A couple of weeks ago there was what you might call a mini literary dust-up here in Australia following the revelation that over a third of the winners of Australia’s most prestigious literary prize (the Miles Franklin Award) are now out of print.
This prize was only awarded as of 1957 so we’re not talking about ancient tomes, but rather a body of literature that some people at least regard as critical. In lamenting this situation, the director of the Melbourne Writers Festival said (and I quote) “the best writing is timeless, and without some recognition and understanding of our literary history, we’re forever focused on the new – as if history, knowledge and culture don’t play a part in our understanding of ourselves.”
In recent months there has been a lot of finger pointing about how people are losing touch with their literary heritage. This includes a lengthy debate over the failure of Australian universities to teach Australian literature and the generally shabby way in which our so-called literary darlings have been treated.
I recently attended a lecture intent on helping revive interest in some of the so-called Australian classics and I have to admit I did start to wonder – should we really be worried about such dire pronouncements about our so called literary heritage? Or does the fact that no-one is reading these novels only point to the fact that they aren’t really classics that have withstood the passage of time. Maybe (dare I say it) they are just too dull to survive?
Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of amazing books out there that are no longer in print. There are also classics, however, that continue to be as popular as ever (people are still reading Dickens and Jane Austen after all).
Should we really be force-feeding kids with books simply in the name of preserving ‘literary heritage’ (and to be honest I’m not sure I even know what this even means!)
Likewise I feel passionate that we shouldn’t neglect our literary past or ignore well-written books in order to merely pander to popular taste but the study of literature is (I hope) about much more than either of these things….
What does this say about the relevance of so-called ‘classics’ to readers today? Should we be forced to feel some collective guilt over what may just be a natural evolutionary process (whereby the torpid and the dull don’t survive?)
What do you think? No matter whether you live (and I’m assuming Australia isn’t alone in it’s predicament – although if it is, that might be even more telling!) do you think we should be concerned about our so-called literary heritage? Should we be worried about keeping the winners of prestigious writing awards in print – or should we just let history (and the readers) decide?
John Ramsey Miller
How can he be “more” stunned if he was sleeping and we didn’t see him stunned the first time? I might do something like this, “It was dark, but no darker than it had been on other occasions in the dead of night. Thank God the porch light was on and illuminating the bedroom (?) through a curtain redly. THE CLOCK!!! Dear Lord is that the time???” Or not.
So in reading this I’m not at all sure if it is dark or light? Is he is in bed or hanging from the ceiling? So… how does Max know what time it is? Wouldn’t the clock light the room somewhat? Or did the mad hatter tell him what time it is? How does he move without lifting his feet? When did he get out of bed? Did he leave the bed or is he astro-traveling? He is looking out of windows without getting out of bed! Is the driveway empty?
Okay, author. First of all, put yourself in Max’s house and maybe even in his bedroom. Imagine what is happening and what the reader is seeing, as you tell the story and slow down. Allow Max to actually do things as he goes from point A to… well you get the drift. Here is Max and this is what he’d doing. Don’t jump from his mind to the voice at the door. Is this about Max’s insanity? Or is everybody else is insane? Is this about Pod people? Would I read deeper into this? Of course I would. It’s hilarious. It isn’t very good, but I think it could be if it is fully thought through before being committed to paper.
For God’s sake go back and try again. And then you may have to try again after that. This can take years and hard work. This is a tough line of work and the righter you do it, the harder it is. Think hard before you write. Remember: if this is easy you are doing it wrong. “See” what you are saying. Don’t write what you have not seen like it actually happened. Tell me what you are seeing and feeling and smelling and tasting. Put me there. You may know what Max is thinking, feeling, doing, but I have to know what you know and see what you are seeing. Otherwise you are just playing at lining up words. I got nothing from reading this opening that I’m curious enough about to justify investing more time.
When I write, I am almost telling myself a story and typing it as I go. But I only write after I have thought all the way around and through the scene. In my opinion (and that is all it is) this piece is more sloppy scribbling than storytelling.
So go back at it and don’t quit if you know you can do better. If you don’t think you can, then get out now.
Please, for Christ’s sake… take the narration away from Max before he hurts someone and give it to his sister… At least she’s safely outside the house.
By John Gilstrap
My next book, Damage Control, hits the stands on June 5. In this edition of the Jonathan Grave thriller series, Jonathan steps into a trap when he and Boxers travel to Mexico to rescue a busload of missionaries from the hands of a drug cartel. Someone in Washington betrays him on what should have been a routine ransom drop-off, and the result is a lot of dead hostages and kidnappers. As Jonathan and Boxers escape with the lone survivor, the cartel and their sponsors in Washington move heaven and earth to stop him. Publishers Weekly gave the book a glowing review, and I’m pleased to report that my publisher, Kensington, is pulling out some new stops in the promotion department.
