You’ve Got Five Pages, #BeastsandBeauty by #SomanChainani, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

We interrupt this month of mystery with a dark fantasy recommended by my daughter!

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales by Soman Chainani

I had originally planned a mystery for today, but once I saw my selection directly tied back to a previous book without much context, I took my daughter Blondie’s offer to read Beasts and Beauty by Soman Chainani instead. I’m so glad I did!

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

The illustrations of the first story, “Red Riding Hood,” are stark and bleak–a perfect balance with the vivid yet succinct prose that describes the story-world. Just look at this first sentence: “On the first day of spring, the wolves eat the prettiest girl.” That right there is intense and violent while also providing a sense of time and action. Even though the story is written in third-person omniscient, we as readers feel like we are a part of the story, watching the girl who never thought herself beautiful be chosen by the wolves for their meal. We watch her discard fear, take up her red cloak and knife, and enter the forest. We have heard this tale a thousand times, yet we cannot help but read on, for we don’t know where Chainani’s unique tellings will take us. His control over language is pure magic, and I cannot wait to see his imagination play with the story-worlds of Snow White, Peter Pan, and other classic fairy tale folk.

No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #AGhostofCaribou by #AliceHenderson, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Another January day, another mystery!

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

A Ghost of Caribou by Alice Henderson

Once again, we have a prologue, and once again, this is where the action happens.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

On a technical level, the writing itself is fine: the pacing of the action is clear. The details help us see the woman being chased by a “thing.” Yet this prologue also feels very distant; we’re not really feeling things as the character feels, but merely stand as witness as this old woman runs and is eventually captured. And that’s something that snapped me back to reality, too: a seventy-two-year-old is outrunning what sounds like a drone through dangerous terrain in the dark. Whaaat?! It reminds me of the opening sequence to a tv episode like X-Files, where we’ve got to see someone in danger so we can be motivated to keep watching and see that person be saved.

But this is not TV. This is a book. And so we have the words and ability to gather the words that could help readers feel what someone in danger is feeling.

The first chapter’s opening pages continue to give me those “TV vibes.” After writing the characters’ full names for the reader, Henderson then has the characters say their names as if they’ve not seen one other in twenty years. “Alex Carter!” “Ben Hathaway!” But they did see each other only a year ago. Why this double-dump of information? It happens again when Ben asks if Alex wants to get something from the coffee shop. We get double-details that the shop is decorated with local art on the walls and has an “artistic” vibe. This kind of repetitive description simply isn’t necessary, especially since such an environment has become quite common in the western world and therefore is easy for readers to picture. Again, it feels like these details are there as if a script needs a quick setting description before the dialogue starts.

But this is not TV. This is a book, where every word counts. And when one’s writing a mystery, those words should always propel us toward the mystery’s heart rather than its “artistic” walls of generic detail.

No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #ThePersonalAssistant by #KimberlyBelle, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

We take a darker turn today into a thriller fueled by the virtual illusions created on social media.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Personal Assistant by Kimberly Belle

Ironically, the prologue is my favorite part of the opening pages in Kimberly Belle’s The Personal Assistant.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

These first two pages are a well-paced scene with balanced external action and sensory detail from the perspective of an unnamed girl without a dime to her name. Her car’s run off the road by a farmer in the middle of nowhere, her tire blows out, and she has no one she could turn to for money. The prologue ends with a mysterious man pulling up to her vehicle offering aid.

Now I mention in my episode that prologues make me nervous because they seem to be the author’s backup plan to hooking readers when they know the first chapter is a slog.

Lo and behold…

We meet protagonist Alex, a social media influence married to a financial talking head named Patrick who also does a lot on social media. The opening pages detail how happy she is with her rise to fame, his skepticism about why people care enough to follow her online, and how he never cared about her daughters.

+++CORRECTION+++ It is not clear in these opening pages if Patrick is the father of those girls or not. In the episode, I interpreted that he is, which makes him sound like an even bigger jerk than he is supposed to be. Upon checking later pages, he is not the father of those girls, so at least this guy is decent with kids. Just wanted to clarify that. +++

Kimberly Belle clearly knows how to craft a scene. Belle knows how to balance detail and action, and she knows how to use dialogue to relay information. If I spot another book by Belle, I’ll likely give it a try. I just struggle to read a story about this particular kind of character. For folks who enjoy the realm of social media drama, or thrillers with that social media flare, this fiction will fit right in with your tastes. As one who is not as keen on such drama, I struggle to relate to such personalities. So, I’m going to see what the next mystery from my library contains.

