is crucial.  I'm reminded what it's like to read about characters for the first time - how important those physical tags are, reminding the reader what each character looks like.

Those are only a few.

If you get the chance to critique a writer who's better than you, the gains are even greater.  You learn good writing by osmosis - and you also learn that even the professionals don't sit down and bang out a publishable draft the first time. 

(At which point you have my permission to pump the air, shout 'Huzzah!' and do the "I'm Not a Loser" Dance).

So if you feel like it would take too much time to read someone else's work, time that cuts into your own writing, I'd encourage you to think again.  In this instance, it truly is better to give than to receive. 

And the good news is, when you see something in someone else's work that makes you squirm and blush, you've got the chance to go back and fix it with no one else the wiser.

No harm, no foul, right?

Your Turn: Have you ever critiqued a full novel?  What did you learn from the process?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

My First Author Interview

It's a weird, weird world the first time someone asks you to answer questions about yourself.

Interestingly, for me, answering the questions wasn't difficult - it felt like Cally just asked me about myself and my writing, and I answered.  Emails bounced back and forth, a normal day.

But today it's UP.  And suddenly I feel...  exposed.  Hmmm...  a theme of late, yes?

If you want to read the interview, you'll find it on Cally's blog.

Monday, April 18, 2011

SPOTLIGHT ON: Timeframes

The "Spotlight On" series is basically just highlighting some web resources I've found useful.

I've held onto the post below because sometimes as writers the hard part isn't the doing... it's the waiting.  The uncertainty.  The sheer patience and perserverance required to get to the top of this molehill we call publication.

See, part of the problem is a few years ago a housewife from Arizona wrote a book inside three months.  She sent it off to a bunch of agents and Writer's House came calling.  Within another two or three months she had a MASSIVE publishing contract in her hot little hands.

Fastforward a few years and you've got one of the hottest book series ever published on the shelves and an author who's a household name.... and her story is Out There.  Everyone thinks they can take her story and make it their own.  And that's just not the case.

Check out Tana Adam's story.  There's a case study in perserverance and dedication!  I for one applaud her and can't wait to see her name in print.

Check out Lauren DeStefano's story.  Her book Wither came out last month as one of the most anticipated releases this year.  Yet it isn't the first book she wrote - not even the book that made her agent offer representation!

The truth is, everyone's journeys are different.  While the goal may ultimately be the same, it's unrealistic to pick a popular author out of the pile and set your expectations based on their work.

So what do we do?

Steve Laube is an agent who's been around for a long time and is often referred to by other successful agents I know.  He's written an article on just how long it takes to get a book from contract to publication that I think we should all read it every few months and take a good, solid hit of reality.

Whether you're looking for an agent or a contract, it's probably going to take longer than you think.  And even after that contract is in place...  well, I'll let Steve tell you.

Your Turn:  What expectations did you / do you have about how long the next step in your writing career is going to take?  What made you think that?  How do you deal with it if your expectations aren't met?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Too Close for Comfort

When Art Meets Life

Have you ever written fiction that is so close to your heart, so much a part of yourself, that it's actually painful to put into words?

In two years I've completed two manuscripts, worked significantly on three more and outlined a handful of others.  I type very quickly and writing is something that comes easily for me.  Usually.  I always feel for my characters and draw from my own experiences to determine the emotional tone of a scene or a character's journey.  But I'm usually one step removed - the outside observer.  The big sister.  The advisor.  The friend.

Then earlier this week I got inspired and kicked off another manuscript which has me in its grip in a way that hasn't happened since the very first book I wrote. 

But this time, its personal.

Every word rivets me.  Every line is torn from somewhere deep.  I feel this book in a way I've never experienced.

And yet, I recoil from it in the same breath.  When I read through what I've written, I stare as if at the scene of a deadly car accident: Fascinated and revolted, face turned, but eyes locked on and unable to look away.

I am invigorated and drained.  Excited and grieving.  Obsessed, yet overcome with a desire to stick my head in the sand and Ostrich for all I'm worth.

This is amazing.  And hard.  I'm only 8,000 words in and haven't even touched the really hard scenes.

This is fiction!

I am, quite frankly, frightened of what's to come.

Your Turn:  Have you ever been here?  Have you poured yourself onto the page before?  What I need to know is: Was it worth it in the end?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Addendum To: The Tip of Your Tongue

Thank you, Cally Jackson, for a link to exactly what I was looking for!

