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/

Cover Art Angst

Of all the difficulties associated with producing a book one of the most vexatious (for me at least) is the issue of cover art. In traditional publishing, many authors typically don’t have a great deal of say in the cover of their book, and when going indie, the issue of cover art can be fraught with design as well as cost issues. Also, the impact of a book cover cannot be understated. It matters. It’s what draws a reader to pick up or click on your novel. For me, a great eye-catching cover is irresistible. I’ve picked up many a book solely because of the cover (mind you, I’ve put many of those books back down again  the first page or blurb was ho-hum).

My own experience with book covers, however, has been mixed – with less-than ideal cover art for my first novel in hardback:

Followed by three wonderful covers for my paperbacks (all involving the same artist and model).


 

I think what made all the difference was that the paperback covers truly reflected the tone, mood and genre of my novels – with the right  blend of historical details, female characterization and intrigue. Now, as I contemplate the possibility of getting my rights back and possibly repackaging/re-releasing these books, I’ve started to think more about the issue of cover art and what makes a book cover great…I hesitate, though – mainly out of fear that I might chose badly. As Bookbub points out, a bad cover can have a negative impact on book sales. Hence I sometimes get that ‘deer in headlights’ look when it comes to book covers.

There are some informative blog posts providing advice when it comes to designing cover art. Jane Friedman has had some interesting guest posts on her blog on this issue (see for example 5 steps to great cover art and getting the right fit).  At the end of the day, all the advice seems to boil down to making sure the cover fits your book and attracts your target readers (something that feels easier said than done!).

When I look at my own book shelves, a few (mainly YA) book covers stand out. There’s the original Twilight series covers which (at the time at least) stood out as unique.

Then there’s the Scythe series by Neal Shusterman – these covers are gorgeous.

When it comes to mysteries I love the covers for James R Benn’s Billy Boyle series:

But a beautiful cover is only on element of the equation – it must also appropriately reflect the type of novel you’ve written and appeal to readers of that genre. If there’s a disconnect between the cover and the content then beauty alone won’t work. When I look at some of the list of beautiful book covers (such as Buzzfeed’s compilation for 2017, which can be found here) many of them, while certainly aesthetically appealing, wouldn’t necessarily make me want to pick up and read the book.

So what are your favorite book covers? What do you look for when seeking cover art for your own novels? What’s your experience been with cover art (either as a traditionally published or indie author) and what advice would you offer to someone thinking about repackaging their books with new cover art??

 

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Significant Sites

When my last blog post was posted, I was on may way to Kraków in Poland – a place I didn’t know a great deal about but which I’ve always associated with the Second World War and the Holocaust (for obvious reasons). I didn’t know much about the old town or Wawel Castle (both of which I visited) but I knew my visit wouldn’t be complete without visiting the former Jewish quarter, the site of the Jewish ghetto, and Schindler’s enamel factory. As a writer of historical fiction, I find visiting significant historical places has a powerful, often visceral impact which informs not only my writing but my sense of self. On this visit, it was my trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau that left the greatest impression.

I can’t say it was an easy decision to even make the journey to Auschwitz but both my husband and I felt it was a necessary pilgrimage to make. I’ve never done extensive research on the 1930s but, as my twin boys were studying the Holocaust this last school year, I revisited Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally and read for the first time Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night (the book my boys were required to read as part of their Holocaust unit). This helped, but it in no way truly prepared me, for what I would experience visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. I was shocked by the immediate physical effect stepping into the camps had on me. I felt nauseated, upset, horrorified as well as, inexplicably, anxious. The initial, almost casual attitude of many of visitors angered me as did their desire to photograph everything – even the most horrific and terrifying aspects of what we saw (would you really show friends photographs of the ruins of the crematoria?) but I did notice that as the tour progressed a somber silence fell amongst even the most chatty groups of tourists. By the time we had completed our visit to Birkenau, you could sense that everyone had been profoundly affected by what they had experienced (and rightly so).

As a writer of a historical fiction, the act of visiting sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau also gives me a renewed sense of purpose to my work. In many ways, though, I felt that my humanity demanded that I make this visit. I left feeling a renewed sense of outrage, horror, and also – after our visit to Schindler’s factory – hope.

So TKZers, have you ever visited a site that left a similarly lasting impression – one that affected you not only as a writer but as a human being?

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First Page Critique: 12 Rules

Happy Monday! Today we have a first page critique entitled 12 Rules. My comments follow and I’m hoping that TKZers provide some great input and feedback for our brave submitter. I will be on a plane to Europe so may not be able to respond to comments – but I’m sure it will be a great discussion!

