About Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Her first novel, Consequences of Sin, featuring the Oxford graduate, heiress, and militant suffragette Ursula Marlow, was published in 2007. This was followed by two more books in the series, The Serpent and The Scorpion (2008) and Unlikely Traitors (2014). Consequences of Sin was a San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area bestseller and a Macavity Award nominee for best historical mystery. http://www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com/

First Page Critique: Tenor Trouble

Today’s first page critique is entitled Tenor Trouble, and raises many of the issues we’ve addressed here at the TKZ such as the appropriate entry scene for a novel, the use of description/backstory, and clarity in POV. Kudos to our brave author for submitting this page. My comments follow.

Tenor Trouble

“Oh no, my dear. No. You simply should not even think about auditioning for this role.”

Melissa stared at her teacher, all joy flooding from her. “I shouldn’t?”

“No, no.”

Helena Montague tapped her lacquered fingernails on the shiny surface of the vocal score for Othello, which had arrived from Amazon that morning.

Melissa had been delighted that she had caught the postman before she had to leave the flat for her ten-thirty seminar on Media Adaptations of Dickens, because she went straight from work to get to Glasgow in time for her singing lesson. It was possible, of course – even probable – that the Grande dame of British opera already had the score somewhere on the shelves that lined the music room in her elegant West End townhouse, but some instinct had made Melissa hold back on mentioning her plans until she had her own copy in her own hands.

It made it real, somehow. Melissa had been so keen to get her score that she hadn’t waited for the bulk order for the company to come through from Harmony Music, but had summoned one overnight from Amazon as soon as the choice of show was officially confirmed. Not that there had ever been a great deal of doubt about whether Agnes Farquhar’s choice of Verdi’s Otellofor Doric Opera’s next production would be voted through by the Committee.

And when she had ripped off the cardboard packaging in her kitchen that morning, and gazed reverentially at the glossy cover – identical to last year’s score, with the exception of the name of the show, framed in red – she marveled at how lightweight and relatively slender the book was. It was astonishing to think that this insubstantial volume held within it the whole of such a great work.

Now she looked at the same score on the lid of the baby grand piano, tingling with dismay. “Um – why?”

My Comments

Overall Feedback

First off, I thought the first three lines of dialogue worked really well at capturing my attention and interest. Unfortunately, after that, there is far too much narrative about Melissa’s purchase of the score for Othello and her traveling to her singing lesson, which stalls the action and drains the first page of the initial dramatic tension established.

The key to this first page is, I think, establishing emotional resonance. We want to feel (and care about) Melissa’s anticipation about auditioning as well as her dismay when her teacher immediately dismisses the prospect. To do this, the author could easily reduce the various paragraphs to one or two sentences. For example, something like “Melissa clutched the glossy score to Othello that she’d eagerly had shipped overnight and stared at Helena Montague, once the Grande Dame of British opera, in dismay.” Then the scene could immediately move to providing us with more action to give the reader a tantalizing glimpse of the novel to come.

I’m assuming the novel isn’t just about Melissa’s dashed hopes so I’d like to see some kind of foreshadowing of the drama (or mystery) to come. If this is a murder mystery, the reader should start to feel a sense of anticipation that a crime is about to occur.

More Specific Comments

Dialogue

I thought the dialogue was effective – from the initial first line I already had a good sense of Helena’s arrogance as well as Melissa’s insecurity. The teacher-student relationship was obvious. I think more dialogue rather than narrative would have strengthened this first page. That being said, we also need more action in order to become committed to following (and caring about) Melissa as a character. The dialogue so far makes her seem insecure and submissive (although that is possibly understandable when faced with the Grande Dame!).

POV

I confess I got a little confused at the start when the POV seemed to shift from Melissa to Helena Montague tapping her lacquered fingers (an image I liked BTW) on the vocal score that had arrived from Amazon that morning. It made me think (incorrectly) that it was Helena who ordered it. I think this page would work better if the author stuck close to Melissa’s POV and we knew quite clearly that we were observing Helena through her eyes.

Extraneous Information

As I already noted in my overall comments, there is far too much background detail in this first page that weighs down the scene. Do we really need to know that Melissa has a ten-thirty seminar on Media Adaptations of Dickens? Likewise, do we need details such as it was Agnes Farquhar’s choice of Verdi’s Otello for Doric Opera’s next production or that a committee voted on it? Probably not. Even though Melissa’s delight and reverence for the score packs some emotional punch, this could be portrayed more succinctly. We don’t need all the details regarding her ordering it on Amazon, intercepting the postman, or how she felt opening the package.

A first page is the reader’s initial entry point to the story and so every line, every word counts. My advice to our brave submitter would be to get straight to the heart of the matter and the initial incident which (I assume) sets up the conflict for the rest of the novel.