If you haven't seen this fellow writers, check it out.  It's brilliant!  My new favorite writing tool:

The Bookshelf Muse

Monday, April 11, 2011

SPOTLIGHT ON: The Tip of Your Tongue

No, I'm not talking about anatomy today.  But the search for that elusive word.  You know the one.  It starts with 'C' and your dad used it the other day...

A writer's toolbox is (primarily) their vocabulary.  And while it takes more to write a book than just knowing a lot of fancy words, the truth is, when you're refining a 90,000 word document, you better have more than one way to say the same thing. 

For straight word-for-word exchanges, my money is on the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus.  A own a (massive) copy that sits next to my computer every day.  This baby is my baby.  But sometimes I need more than a word exchange.  Sometimes I don't know the word I'm looking for.  Or it's a phrase.  Or I want to name a character based on an idea, or....

You know what I mean.  So today I'm linking to some online tools I've found useful in the hunt for words, names, phrases, concepts, etc. Enjoy!

Online Dictionary and Thesaurus - for all your standard practical needs.

Etymology Dictionary - a great place to find an old word by meaning, or to hunt for words you can creatively pilfer.

Poem Hunter - need a quote or lyrical phrase?  Check out this search engine!

Think Exist - helps find any kind of quote that might say what you wish you could.

Biblegateway - Whether you're Christian or not, a lot of writers use the bible for quotes.  The thing I love about this site is you can tell it which bible version to search, so you can use old or contemporary language.  Or find what you want to say in new language, then ask it to give you the same verse in an old version, etc.

LOOKING FOR: I've also heard tell of a writer's phrase thesaurus.  Apparently someone wrote down a dozen different ways to say all the things we all have to say all the time.  I'd love to read it if anyone knows where I can find it or who wrote it?  I'd love to add it to my list!

Your Turn: What's your favorite online tool?  Link us in the comments!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

SPOTLIGHT ON: World-Building

I'll tell you a secret: I'm not very good at worldbuilding.  Oh, I can offer settings and descriptions, but I'm often blind to the little nuances and tiny details that need to be included so fresh eyes can follow my story and feel the depth of my world.

One of the primary values of critique from people who don't know and love me (and haven't heard me talk AD NAUSEUM about my book), is that they start with a clean slate.  They can highlight where my worldbuilding is lacking... or where I'm hammering the point home.

There's a lot of tools out there, but just in case you have similar issues, I thought I'd offer up a few resources here to help.  And let me suggest: If you look at these and think "that's going to take too much work" you're running the risk (like me) of your final product lacking depth.  If the work isn't done at the beginning, it'll be much bigger job later - possible (like me) AFTER you've got an agent / editor. 

World Building for Fantasy Writers

30 Days of World Building Exercises

Organizing & Tracking World Building in Fiction

Unearthly or Unknown World Building

Your Turn: Do you have any tips or go-to websites you use for world building?  Add them in the comments!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Proof is in the Pudding

You all were so good about letting me tear up your stuff, I thought it was only fair to let you know I feel the pain.  My work has been critiqued up the wah-hoo just like I critiqued the recent First 500 posts.  Don't believe me? 

Exhibit A, Your Honor: The Great Comparison. (Otherwise known as the first draft of my own First 500 prior to critique, study and revision, revision, revision VERSUS the current version after all those time consuming things).

Read this and tell me brutal critique / study of the craft isn't valuable.  Go on.  I dare you.

The following material is subject to copyright.  Please do not reproduce in any manner without the express permission of the author... which won't be granted for the first draft stuff until I shed this mortal coil.  Or you do.  Catch my drift?.

Unfocused, Meandering First Draft
(June 2009)
By Aimee L. Salter

“We’ll be there in a few minutes.” Dad said slowly, still watching the road. “It’s on the right. Big fancy sign on the road.” Like I needed reminding. It wasn’t like I’d be leaving under my own steam – or trying to find my way back. I made a suitably non-committal noise and hoped he’d go back to ignoring me.

My new school. The thought made me shudder.

I’d visited twice before being enrolled, then one time since to collect my uniform (!). Every time I walked through the grounds I picked a new landmark and imagined how intimately I would come to know it in the coming months. (The oak tree on the lawn, the broken basketball hoop behind the girls dorms, the inside of the trashcan at the bottom of the front stairs…).