Title: 12 Rules

Chapter 1

Everything around them tended to die, including people. She always struggled with keeping pretty flowers in her room alive by forgetting to water them, and he never could sustain tiny house pets lifespan beyond a couple of weeks. Even inatime things like hopes and dreams had a tendency to writher over time between the two.

Though they both had to admit, this was the first human to die in their presence.

As heartless as Arlo hated to be, the person who had fallen quite literally at their feet was of no importance to either of them. It was Parks’ third cousins step sister. Technically, she wasn’t really family according to him.

Two weeks ago they were at his annual family gathering. Everyone was drinking, laughing, and having a good time as far as Arlo could tell. Her and Parks were huddled by a picnic table full of all the younger kids while sipping on red punch, discussing the boy Parks believed to be his nephew, but wasn’t all that sure. He was cute, Arlo had commented, and in the corner they were devising a plan to get him to talk to Arlo. She knew Parks was the wrong person to ask when his first suggestion came with, “accidently spill your drink on him.” Before she could even fathom saying a word to the gorgeous new stranger, Parks’ mom pulled them over for a picture. Lined up by height, Arlo of course was at the front along with a younger lady who was very pretty. She smiled at Arlo, flashing perfect whitened teeth over baby pink lipstick that popped. Then there was blinding flashes of more than one camera, and then the flashes were gone and she was seeing spots. Everyone stood up, including the nice lady next to her. Parks had already been back at her side with a new and improved plan, but never got the chance to tell her. The lady’s eyelids fluttered and her ocean blue eyes rolled like pool table balls backwards, and she tumbled to the ground like a tiny building- quick and short. The lady didn’t just fall to the side or backwards, she fell forward; right on Arlo’s sunshine yellow shoes she’d been so excited to wear. And just like that, the lady had smeared death all over her new converse. Following the fall and destroyed shoes had been earfuls of screaming.

Now they were bumper to bumper in early morning traffic yelling at each other over a blaring radio.

“You were supposed to take that exit we passed like ten minutes ago!” Arlo shouted. She felt the need to cup one of her hands around her mouth like a mega phone. But leaned back in the driver’s seat, he still refused to listen.

My Comments:

Somewhere in this first page there is a great story waiting to emerge – I can see glimmers of a cool, detached, wry POV and the beginnings of a story about two people who can’t keep anything alive suddenly being confronted with an actual death. Unfortunately, this story is stymied by some stylistic choices, a passive choice of sentence structure, and a lack of characterization that robs the page of much of its dramatic tension.

In brief, I think these are the main issues that need to be addressed:

  1. Pronoun confusion – The use of ‘them’, ‘she’ and ‘he’ before we know and understand the characters creates confusion as well as distance. At first I had no idea who was ‘he’ or ‘she’ as Arlo and Parks are gender neutral names (which is no issue – just needs clarification so we know who is who) and had initially assumed they were a couple who lived together. All through this first page, the use of pronouns creates an awkward sense of distance from the story which makes it hard for a reader to feel engaged.
  2. Passive sentence structure – Many of the sentences in this first page are written in passive voice creating further distance from the story. An good example of this is the phrase “Following the fall and destroyed shoes had been earfuls of screaming”…not only does this sound awkward and strange, it also robs the scene of the drama of having people screaming as someone literally dies in front of them. I would recommend the writer go through this first page and change passive sentences to active ones to create  sense of immediacy and action.
  3. Lack of dramatic tension – In the first few paragraphs, the reader starts to feel some anticipation about the death that is going to occur only for it to be handled in a prosaic, indifferent way that drains away all the dramatic tension. I wanted to be intrigued and invested in the characters and how they responded to this initial death and also to get some sense of the story to follow. Once the scene switched from the death to Arlo shouting about how they’d missed the exit, I was no longer engaged in the story.
  4. Lack of detailed characterization – Apart from my uncertainty over the relationship between Arlo and Parks – at first I thought they were a couple whose hopes and dreams withered as much as their house plants – there is also the issue of providing characters with real meaningful scenes and dialogue so that we, as readers, become invested in them as three-dimensional characters. In this first page, none of the characters introduced are given any real substance. We are told  that that Parks is trying to set Arlo up with someone at the party, but there’s no real action or dialogue to make us care about this occurring (also the suggestion to ‘accidentally spill your drink on him’ is so bland that it doesn’t give us a true sense of character’). Likewise all the minor character’s are merely described in detached terms like ‘Parks’ third cousin’s step sister’, ‘gorgeous new stranger’, ‘a younger lady who was very pretty’, ‘ the nice lady next to her’, and someone who Parks ‘believed to be his nephew, but wasn’t all that sure’ (which I didn’t really understand…). This meant it was very hard to visualize any of the minor characters or care about what happens to them in this scene.
  5. Telling not showing – This first page is almost entirely told to us rather than shown, with only the death itself containing much in the way of visual details. I would have preferred we were immersed in the scene and given sensory details so we could visualize all the characters and become invested in the story.
  6. Spelling and grammar issues – We always emphasize here at TKZ that a first page is the all-important first impression and, as such, it must be as perfect as possible. Grammar errors such as missing apostrophes and spelling errors (‘inatime’ not inanimate and ‘writher’ rather than ‘wither’) will immediately put off any agent, editor or reader from continuing to read the story.