First Scene

One question I would ask our submitter is whether he or she thinks this is the best place to start the novel – could this confrontation occur perhaps later in the first chapter or even in chapter 2? Since I’m not sure where the story is heading, I can’t answer this myself but I do wonder if this chapter contains sufficient dramatic weight to start a novel. Although Melissa’s disappointment is evident, we probably need more intrigue/drama to become fully invested in her as a character. Sometimes it helps for a writer to take a step back and re-evaluate the best place to start the story so that it grabs the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go. Maybe (and I don’t have any idea about the actual plot for this book so I’m just throwing it out there) this novel starts with the discovery of Helena’s body and then moves to this scene as Melissa grapples with her mixed feelings over her singing teacher’s demise…

All in all though, well done to our brave submitter.

So TKZers what feedback would you provide or add?

 

 

2+

By The Book

One of my favorite parts of reading the NYT Book Review is reading the interview in the ‘By the Book’ section (you may also recall some controversy when an author poo-poo’d genre fiction in one such interview). I love seeing that other writers have far too many unread books on their nightstands and that, quite often, are as disappointed by some of the so-called ‘great books’ as we all are – it’s also a great way to get insight into the workings of a writer’s mind, their literary loves and hates, their passions as well as their favorite authors.

One of this week’s questions prompted this particular blog post – after all it’s Memorial Day weekend so most of us are enjoying a long weekend, hopefully spending at least some time thinking about those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country (and saying a thank you to all that have and who continue to serve) as well as setting some time aside for reading and/or writing.

The question this week was: What’s your ‘go to’ classic? And your favorite book no one else has heard of…

For me, my ‘go to’ classic is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I studied it in my final year of high school and fell in love with it (so much so that my husband even bought me one of those prints that recreates the entire book in the shape of the continent of Africa). There’s something about the journey itself (both physical and metaphysical) as well as the lush, powerful prose that lured me in and wouldn’t let go. If I was asked to take one book to a desert island, Heart of Darkness would be it (despite the fact that it’s hardly the most uplifting tale to have with you!).

The second question is equally easy for me to answer and stems back to another book I studied in my final year of high school. It’s a book by an Australian author, David Malouf, entitled An Imaginary Life and, although it’s about the Roman poet Ovid in exile who encounters a feral child, it really deals with the whole concept of knowledge, language, imagination, civilization, man’s relationship with nature…you get the picture. Again, the lush, poetic prose is what really drew me in, as well as the amazing ability of David Malouf to describe the most complex, deep rooted concepts in the most simple yet magical terms.

I was recommended this book by my English teacher after I couldn’t get into the assigned text, Fly Away Peter (also by David Malouf). This novel is set in Australia during the First World War and, after being obsessed with British First World War poets and books like Testament of Youth, it seemed too simplistic and understated to appeal to my more dramatic tastes. My teacher, however, wisely told me to read An Imaginary Life first and then re-read Fly Away Peter…and I fell in love not only with An Imaginary Life but also David Malouf (I’ve bought and read every novel of his since). Reading that book was an almost mystical experience and yet (sadly) it’s not a novel I think many people have heard of…

So TKZers in the spirit of ‘By the Book,’ what is your ‘go to’ classic and what is your favorite book that no one else has probably heard of?

 

 

2+

Do you Have a Business Model?

Recent blog posts by Laura Benedict and Jordan Dane here at TKZ on backlists and  embracing new writing challenges, got me thinking about how writers approach the business side of being a writer. Indeed, I just finished Jane Friedman’s recent book entitled ‘The Business of Being a Writer’ (which is excellent BTW) so I’ve been ruminating on this for a few weeks.

At the moment, I am in the thick of trying to finish the first draft of my current WIP before summer hits and my boys are home from school (which, no surprise, tends to make it harder to get writing done!). My agent already has quite a few projects to juggle, but one element I’ve really not been focusing on is the business model for my writing. My principal aim over the last few years has been to focus solely on my writing (with just a bit of social media thrown in) as I’ve been exploring YA, MG as well as adult historical fiction. In doing so, however, I haven’t really been exploring new opportunities for my writing (such as Radish) or adhering to any real kind business plan.

Now, I feel at some point I need to take a step back and evaluate issues such as author platform, branding, backlist, and identifying new opportunities as part of a longer term strategic plan. However, just thinking about it all is making me anxious as I realize how far behind I’ve probably fallen. So TKZers, perhaps you can help.

How are you approaching the business side of your writing career? How do you view author platform and branding? Do you have a long term strategic plan? How are you identifying new opportunities and outlets for your writing?