It wasn’t working. I knew I wouldn’t feel at home here. I couldn’t generate an ounce of excitement or hope for my new life. It was impossible to imagine a better life than the one I’d had. Not because my previous life had been so great, just because it was the only life I’d had. Strange and crazy as it had been, it was my normal. This new place was going to be scary and awkward, just like my old one, but it was adding unfamiliar and intimidating to the mix.

I could hardly wait.

I had really looked forward to the two hour drive to the school, because it delayed the inevitable moment when the first person I came in contact with realised I was Not Quite Right. It didn’t really bother me anymore, the other people thinking that. It was just a hassle. The people in my old life were already used to my personal brand of crazy.

Thinking about that made me shiver a little and threatened to raise images I wasn’t prepared to deal with. So I leaned my head on the window and tried to convince myself that everyone might not hate me on sight.

It took about 20 minutes longer to find the school. Not nearly long enough. Before I knew it we were turning into the long, oak-lined, gravel driveway.

I still found it slightly unbelievable that a place like this actually existed in the great continent of the United States. I couldn’t decide if it was a throwback to an earlier century, or just a pathetic attempt to convince ourselves we were as classy and refined as our tyrannical British forefathers…

The sign at the street front was actually fairly discreet, but clearly worth more than our car. It was a solid ten by eight foot block of wood, stained and varnished so the original grain could still be made out, with huge letters (handcarved, no doubt) in relief. The whole thing kind of blended into the treescape that surrounded it, but announced to anyone who cared that Saint Matthews Prepatory School was here. Just before the sign wound out of sight I noticed the small note at the bottom “Established 1901”. I grinned. The British tyrant theory then.

Seven-Bajillionth Draft
(April 2011)
By Aimee L. Salter

“Dani? Are you awake? We’ll be there in a minute.”

The sharp tick of the turn signal cut through my head at the same time Dad’s words pulled me from under the blanket of half-sleep. He sat, braced against the steering wheel, staring at an imposing sign overlooking the shadows of a tree-lined drive.

Saint Matthew’s Preparatory High School, it said.

“It’s gonna be fine. You’ll make it work.”  His voice had that overly cheery tang I hated. As the car swung slowly into the leafy darkness, I leaned my head on the cool glass of the window and reminded myself he couldn’t see those shadowy figures, skittering between the trees that had followed us all the way from Idaho.

When I didn’t respond, he continued. “Find some friends. Have some fun. Doctor Hodgeson said it would be good for you.”

Dad would never know how much I liked my psychiatrist. She was warm and funny, and didn’t talk to me like some crazy kid. But she “knew” my Shadowmen were just a hallucination and did everything she could to make me believe it, too. I couldn’t blame her really. Questioning things like invisible-to-everyone-else monsters was her job. Aside from that, Dr. H was great. She just treated me like the troubled teen she thought I was.

And she had an annoying habit of raising things I’d already talked Dad out of.

“You know…” this hesitancy in his voice always crept up after he’d been discussing things with her, “she was worried you might withdraw again. She said that wouldn’t be healthy.”

Time to nip this one in the bud.

“I’m not going to that other place, Dad. Not now.”

Dad’s lips pushed into a line. “It’s not ‘that other place’ Dani, it’s a normal school – it just has teachers who are accustomed to dealing with situations like yours.”

“Situations? I’m schizophrenic, Dad, not a situation.”

He hated it when I said that outright. It wasn’t my favorite turn of phrase either, but Doctor H. said it was time to accept I saw things sane people didn’t. And I “knew” stuff no one could know. Whether she was right or not, Schizo was a lot better than some of the other names I’d been called.

Dad stared straight ahead without answering. This wasn’t uncommon. He hadn’t been himself since Mom died, so times like this, which should have been emotional, were a little weird. I never knew if he would slap me on the arm and tell me to “be good, kid”, or stare vacantly out the window like a moron. A really nice, completely-out-of-his-depth moron.

Looking at him now I realized if I didn’t do something quick he’d convince himself to turn around. I dropped the attitude and smiled. “Relax, Dad. I haven’t seen anything for days. I’ve got a good feeling.”

Actually I was scared out of my cracked head.

