The “First and Last” Writing Contest

contest-boxOkay, it’s really quite simple. Below are three “First” sentences and three “Last” sentences. All you have to do is write a short story or scene that begins with any one of the first sentences and ends with any one of the last sentences. Please, keep your entries under 400 words. Mystery. Romance. Science Fiction. Angsty or humorous. Write whatever you want.

You have until midnight next Friday, July 31, to submit your entry. Depending on the number of entries, it will take me at least a week to sort through and determine the winners. Yes, you read that right “winnerS.” There will be three, chosen by me based on a secret criteria I’ll never reveal. First prize will be $50 Amazon gift certificate and a complete collection of Mold-A-Rama animals from Chicago’s own Brookfield Zoo. (More on these later.) Second prize is a digital micro recorder – a useful device for when you have a great idea but are far from your computer. (Not recommended for use in the shower, however.) And third prize is a $15 Amazon gift certificate.

As before, paste entries in the body of your email and send to this address. Be sure to include your name somewhere in the email. And please, no attachments. I reserve the right to change the rules at any time.

You might ask, what’s the point of this (besides writing fun stuff and winning swell prizes)? Answer: Problem-solving. Sometimes the hardest part of writing a novel is getting from point A to point B. Or point C to point D. Or point R to point S. (Okay, I’ll stop.) You know your starting point and you know where you hope to end up… but have no clue how to get there. This exercise is merely a lighthearted way to practice the art of problem solving. See? There’s purpose to all this frivolity.

Oh, and one more thing. I figured it would only be fair if I played along, too. So… while you’re thinking about what to write, jot down a first and last sentence you want me to consider for my short story. I’ll choose one of each from all that are submitted and write a story that I will publish on this very blog for all to see and critique. (Not participating in the contest? That’s fine. You can still suggest a first and last sentence for my story. Just drop me an email.)

That’s about it, really. If I think of something else, I’ll let you know during the week.

And now… the sentences you’ve been waiting for (and, yes, you can change the gender if you want):

First Sentences

  • Somewhere between roof and the pavement, Sam remembered where he’d left his wallet.
  • The sun didn’t rise on Thursday.
  • It was the best of times… no, really, the very best of times.

Last Sentences (Yes, I know the third one is a fragment. It’s for all you fragment fans.)

  • The bottle was empty.
  • She chose the blue one after all.
  • Monsters.

When Details Become Distraction

Version One.

Benny’s cherry red Converse sneakers squeaked their delight on the Asian Mahogany Pergo laminate floor while his mother stirred the Nestle Semi-Sweet morsels into the cookie dough using the wood-handled Le Creuset spatula with the blue non-stick silicone surface that never failed her.

“Now?” asked Benny, his brown eyes barely visible beneath the blue, red and white of the too-big Chicago Cubs baseball cap.

“Not yet,” she answered, and she stirred some more, thankful for her Paderno copper mixing bowl and her Okite Creama Botticino countertop and a pair of neon orange Crocs that might elicit snide comments from women who wear Giuseppe Zanottis and pretend not to enjoy shopping at Pottery Barn, but invite nothing but praise from her size-eight feet in the safety of her two-story brownstone.

“But I’m hungry now!” Benny picked at the Spiderman Band-Aid on his left wrist.

“Almost,” she said, a little more sharply than she intended, but Benny didn’t seem to notice. He had wandered into the twenty-by-twenty-four living room and grabbed the RCA remote from the back of the brown leather Lazy-Boy recliner and was aiming it at the 42″ LCD TV.

“Can I watch SpongeBob on Nickelodeon while I eat cookie dough?” He asked, stuffing his free hand in the pocket of his stonewashed Lee jeans.

“Sure.” She looked up from the copper bowl as the TV lit the room with an image of a familiar face partially hidden by Ray-Ban Aviators. “Wait, leave it,” she said. And then she wished she hadn’t.

“Hey, it’s daddy. What’s daddy doing on TV?”

The camera zoomed out to reveal her husband wearing his favorite black Hugo Boss suit as he was being stuffed into the back of a blue and white police car. Benny looked over at his mother with a puzzled expression. This is when she dropped the Le Creuset spatula, fell to the Asian Mahogany Pergo floor, and hit her head on the half-open door of the Fisher & Paykel Dishdrawer.

Version Two.

Benny’s cherry red Converse sneakers squeaked their delight on the mahogany laminate floor while his mother stirred chocolate chips into the cookie dough using the wood-handled spatula with the non-stick surface that never failed her.