3+

Beach Reading

I am in Cancun, hopefully sunning myself (with an appropriately large hat and SPF 100 on),  for today’s blog so wanted to get some beach reading recommendations. I’ve managed to convince my husband to read the excellent Australian mystery by Jane Harper, The Dry, while I indulge in some YA reading and research for my current WIP. I’ve also got James Comey’s  A Higher Loyalty to read – but I’m not sure that qualifies as much of a beach read! On spring break I started to read Sarah Perry’s Essex Serpent but found it was too dark and damp to read at the beach…so that’s been set aside for a rainy day. It’s funny how you need just the right combination of intrigue and atmosphere when you’re trying to relax:)

So TKZers, what are you looking forward to reading this summer? Are there some juicy new mysteries or thrillers you would recommend for by the beach, by the lake, or for up in the mountains? I’m planning on spending quite bit of time up in the mountains this summer while my boys are on Boy Scout and Avid4 camps – so I need some good recommendations for books that can keep me up turning the pages at night. I haven’t had one of those reads in ages!

Thanks in advance! I’m hoping to be able to check in on your recommendations while sipping cocktails beneath a beach umbrella:)

 

 

3+

First Page Critique: Gideon

Happy Monday! Today we have a first page critique from a dystopian novel – the extract we have is from a chapter entitled Gideon so I’m not sure if this is the first page to the novel itself or merely to a later chapter. The author who submitted this also provided an overview of the dystopian world he/she has created but I’m just going to focus on the page itself – as this is typically how a reader would first immerse themselves in the world  (and we at TKZ don’t typically go through a synopsis or overview for the pages we review). Suffice to say this novel takes place in the near future after a Third World War that has obliterated civilization in a nuclear strike. My comments follow after the extract but I do think this first page critique illustrates the need for clear, consistent world building for any novel that relies on a futuristic or alternative world that is unfamiliar to a reader.

Gideon

On his way to his scheduled fear desensitization treatment at the House of Pain, Gideon Guidry and his friend Paul Roseau had stopped at the Iron Byrd Tavern, where Gideon’s friend Paul, who had made several visits himself, felt sympathy for poor Gideon had purchased several large pink glasses of Le Grand Courage, a rare and expensive French wine for him, and began slurring his words, as the two shared the wine and sat discussing Gideon’s pending appointment and possible death sentence.
Gideon gulped the wine as if he had spent the day in the desert without liquids and as if wine would never be available again, to bolster up his courage for the day ahead.
Paul said, “You know they steal your memories and sell them to those rich citizens up on the Excelsior level of Sanitorium.”
  “No, you must be kidding. They wouldn’t dare.
  “They would, and they do. “Paul said.
  “And people go along with this? “asked Gideon.
  “Either the poor subversives don’t realize it is happening to them, or they just pretending it isn’t happening to them. No one has the courage to face the whip on Public Punishment Day. So, there really is no way, you can avoid the treatment. Why not fake an illness? ”Paul suggested, Gideon just shook his shoulders and said, “There is no point in putting it off. They will get me eventually and then I’ll be in the punishment square. Might as well get the dammed thing over. Right?”
  “No, OK, maybe. Well, let’s at least meet up tomorrow anyway and you can tell me how it went. My prayers are with you, my old friend.”
  Now Gideon was like a bull seeing red, as hate poured over Gideon’s soul like hot grease on a cook stove, imaginary smoke came out of his ears, as he stood there his hands shaking, his fist balled up tight, as he faced this indignity stoically and stood in front of the old converted psychiatric hospital. Surprisingly, near the front entrance, he saw a large pile of rotted timbers stacked neatly up against the sleek new part of the House of Pain and thought, I wonder what that stuff is for? Then, he thought, oh, I hope it is not what I think it is?
  Then, Gideon thought, Am I Drunk enough? Am I strong enough?  To hide the deep dark secret.

My Comments

As always, bravo to our brave submitter for providing us with an extract of his/her work to review. Even though I don’t typically write these sorts of novels, I’m a huge fan of works that fall in both the dystopian and science-fiction genre (which this clearly seems to do). When reading these genres, I look for the following: (1) novelty and clarity in world building; (2) an immersive experience that surprises or shocks me with details or events and; (3) something unique that sets apart the world from others I’ve read. Given how many novels have been set in a post-apocalyptic world it is very difficult to achieve all three.

Rather than providing an overview as I usually do followed by specific comments, this time I’m going to provide notes embedded in the extract itself – in bold and italics – as I think this is a more effective approach.

Extract with my notes:

On his way to his scheduled fear desensitization treatment at the House of Pain, Gideon Guidry and his friend Paul Roseau had stopped at the Iron Byrd Tavern, where Gideon’s friend Paul, who had made several visits himself, felt sympathy for poor Gideon had purchased several large pink glasses of Le Grand Courage, a rare and expensive French wine for him, and began slurring his words, as the two shared the wine and sat discussing Gideon’s pending appointment and possible death sentence.

This sentence is far too long and unweildy. The use of ‘had’ seems redundant in the use of the past tense. The ‘House of Pain’ and ‘fear desensitization treatment’ kind of make sense but when we learn that this appears to be a public whipping I’m not sure what the purpose of this treatment really is….or why this might be a death sentence. The world I’m expected to suspend disbelief and inhabit doesn’t seem entirely consistent. The description of a tavern in particular is hard to reconcile in a more sci-fi post apocalyptic world (sounds more fantasy/middle ages). I need to believe that this world has ‘taverns’ and pink French wine called ‘Le Grand Courage’ even if it also sounds pseudo science-fiction. 