YOUR TURN:  Lay it on me folks.  I'm happy to take my own medicine.  And advice, suggestions or room for improvement?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

An Interview: Jim N. Duncan, Author of Deadworld

I 'met' Jim online a few months ago when Seeking the Write Life was just kicking off.  He was kind enough to be a part of my Successful Queries Series.  He's since become a part of my daily blog-run with his blog Writing in the Dark  - and a fun tweep to have around.  So I'm excited to have the chance to interview him for the release of his book. 

Jim's been nice enough to offer a signed copy of Deadworld to one randomly selected commenter on this post - so read what Jim has to say, then jump into the comments for your chance to win!**  Winner will be announced next week.

Really great to have you back, Jim. Let's get the vital statistics out of the way: Your debut novel Deadworld is released today! Congratulations! What's it about and how did you come up with the idea?

Thank you. I'm glad to be back here today. Let's see. The elevator pitch would probably be something like, "Struggling FBI agent gets caught up in vendetta between two vampires." It's an oversimplification of course, but bare bones, that's what the plot is about.

As for where the story came from, it started with the germ of an idea about doing something different with vampires. I love vampire stories, but was well aware that the market is full of them, and to get much interest, it would have to do something in a different direction. That said, I started with an Old West sheriff who gets turned into a vampire after a big confrontation with another one, and the playing that forward to present day, where my heroine would get involved.

When did you start writing? Is it a full time job for you, or do you have an alter-ego with a 'normal' job?

I wish writing was a full time job for me. That would so rock. I'm a regular working "Joe" far as that goes, going to school to be a middle school math teacher, and raising four kids. I've been writing, off and on for a long time though. My grandmother was a mystery writer and published three mystery novels while she was alive, and spending summers with her when I was young got me into writing.

I've always been a creative sort, and writing turned out to be the outlet for it I loved the most. It was a very off and on endeavor though for about 20 years ( a lot of started and shelved projects let me tell you!) until I was in my mid-thirties, when I realized I was pushing forty and really should dig down at get into it if I was going to have a shot at making things work as a career.

Do you have a drawer full of manuscripts hidden away? (And if so, do you think you'll ever try to get one of them published?)

Actually, I only have one. Deadworld was my second completed manuscript. The first was an epic fantasy novel, the first of a trilogy, that I'd been working on over the course of three or four years, and Deadworld was my "break" from that novel and an effort to do something completely different. After years taken to finish the fantasy, I wrote Deadworld in 14 weeks (after about a month of planning it out). I certainly have ideas for other stories, and I'd like to do something with the fantasy at some point. I still really like that story.

Since this is your debut, there must have been a lot of new experiences for you in the past year or so. What's the thing you enjoyed that you know will stick with you, even when you're on the NYTBS List?

Getting those first copies of the book is probably the biggest. I think it felt a bit unreal up to that point, but being able to hold it in my hand and flip through the pages, kind of cemented it in my head that I really was going to be a published author. A lot of it though has just been learning to be patient.

Legacy publishing is a long process, and I had a long lead time for Deadworld due to when it was slotted into the schedule. However, book two, The Vengeful Dead is coming out six months later, so I had that one to work on in the meantime. Still, I've had the luxury of time thus far, with a year each to write book two and three. I've learned a fair bit about social media, and the incredible effort it takes to try and get noticed.

Honestly, that may be the biggest lesson out there. Selling is done best by word of mouth, and you need people to realize you are actually there in order to get the needed notice. I wish I'd started up my blog, and made a more concerted effort at it earlier than I did. I wish I'd had the money to go to some of the bigger conferences and such to mingle and get my name out there. Beyond writing a good story, connections to readers and other writers is the most important thing a writer can work on.

Have there been any experiences in the journey so far you'd rather forget?

Actually, it's all been pretty, damn cool. If I could change anything, it'd be the wait time. It feels like it has been sooo long to reach actual "book on the shelf." Nothing you can do about that mind you, unless you want to self-publish, but even that has been worth it. I honestly haven't had any negative experiences with this whole process to this point.

As aspiring authors we're often told to 'write what we know'. There are unique challenges to that when you're writing fantasy. Is there any part of Deadworld that epitomises this approach for you?

Well, clearly I've no experience with ghosts and vampires, or being an FBI agent, or any of the main elements of the book, actually. However, I was a psychology and social work major in school. So, I've read and seen a lot regarding emotional issues people can have and have to deal with.

