The Happy Benefits of #Rereading Old Favorites. #WritingLife #WritingTips

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Welcome back my fellow creatives! In the midst of surviving Midwestern snow, rain, more snow, more rain, and a single epic sledding trip–

–my family and I find warm solace in rereading old favorites.

Bo explores his biographies of the Marx Brothers. Bash marches to battle in his Transformer books. Biff dissects the data of every Federation ship in his Star Trek encyclopedia. Blondie explores the Wings of Fire series yet again, pausing at various pages to create her own illustrations of the story.

Blondie won a blue ribbon for this at the local Art Fair!

Me? I returned to Longbourn.

“Why there, Jean?” you may ask. “Why not a Poirot or Howl or some other such series?”

Good question! First, Bo and I are already enjoying Poirot mysteries via the boxed set of television adaptations he got me for Christmas. It’s as much fun to watch David Suchet and Company bring these stories to life as it is to watch Bo enjoy them. Even my three B’s have started to pay attention. “Why hasn’t anyone died yet? Hastings is silly. Woah, the police are using phones. Wait, that’s radio? WHAT?”

As for Diana Wynne Jones, I’ve a goal to finish a series I started looooong ago for some critical reading here: The Dalemark Quartet. This actually also ties to rereading Pride and Prejudice, for both are influences of my lost-in-development-hell Shield Maidens series.

Lastly, I had come across a really cool YouTuber named Dr. Octavia Cox who does close reading of classic literature, and her analyses of Pride and Prejudice made me realize just much one can uncover when one sloooowly moves through the words.

So, let’s focus today on why rereading those old favorites can do a writer–and reader–some good.

Comfort food for the imagination. When reality is cold and bleak, why not escape to a time and place we love? Of course, trying new things is important, but just as we enjoy those warm, delectable comfort foods, so does our imagination enjoy a return to the familiar. We experience those favorite lines, interactions, and settings with fresh appreciation each time, even to the point where we must read them aloud to others. Bash is an avid fan of this–if a Transformer has made him laugh yet again, he’ll read through the whole scene to Biff and Blondie who then, of course, must read the entire story for themselves. When one person loves a story, one never seeks to hide it! As a writer, those returns can be a marvelous benefit to us as we develop our storytelling skills, too.

Worldbuilding. Because we “know what’s coming” in the story, we can pay more attention to all the periphery details and how those enrich the overall setting. Rereading Howl’s Moving Castle, for instance, helps a reader better see how everyday magic utilized by sailors, bakers, and even hatters in Sophie’s life. Rereading the lives of the Marx Brothers–or rewatching Poirot–reveals the surprising pieces of 1930s life that can easily be forgotten. Rereading Wings of Fire helps Blondie catch specific aspects of dragon culture depending on where those dragons come from. In this reread of Pride and Prejudice, I paid closer attention to second and third-string characters, like the Lucas family, so I could better understand life in the Regency period.

The more we study those social gatherings, the more we understand how important they were for folks to meet anyone potentially suitable for marriage; how a female’s talents in entertainment could lift her up in the eyes of the community, and how many dance steps you had to memorize (oh my GOODNESS I would have failed miserably in that period). One may gasp with Elizabeth when Charlotte accepts the simpering Mr. Collins’ proposal, but when one reads closely, one catches that Charlotte is 27 years old–on the far end of the spectrum when folks were expected to marry. Add the size of Charlotte’s large family and small fortune to the mix, and readers have a clearer understanding of the period’s pressures upon a single young woman.

[Charlotte’s] reflections were satisfactory. Mr. Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. –Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.

Is it any wonder Mrs. Bennet was cheesed off at Elizabeth turning Mr. Collins down? In that time and place, such a life was a young woman’s best option. We as modern readers may not understand that at first, but the more we reread and revisit the setting of the story, the more we learn.