Gideon gulped the wine as if he had spent the day in the desert without liquids and as if wine would never be available again, to bolster up his courage for the day ahead.

Gulping wine as if ‘he had spent a day in the desert without liquids’ and ‘as if wine would never be available again’ and ‘to bolster up his courage’ is too much – one of these reasons would have been fine and I’m also confused: In this post apocalyptic world, why is wine available? Are there still deserts even? 

Paul said, “You know they steal your memories and sell them to those rich citizens up on the Excelsior level of Sanitorium.”

More confusion – so do they steal the memories of pain/fear desensitization treatment? If so, why would rich citizens want them? If they are stealing other memories, how and why does this occur and how does this fit into the discussion of what is going to happen to Gideon at the House of Pain?

“No, you must be kidding. They wouldn’t dare.
  “They would, and they do. “Paul said.
  “And people go along with this? “asked Gideon.
  “Either the poor subversives don’t realize it is happening to them, or they just pretending it isn’t happening to them. No one has the courage to face the whip on Public Punishment Day. So, there really is no way, you can avoid the treatment.

This makes it sound like the memories are of the whipping – but how does Public Punishment Day relate to the House of Pain/Fear desensitization treatment? Again, I’m confused as to what this discussion is really about. Would Gideon really think people might go along with having their memories stolen? Why are we now talking about subversives when before it sounded like everyone went to the House of Pain for treatment (Paul, after all, had already made several visits). Also, why in a dystopian world wouldn’t ‘they dare’ steal memories (I mean they are happy to whip people in public…)

Why not fake an illness? ”Paul suggested, Gideon just shook his shoulders and said, “There is no point in putting it off. They will get me eventually and then I’ll be in the punishment square. Might as well get the dammed thing over. Right?”
  “No, OK, maybe. Well, let’s at least meet up tomorrow anyway and you can tell me how it went. My prayers are with you, my old friend.”

So you can avoid treatment by faking an illness? Seems incongruous for a society/government that inflicts treatment at the ‘House of Pain’ to allow people to delay just because they don’t feel well…again this goes to presenting a consistent and authentic feeling world for a reader. If a reader is confused or has to ask these questions, then the world building isn’t clear.

Also, it seems very strange that Paul which say ‘let’s meet up tomorrow and you can tell me how it went’ when he’s already endured ‘several visits’ to the House of Pain. Not only does this minimize what was described in the first paragraph as a ‘possible death sentence’ it also robs the scene of dramatic tension.

Finally, there is a missing quotation mark before Paul’s comment. As we always emphasize here at the TKZ, an author must go over his/her work to ensure it is error and typo free before sending it to an agent or editor.

Now Gideon was like a bull seeing red, as hate poured over Gideon’s soul like hot grease on a cook stove, imaginary smoke came out of his ears, as he stood there his hands shaking, his fist balled up tight, as he faced this indignity stoically and stood in front of the old converted psychiatric hospital.

Notes: Again, way too many descriptions/similes going on here – to the point where it almost seems humorous…and how did he get from the tavern to standing in front of an old converted psychiatric hospital (which I’m assuming is part of the House of Pain)?

Surprisingly, near the front entrance, he saw a large pile of rotted timbers stacked neatly up against the sleek new part of the House of Pain and thought, I wonder what that stuff is for? Then, he thought, oh, I hope it is not what I think it is?
  Then, Gideon thought, Am I Drunk enough? Am I strong enough?  To hide the deep dark secret.

I’m confused as to what the pile of rotting timbers were for – a hanging? A funeral pyre? Again, the punishments inflicted in this society sound more medieval that future/post apocalyptic so it is vital that this world is described in a way that the reader believes it has sunk back into medieval style punishments (which doesn’t seem to fit with having the technology available to steal people’s memories…). The final line also isn’t clear as we have been given no sense up to this point that Gideon is hiding any dark secret. 

Final Comments

Overall, my key concern here is world building consistency – especially in a genre that necessitates something different/unique to set it apart from all the other dystopian worlds out there. The writing could easily be tightened up but this dystopian world has to be clear to both the author and the reader. Believe me, I know how hard it is to create a world and to ensure all the elements are there on the page, rather than just in your head – but in this genre it is critical.

So TKZers, what comments do you have for our brave submitter?

 

5+

How to Handle Critiques

After undertaking quite a few first page critiques here at TKZ, it occurred to me that it might be timely to (re)consider the role of critiques and, perhaps more importantly, how a writer should handle the feedback received.