A significant part of Deadworld is the heroine's struggles with her self. She's kind of falling apart as it were, and has been ignoring that fact for most of her life. I tried to apply a lot of what I know and learned to Jackie's issues, how she would have to deal with them, and what the consequences would be. Some of the more intense scenes in the story revolve around her personal issues. Also, I think the way this develops over the course of the series is one of the more interesting elements. It's going in a direction that I don't think readers will necessarily expect, and this is particularly true in book three. I'm really looking forward to writing Jackie's character development stuff in that story. After I get copy edits done on book two here, I'm going to be diving into that full steam ahead.

What's the one piece of advice you'd give authors still on the road to gaining an agent, or getting that elusive contract?

Patience and persistence. We don't live in a patient culture. People want what they want and they want it now. It doesn't work that way in publishing. Without patience, you likely end up with a failed effort. You can't expect a "yes." Knowing you are good enough to get published and expecting it are two very different animals. So, you keep writing (because that's the only way to get better) and you keep trying.

Try not to have that knee-jerk reaction to self-publish because an agent you really want rejected you. I still believe that avenue is really, really hard for new authors to find any kind of success. Basically, if you aren't in it for the long haul, and willing to wait, and willing to accept "no" for an answer, don't do this crazy writing thing, because it will make you crazy otherwise.

And finally, if I ran into you on the street, what's the one thing I could say that would make you want to talk to me?

"So, I hear you wrote a book?" Lol, actually you could probably just get away with, "Hi," but talking books is always fun and interesting.

It's been great getting to know you and hear about Deadworld, Jim. Here's your last chance for a shameless plug!

Thanks for having me here today, and for everyone to check in and read my post. I hope Deadworld sounds intriguing for you, but if you like dark, urban fantasy, or as I like to call it, "a noir'ish paranormal thriller," I hope you will check out Deadworld. If you like your heroines a little rough around the edges, with as much chance to succeed as fail, then I think you'll enjoy my story, and future books in the series as well.

Feel free to ask me questions here, or you can contact me over on my blog, at Deadworld is out now and available at all of the usual places.

YOUR TURN: Do you have any questions for Jim?  (All comments are eligible to win the signed copy of "Deadworld"**)

** Postage to USA / Canada only

Monday, April 4, 2011

FIRST 500 Critique #6 - "Confessions of an Honest Man"

This is the sixth in a series of critiques of first 500 words from complete novels. Each submission has been made voluntarily by the author. A chance to win a first chapter critique goes to anyone who comments on this, or other First 500 posts.

Due to IRL interruptions, I'm going to stop the series here for a few weeks, then pick it up again in May.  The authors in line for crits this series will be given the chance to revise their work before submitting next month.

First chapter critique competition is still running, so feel free to offer your two-cents in the comments!

Confessions of an Honest Man
By Art Rosch

Micky Tucker's Diamond Club was the most posh of Detroit's jazz clubs.


It booked only high end talent and it served famously delicious and expensive steak and barbecue. People wore their finest clothes when they came to The Diamond Club. They dressed to be seen and they dressed to feel good. Men sported immaculate double-breasted suits with dark shirts and champagne- colored ties. They wore diamond tie pins, gold Swiss watches and Italian cuff links. Women in designer gowns had complicated upswept hair styles and eyelids painted irridescent cyan.


Three musicians were standing outside the club’s back door, under a canvas awning with scalloped trim. They wore black tuxedoes with cummerbunds. Their shoes were polished to mirror perfection. One of the musicians was white. He was a lithe youngster, about five nine, with a high forehead and dreaming eyes. His nose had a Semitic flare, although it had been crushed at the bridge and pushed to the right some time during his childhood. It gave a distinctive roughness to what was otherwise an innocent face. The boy looked like he'd been in a fight. The crooked nose was the result of a Little League pop fly, lost in the sun until it crashed into a nine year old face.



The young man wasn't the only white person at Micky Tucker's, but he may have been the only white musician to play upon the club's stage. Ever. This was a place where people came to hear Stanley Turrentine, Dexter Gordon, maybe even Coltrane. Mickey Tucker didn't book Stan Getz or Gerry Mulligan. It wasn't their whiteness; they just wouldn't fill the house. The jazz taste in Detroit was for hard bop and funk-jazz. Art Blakey had made the bill the previous week. Before that, Miles Davis and his band held sway. This week it was the Zoot Prestige Trio.