“Now?” asked Benny, his brown eyes barely visible beneath the blue, red and white of the too-big Chicago Cubs baseball cap.

“Not yet,” she answered, and she stirred some more, thankful for her copper mixing bowl and her Okite countertop and a pair of neon orange Crocs that might elicit snide comments from women who wear Giuseppe Zanottis and pretend not to enjoy shopping at Pottery Barn, but invite nothing but praise from her size-eight feet in the safety of her two-story brownstone.

“But I’m hungry now!” Benny picked at the Spiderman Band-Aid on his left wrist.

“Almost,” she said, a little more sharply than she intended, but Benny didn’t seem to notice. He had wandered into the living room and grabbed the remote from the back of the leather recliner and was aiming it at the TV.

“Can I watch SpongeBob while I eat cookie dough?” He asked, stuffing his free hand in the pocket of his stonewashed jeans.

“Sure.” She looked up from the bowl as the TV lit the room with an image of a familiar face wearing a pained expression partially hidden by Ray-Ban Aviators. “Wait, leave it,” she said. And then she wished she hadn’t.

“Hey, it’s daddy. What’s daddy doing on TV?”

The camera zoomed out to reveal her husband being stuffed into the back of a police car. Benny looked over at his mother with a puzzled expression. This is when she dropped the spatula, fell to the floor, and hit her head on the half-open door of the dishwasher.

And now, the explanation.

First of all, you’ll notice that there isn’t a huge difference between the first version of this scene and the second. This illustrates a very important principal of the editing process: it’s not always about sweeping changes – sometimes it’s all about the little tweaks. (BTW, some of my former cubicle-dwelling neighbors hate that word “tweak,” so I’m using it here mostly to annoy them in that friendly, poke-in-the-ribs-with-a-stick sorta way. Hi old editing pals!)

So what’s wrong with the first version? Well, it certainly does a good job of providing specific details. But sometimes, too much specificity can actually detract from a scene by drawing attention away from the heart of the story: the characters themselves. At worst, name-brand references (which, in moderation, add welcome verisimilitude) become little more than product-placement ads and the whole scene starts to look more like a catalog than a story.

So let’s look at the changes I made. Overall, I made the editorial call that there were simply too many brand names here and that some had to go. So which ones? Well, I cut the brand name and specific color of the flooring because “mahogany” and “laminate” give the reader enough information to picture it. And everyone knows what “chocolate chips” are – we don’t need to know they’re from Nestle unless that’s critical to the story somehow. (If the dad works for Hershey? Now that could give it purpose.)

The Cubs cap is perfect. Since most of us know the color of a Cub’s hat, you might wonder if we need the “blue, red and white”? No. But I liked the cadence of that sentence. So it stays.

You could easily argue to keep “Paderno” except that few people know about Paderno so eliminating the brand reference is no great loss. A copper bowl is unique enough to add texture to the setting. I kept the brand name for the countertop because it implies something about the mother’s knowledge of kitchens, and therefore (possibly) about how much she enjoys cooking. I edited out the color reference only because there are already so many details in this sentence. I might find a way to re-insert it somewhere else in the story because Italian words are so fun to read. Notice that I kept the rest of the details. Even if you don’t know who Giuseppe Zanotti is (and I sure don’t), it’s clear from context that the women are all about image over practicality. This contrast to the mom and her neon orange Crocs immediately tells you a ton about her that would have been lost with a generic description of the Pottery Barn ladies.

Spiderman stays. I mean, c’mon. It’s Spiderman.

Okay, the next paragraph was an easy fix. We don’t need to know how big the room is. We don’t need to know the brand of the remote (who would know the difference, anyway, except someone who has seen multiple remotes including the mentioned brand). And we don’t even need to know what kind or size of TV is in the room. The reader will draw his own picture there and that’s perfectly fine.

Two more easy cuts in the next paragraph. However… if part of what makes the Benny character unique is an unusual speech pattern whereby he always adds unnecessary details, then I’d keep his mention of Nickelodeon. I can cut “Lees” with ease, however.

I kept the Ray-Bans because it’s a familiar visual. Most people would see this exactly as the writer intended.

In the next paragraph I took the husband out of his suit. Did I have to? No. It might be important to the character. But the emotional impact of the scene is all about the mother’s reaction to seeing her husband being arrested. Unless the suit has a role to play in the story, we don’t need it here.

And finally, the last cuts are obvious. It simply takes too long for her to fall if we have to note every little detail of her Garden State moment. (Hey, it’s a movie reference. Didja get it? If not, ask someone who’s seen it. Or rent it yourself.)