Foreshadowing. It can be so, so hard to catch the clues dropped early, can’t it? We are caught up in the current moment, eagerly anticipating the next exchange or event that alters the storyline’s progression. That was me with a lot of tales, whether they were mysteries like The ABC Murders or fantasy epics like the Harry Potter series. We can even use Harry Potter as an example here: in the first story, Harry talks to a snake he unwittingly releases from its zoo enclosure. At the moment, it’s a lighthearted moment, but in the second book, we learn that talking to snakes is not common at all; plus, it was a trait usually only seen in witches and wizards who preferred the Dark Arts. So is Harry actually a Dark Arts master in the making? Dunh dunh DUNH!

One of Dr. Cox’s analyses of Pride and Prejudice really got me thinking about this, too, in regards to Lydia Bennet. The youngest and wildest of the sisters, she is on the constant search for entertainment and isn’t shy about demanding it from her family and friends. She’ll flirt with a number of officers, demand balls, play betting games with cards–the girl loves risks in all shapes and sizes. It’s a sly bit of foreshadowing about Lydia’s character arc and the choices she’s capable of making. Jane Austen’s slyness continues when Lydia starts talking about Wickham more frequently; it’s timed just so that it comes after Elizabeth refuses Mr. Darcy and reads his letter of Mr. Wickham’s attempted seduction of Georgiana, Mr. Darcy’s little sister. Elizabeth has no desire in hell to listen any references of Wickham, but what happens?

With such kind of histories of their parties and good jokes, did Lydia, assisted by Kitty’s hints and additions, endeavour to amuse her companions all the way to Longbourn. Elizabeth listened as little as she could, but there was no escaping the frequent mention of Wickham’s name.

Because we’re focused on Elizabeth in our initial read, we don’t wonder why Elizabeth ignores Lydia’s ramblings. In the rereads, though, we better understand that all of Lydia’s choices fit her temperament and character, and when Wickham bolts his militia, it really isn’t a wonder for Lydia to bolt with him for a lark.

Not to mention the hardcore foreshadowing of Wickham!

Character Arc (one way or another). Let’s stick with Pride and Prejudice‘s Wickham here. In our first read, we share in Meryton’s positive first impressions of Mr. Wickham:

But the attention of every lady was soon caught by a young man, whom they had never seen before, of most gentlemanlike appearance.

That is, the dude’s hot.

Lydia’s making a point to flat-out run into this guy and his friend. Elizabeth’s aunt is hollering at the guy from her window. He’s got eeeveryone’s attention with his manners and looks. After a brief run-in with Mr. Darcy, Mr. Wickham starts probing Elizabeth as to what’s known about Mr. Darcy, and through the coming pages we find out that Mr. Wickham is pretty cool with bemoaning his fate at the hands of the prideful Darcy. Once Elizabeth reads Mr. Darcy’s letter, however, she comes to realize how “gentlemanlike” Mr. Wickham often broke rules of decorum by bashing Darcy at every opportunity. Mr. Darcy’s letter also foreshadows an important aspect of Mr. Wickham’s character–his womanizing. He’s not afraid of ruining a young lady’s reputation for his own interests, and while he failed with Georgiana, he succeeds with Lydia Bennet. Everything that was his character is revealed for an arc from “hot guy” to “womanizing jerk.”

Elizabeth Bennet is also a fine study for the character arc. Oh, she remains playfully witty from start to finish, but in the opening chapters of the ball where Lizzy and Mr. Darcy meet, she is just as prideful as he. She laughs it off, sure, but from that moment on she “willfully misunderstands him,” as Mr. Darcy himself put it during their time together in Netherfield. She refuses to believe such an observation, though, and continues feeling herself best and right regarding Mr. Collins’ simpering, Miss Bingley’s interference with Jane Bennet’s happiness, and more. While Elizabeth is right in some of her observations, she has to face her own mistakes later in the story when it comes to Wickham and Darcy. She has misread people, and she has to own up to it. It actually reminds me of Howl’s Moving Castle when Sophie realizes just how much she cares about Howl. She can’t even admit to herself that she’s capable of loving someone until a fire demon lures Howl into a trap. Readers love seeing characters grow into themselves, so having these rereads helps writers better catch when and how such moments happen.

Two People Finding Each Other.

Blondie: What are you reading?

Me: Pride and Prejudice.

Blondie: Who gets murdered?

Me: Nobody.

Blondie: Does anyone die or get blown up?

Me: Nope.