The tallest of the three musicians, a man in his early sixties, was clearly the band leader. He had the presence of a distinguished jazz man. He had a mix of intelligence, humor and gravitas that drew the eye. The little strap around his neck identified him as a saxophonist.


There was a red poppy in the band leader's lapel. The younger musicians had white carnations. A few people stopped to shake hands and offer words of praise for the excellent music the band had provided. Someone laughed a boozy laugh. When the jazz fans had drifted away, the leader butted his cheroot in the sand of an ashtray. He stepped off the concrete pad and walked towards his car.

The other two followed casually, about thirty seconds apart. They got into the vehicle and quietly closed the door

Soon they were engrossed in the ritual of the pipe: lighting, inhaling, holding breath, exhaling. It was cozy in the Continental’s plush interior. Air came through the upholstery’s leather seams, as if the vehicle sighed. The men were settling down, recharging their nerves for the next set, the last set. It was one o’clock in the morning.




READER NOTE: If I picked this up in a bookstore I would think the author could probably write a good story, but I’d assume every scene would be set with this amount of wide-shot detail and I’d (personally) find that tiring. I wouldn’t buy the book.

WRITER NOTE: You may well have picked the right point to start your story, I don’t know because there’s no action here. It’s clear you have a distinct vision of your environment and this sounds like a really interesting place to start a book… but I have no idea if this story is going to be interesting because the story hasn’t started.

My advice would be to jump to whatever point the change or trouble begins, then sprinkle (carefully and briefly) this kind of setting and description throughout the first 50 pages to give the reader the sense of environment without overloading them.

I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but this is written in third person omniscient which is a hard way to start a book and hold the reader (should I say “this reader”?). I like to feel like I’m jumping into the story behind the eyes of a person who’s involved. Right now, we’re above the scene, looking down. Which separates us from the action… except there isn’t any forward motion yet.

Additionally, there are lots of extra words and sentences that essentially repeat the sentences before them.

I know how frustrating it is when critiquers say ‘tighten’ or ‘too many words’, so I’m going to use the second paragraph as an example of how I’d cut your words / repetition down:

* Three musicians IN BLACK TUXEDOES STOOD outside the club’s back door under a canvas awning. AS THE ONLY WHITE, (NAME) STOOD OUT. A lithe youngster, about five nine, with a high forehead and dreaming eyes, HIS CRUSHED AND CROOKED nose had a Semitic flare. It gave a distinctive roughness to HIS otherwise innocent face. (SENTENCE TO TELL READER THE CHARACTER IMPLIED THE INJURY WAS SUSTAINED IN A FIGHT). BUT THE crooked nose was actually the result of a Little League pop fly CHRASHING into a nine year old face. *

Now, obviously this paragraph might not work for your overall story, it’s just an example of how you can streamline your words without losing the elements of the picture you’re painting. In fact, it gives more information (because it offers insight into a character) in fewer words.

Given what I’ve read here, I suspect you’re able to weave a great story with vivid imagery. If you focus on keeping us behind someone’s eyes and giving us the feelings of your focal character(s), the rest of these skills will come through even stronger.

YOUR TURN: Do you have any thoughts or advice for Art?  NOTE: Reader comments and impressions are welcome, but please ensure you're offering constructive (i.e. practical, useful) advice. Troll comments will be deleted.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

FIRST 500 Critique #5 - "Dark Dealings"

This is the fifth in a series of critiques of first 500 words from complete novels. Each submission has been made voluntarily by the author. A chance to win a first chapter critique goes to anyone who comments on this, or other First 500 posts.

Sometimes you get a piece in your hands that's just good writing.  While reading these first 500 words I didn't want to stop to offer advice... I just wanted to keep reading.

I'm going to leave it intact here, then talk at the end about why I think it's so good.  Enjoy!

Dark Dealings
By K.Victoria Smith


Her hopes for a nice, normal weekend away from the office died on a dark bend of Massachusetts Route 7. Micaela flicked on the high beams wary of the deer that often darted into the unlit road. She downshifted the Porsche Cayman around a sharp curve. The crisp air that flowed through the open window smelled of an early October snow in the Berkshires. As much fun as it might be to floor it, she wasn’t in any great hurry to get to her grandmother’s farm. A mile later, a shadow at the edge of the road made her slow down even more. On the shoulder, a man dressed in bloody shreds of clothes sat hunched over his knees and stared into her eyes. His mouth formed words she couldn’t hear. Reece.

