When I was scheduled to appear on B.K. Stevens’ renowned First Two Pages today, I thought of using one of my short stories from an anthology who accepted four stories from the six I submitted. The anthology, Soundtrack NOT Included was published in 2012. After reading some of the first pages of other shorts on this specific site—some nominated or having won awards and all lengthier than mine—I didn’t think my stories lent themselves to a good enough dissection of the first two pages. I have to admit also being humbled by the strength of the short stories already posted on this blog.
I wrote The Centaur Project, published this spring in Enter the Apocalypse (Tanstaafl Press) many years ago. I thought it was a good story (I am often under that misapprehension) but while a couple of editors admired it, no one offered to give it a home. By the time I looked at it again, my computer no longer recognized the word processing program and I had to retype the whole thing.
Eleanor Cawood Jones
The first thing I want to say is, it’s not my fault. Not my fault I really did get snowed into Green Bay, Wisconsin at a hotel hosting a clown convention. (One of the darker weeks of my life.) But I attract weird, which is fortuitous for a writer, or so I believe. Also not my fault: Some twenty years later the Malice Domestic mystery convention put out a call for anthology stories with the theme, Murder Most Conventional. It was—you guessed it—all about murder at a convention.
Well. Did I have an idea for that. But how to set it up to reflect that darkly hilarious moment in time, add fiction to reality and make it believable, and, as all mystery writers ask themselves on a fairly regular basis, who was to die?
I was crazy-happy (still am) when I learned the editors at Level Best Books accepted my supernatural mystery story “Most Evil” for their anthology of law enforcement tales, BUSTED! Arresting Stories from the Beat (released in April). It’s a pleasure to give a peek behind the curtain at The First Two Pages.
“I hate how Miss Marple solves murders and remains completely unaffected by them,” said my friend Jessica. “I like that Hope is real.”
Dr. Hope Sze is real to me, too.
The problem is that Hope has gotten a little too real in my latest book, Human Remains.
After the hostage-taking in Stockholm Syndrome, Hope has post-traumatic stress. Which means I have a few problems, as a writer.
- PTSD may not be compelling to read about. Hope is numb and antisocial and angry. Not the cute little pixie detective your average reader might want to get to know.
- Hope has a lot of backstory. For starters, I have to mention the hostage-taking and the fact that she has two boyfriends, without too many spoilers.
- Normal writer concerns: I try to set up character, setting, and a problem in the first paragraph, ideally in the first sentence. I also need to establish that she’s an Asian female physician and that the story is set in current-day Ottawa, Canada, just before Christmas.
I recently scanned through my story “Parallel Play,” looking for a short excerpt that would give readers a sense of the story and perhaps tease them into reading it in its entirety. (This was for a blog post at SleuthSayers, hosted by B.K. Stevens, who is also hosting this essay today—not just a tremendous short story writer herself but a true supporter of our whole community.) I knew the passage I was looking for: a short scene that kick-starts the central conflict, that sets all the drama into motion, really the beginning of main character Maggie’s long ordeal.
Conflict, we know, lies at the heart of fiction. That seems especially true of mystery fiction, where conflict usually leads to crime. But it’s not always possible or appropriate to open a mystery with a moment of intense conflict. Sometimes, I think, it’s more effective to begin with a quiet scene that drops hints about conflicts to come. And if our characters are so engaging that readers both expect and dread the conflict, that can be a good way to keep them turning pages.
Long before I started writing crime fiction, I wrote about real crimes—and county council meetings and interesting school events and more. I was a newspaper reporter. One of the most important things I learned in journalism school was to sweat the lede. (Yes, lede—not lead. Correct spelling was another thing they hammered home in grad school, and lede means the opening sentence or paragraph of a news article.)
TIGHTENING THE THREADS revolves around Australian Sarah Byrne who now lives on the coast of Maine. Why did she leave Australia? She’s kept it a secret until now, not even telling her best friend, Angie Curtis. But now she’s going to share her secret, setting off a cascade of other shared secrets … and two murders.
Susan Van Kirk
My first Endurance mystery, Three May Keep a Secret, came out in 2014 to great reviews and excellent sales. Then my publisher held my second mystery in the series, Marry in Haste, for a full two years. What could I do? I was worried about losing my readers since I was writing a series. I decided to write a novella in between, but I would self-publish it as an e-book and make some unique decisions. The title I chose was The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney.
“Just sneaky-weaky over here and hold this, Francis,” Armand said. Of course, he said it in French because he speaks no English except Hello, Francis, which is how he greets me when I arrive at the studio in the morning. And also if I have stayed over and gotten up early, which I always do, to make a pot of coffee first thing. Hello, Francis, he says, and pats me on the bum and giggles, because he’s a right old queen. But nice, I have to say nice, and as I’ve written more than once to Nan, an excellent teacher.”
Michael Paul Michaud
I want to thank B.K. Stevens for inviting me to take part in her innovative blog series “The First Two Pages.” My entry will actually examine the first 877 words of THE INTROVERT – the entire first chapter – allowing me to analyze not only the opening of the book, but also the close of the first act. Let’s get right to it…
“Sir, I’m afraid we require a second form of identification before we can proceed. If you’d like to come back another time, perhaps?”
She was still smiling, but now the smile was waning.
The Introvert begins with a seemingly innocent exchange between a woman and a man. Neither is named, which is a hint of what’s to come, not only in the opening chapter, but throughout the novella. I wanted the focus to be on the characters’ actions and personalities, and to not influence the readers’ perceptions by foisting a name on them. It is also consistent with the sparse nature of the cover, and with isolation/anonymity generally.
First of all, thanks to B.K. Stevens for offering us a spot on this blog. Analyzing the beginning pages is a great opportunity to introduce readers to a new adventure, new characters, and new settings. Our Eliza Doolittle/ Henry Higgins mystery series differs from many others as it features two famous literary characters. Of course, other authors have also turned literary characters into amateur sleuths. A short list would include Sherlock Holmes, Mrs. Hudson, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, and Jane Eyre. Since both of us loved George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, as well as the film My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, we chose to transform the charming and clever Eliza Doolittle and the irascible Professor Higgins into a sleuthing duo. If you haven’t read the play, or seen the musical, you’ve missed out on clever, sparkling dialogue, social conventions being turned on their ear, and Shaw’s sharp attitude regarding the battle of the sexes.
Early on, while A KILLER’S GUIDE TO GOOD WORKS (Henery Press, September 2016), was a WIP, the Prologue was sixteen pages long. Sixteen. Before I turned in the completed draft of the book to the editor, I thought better of a Prologue being that long and cut it in half. When the development report came back, among other tough suggestions to improve the work (including addressing what the publisher felt was the problem of eight separate points of view – imagine!) was their desire to have me ditch the Prologue. Altogether. In a mystery, it’s a really hard thing to eliminate points of view because the writer has pretty much stuffed them with clues, right? But I was game: who was expendable, much as I loved every single one them? Whose clues could I turf to a point of view character I was keeping? At length, I managed to cut the points of view in half. But I held the line on not eliminating the Prologue altogether. I needed it. This friendly confrontation with the editors made me have to think pretty deeply about why that Franciscan friar in Veracruz, 1595, needed to stay.
“The Swap” is a mystery in the Hitchcockian genre of the innocent abroad, the naïve traveler who accidentally puts herself in danger by picking up the wrong suitcase. In this book, my heroine Nicole puts herself in danger by arranging to swap her home in L.A. for the wrong couple in London. The Londoners never arrive in L.A. It soon becomes apparent that they’ve left something very bad behind them.