Receiving criticism, even when constructive (but especially when it isn’t!)  is never a pleasant experience (and trust me, I’ve been there many, many times) but it’s a vital part of any writer’s review process. The tricky part comes when the feedback provided isn’t consistent – which quite often it isn’t (Hint: when the feedback is consistent, it’s usually worth considering!). As we’ve seen here at TKZ, reviewing someone’s writing is a very subjective experience. So how should a writer handle multiple points of view, advice and feedback?

Here are some of my thoughts – based on my experience with beta readers, reviewers, writing groups, agents and editors….

Trust the opinion of those you admire and who genuinely want you to succeed in your writing.

I would say everyone who provides feedback here at TKZ is supportive of the brave souls who submit their work for a first-page critique – so this comment is more directed to other reviewers or writing groups, where sometimes the quality of the feedback provided may be colored by differing degrees of experience as well as intention (just saying!) so make sure the advice you’re getting is from people whose honest opinion you admire and trust. This also means not seeking opinions solely from friends or family members who may hold back on giving you an honest appraisal out of fear of hurting your feelings.

Look for consistent themes in the feedback provided.

If everyone has difficulty say with the voice or POV you’re using in your work, even if their advice differs on how to fix that, I’d genuinely consider the issue. If a consistent ‘flaw’ is identified by multiple reviewers, then it’s always worth take a close look at the problem even if, as the writer, you disagree with the solutions offered.

Avoid comments that are vague and focus on the specifics.

There’s not much a writer can do with ‘I just didn’t like the character’ feedback so it’s much better to focus on specifics rather than vague generalities. That being said, if everyone gives you the same (albeit vague) feedback, then fundamentally something isn’t resonating with readers so, as a writer, I’d take that feedback on board and see what I could do to fix it.

Discuss comments and feedback with those your admire and trust

Sometimes, when my agent has identified an issue I haven’t even thought of, and none of my beta readers have identified, I’ll go back to them with her comments – and 9 times out of 10 they will agree…so it’s always worth bouncing ideas and feedback with your reviewers. This often leads to greater clarity and consistency in terms of what may not be working in a story.

When multiple, conflicting, but specific feedback is given, go with what feels right for you… 

This is the trickiest aspect of dealing with inconsistent feedback and, as writer’s gain more experience, it does get easier to identify what rings true and what doesn’t. In one of my writing groups, I’d sometimes get random feedback that I quickly realized was completely wrong for the genre of book I was writing, or which led me down a path that wasn’t going to work for me. It’s extremely hard, though, to sift through all the comments given in a writing or critique group and know what feels right. In that situation, I’d go back to my initial comment about relying on the feedback of those you trust and admire and who really want you to succeed in your writing.

But also take a big step back to see what the heart of the issue might really be…

One of our TKZ alumni, Larry Brooks, identified it best in his book ‘Story Fix’ – where he noted that what brings a story down is often less about the writing and more about the inherent appeal and strength of the story itself. So when digesting the plethora of feedback  you’ve received, I’d initially classify the advice into two buckets (1) feedback on the actually mechanics of your writing (weak grammar, clumsy sentence structure etc.) and (2) feedback that goes to the heart of the story you are trying to tell (POV, appeal of characters, dramatic tension etc.). It’s much easier to fix issues that reviewers identify in bucket number (1). Feedback the falls into bucket (2), may require you to take a long hard look at the concept and premise of your story. That doesn’t mean despairing, it just means going back to identifying the core of story you are hoping to tell and seeing whether it holds up under scrutiny. That could be the first step in identifying what is going wrong and the best way of rectifying it.

So TKZers, what advice would you give, particularly to our brave first page submitters, on handling multiple, sometimes inconsistent, feedback when it comes to your writing?

8+

First Page Critique: The Heights of Valor

Happy Monday TKZers! Today, I have a first page critique that I think is really terrific – which means I don’t have a lot of comments as a result (though I have some you can read at the end). I think this submission demonstrates what a tight, well-written, historically authentic first page should look like!

THE HEIGHTS OF VALOR

Platteville, Wisconsin

April 26, 1898

The white-haired man behind the desk threw the newspaper down on the blotter. “It is completely out of the question,” Jeremiah Dawson sat back in the leather chair and stroked his beard. “The semester is not yet over. If you fail to complete the term, you shall not graduate with your class next year.”

The well-built young man sitting in front of his elder responded with a sober nod. “I am aware of that, Father. After my service in Cuba, I can return to the campus and take my final examinations. I have spoken to my professors. My standing in the class has earned me some measure of…leeway, let’s call it.”

“Charles, I–”

The young man leaned forward. “If you’re concerned about me delaying my joining the firm, rest assured, Father, I have every intention of coming back here once I complete law school. When the new century dawns, I will be here, at your right hand. Just as you and Mother planned all these years.” He sat back, crossed his legs and joined his hands. “I know that was her wish, God rest her soul.”