No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #TheTwistofaKnife by #AnthonyHorowitz, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Happy New Year, my fellow creatives! I’ve got a trove of mysteries from my library for this month.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz

CORRECTION: Over the course of the podcast I say The Twist of a Knife is the third book of Horowitz’s series, but it is actually the fourth. My apologies!

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

One of my favorite styles of writing is writing with personality. Horowitz’s The Twist of a Knife has plenty of personality in the prose because the narrator, Horowitz himself, IS a character in the series. It’s a delightful homage to the Watson-style storytelling approach Doyle took for chronicling the adventures of Sherlock Holmes–except in Horowitz’s case, the story begins with him and his Detective Hawthorn parting ways.

NOOOOOooooooo…..

Of course, they can’t stay parted. There is a whole book here, after all. But such a beginning does help establish some immediate conflict between protagonists that is bound to help make future points of plot–such as the murder of Horowitz’s critics–more challenging to overcome. The pair’s banter and chemistry were a joy to read, rather like the Thursday Murder Club in Richard Osman’s series. My one niggle here is that Horowitz opens his story with an exposition dump. While I appreciate we are getting exposition from the character in character voice that establishes the story-world, it’s still a bit of a slog, especially when compared to the quick, delightful dialogue that follows it.

I hope you’re ready for a few more mysteries to get you through these coming weeks. 🙂 No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#WriterProblems: The Absent Protagonist (or, a Quick Rant about a #MissMarple #Mystery)

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Happy New Year, my fellow creatives! I hope 2023 is a kind one to us all. I’m eager to work with my university to develop strong goals as an educator, an advocate, and as a writer. That includes chatting with you here, and (fingers crossed) getting something published before 2023 ends.

To start the year off right, I picked up a cozy mystery my husband Bo had given me for Christmas…in 2021, but better late than never. Miss Marple has really grown on me over the past couple of years, and since I’ve not read all her books, I wanted to see if I could cover the rest in 2023. So, here we are with her third mystery, The Moving Finger.

One of the creepier covers.

And I’m peeved.

Not deeply peeved, mind you. The mystery itself is rather good. A brother-sister pair settle in to the countryside for a few months while the brother recovers from a back injury. With the peaceful setting situated, the “harmless” crime of poison pen letters begins with a flurry of notes to different members of the community–Jill’s a floozie, Tim’s not your husband’s child, etc. Even the urban siblings receive a letter that they’re not really siblings. The town gossip burns bright, but no one really takes the letters seriously.

That is, until a woman apparently commits suicide. When her maid is later found murdered, the letters suddenly feel like ticking time bombs. When will the next letter lead to the next death? Cue Miss Marple….

…a few dozen pages before the end.

That’s what brings me here for a brief rant/chat with you all. I know my blogging was rather sporadic last year as I continue to find my place academically and creatively, but one thing that I hope will help is to keep my blog posts shorter than the 5k essays I’d been writing. The short story collection I began in November reminded me just how much fun creative writing can be when we give ourselves time to actually write. We must still take a moment to learn from others, though, and that’s why we’re here.

No Pevensie to be found here!

When one writes a series, one cannot just use the same group of characters over and over and over again. A story-world is usually populated by more than a dozen folks, yes? So, there must always be someone new to the mix. Perhaps that new person is a side character, or perhaps that new person is a real first-stringer, a protagonist in their own right. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this in an established series so long as we establish why the, well, “established” protagonists are on the sidelines. For a big example, see the Chronicles of Narnia. The four Pevensies are only protagonists in two of the books; two Pevensies are protagonists in a third with their cousin, and then that cousin is a protagonist with a schoolmate in another book. Two books have nothing to do with the Pevensies at all, yet they’re still in the series because the series is focused on the world, not those characters.

Okay, let’s look at a series based on a character–James Bond. Bo, who chides me for not having read the Bond books yet (shall I remedy that this year?) explained that The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming’s ninth Bond novel, doesn’t bother introducing Bond into the story until around the halfway point. Because the story is told from a civilian woman’s point of view, we can’t just pop over to wherever Bond is, even though this is technically a James Bond novel. We’ve just got to wait for him to show up.

