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Saturday, April 21, 2012

James Scott Bell
Twitter.com/jamesscottbell



Since I am the resident zombie fiction guy, the first page I’ve been given for critique is, not surprisingly:

Z.O.M.B.I.E. Squad:  Hot ZOMBIE Nights

Jaz surveyed the semi-dark alley after escaping from her BMW. Drat. ZOMBIES. Not what she needed at the moment. How would she explain this to her new boyfriend?  Not the ZOMBIES per se, but the fact that this would be the third time this week that she'd bailed on dinner with him. Well, if he was a quality catch, he'd let her make it up to him, if not, there were other non-ZOMBIES out there in the world. Right?

There was a screech of metal on metal, as one of the ZOMBIEs dragged something along the side of her M3, and it would definitely leave a mark.  Ok, “drat” just officially became “double-damn” the minute both her love life and her car became casualties. Being undercover with ZOMBIE International Technologies was never easy. Often it downright stunk, just like this alley. It always seemed to be us or them and just a street away from normal. Whoever thought that all aliens were smarter and more techno-savvy, never met a pod-ZOMBIE.

The pod-Zs looked almost as unearthly as they were. Jaz could see their sallow, waxy faces as they stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlight. Light-colored images of the humans they might have been. Ok, maybe she could see why someone who didn’t know better might think they were just the walking. Jaz’s chest heaved a bit as she took in one, deep, cleansing breath. It was warm, wet, and tasted a bit like the Cuban carne asada she’d planned on having for dinner. She sighed as she pulled the transonic pen-dart from her bra: her $100 Dior Du jour, lace alternative, super-sexy, continental blue bra, with matching underwear. Yes, they did match her Beemer perfectly. That should say something about the level of clothing perfection and date desirability she had worked so hard for as she prepared to meet up with 3DP-vid god, Wylie Taylor.

It pained her to risk her Dior bra by using it as a weapon holder, but without stockings, there were few choices to secure a pen-sized super weapon and keep it accessible.

****

Paranormal fiction. Zombies. You have to build a world, and that’s what the writer is attempting to do here, plus give us exposition to boot. And the instincts are good: weave the exposition within the action.

However, this opening is weighted too heavily on the informational (notice how “blocky” the text is on the page). It’s a common mistake made because the writer feels the reader has to be clued in to a lot of background before he can understand what’s going on.

Almost always a wrong choice. Because readers will wait a long timefor explanations so long as something is happening that is disturbing.

This first page delivers a great opening disturbance. To make it even more effective, let the action be primary and drop exposition in later, a bit at a time.

To show you what I mean, here is the opening rendered with just the action sentences:

Jaz surveyed the semi-dark alley after escaping from her BMW. There was a screech of metal on metal, as one of the ZOMBIEs dragged something along the side of the M3.

She could see their sallow, waxy faces as they stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlight. Light-colored images of the humans they might have been. 

She sighed as she pulled the transonic pen-dart from her bra.

***

I am much more in this scene now. I want to keep reading. I want to know what that thing in her bra does.

The author has me hooked, and can begin to drop in exposition as needed. But keep it brief. The next lines might be:

Being undercover with ZOMBIE International Technologies was never easy. Often it downright stunk, just like this alley.  

Then get back to the action. Then later the stuff about the boyfriend. More action. And so on.

Also, I’d cut: The pod-Zs looked almost as unearthly as they were. This is a “tell” just before the “show” of the next sentence. The latter creates a picture for the reader, who can then draw his own conclusion.

I like the voice that is “lurking” here. But it sounds “once removed,” e.g. in this line: That should say something about the level of clothing perfection and date desirability she had worked so hard for as she prepared to meet up with 3DP-vid god, Wylie Taylor.

This is the author commenting on Jaz, not something from Jaz herself. I wonder if the author might consider turning this into a First Person narration. Then the fun aspects of the voice could come out more naturally, e.g.:

I pulled the transonic pen-dart from my $100 Dior Du jour, lace alternative, super-sexy, continental blue bra, with matching underwear. Matched my Beemer, too. But this was about date desirability. Hard work, but then again it was 3DP-vid god Wylie Taylor I was going to meet up with.

If I ever got away from these Zs.

That’s just a suggestion, something to consider. You can achieve pretty much the same effect in Third Person, but you should make sure the narration sounds like thoughts your character would actually think, and keep author commentary out of it.

I like this concept. Hey, fun zombie thrillers are my bag. So hook me with action in this first chapter and drop in only the exposition that is absolutely, positively necessary for the understanding of the scene.

It is much less than you think. And a much better start without it.

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