One of the coolest things I’ve been asked to do is a video blog that brings readers deeper into Jonathan’s world. I’m calling it “Jonathan Grave’s Arsenal.” In two-minute segments, I’ll give overviews and demonstrations of the weapons Jonathan has at his disposal. So far, I’ve completed videos highlighting Heckler and Koch’s 5.56 mm HK416 (designated the M27 by the US Marines), the Colt Model 1911 .45 caliber pistol, and the Mossberg 12 gauge shotgun. By the time I’m done, the series will cover, at a minimum, the 7.62 mm HK 417 and the amazing 4.6 mm HK MP7. I’d like to do some episodes on explosives, too, but I haven’t yet figured out the logistics of that, what with all those pesky ATF rules.
While I’ve written a few movies over the past decade or so, I haven’t actually shot one in a long time. The last time I edited a film, I used a home version of a Moviola, literally cutting the film and splicing it with tape.
When first approached about this video blog thing, I had no idea how I was going to do it. Sure, I have a digital camera that shoots video, but I’d never actually shot video with it. Plus, since talking heads are boring—and, in my case, shiny—I knew I’d want to do cutaways.
Well, lo and behold, my Windows 7 program comes complete with Microsoft Movie Maker, an editing program that is way more powerful than I would have imagined. More than adequate for my needs. You simply drag the segments you want to work with to the work window, and you can make precise cuts.
With the first episode in the can, as it were, my next challenge was figuring out what the hell to do with the 60MB files. They’d choke anybody’s email server. Enter: YouSendIt.com. For $149 a year, you can email an unlimited number of HUGE files to people. The Kensington team is thrilled with the results.
My only frustration—and I’m turning to you dear Killzoners for help—is how to do voiceovers in Movie Maker. From what I can tell, on the digital recording, the audio track and the video track are all together. Is this correct?
“Jonathan Grave’s Arsenal” will be exclusive to Barnes & Noble for the first few weeks of its existence, but then I’ll add it to my website and upload it to YouTube.
I feel a new obsession coming on. I deeply don’t need another obsession.
Today I’m offering a critique of an excerpt from VANGUARD RISING. I believe it serves as a great example of unexpected openings. Read on, and you’ll see why…
The darkness was all encompassing. Dan could turn in any direction and save for the glow from the radio in the dashboard[,] there was only black. It was very fitting, it matched his mood. He had been feeling the black, emptiness since he woke up this morning. It was getting late. He looked at the clock on the radio faceplate. It had just turned ten.
The glowing radio dial meant there was noise coming from the speakers in back. He didn’t hear any of it. He only heard the storm in his mind. You don’t amount to anything. You’re a failure. Nothing you do is right. He pictured every mistake he had ever made. Every embarrassing moment he had ever experienced was brought to the surface, magnified tenfold.
When he was up he didn’t think about those things. But he was down right now. Way down. And he had been this way for days. He couldn’t take it anymore. He wanted it to stop.
Dan knew this personal trial well. He would put himself through it almost routinely. This time was different. The void he felt in his belly would be silenced this time. For good.
He reached over and opened the glove box, allowing the door [to] drop freely. He sat and stared for a moment at his savior nestled inside. One of the many things he had inherited from his father after his death. The cold blackness of its six inch barrel seemed soothing to him somehow. It was a statement of ultimate control in his world.
He reached in and grabbed the checkered walnut grip. It seemed heavier than [it] was only a few hours earlier. In the dim light of the radio he read the barrel, Colt Python .357 Magnum. For some reason, maybe because she knew it had value, she had kept it instead of selling it to one of his father’s friends.
He had found the last of the ammunition in the house. His mother had thrown out all of it she could find after the funeral. It seemed fitting that he came across it this morning in the garage by accident. Eight rounds in the bottom of a toolbox drawer.
He needed something to give him a feeling of control. Knowing he had it was burning at the back of his mind all day. He had a gun, and now he had bullets to go with it. They were even the right ones, 145 grain Winchester Silver Tip hollow points. More than enough to do job.
He unlocked the cylinder and swung it open. Six rounds. He only needed one. With a quick flick of his wrist the cylinder and its lethal cargo snapped back into place. He pulled the hammer back quickly with his thumb. The trigger moved rearward in its housing. It was in single action mode. Just another four pounds of pressure and it would be over.
He raised the revolver up and placed the barrel under his chin. Four more pounds of pressure. The top of his head would most likely be blown off. The bullet would probably put a hole in the roof of the car. Four more pounds is all it would take. His index finger rested on the trigger hesitantly. Is this what he wanted? Four more pounds. With a squeeze of the trigger he answered.