Overall, I think there’s a good story lurking beneath the surface of this first page, but the writer could benefit from cleaning up the sentence structure, grammar, and pronoun use, adopting a more active voice, and immersing us in the scene with action, dialogue and more detailed characterization for this first page.

So TKZers what other advice or feedback would you provide our brave submitter?

 

 

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Do you have a muse?

“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer.”

Stephen King, On Writing.

The Ancient Greeks believed there were goddesses or muses who were the sources of knowledge and inspiration for the creative arts. From Calliope and Errato in poetry to Melpomene (tragedy) and Thalia (comedy), they personified the force of creative inspiration. Even today, many people describe creativity as a capricious power to be harnessed – some even speak of it as a kind of ethereal being, who (when the mood is right) flutters down to bestow inspiration (and possibly genius) on the lucky artist or writer. I don’t hold a great deal of stock in the ides of muses, simply because as a writer I don’t have the luxury of waiting for the muse to appear. For me, inspiration comes with the active practice of writing – a ‘bum in your seat’ kind of inspiration rather than a sprinkling of fairy-dust. Although this week I found, in the midst of some dreadful first draft writing, there was a moment of inspiration – generating a single line that opened up a character and a relationship in a way I hadn’t expected. In that moment, it truly was as if I had a muse on my shoulder but she certainly wouldn’t have been able to visit had I not been typing away in the first place.

As Stephen King describes it, the muse is ‘a basement kind of guy’ and my fellow blogger, James Scott Bell often likes to refer to the ‘basement guys’ when he describes his writing process. I like the analogy, particularly because, as King says, writers still have to do the grunt work regardless – because only in burning the midnight oil can you find the bag of magic in the end. Although sometimes, especially when stuck in the middle of a chapter, I really wish there was some other-worldly goddess who could visit and endow me with talent and inspiration:)

Apart from the concept of the muse as an ethereal visitor, there’s also the real life people  that many called their muses. From Dante’s childhood sweetheart Beatrice to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife – these so-called muses inspired and motivated the creation of great works of art. Often times, these muses were lovers, mistresses or wives – I couldn’t find any great example of a husband muse but maybe I didn’t search widely enough! I like Anais Nin’s perspective when she wrote: “For too many centuries women have been being muses to artists. I wanted to be the muse, I wanted to be the wife of the artist, but I was really trying to avoid the final issue — that I had to do the job myself.”

I guess my only real muse is my collie Hamish – he’s my constant companion, lying on the floor by my chair while I’m writing. He’s always willing to listen as I complain or tear my hair out in frustration, and is always happy to misinterpret my triumphs (a completed chapter!) as a request to play tug with a chew toy. He willingly goes for multiple walks a day when I need to clear my head and is always content to lie next to the couch when I resort to watching Masterpiece Theatre as ‘research’.  In honor of him (and my previous collies) I always try to include at least one collie in each novel I write:) As you can see from this photo, he really is the perfect writer’s muse.

 

As much as I would love to embrace the whole concept of the muse, I think my attitude can be best summed up by a quote from a fellow Australian writer, Kerry Greenwood (of Phryne Fisher fame), when she said. “If I ever saw my muse she would be an old woman with a tight bun and spectacles poking me in the middle of the back and growling, ‘Wake up and write the book!'”.

So TKZers do you have a muse? If so, in what form does your muse visit (real or imagined)? Do you ever feel like you could use one to sprinkle some fairy-dust of inspiration?

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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?

 

 

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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?

 

 

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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?

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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:)

 

 

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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?

 

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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?

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