And there you go.

As always, this is just one editor’s opinion. But if nothing else, I hope you understand the main point. What was the point? Um… you could have figured it out just from the title of the post. But thanks for reading this far anyway. I like you better than the people who didn’t.

Hey, tomorrow I’m introducing the next Noveldoctor writing contest. Sharpen your virtual pens. It’s going to be a good one.

Until then, happy self-editing.

Free Characters for Your Novel!

Is your plot dragging? Is your protagonist starting to annoy you with long, boring speeches that add nothing to the story? Are you contemplating plagiarism to fix the problem of a go-nowhere middle third of your novel? Well, put down that copy of The Pillars of the Earth (did you really think Follett wouldn’t notice you “borrowed” a few words?) and pay close attention to this post. I have the perfect solution for all your novel-writing problems: the introduction of a Brand New Character. That’s right, with addition of a BNC you can kick a dragging plot into overdrive or kick a protagonist in the asterisk so he or she stops blathering on about nothing and starts doing Very Important Things.

Today, and today only, I’ve got five, count’em, five BNCs you can add to your novel. And what’s the cost? Well, you’ve probably seen BNCs advertised for as much as $1000 elsewhere. But for you? They are Ab-So-Lute-Ly Free. You heard that right. Free. And they’re plug-and-play! Just select any one of the characters below, write him or her into your story, and watch the magic happen.

  • Sylvester Thorogood – Sylvester is a 64-year-old widower who recently quit his job as assistant manager of a local Ace Hardware, took the insurance money he got after his wife died in a tractor-pull accident (don’t ask) and bought a KOA campground he plans to turn into the “Disneyland” of KOA campgrounds. He has no hair (except for a gray ponytail which may or may not be glued on) drives a restored brown 1975 AMC Matador wagon, and is allergic to seafood.
  • Laverne DuPrix – Laverne is a seven-year-old girl who loves her first name and spells it out loud whenever anyone asks “what’s your name?” In fact, she loves spelling words so much she pretty much spells everything she says. She doesn’t have curly hair or sparklingly bright eyes, so don’t even try to work that into her description.
  • Skip (just “Skip”) – Skip is 19 and a high schooler (technically, still a junior) who may have actually forgotten his last name due to the drug-addled year his friends refer to as “the year Skip skipped.” He’s a really smart kid, but you wouldn’t know it because he only speaks when the topic of conversation interests him. And the only things that interest him are novels by Stephen King, serial killers, and angel food cake. With strawberries.
  • Pat Blurry – Pat is a forty-something woman who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “subtle.” No, you misunderstand. She really doesn’t know what the word means. Okay, and in addition to that, she wears gaudy, bright colors (think Carmen Miranda’s hat) and talks with a very loud voice that at times seems to have a southern accent and at other times a Canadian accent. She lives with a collection of exotic talking birds, one of which speaks only in profanities.
  • Gary Munson – Gary lost his high-profile job in the financial industry when the recession sent his firm into bankruptcy. He’s not a happy man. He has a gun. And he kills people. That’s all you need to know. (Keep him away from your protagonist. I mean it.)

Use your characters wisely. And have a good day.

[Fake Legal Disclaimer: While each of the BNCs will fit anywhere in a novel, they are officially certified to be effective only when inserted somewhere between the 20,000 and 40,000 word mark and only if The Writer doesn't change the BNC's name. Once a BNC is inserted into The Writer's novel, the BNC becomes the property of The Writer. Use of a BNC does not represent an implicit or explicit or illicit endorsement by the Noveldoctor or any real or imaginary members of the Noveldoctor Collective. Use of characters is at The Writer's own risk. Remember, never drink and write. Well, actually, that might not be such a bad idea. Especially if your novel is so troubled you're resorting to using a BNC. This ends the fake legal disclaimer.]

910 Words About Word Count

Okay, let’s do the math. (Approximate word counts noted.)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling – 257,000 words.

The Stand, Stephen King – 464,000 words.

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy – 560,000 words.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway – 68,000  words.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury – 46,000 words.

The Color Purple, Alice Walker – 67,000 words.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte – 108,000 words.

Your Novel, Your Name – ???

If you’ve finished a novel, you know how much ink, sweat and tears goes into the process of putting all those words to paper. So just how many words do you have in that book, anyway? If you’re like a lot of unpublished authors, you may have more words than you ought. (Or in rare cases, too few.)