“It was most certainly not her wish for her only son to become cannon fodder.” The older man frowned, then stood, boosting himself up with a hand on the heavy oak desk. He reached for a cane. “You have no idea,” he whispered, shaking his head. He walked to the display case on the far wall of the office, unable to hide his limp. Pausing before the case, he placed a hand on it. “Son, war is not a lark. It is not…it is not some grand adventure.”

The young man stood, tugged at his waistcoat, and strode confidently to his father’s side. He moved with the easy grace of an athlete, and indeed he was one of the best boxers at the University of Wisconsin. He’d also taken up polo, further developing the horsemanship skills he’d honed riding through the ridges and valleys of Grant County. Fully three inches taller than his father, he stood next to the old man and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I understand that, Father,” he said. “Truly, I do.”

“That is not possible. You have not seen the elephant.” He flipped the latch and raised the glass lid. Reverently, he reached down and touched the old sword that rested on the red velvet. “If it is glory and adventure you desire, Cuba is the last place you shall find it.”

Comments

I think this is a great first page. The conversation between Charles and his father has a nice balance of tension, affection, and drama when it comes to why Charles wants to go serve in Cuba. I found this first page compelling and I would certainly continue reading. Even after just one page I have a good sense of the relationship between father and son, their expectations, and the conflict between them. I can already visualize both characters and have an understanding of who they are and what motivates them. Without having a whole lot of historical information, there’s just enough provided to set the scene and the dialogue and descriptions provided feel authentic for the time period.

If I was to be nitpicky I might say there were just a tad too many adjectives and description for Charles but that really didn’t bother me (although I was wondering if the writer meant ‘somber’ nod as opposed to ‘sober’ nod). I wasn’t totally sure about the reference to the elephant (seemed a strange nickname for a sword) but again, that didn’t bother me. Overall, I think this first page is tightly written and compelling. Bravo, to our brave submitter!

So TKZers, what comments or advice would you provide?

8+

Micro-Progress Your Novel

A few weeks ago I spotted an article in the New York Times entitled ‘Micro-Progress and the Magic of Just Getting Started’ (you can read it here) and realized it was tailor made for us writers (especially after I’d seen a number of posts on my writing groups about writers writers feeling overwhelmed about their projects).

The idea of ‘micro-progress’ is simple: For any task you have to complete, break it down to the smallest possible units of progress and attack them one at a time.

In many ways, it’s an obvious concept. But what caught my eye, was the fact that studies had shown that micro-progress (or establishing micro-goals) can actually trick the brain into increasing dopamine levels, providing satisfaction and happiness. Sounds like the perfect plan for anyone facing the daunting prospect of completing a novel:)

Online I was seeing posts from people who felt overwhelmed by revisions, who were despairing that their novel had run aground mid way through, or who were experiencing chronic writer’s block and desperate for advice. In all of these situations, focusing on ‘micro-progress’ seemed a useful place to start.

The concept of ‘micro-progress’ has also helped me. I currently have a number of projects out on submission and a couple of ones with my agent – so it was time to start a new WIP. I faced a dilemma though – I had the first 50 pages of a YA novel that I’ve been noodling over (actually driving myself insane over is probably more apt) and yet I was concerned it still wasn’t quite ‘there yet’. I struggled with whether I really knew what the book was about (despite a synopsis and outline, mind you). So I decided it was best to put it aside and start a completely new project – yet at the back of my mind I still couldn’t quite let the old project completely die. Enter ‘Micro-Progress’!

I decided to use the advice in the NYT article and tackle both projects but with a different mindset. For the brand new WIP I’d sit down and get started in the usual way. I have the synopsis and outline so it was time to face the blank page and get writing. I’d focus on this everyday except Friday – when I’d allow myself to tackle the old project but with a ‘micro-progress’ approach. I’d just take it scene by scene in Scrivener and see what happened – without placing too much pressure on myself. The regular WIP could progress in the usual fashion – but for this one I’d be happy setting smaller, more manageable goals to see how it would all come together. In this way a ‘micro-progress’ mindset helped overcome my confidence issues as well my concerns about abandoning the project all together.

A ‘micro-progress’ mindset could be helpful in almost all our writing as it focuses on the smaller more manageable steps that can be taken. The evidence also seems to demonstrate that this approach can stimulate our brains, enabling us to continue, progress and feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction – rather than becoming overwhelmed by the totality of the task ahead. But I guess the key question is – TKZers – what do you think about ‘micro-progress’?

 

8+

First Page Critique: American Dream

Today, I  have an additional first page critique for us to discuss. This one is called American Dream and I think it illustrates some great points about framing an effective first page, particularly when it comes to POV. My comments follow, and as always I look forward to input from our great TKZ community:)

American Dream

The deputy’s vehicle careened into the parking lot, hopped a curb, plowing through a row of purple hydrangeas before coming to a stop inches from the red brick. An off duty deputy  stumbled out the vehicle sucking the last drops from a blue plastic cup. He slung the empty into the damaged shrubbery and staggered inside the Velde County, Georgia services building for the impromptu Saturday evening meeting.