Blondie: Is there magical stuff in it?

Me: Nope.

Blondie: That sounds really boring.

Now when I was Blondie’s age, I would have agreed. I was immersed in fantasy and mystery at that point, so if someone wasn’t getting murdered, then something better be getting blown up. Now, though, as I reread Pride and Prejudice, I am reminded of something many of us seek in stories of any genre. Even the most violent thing I’ve ever studied on this site, Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys, understood this important element of storytelling.

Boys members Butcher and Hughie are both transformed by love: Hughie struggles with a broken heart not once but twice, and Butcher’s descent into revenge begins with the rape and murder of his wife by a super “hero.” Early in their time together, they help two witnesses of a murder rekindle their relationship. Looking on, Hughie says:

What is it about love stories, you know?

BUTCHER: Two people findin’ each other.

Many of us yearn for that other soul that connects with us in a way no other can. There’s a reason romance alone can sell a story and that many genres include a romantic interest. Is it demanded? No. It doesn’t even have to be a love thing. It could be something as equally powerful as finding a friend or a family member. There is a unique joy as a reader in watching two characters come together, “finding” each other in spite of all story-world obstacles–even the barriers they themselves created.

So yes, there is much to enjoy and learn in a good re-read. What are you rereading during these dreary days? I’d love to hear. x

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!

#writerproblems: #writing awesome #characterdesign in three sentences or less.

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Yes, I know that hashtag #characterdesign is more of an art-related thing, but it fits with this little lesson learned, believe you me.

This week started with its usual chaos: calls at 5am for a substitute teacher in 5th grade–no wait, Kindergarten. No wait, art, just art for aaaaaall the grades, can you do that? Bash wakes up with a swollen eye from Lord knows what (don’t worry, it left just as mysteriously as it came), university students re-submit work I had already flagged as inappropriate for the assignment requirements. On top of all this, another university contacts me to schedule an interview for a full-time gig. (insert excitement and anxiety here.)

Meanwhile, I did my best to stay in the writing community loop, reading about the racial controversy over American Dirt and learning from fellow indie author Michael Dellert that The Arcanist is calling for western speculative flash fiction:

Is there another short story inside me for the bounty hunter Sumac? I asked myself as the twelve-year-olds tried to stab each other with colored pencils. 1000 words didn’t feel like a lot of wiggle room. Night’s Tooth was meant to be a short story, after all, but writing a fantasy western inspired by Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name trilogy meant a LOT of slow-but-tense moments. Thus, the novella instead of the short story. (Click here if you’d like to read one of those moments.)

As magical showdowns percolated in my mind, I continued planning my excursion into the “dark, impulsive, whiny villainy” of Disney’s Star Wars. I had my collection of Robert McKee Story quotes at the ready for studying the bizarre mix of Hux and Kylo interactions in The Force Awakens and shift from there into the smothering subversions of The Last Jedi.

That is, until my perusal through Agatha Christie’s short fiction sparked a little something that I just had to share.

So we all know that when it comes to short fiction, you gotta pack a lot into a tiny space. Plot, character, setting–aaaaall that jazz has gotta be played at a heightened, almost truncated speed. There’s no time for meandering interludes or long drum solos.

(RIP Neil Pert. I know he wasn’t a jazz player, but Bo’s a HUGE Rush fan, so he’s been showing concerts to the kids and now I’m stuck in a land of music metaphor that doesn’t jive and we’re just going to move on because I clearly have no sense of what decade I’m in.)

Agatha Christie wrote over a hundred short stories. If ANYone knew the importance of keeping the story elements thrumming along, it was her. This is especially clear when she describes her characters. Like any good musician, Christie’s style moves sweet’n’slick with just the right amount of flourish.

Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself; and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so.

“How Does Your Garden Grow?”

In just three sentences, we’ve got a sense of this character’s physical appearance, interests, and mindset. Christie doesn’t dwell on the minutiae, like what Miss Lemon wears or how she does her hair. That all falls under “unpreposessing appearance.” But some readers whine when they can’t “see” a character without more precise detail. What if we picture different things? What if we don’t see the character the same way the writer did? THAT CHANGES THE READING EXPERIENCE, DOESN’T IT?!