Now, before I go one step further, I need to tell you my philosophy on word count. I believe a novel ought to include exactly as many words as necessary to tell the tale well.

No more. No less.

However, if you’re seeking publishing through traditional methods, you will soon discover that there is a generally-accepted word count for the book you just finished. Yup. That women’s lit masterpiece you just did a word-count check on? If it doesn’t fall within the 80,000-100,000 range, you may soon be experiencing that familiar writer-pang called rejection. I say may be because there’s a slim chance your 150,000-word novel is the perfect length. But unless it’s excellent, and I mean The Time Traveler’s Wife excellent, edigents (see yesterday’s post for definition of that word) will likely pass simply because it doesn’t fit the acceptable range. The same is true for your 50K word novel (which most publishers would qualify as a novella).*

I hear you. I really do. And I’m not going to sit here and tell you based on word count alone that your novel isn’t worth publishing. The list above includes a few rather spectacular novels – and every one of them falls outside the “sweet spot” publishers have informally adopted (for a variety of reasons, including market acceptance, printing cost, and even a little thing called “postage”). But if you want to avoid the “easy pass” from edigents, your best bet is to submit a novel that falls somewhere in that sweet spot.

So, what do you do with that 150,000-word novel you love so dearly? Well, you have two choices: cut 50,000 words, or set it aside. Cutting that many words from a novel isn’t easy. But it can be done.

I am working with two contracted novelists right now. One is writing his first full-length novel (his first published book was a novella – he was allowed outside of the sweet spot because his story had a compelling premise and offered a fresh take on the genre – so right there is living proof that there are exceptions). His first delivered draft for this new novel was over 140,000 words. I’m working away on his second draft and it’s already down to about 104,000 words. In my line edit, I probably will cut another 5,000 words or so. And here’s the best news: the novel is much stronger at 100,000 words than it was at 140,000.

Another previously-published author recently turned in his after-my-editorial-notes second draft. His task was a bit more daunting. The first version came in at a whopping 200,000 words. This is not that unusual for the genre he’s writing (fantasy), but his contract asked for a 100,000-word book, so he had work to do. Could we have convinced the publisher to increase the size of the book? Maybe. (And we did get approval to land closer to 120,000 words.) But to do that would require an increase in the cover price for the book (paper ain’t cheap). And that means (potentially) fewer sales. It’s all a balancing act, to be sure, but guess what? The author trimmed 80,000 words! Yes, you read that right. I’m reading and doing the line edit on the novel now. And as I am, I’m discovering it is…wait for it…better than it was (and it was already quite good). It’s dense – as fantasy novels often are – but in a good way. Like a fine wine reduction. (What? You’re surprised I know about wine reductions? Hey, I cook sometimes. Actual meals that don’t utilize the microwave.)

So my point is – it is possible to cut words from your hefty tome without killing it. I have two vivid examples right here in front of me. And out west there are two happy authors who like the result of their (admittedly painful and difficult) trimming work.

As I said above, though, you don’t have to trim your word count if you don’t want to. Set that novel aside. Or self-publish it. But if you want to improve your chances of getting published? Write a novel in the 80,000-100,000 word range and submit that. Then someday when you’re uber-successful, you can send your extra-long novel in for consideration. Just be prepared… even then, your editor might suggest trimming a few thousand words.

It’s what we do best.

Have a nice day.

*The word count range for Young Adult novels tends to be lower, in the 50,000-80,000 word range. Fantasies can sometimes tip the scales at 120,000 words. And historical fiction (not historical romance so much) may even go higher, upwards of 140,000 words. These are all estimates and please keep in mind there are always exceptions to the rule. The problem is…everyone thinks their book is the exception. This is not the case, otherwise it would be the rule, not the exception. Got it?

On the Subject of Subjectivity

Deep breath…

The Da Vinci Code is the best novel ever written. You know it’s based on a true story, right?

The Left Behind books are more well-written than anything by Fitzgerald or Hemingway or any of those boring Russian authors.

The Road. It changed the way I view dialogue said the man. And punctuation. His life was a series of fragmented sentences. And so was the book. The Road is not just Cormac’s tarmac. It is brilliance said the man. The boy turned his head and coughed.

Don’t you dare question the infinite incredibleness of The Lord of the Rings trilogy or a horde of orcs will pour out of your closet in the middle of the night and chop you up and feed you to the Balrog!

Atonement? [tap...tap...tap-tap...tap...] The best book ever written [tap-tap...tap...tap...tap-tap-tap] that features a typewriter as a main character! [tap...tap...zzzzing!]