Then came the blinding white light out of the darkness, and everything was once again black.
All in all, I think this is a very strong beginning. As I said at the outset, losing a character on the first page of a book is unexpected, and can do a lot to draw a reader in. I’m curious to find out why Dan was feeling depressed enough to kill himself, and to know who said those terrible things to him. Clearly he’s lost his father relatively recently–could that alone have been the impetus? I would definitely keep reading to find out more.
A few technical points. I inserted edits in brackets, where a word was needed to clarify what was happening. I also think that since he was given a name, it should be used more frequently: “Dan” in place of “he” in several more spots.
The language could also be trimmed some, which would help with clarity and would additionally serve to drive the reader toward the conclusion more rapidly. For example, “His mother had thrown out all of it she could find after the funeral” is a bit wordy. Better to say, “She’d thrown it all out after the funeral–except for the eight rounds in the bottom of a toolbox drawer. It seemed fitting when he’d come across them in the garage this morning.”
Also, there are a few places where punctuation could be used to strengthen the impact of a sentence. “With a squeeze of the trigger he answered,” might be better served by inserting a comma, “With a squeeze of the trigger, he answered.” I’d advise the writer to go back through this passage and carefully examine all the punctuation choices to make sure that they add to the narrative flow.
By Joe Moore
Here’s another submission to our first-page critiquing extravaganza. It’s called ARCTIC FIRE. Have a look. My thoughts follow.
Ben was excited. It would be his first year as a full time counselor at scout camp, a hard to get position he’d dreamed of since first attending as a Tenderfoot four years earlier. His brother Ian, three years younger, was a First Class scout attending his second camp and seemed proud of his brother’s position. Ian would only be at Gorsuch for a week while Ben would be there for two months. Ben hoped to give his brother something to attain to.
Ben was an exemplary scout, a member of the Order of Arrow. At fifteen he was within six months of earning his Eagle Scout rank. Only ten percent of all scouts complete the demanding path to Eagle. It had been hard work and he was going to complete it a full eighteen months ahead of schedule.
After two sessions of the National Youth Leadership Training School at Camp Denali he knew how to lead boys. He was aware of not only how to teach them the skills every scout should know, but knew how to prepare for any emergency he could think of, how to keep them safe on campouts and hikes, how to perform advanced first aid and wilderness survival.
And to top it all off, maybe most important for many of the scouts in his charge, Ben Sanders knew how to tell stories. It was a skill he had learned from his father whose skill at filling the boys imaginations with visions of mountain trolls, sea spirits and brave warriors was amazing. The only props his father used for his tales were a ratty old gray wool blanket and his story stick.
The well-worn birch walking stick had been made about the time Ben was born. Carved images of bears, wolves and eagles decorated the shaft just below the handle, worn smooth and shiny by his father’s own grasp, the oil and sweat of his palm rubbing the white wood to a sheen as if it had been polished and rubbed with varnish. And now, his father was handing the stick to him.
I’m not going to get into any nitpicking here even though there are a couple of punctuation errors. Despite the fact that this is decent writing, the major problem is that nothing happens. It is 100% narrative backstory. After reading it, I have no idea what the story is about, what’s at stake, what the story question is, and why I would want to read page 2.
I’ve spoken many times on this blog about the pitfalls of starting a story in the wrong place. And I along with my blog mates have tried to emphasize that there’s really no need for backstory at the beginning. This first page contains important information, but we don’t need to know any of it yet.
My advice to the writer: find a point in the story where something happens that jolts Ben Sanders out of his “ordinary” life into an extraordinary situation because of physical, mental or emotional stress. Delete everything that’s written up to that point. That’s where the story should start.
Thanks to the author for submitting this first page and good luck.
Today’s critique is for the first page of THE SET UP. My thoughts follow.
While I wait in line to pass through airport security, I check my pockets. Just my wallet, cell phone, and a ticket stub for the parking garage. And the envelope. No car keys. No knife. No gun.
I left my girlfriend, Carly, in Vlad’s Lexus with her iPad and orders to put the windows down if she smokes. Vlad is real particular about his car.
A ticket to Philly is in my hand, but I’m not going on any airplane ride. I just have it in case the TSA agent asks. I do this kind of thing all the time, but a trickle of sweat runs down under my shirt collar and I flinch.
They send me through the cattle gate, then wand me, and I grab the plastic tub with my stuff. Except the envelope. That’s still in my jacket pocket, damp with sweat. They stop an old lady ahead of me and give her the choice of getting groped or getting radiation sickness. She must be ninety.
It’s almost eleven o’clock, and it’s tough getting around all the moms with baby strollers and the stressed-out business types. I could use my size to push through, but I look at them and see the exhaustion on their faces and forget using my elbows and just walk.