The hottest summer in a century coupled with a defective air conditioner created a wall of heat and a stench of sweat that greeted upon entry. A coffeemaker gurgled and spat. Fluorescent tubes flickered, splashing an uneven yellow light onto the gathering of deputies.

Sheriff Roy Hacker squinted through the rising steam of his coffee. Crow’s feet framed his eyes. Crevices etched deep into his forehead. His starched uniform, crisp and dry. The only man in the room who didn’t perspire. He rose from behind a steel gray desk, removed his service revolver and slammed its butt onto the desktop calling the meeting to order.

“Evening deputies. I want to thank y’all for appearing here on a short notice. But crime does not operate on our schedule.” Roy looked to the drunken one. “Isn’t that right, Burnett?”

The deputy nodded, slurring his assent.

“You been with Juanita this evening?”

“Yes, sheriff I have. And we was having fun.”

“Don’t doubt that you were. We all know, some in great detail, that Juanita can be a whole lot of fun.”

Laughter erupted. Deputies nudged and winked. A sly grin crept over Burnett’s reddening face.

Roy lit a cigarette. He appeared as a looming slit eyed apparition within the haze of smoke. The zippo closed in a metallic click. The room fell silent.

“It has been brought to my attention that we have some criminal activity getting ready to go down in our fine county.”

Deputies shuffled in their seats.

“My informant tells me the area where this crime will occur is right here.” Roy pointed to the top right corner on the yellowed county map taped to the cinderblock wall. “I know what you’re thinking. That’s a desolate and barren shithole teeming with assorted vermin, rattlers and water moccasins . ” He took a step toward his men. “And I’d agree. But I would add, what better place for a crime to occur?”

A collective gaze fell upon the sheriff.

General Comments

POV

This page had some good elements but I think the failure to establish a strong initial POV made it less effective. We begin with a drunken deputy (who we learn later is Burnett) but by the third paragraph we seem firmly focused on Sheriff Roy Hacker. I would recommend the author chose a close POV to focus on (Burnett or Hacker most likely) and then give the reader this perspective right from the start. A distinctive and unique POV would also help the reader become more invested in the story. At the moment it feels too generic and emotionally distant.

That being said, I would caution the author to be careful to avoid the stereotypical ‘drunken deputy’ versus ‘starched sheriff’ story. Again, I think a distinctive and unique POV is what is needed – it would add greater specificity and emotional resonance to the story and give a different perspective that could help set this story apart.

Tone

In addition, a strong POV would also help clarify the tone of this piece – is it going to be a quirky, off beat, but lighthearted police procedural? I think so, but I’m not altogether sure. There are moments where I think the author is edging a little more ‘noir’ish in the wryness of tone…but maybe not.  Again, I think this is more a result of an amorphous POV/voice – once that’s stronger, I think the tone of the page (and the book) will become clearer.

Dramatic Tension

In this first page, all we really learn about is an informant who’s told the police where a crime is going to occur. This (along with the repartee about Juanita), robs the page of much of its dramatic tension. I’m not sure I get why the Sherrif has brought in his deputies for an impromptu Saturday evening meeting (or why the coffeemaker would be gurgling at that time) just to tell them that…seems a bit anticlimactic. Although I liked the humor in the sheriff’s description of the place, I think there would be more dramatic tension if a crime had actually occurred or if there was more detail (humorous or otherwise) about the actual crime that’s about to occur, to make me feel compelled to keep reading.

Specific Comments

Finally, there are some specific comments which are a but more nit-picky but which are nonetheless important for an effective first page. The first issue is one of repetition. The term ‘deputy’ and ‘deputies’ is used numerous times (twice just in the first paragraph). This looks sloppy to an editor and can also dilute the power of specificity in the first page. In addition, there’s a lot of description that can be pared down. Remember, in a first page every word counts. Do we need details about purple hydrangeas and damaged shrubbery? Could we just have one or the other? Likewise, do we need a whole paragraph description of the sheriff or could we just know he was the one person in the room who didn’t appear to perspire (from which we can infer a lot). I think the author could tighten up this first page by focusing on the details he/she really wants to emphasize – is it the drunken Burnett’s entrance, or the hottest summer on record, or is it Sheriff Hacker’s demeanor and humor (?)

Overall, I think once the description is pared down and a firm POV/voice established, this would be a much more effective first page. What do you think? TKZers, what advice or comments would you have for our brave author?

5+

First Page Critique ‘1940’

Today’s first page critique is a novel entitle ‘1940’. My comments follow, but I think it is a good example of some of the pitfalls when it comes to the opening of any novel – namely how to start with an incident that compels a reader to keep reading, while also providing a good grounding in the time and place of the story. See you on the flip side for more detailed commentary.