Honestly, folks, does Miss Lemon’s outfit affect the story? No. Does it matter if each of us picture “a lot of bones flung together” (damn, I really like that bit) in different ways? No.

More importantly, a short story doesn’t have space to waste on that kind of detail. When a writer’s looking into contests like The Arcanist‘s, he/she can’t afford to spend a hundred words on description when forty will do the trick. Heck, even twenty’s enough for Christie in some cases. Take these character descriptions of two parents.

Mrs. Waverly’s emotion was obviously genuine, but it assorted strangely with her shrewd, rather hard type of countenance.

Mr. Waverly was a big, florid, jovial-looking man. He stood with his legs straddled wide apart and looked the type of the country squire.

“The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly”

Again, the colorful details are skipped in favor for body language and behavior. We get senses of these people–the hard, heart-broken mother, the upper-class, happy sort of father. We may not know what these two look like, but we know their body language, and in this we get impressions of their attitudes and behaviors, which are far more important than hair color.

Six months ago she had married a fifth time–a commander in the Navy. He it was who came striding down the beach behind her. Silent, dark–with a pugnacious jaw and a sullen manner. A touch of the primeval ape about him.

“Triangle at Rhodes”

Those third and fourth sentences say it ALL. “Silent, dark”–readers can already get a sense of a nasty face, but since this man’s “a commander in the Navy” then we know he’s going to carry himself like a man of authority and power. Words like “pugnacious” and “sullen” tell readers how he’s going to interact with the other characters: always negatively, aggressively, and without any sort of kindness. The fact he’s “primeval” practically forces readers to picture this character as a sort of sub-human, incapable of empathy or feeling.

And aaaaaall that characterization is given in just eighteen words.

When Poirot’s friend Captain Hastings narrates the story, Christie is also able to take advantage of her ever-lovable unreliable narrator, which allows her to misdirect readers when she so chooses.

The sixth Viscount Cronshaw was a man of about fifty, suave in manner, with a handsome, dissolute face. Evidently an elerly roué, with the languid manner of a poseur. I took an instant dislike to him.

Mrs. Davidson came to us almost immediately, a small, fair creature whose fragility would have seemed pathetic and appealing had it not been for the rather shrewd and calculating gleam in her light blue eyes.

“The Affair at the Victory Ball”

Oh, Hastings, you do love a pretty face. Poirot’s partner loves to let readers know when he’s a fan of a woman or not, consistently keen to describe her appearance and whether or not she’s attractive.Once in a while, though, he’ll catch something genuine, such as Mrs. Davidson’s shrewdness. Likewise, if Hastings doesn’t like a man, he’s obvious about that, too, and these opinions from Hastings always alter how he interacts with the characters as well as how he interprets their words and body language. This in turn affects the information readers receive, and so by the end of “The Affair at the Victory Ball” we’re just as surprised as Hastings to discover how wrong we are about these people.

Once in a while, though, Christie does allow a little drum solo when a minor character takes the stage. It seems to happen when it’s a character type Poirot, Hastings, or the omniscient narrator ignores in favor of more interesting goings-on: a mere citizen, a member of the populace where the mystery occurs. Sometimes it’s this common-ness that plays its part in getting Poirot to the mystery, such as in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”:

Everything about Mr. Jesmond was discreet. His well-cut but inconspicuous clothes, his pleasant, well-bred voice which rarely soared out of an agreeable monotone, his light-brown hair just thinning a little at the temples, his pale serious face. It seemed to Hercule Poirot that he had known not one Mr. Jesmond but a dozen Mr. Jesmonds in his time, all using sooner or later the same phrase–“a position of the utmost delicacy.”

“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”

And this bit from “A Cornish Mystery” is a lovely reminder to readers and writers alike that every setting’s character, no matter how bland and un-unusual, is still a person with problems, fear, and feeling.

Many unlikely people came to consult Poirot, but to my mind, the woman who stood nervously just inside the door, fingering her feather neck-piece, was the most unlikely of all. She was so extraordinarily commonplace–a thin, faded woman of about fifty, dressed in a braided coat and skirt, some gold jewellery at her neck, and with her grey hair surmounted by a singularly unbecoming hat. In a country town you pass a hundred Mrs. Pengelleys in the street every day.