I find Gate D11 and slow down to look for the men’s room. The setup is pretty standard. You pick an airport and name a gate that’s inside security, that way both parties have to go unarmed. Meet in the bathroom, make the exchange. Simple.
It’s a different Mexican every time, but we’ve done three trades with them so far and it’s gone fine. I see a stubby guy with a shaved head pop up from his seat, but then he goes to the window and gets on his phone. Not my guy.
10:59. I pat the envelope for the tenth time and go to the bathroom door. There’s a folding yellow sign in front, with a picture of a guy slipping and falling. I smile and go around it.
The bathroom is big and cold. …
* * *
I was drawn in by this first page, after stumbling a bit on the title. (The noun version of “to set up” should be “setup” or “set-up”.) I like the narrator’s straightforward, present-tense voice. Present tense and first-person POV are tricky to handle, but this worked well for me.
I thought the idea of having crooks meet at the TSA-controlled airport was fresh. I did wonder how the narrator had pulled this rendezvous off repeatedly, what with no-fly lists, and the fact that by now he must be on record for buying tickets he didn’t use. If nothing else, I’d think he’d be nervous about that aspect of it. He’s described as being generally nervous, but the more specific his fear, the better.
Overall, the setup of THE SET UP was handled efficiently and well. I did object to the use of generics (“Vlad” and “Mexican”) was too broad-brush for me, leading me to expect that I’m about to get a familiar Russian mafia vs. Mexican drug ring tale. I think it could use some compelling detail here to bring the reader more into the situation.
I got confused by the action flow. On the first read-through, when I read “I see a stubby guy with a shaved head pop up from his seat,” I assumed the narrator was already in the bathroom, and the guy was popping out of a stall. Later I wondered why the author described the bathroom as “big and cold” when he’d already been in there for a while. I had to pause and reorient myself. By preceding action with “Meet in the bathroom, make the exchange,” you’ve already put the reader’s head in the bathroom. Don’t then backtrack to the gate area for the guy popping out of his seat.
I thought the tension fell off a bit in the last paragraph, probably because I was confused during the first read, and thought he was exiting from the bathroom. I had no idea why he would smile, since he hadn’t made the exchange.
It should be an easy fix to focus the action so that readers won’t get confused by the flow. I admit that I’m relatively easily thrown as a reader. Not everyone would trip over the issues that misled me, but you don’t want to lose any reader on the first page.
Was I the only one who got confused? Anyone else have anything to add?
We have done a number of first-page critiques in recent weeks and I thought it might be a good time to think about how writers should respond to feedback and/or criticism. I think I speak for many when I say that dealing with criticism is one of the hardest things you have to do as a writer, especially when you get a myriad of comments, some of which are contradictory!
Even some of our recent critiques show that feedback can be a very subjective thing – what might be a really compelling first page for one person may be a complete let down for another…so how should writers handle criticism?
I think first and foremost, you need to take note of consistent feedback about a particular aspect of your writing. With many of our first page critiques there was a commonality of responses – often that the page involved too much ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’, or that it failed to have sufficient dramatic weight to tug a reader into the story. This kind of consistent feedback is useful stuff and, though sometimes a writer has to suck it up, it’s worth listening to.
It becomes more problematic when there are contradictory comments, especially if the feedback is ‘this really worked for me’ versus ‘this didn’t work at all for me’. Such contrasting responses are harder to deal with – not merely because you can never satisfy everyone (if you did it would be way too dull a world!).
Here is my rule of thumb: If it speaks to me as a valid criticism (deep inside, once I get past pride and ego…), then I take it on board. If not, I seek additional validation from others that I trust, to see if they agree that the criticism has merit. Many times, especially in a writing class, some criticism is more about the reviewer’s own issues that the work itself.
As a writer you have to get used to all forms of criticism, because you’ll get it from fellow writers, readers, agents, editors and reviewers. How you respond can be indicative of how seriously you take your art. Here at TKZ, I have been very impressed by how the people who have fessed up to their submissions have taken the critiques and comments provided. Everyone has behaved professionally and has been gracious and respectful of the feedback offered. Thankfully, we have seen for the most part only insightful and helpful commentary…but for many of us, there will come a time when it won’t be, and we will have to work out how to respond (or if to respond at all, as sometimes it is better to remain silent!). It could be the crazed one-star Amazon reviewer, or the snarky anonymous commentator…or it could even be a scathing review in a prestigious book review (we can dream, can’t we!)
So, how have you all found the first page critiques so far? Are they helpful in a wider sense or limited to the author who submitted them?
Have you ever had a really wrenching ‘criticism’ moment – and, if so, how did you deal with it? Were you tempted to get into an all out flame war with someone who dissed your work or did you just take a deep breath and hoped to disappear into the floor?