1940

Ilya began to fidget. The concrete bench he shared with his teacher chilled his thin frame. Martha stopped reading the Washington Herald and placed it on her lap. She watched Ilya finish a sketch of the blooming dogwood tree that stood across from them. It fascinated her he could draw the tree effortlessly at the age most boys in fourth grade just wanted to climb a one.

He slid the worn pencil over his left ear then stared at her, but kept silent.

“What is it Ilya? She asked. “I can tell something’s on your mind.”

He had been waiting for the right moment to tell her what the housekeeper said while he was waiting for the limo this morning.

“Alfrayda said teachers don’t take their students to the cemetery.”

She held her temper and calmly said, “This teacher does.” Then she confidently added, “I’ll set Alfrayda straight first thing when we get back to the compound.” She wasn’t afraid to confront the Soviet embassy housekeeper.

“Father should bring me,” he said angrily. “He’s just an attache at the embassy. He has time.”

She placed her arm around his shoulder and drew him close. “My dear boy, your father is not just an attache. He has many demands for his time and Ambassador Aleksandrovich relies heavily on your father’s skills.”

“You have demands, but you always have time for me.”

“Yes, I have demands, but nothing on the scale of a government official.”

He accepted her reply and began to sketch an outline of the gravestone set under the flowering dogwood. That upright gravestone in the sea of handcrafted concrete statues seemed cruel to her. Ilya’s slender fingers guided the pencil systematically, retreating to darken and emphasize his mother’s name engraved across the tarnished limestone.

                                       Sigrune Haushoffer  

                                               1900-1931

Ilya nudged her. “I’ve finished.” He held the sketch at arms length for her to observe.

“One day you will have your drawings displayed in a museum,” she told him. Maybe then, she thought to herself, Yaroslav Dalmatov would appreciate his son’s artistic talent.

“You mean like the museums here in D.C.?”

“Of course.” She never hesitated to encourage him.

COMMENTS

General:

Overall, although this first page is tightly written and interesting it doesn’t have anything that reaches out and grabs me from the outset. All we really have is a conversation between a boy and his teacher. Although the fact that is his father is an attache to the Soviet Embassy in DC is interesting, there’s not much in this first page that provides anything in the way of real intrigue. There are snippets of it – the fact that he’s sketching at the cemetery where his mother is buried, the fact that his father is clearly doing something important with the Soviet Ambassador, but there isn’t quite enough to get a reader invested in the characters as yet. We need to care about Illya and his artistic talent to have our interest piqued. Right now, I’m not feeling all that compelled as a reader to read more.  I think the author should reconsider where to actually start this novel – this page sounds more like the opening to a second chapter than the first.

Specific Comments:

There’s also not a lot in terms of historical grounding for this first page. If I didn’t see the title ‘1940’, I wouldn’t be able to place when this first page conversation is taking place. I liked the sparseness of the detail provided and the directness of the dialogue, but I felt I needed a greatest sense of historical footing so I could visualize the scene. Without historical context, this conversation could be taking place today, or the 1950s or 1960s. There’s no detail given to distinguish the time period for me. It’s always hard reviewing a first page when you don’t have a synopsis or outline, but it is important to set the stage both in time and space – I see Washington DC but I don’t, as yet, see 1940.

POV

This first page is written with an omniscient 3rd POV where we, as readers, hear the thoughts of Illya as well as his teacher. For me this dilutes the power of this particular first page – I wanted to feel closer to one of these two characters (registering their emotional responses and hearing their inner dialogue) to feel more engaged.

 

Names

Now this might be a bit of a nit pick, but the name ‘Alfrayda’ threw me out of the story – for some reason it sounded wrong for the 1940s and also (weirdly) reminded me of names in The Handmaiden’s Tale. This could just be me, but I caution the writer on including too many unusual names that could distract from historical grounding of the story (unless of course this is an alternate history/fantasy where names like that are common!). Also there are a lot of names used in this first page without any really characterisation provided: We have Martha, Illya, Alfrayda, Ambassador Aleksandrovich and Yaroslav Dalmatov (Illya’s father) – but out of all of them, I can really only picture Illya given the scene described.

Dramatic Tension

Although I liked the conversation between Illya and Martha about his artistic talent and the graveyard drawing session, all the dramatic tension feels off stage – between Illya’s father and his son, as well as between Martha and the Alfrayda. There isn’t any actual conflict on the page. Martha is supportive of Illya’s talent and wants to encourage him but we don’t understand why we (as readers) should care about his talent or his role in the upcoming story.

Summary

The good news is that the first page is well written with a nice clarity of prose and purposeful dialogue. For it to be a compelling first page, however, I think the author should either start the novel in a different place  (and keep this scene for a later chapter), or inject more dramatic tension onto the page to have us, as readers, fully invested in this story from the get-go.

So TKZers what do you think? What advice would you give our brave submitter?

4+