Micaela pulled over and grabbed a halogen flashlight from the glove box. She jumped from the car and dashed back to the place she’d seen her friend to find no one there. A dark stain gleamed in the ray of her flashlight. She touched her fingers to it then lifted them to her nose. Motor oil. Micaela paced up and down the stretch of road scanning the brush and road for clues.

“Reece, where are you? If this is some sick Halloween joke, come out now!” She shouted into the darkness. No sign of him or anyone on the road or in the woods beside the two lane highway, no footprints and, thankfully, no blood.

Reece wasn’t the type to pull this kind of stunt. His brother Adam, maybe. But Adam would have already stumbled into the road doubled over in laughter. She walked slowly back to her car, ears straining for any noise she might have missed. Back behind the wheel of the Porsche, Micaela stared into the night sky. Until five minutes ago, she’d looked forward to time away, even if it meant being in Bridewell for Samhain.

She looked around one more time. No sign of Reece. Her stomach was a basketball sized knot. If this wasn’t a trick… Damn. She slammed her hand against the steering wheel. It was just a delusion, she thought, spawned by exhaustion. She must have been micro-sleeping behind the wheel. Too many late nights hunched over the prospectus of a recent deal. The alternative was unacceptable. It meant the visions had returned. Why now, why had his spirit, ghost…No, she refused the idea that he had passed over. Then again, Samhain was the time of the year when people and spirits moved between this world and the Otherworld. Shit.

She should call Reece from her cell phone, but she’d never programmed any of the Bridewell numbers into her contacts. Dread gnawed at Micaela’s mind for the remains of the drive to Bridewell.

A little over an hour later, she turned off Cerwiden Street and onto the narrow country lane that led to the Rourke-O’Brien Farm. Flashing red lights slashed through the darkness between the gnarled apple trees of the Rourke orchard. She swerved left as she rounded the last turn to avoid the police cruiser stationed near the foot of the drive. The wooden gate, meant to keep sheep in, was pushed open. A patrolman in an orange vest flagged her down. Her dread turned to fear.

When I read through this passage for critique, I had to hunt for anything I'd change.  I told the author (personally) I'd kill the 'floor it' reference, because it sounded too juvenile and male for the focal character in my opinion.  Also that there were several close-knit references to Bridewell towards to the end.  But really?  This is an excellent piece of writing.
Check out that first paragraph.  Wait - check out the first line:
Her hopes for a nice, normal weekend away from the office died on a dark bend of Massachusetts Route 7.
The very first sentence introduces dramatic trouble without telling the reader too much.  I was intrigued, but in the way that raised questions: Who dies?  Why?  Is she going to be the victim, or the perpetrator? 
So of course, I read on.  Now look at the rest of that paragraph:
Micaela (WHO) flicked on the high beams wary of the deer that often darted into the unlit road (WHERE). She downshifted the Porsche Cayman around a sharp curve (WHAT). The crisp air that flowed through the open window smelled of an early October snow in the Berkshires (WHEN). As much fun as it might be to floor it, she wasn’t in any great hurry to get to her grandmother’s farm (MORE WHERE / WHAT). A mile later, a shadow at the edge of the road made her slow down even more. On the shoulder, a man dressed in bloody shreds of clothes sat hunched over his knees and stared into her eyes. His mouth formed words she couldn’t hear. Reece. (TROUBLE!!!!)

In only 132 words, Victoria has introduced every crucial element for the opening of a book.  And her writing is tight.  There are few, if any extra words.  The imagery is vivid. 
Best of all, I want to read more.  After reading that First 500 I was disappointed not to have more material. 
If I had picked this up in a bookstore, I would have purchased it (or, failing the cash, written it on the little piece of paper in my wallet titled "Must Buy"). 
Now, that last aspect is obviously impacted by things like genre and tone. But I doubt you'll find any writing professional who doesn't appreciate the execution here.
This is good writing.  Pure and simple.
YOUR TURN:  Do you have any thoughts or advice for Victoria? NOTE: Reader comments and impressions are welcome, but please ensure you're offering constructive (i.e. practical, useful) advice. Troll comments will be deleted.