I assume a moped is involved in the story somewhere…

Diana Wynne Jones also has some stories like this in her Chrestomanci series. Technically, technically, Witch Week is a Chrestomanci novel because he has to get involved to make things right in the chaos of a world where burning witches is the law and schoolchildren are on the run for their lives. But like Marple, Chrestomanci does not show up until Act III of the story.

Yet I’m not peeved about Chrestomanci’s late arrival like I am with Miss Marple’s in The Moving Finger. Why?

It has to do with agency. Chrestomanci may have been late to the Witch Week party, but he took action. He dealt with the witch-burners and saved the children. He DID SOMETHING.

Includes The Magicians of Caprona, which also fits my concerns with the absent hero, too.

I’m not going to spoil the resolution of The Moving Finger, but I will say that Marple’s interactions with others can be counted on one hand. Readers don’t see her talking to police or many townspeople. She’s with the vicar’s wife, and she talks to the urban siblings. That’s it. Yet she gets the pages of explaining the mystery at the end? What did she DO???

For the record, I think the mystery’s plot is fine. The characters are a little cheesy with the romance, but not to the point of irritation. What bothers me is that Marple’s absence from the story would not alter the story’s outcome. A little tweaking of interactions with the regular cast here would lead to someone realizing the truth and catching the culprit. Miss Marple had no real agency in her own story, and that just leaves me confused as a reader: why is this a Marple story at all?

There’s nothing wrong with a different cast shining inside an established protagonist’s universe. The key is to make sure that established protagonist still has a moment to shine themselves. So long as readers know their favorite hero(ine) is still ACTIVE in the story-world, they will be happy to see others take action, too.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #TheHouseAcrosstheLake by #RileySager, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, my fellow creatives! A New Year means a time to reflect…on a mystery. Dunh dunh DUNH!

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The House Across the Lake by Rile Sager

Welp, we’re back to prologues.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

Thankfully, the prologue is brief–a little over a page–and does accomplish two important things. First, there is a childhood memory used to establish the ominous mood and setting where the story takes place. Second, the narrator is very restrained and a little ominous in her word choices to the point where we can’t–or shouldn’t–trust her as a narrator. The first chapter shifts into the present time, a casual interrogation between a police detective and our narrator, Casey. The dialogue is very taut, and any exposition relays to the action, including the narrator realizing she has to lie to the police.

I’m not a fan of time-jumping between the prologue and first chapter (and the by looks of it, several chapters throughout the book), but I do appreciate Sager’s choice in keeping the narrator’s inner reflections to a bare minimum. Sager doesn’t want readers to trust the narrator, so the narrator’s language reveals very little. Some readers may not care for such a small amount of insights into our narrator, but a mystery can’t remain a mystery for very long if too much is revealed too soon. So, if you are keen for a cozy mystery situated in the cold, silent autumnal woods, then I think Sager’s tale will set your nerves on edge perfectly.

And what will we find on the library’s New Release shelf next week? I can’t wait to find out. 🙂 Cheers!

No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, The Twelve Topsy-Turvy, Very Messy Days of #Christmas by #TadSafran and #JamesPatterson, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, my fellow creatives! I was happily surprised to find a new release at my local library that touches on the Christmas spirit.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Twelve Topsy-Turvy, Very Messy Days of Christmas by Tad Safran and James Patterson

To be blunt, the first chapter of The Twelve Topsy-Turvy, Very Messy Days of Christmas by Tad Safran and James Patterson was infuriating.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

The first page begins with a lighthearted approach about the worst Christmas present being different kinds of socks–this is relatable and fine. Then the next paragraph goes in a different direction and says the worst Christmas present for two siblings was the death of their mom. This is a shock so early in the story, but also something many of us can relate to. We’re even ready as readers to sympathize and perhaps even empathize with the characters.

