Saturday, January 30, 2010

Introduce Your Protagonist as if He was Your First Born.

In continuing with the exercises from Donald Maass' book Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, below is one example of how I'll try to improve on the introduction of my protagonist Danny Killian in Omatiwak: Woman Who Cries when he first appears in chapter two. My goal is to present my reader with a character they can relate to, admire, and possibly like. Of course, anyone who knows me, knows I may end up revising this opening until the cows come home, probably 20x before I'm satisfied. But that's what the joy of writing is about: getting it better and better. It's called revising. And it's my favourite thing to do.

This is what I've got to date; it's subject to change several times before I'm done.

* * * *
Omatiwak: Woman Who Cries 
Chapter Two

RCMP Corporal Danny Killian slipped covers over his shoes, entered the residence through the service door and made a quick study of the open space. Four of his men were busy collecting evidence while Medical Examiner Betsy Spenser knelt beside the remains of an older gentleman sprawled face up on the kitchen tiles. By the puddle of blood under the victim's head and the brain splatter across the top of the island, it was safe to assume that this was in fact the crime scene.

The odour of death lay heavy in the room and even after fifteen years on the force Danny's eyes watered. He closed his mouth and inhaled shallow breaths through his nose.

Today would have been his and Angie's seventh anniversary. Seven years, and all he was left with was the familiar tinge of guilt. Guilt over not finding her killer, even though he was never officially on the case. But there'd been those three months on bereavement leave, then extra hours after work and on weekends investigating. For nothing.

And because his involvement in the case didn't go unnoticed, six months after he was back on the job, when he'd solved the serial killings in Surrey, E-Division used that opportunity to promote him and transfer him out. Danny guessed they were tired of his poor attitude toward the Force, an attitude he’d been advised to hide. Failing that, he chose Prince George because, besides being an hour's flight from any leads on Angie's murder, there were the twenty-years of missing person's cases on Highway 97. Maybe he could give these families some peace, if he couldn’t give himself any.
* * * *

After reading chapter one of Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, I realized my hero wouldn't step inside a crime scene carrying baggage from his life. He'd wait a moment, face whatever was interfering with the mindset, let it go, then do his job.

Hence the above passage changes to something like this for the time being:


Serious Crime Investigator, Corporal Danny Killian located the address dispatch had given him, parked his vehicle behind the coroner’s van in the driveway, and turned off the engine. The engine immediately began to cool, but Danny hesitated. There was a heaviness pushing in on his chest, and though he knew it was grief, he couldn't understand why it hit now. Where was the mindset?

He pulled his favourite photograph of Angie out of his inside pocket and cupped it in his palm. His hand trembled. He felt himself choke up.

Let it go, he warned. Focus on the job.

His transfer to the new detachment came with the agreement he’d attend mandatory grief counselling. Each week, the doctor greeted him, gestured to the nearest chair, sat across from him, and began by asking the same two questions, “How are you, Corporal Killian? Having any trouble focusing on your job?”

Each time he answered, “No, I’m not having trouble focusing on my job, doctor.”

And until that very moment, that was the truth.

Why now?

Because …?

He glanced at the digital clock on his GSP. Jesus! Today was December third, their seventh wedding anniversary. Seven years and all he was left with was the sensation of a cold steel blade sinking deep into his heart. Here he was at a new crime scene while his own wife’s murder went unsolved. A cold case. Anything over forty-eight hours was considered bad. Angie’s case was closing in on one hundred and eighty five days.

He stared at her photo and swallowed the lump in his throat. She died at the Lougheed Mall in Burnaby, the afternoon of May twenty-seventh. He investigated her death the three weeks he was on bereavement leave, then extra hours after work and on weekends; for nothing.

Because his involvement in the case didn’t go unnoticed, four months ago, after he'd found the evidence they needed to nail British Columbia’s third serial killer, E-Division used the opportunity to promote him and transfer him out. It was the kind of promotion he couldn’t ignore -- take it or consider yourself derelict. They were tired of his poor attitude toward police bureaucracy, an attitude he’d been advised numerous times to drop but couldn’t. His last act of defiance was to choose Prince George because it was only an hour's flight from any leads on Angie's murder. He kept his job because it ensued he had access to the resources he’d need if htere were any new clues. Then too, there were the three and a half decades of missing persons’ cases on Highway 16. He thought — hoped -- that he could give the families some peace – something he couldn’t give himself any.


Or just stupid?

He shook his head, stuck Angie’s photograph back into his pocket, whispered “Happy Anniversary, Baby,” then climbed out of his car. He walked to the open service door and told himself: Snap out of it – focus on the job. Inside the porch, he slipped covers over his shoes. He entered the residence, walked down a short hallway, and made a quick study of the open space. Four of his men were busy....

* * * * 
How are you all doing with exercise one? Is your protagonist the kind of hero you've always admired? I hope so. Meanwhile, I'm off to see how I can make his intro better.


  1. Joylene,

    I like the rewrite. I wanted to follow along with you on this but just don't have the time. Guess I'll have to settle for your progress.

    Sounds like I may need to buy a copy of this book.

  2. I'm a new author who has only written picture books, poetry, and articles so far. I've recently started my first YA novel. I'm going to learn alot from following your rewrites. Thanks.

  3. @Cher, a shortage of time is something I understand all too well. Drop in when you can; hopefully I'll have something helpful to pass along. Or one of my guests will. If my blog can make your writing life easier in even the smallest of ways, I'll consider this blog a success.

    @Kathy, that's why I'm doing this. If you and I can learn something together, well -- how kewl is that!

  4. You're ridiculously brave - posting your before & afters on your blog. I'm tweaking right now, getting amped up for my usual Saturday night marathon. (Kind of like stretching before exercise.)

    I like the rewrite - the action is more active & the tone grabs for more real-time sympathy. Maybe you could make his hand tremble when he cups the picture.

    Okay, that's enough from the peanut gallery here in Florida.

  5. Not so brave, really. Just having fun. I was surprised how many readers thought I was seriously showcasing an unpublished and unedited ms. Wouldn't do that. And wouldn't suggest anyone else do that either. Revising is actively improving your craft by revising, revising, revising.

    Thanks for the comment, Dave.

  6. "I'm a new author who has only written picture books, poetry, and articles so far. I've recently started my first YA novel. I'm going to learn alot from following your rewrites."

    Note to Kathy - ONLY? Not a shabby resume' if ya ask me. Sheesh! ONLY.

    Joylene - Thought it was awesome. Even I knew you weren't showcasing - just showing how things morph thru edits. Another Sheesh!

  7. Thanks, Dave. One of my readers spotted a spelling mistake: deviance! Haha. Oops.

  8. This looks like an excellent book/workshop. I have a book in me I want to get out, have 3 chapters written and lots of notes. Can't seem to find the time to devote to it, I would rather blog. But when I do finally sit down and try to get it out, any pointers or tips like these are going to be very beneficial!

  9. Hi Andi. Do check out Donald Maass' book when you've got time. He makes attempting such an endeavour enjoyable and stimulating. While you're at it, get a copy of Stephen King's On Writing. Totally inspiring, and a very quick read.


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