I’d marry the Twilight books if I could. But only after months and months of chaste, yet extremely passionate longing. If you don’t agree, I’ll bite you in the neck.

Sigh. The Notebook. A Walk to Remember. I don’t care which one you choose, you absolutely have to fall in love with anything Nicholas Sparks writes. Of course, then something tragic will happen to you. But that will just make you love his books more. The most recent one? I don’t know what it was called, but it made me cry. They all make me cry. They should come with a box of tissues. Sigh. I just love Nicholas Sparks.

* * *

Hi, it’s me. Your noveldoctor. You breathing okay? I suspect a few of you might be experiencing some kind of emotional and/or physical distress. Go ahead and take a moment to calm down.

Okay. Wait a second. Some of you in the back row are still hyperventilating. Breathe in through your nose…now exhale through your mouth…


I really don’t need to say much more here. You know exactly what I’m going to say next, right?


Ha! Bet you didn’t see that coming. [I considered writing "Squirrel," because doing so would immediately divide the audience into two camps, thereby underscoring the point I will have beat to death by the end of the next paragraph. Camp one would have been all, "Ah, how cute. That's from 'Up'! I loved that movie!" Camp two would have smugly grumbled, "What a lame attempt at humor. That whole 'squirrel' thing is so yesterday. Get some fresh material, Parolini."]

Here’s the paragraph where I make the point you already see coming. When it comes to reading, subjectivity rules. What you love, someone else might hate. What you see as brilliant, someone else might see as pretentious or just plain stupid. Readers like what they like…because they like it. (Go ahead and get that tattooed down your spine. I won’t charge you a royalty. But please send me a picture.) Argue all you want about the literary merits of Brown or Meyer or Jenkins & LaHaye, millions of folks read and enjoyed their books. Does that mean you have to love them, too? Nope. Read your Nabokov. Your Tolstoy. Your Austen. Your  Marilynne Robinson. You’ve always read what you enjoy. Why stop now?

Okay, we’re about to make the leap from talking about “reader subjectively” to exploring “acquisition editor/agent subjectivity.” Lock the germ-infested metal bar tight against your legs, remain seated, and by all means, keep your hands and other body parts inside the vehicle at all times.


* plink *

We’re there. What’s that? You didn’t feel any dramatic stomach-drop excitement? Well, of course not, silly. That’s because there’s very little distance between your reading subjectivity and the subjectivity found in the agenting and editorial realms. Yes, editors and agents have a practiced understanding of “good writing” versus “bad writing” and they quickly pass on all “nowhere near good” manuscripts based on this somewhat objective (though not purely so) criteria.

But that’s not all they do.

They also rule out manuscripts that simply don’t grab them. In fact, they do this a lot. This is where the editor’s or agent’s selection process starts to look surprisingly like the reader’s selection process. You’re going to argue that agents and editors choose books that have a chance of selling. That their personal preference may play some role, but that it’s not the main factor. You would be right, at least in part. But… why does one manuscript look salable to an edigent (just coining a word here so I don’t have to keep writing “editor” and “agent” every time) and the next one doesn’t? Sub. Jec. Tivity. Whether the edigents are asking the question “would this sell?” or “do I like this?” they’re doing so through a filter uniquely their own. This is why it’s so important to seek out agents who represent books similar to the one you’re writing. I’m aware this is common sense. But sometimes I think writers skip this step and select agents based solely on how cute they look in their blog photo.

The book you’re submitting to agents? It might be a perfectly publishable book. (Or one with enough promise to be publishable at some point in the future.) And yet you get rejected. Once. Twice. It happens to nearly every writer. Even the ones mentioned above. Just keep working on the craft of writing. Do all you can to eliminate anything that would relegate your book to the “easy dismissal” category. Then do your research. Send it to more agents.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

We all know the hard truth: many novels, even some that are brilliantly written, won’t find a home on the shelf at your local Barnes & Noble. Yours may be among the missing. But the only way to be certain yours won’t make it to the shelf is to give up trying.

Don’t give up.

Listen. Learn. And hope that one day your study and persistence will pay off and that the gods of subjectivity will smile upon you and drop your manuscript in the lap of an edigent who just happens to love urban fantasies featuring a protagonist who is half unicorn, half stockbroker.

Now get back to work.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering. I just made up those comments at the top of the post. I do happen to like some of the books mentioned, but not all of them. Guess which ones I like and I might send you a prize.