“The Cornish Mystery”

It seems Hastings spends an awful long time introducing us to a character that’s just one of a hundred one would pass in the street–81 words, in fact. Why so much time on a single, ordinary character in a short story? Hasting’s description creates an expectation of ordinary-ness, regularity, typicality. But of course, Christie being Christie, this time spent on an ordinary character comes with reason: this ordinary character, this one of one hundred, is murdered. Why would someone murder this one Mrs. Pengelley out of a hundred one would pass on a country town street?

Ah. That is why the reader reads on.

So when you work on your own character designs, writers, always ask yourself what matters more: the character’s appearance, or behavior? The character’s look, or feelings? A character’s choices are often the influence of action and pacing, but there’s no denying that sometimes, a character’s appearance alone may twist the narrative into surprising directions. What matters is that you share character traits important to the story. Picturing a character’s apparel means little when readers cannot see a character’s attitude.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

Back to The Young and the Restless of Disney’s Star Wars villains!

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

#Writing #Music: Peter Gabriel

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gabriel_scratchmb_header2Rarely do I allow myself to write with lyrical music on in the background. The words don’t always jive with what I picture in my head, and tend to distract me from the goal of the scene.

And yet, there are some songs that work on a level where the music and the words are intrinsic to each other, like a vine that climbs the old iron fence and flowers before your eyes. You can’t remove the fence, and you can’t remove the vine, for together they create a single unique image. The individual components are now in union, and for the better.

That’s one of the reasons I enjoy Peter Gabriel’s rendition of “Heroes” so much. Set apart, the strings are just. Breathtaking. The build is dramatically, almost painfully slow, but you know they’re building, so you’re willing to stay, and well up with them. Touch the stars with them. Return to earth with them.

Set apart, Gabriel himself is just. Heartbreaking. The song itself shares a deep hope, yet when Gabriel sings it, there’s this sense of fate–for all the crying out to the heavens, the singer will continue to be alone, for his hope can never be truly fulfilled.

United, this song transcends to a Shakespearean height in longing, love, and imagination.

The first time I heard this song, a scene formed in my head, bright and complete. It’s a rare experience for me, to see a piece of story in such detail–usually I can only hear the dialogue, or see something important, and have to clean up the fuzzy bits over the course of multiple revisions.

Not that scene, though. This song brought it to me, whole and beautiful, and it’s stayed as it was first drafted. Perhaps this song will help you uncover that precious, bittersweet something hidden beneath the starlight.

Click here for more on SCRATCH MY BACK.

Click here for more on Peter Gabriel.

 

 

 

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

Well, I’m back with a mystery, but I’m not happy about it.

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:

Bleeding Heart Yard by Elly Griffiths

My curse on this podcast strikes again.

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

The prologue of Bleeding Heart Yard by Elly Griffiths is quite well-crafted and compelling and leagues ahead of the first chapter, which is an exposition dump detailing a separate character’s fast-track in her career with law enforcement. Now I can see that Griffiths herself is an avid mystery writer, winner of awards, etc., and the prologue shows me why. Writers would do well to study those first couple of pages to see how this first-person narrative shares a lot about the character without saying it directly. For instance, the first two lines read:

Is it possible to forget that you’ve committed a murder? Well, I’m here to tell you that it is.

This isn’t shocking necessarily, as the dust jacket alludes to the group of main characters committing murder during their school days. It’s how the paragraph ends that gets me:

…everyone [during the murder mystery game] would get drunk and forget the clues. This rather irritated me. I like following rules.

This speaks LOADS about the unique juxtaposition of character Cassie’s traits and morals, not to mention the way her mind works.

I was ready and willing to continue with Cassie, only the official first chapter just starts the story over again with a different character. Had Griffiths given us a bit more time with Cassie and smoothed that shift over to another character’s pov–ending a chapter with Cassie realizing this new character would be in attendance at a party, for instance–I think readers would be more intrigued to learn about her “friend” even if it takes sifting through an exposition dump to do so.

No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

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

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!

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!