But unfortunately, the exposition establishing this family’s situation is so distracting that it turns off any desire to empathize and actually inspires us to abandon those kids to their fate, unread. The narrator wants to be lighthearted about their dead mom–don’t worry, they didn’t “technically” lose her because she’s in a cemetery. Don’t worry, she’s not a zombie. Don’t worry, she didn’t spend all her time outside because she wasn’t house-trained. What on earth was this supposed to be? Humor? I can appreciate that folks use humor to cope with grief. Again, completely understandable. But we are brand new to this story-world and this family. We want to meet this family and understand them, but we can’t if we’re only told poor jokes about the family member all of them love and miss so much. If anything, we only learn about the narrator in this first chapter, and what I’ve learned does not encourage me to stick around and get to know the narrator better. It’s a shame, really, because there really are some lovely lines about the family at the end of the first chapter that, sadly, are soured by what came before.

Perhaps you are fine with this brand of humor. Please enjoy! As for me, I think I’ll see what’s on the library’s new release shelf next week. No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #TheManWhoDiedTwice by #RichardOsman, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, my fellow creatives! After a bout of illness and some time writing for NaNoWriMo, I am finally back and able to read the opening chapters of various new releases at my local library.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Man Who Died TWICE by Richard Osman

It’s been a while since a story truly tickled me, and Richard Osman’s The Man Who Died TWICE did exactly that.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

Here we watch a group of four friends having lunch after their “Murder Club” meeting, where they get together to study cold cases. I didn’t even realize this was the second book of the series until I caught this brief exposition in the first chapter, and thankfully, that was all I needed to be brought up to speed. The chemistry and personalities of these characters will have readers chuckling before they’ve even gotten to the third page, let alone to any murder. When a writer can establish four unique characters through a single lunchtime conversation, then you know their writing is worth a study! For those who need a lift in the heart and spirit while also tucking into a good mystery, then I have a feeling Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series will be the perfect fit for you. I know I’m excited to find the first book!

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #TheFamilyChao by Lan Samantha Chang, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang

We see the return of the prologue in The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how much she packs into that page of text.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

She establishes the setting of the Chinese restaurant that prospers in Wisconsin; however, the townsfolk are “indifferent” to the family’s actual struggles and relationships. Even readers are kept carefully in the dark by Chang, who makes the cooking of parents Leo and Winnie the focus of her prose, full of sensual details that get your mouth watering. Yet little phrases like breadcrumbs do drop between the lines, and we realize that much is happening behind the kitchen doors that the Family Chao does not want us to see.

The first chapter introduces readers to the family Chao’s youngest son James, a pre-med student who seems almost proud of not holding onto his Mandarin or family traditions. Yet meeting an old man at the train station pleading for help in Mandarin sparks something in James…just in time to see the old man die. At the end of five pages, the man has collapsed while boarding the train. James is unable to revive him. This opening with death isn’t melodramatic, nor is it coarse; rather, it’s a compelling choice on Chang’s part to bring the Old World into New World James’ life as he, a college student, is on his way home to his own “Old World.”

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #ThePeacekeeper by B.L. Blanchard, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Peace Keeper by B.L. Blanchard

The opening pages of The Peacekeeper by B.L. Blanchard are a bit of a slow burn, but it does successfully mix character development, worldbuilding, and a major cataclysmic event all at once, and that is a major feat.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

The first chapter is preceded by excerpts from two Native American authors whom I mistook for fictional writers in Blanchard’s universe–my apologies for that! This is what I get for reading too many mysteries, apparently. 🙂 That said, I can see how Tommy Orange’s words on the “Urban Indian” help inspire the setting Blanchard creates in this first chapter. The United States and Canada never came to be: these lands are still dominated and governed by different Native American tribes, such as the Ojibwe around the Great Lakes region. Names of places and things are connected to their language, which readers see with the reference of Shikaakwa for Chicago. Chapter 1 also shows seven different cultural calendar dates, and I see that it’s just past five pages that we learn the Aztec and Mayan empires still exist. I can see there will be a richness in the alternative history timeline here, and that fascinates me as a writer and reader alike. Our adult protagonists struggle with their mother’s murder at their father’s hands during their childhood, and the opening pages help us see their current relationship, which definitely inspires empathy and sympathy from readers. I was worried that the family drama would dominate this story–we had enough of that with Anne Tyler’s French Braid–but by the end of five pages, protagonist Chibenashi is showing readers more of his world and preparing us for the coming murder that launches the story’s plot. For those who love alternative histories and/or mysteries, this could very well be a perfect fit for you.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!