First Page Critique: Somewhere in Texas

Today we’re reviewing the first page of a historical novel entitled ‘Somewhere in Texas’. As always, my comments follow

Title: Somewhere in Texas

Autumn, 1850

McLennan County, Texas. 

“I did not travel five-hundred miles cramped in stuffy stagecoaches, with the never-ending prattle of gossiping women, to wait now.” Father’s voice grew in volume as Ellena Bradbury drew the curtain back and peeked through the narrow carriage window.

The cowboy he addressed set his battered hat on his head. “Suit yourself, mister. Y’all can wait in the house for the boss.” He motioned to his right, then turned to lumber away.

Father pulled the carriage door open, his thin lips tight beneath an equally thin mustache, as he offered his hand. “Come, Ellena.”

Ellena shifted away from the window. “’Twas a long drive from the village.”

“After traveling so great a distance from Louisiana to Houston, the short drive seems especially lengthy.”

Ellena slipped from the muggy carriage into blazing Texas heat, and drew in a deep breath.

A huge, single-story house stood before her, its crude plank siding dark in the shade of a wide porch. Black and white spotted chickens pecked the barren yard, only to lift their heads and squawk in alarm when they saw her.

Beyond the structure, McLennan County rolled away in pastures of sun-dried grass.

Beautiful, though not as picturesque as home.

Ellena pivoted and clasped her hands. “Where are the horses and longhorns?”

“Hush.” Her father’s blue-eyed gaze pointed beyond her as he arched dark brows.

Behind him in the high seat, the carriage driver lifted the reins to slap them against the horses’ backs. He stilled then inched up to stand. “Lord, have mercy.” His base tone sent a shiver through Ellena.

She spun around, but everything was as it should be. House in place. Peaceful, dry pastures waived in the breeze.

What did the carriage driver see from his high perch? Ellena stood on her tiptoes. A red-tailed hawk sailed through the sky, screeching as it dove low and out of sight. Father stepped to her side and a wind gusted only to cease into eerie stillness.

The hairs on the back of her neck rose. “What is it, Father?”

The pounding of a horse’s hooves on earth sounded far off. Ellena held her breath as the pattern grew louder.

A man raced around the side of the house on horseback, his red shirt bright against a black vest. “Stampede! Stampede!” He reined in near the porch, his lean muscular body taut as his gaze met hers then narrowed. “Run!”

Comments:

Overall, I think this first page successfully evokes a sense of time and place and introduces a dramatic initial element which has the potential to keep a reader turning the pages. I liked how the writer chose to begin with an approaching stampede, but there were a few minor issues which almost pulled me out of the story, and I think there were a few missed opportunities to make this first page even more compelling.

The first of these was backstory: Now in a first page we certainly don’t want any dump of backstory information, but I did want just a sentence or two to give me a little more context for Ellena and her father’s move to Texas – something that would add emotional depth to the characters and their feelings upon their arrival. Initially in this first page, it sounded like they were coming to a place they’d recently bought, but when the cowboy tells them dismissively they can wait for the boss, I wasn’t entirely sure why they were there (which is fine, but I’d prefer a hint so I care more about why they’ve come). Dropping just an intriguing snippet or two would do – anything to make this first page also stand out in terms of specificity. At the moment it verges on being a little too generic (outsiders coming to ranch, unprepared for the realities or dangers etc.). I’d like to feel more intrigued…Why have they come from Louisiana? What have they left behind? Why is it just Ellena and her father?

Specificity when it comes to characters also provides much needed emotional resonance. I wanted to understand how Ellena felt about coming to Texas so I could care more about her as a character. The line ‘Beautiful, though not as picturesque as home‘ is the perfect set up for just a sentence or two to capture her emotions and contrast her expectations to the realities she sees before her.

Another aspect of specificity is the use of dialogue. I thought the dialogue in this first page sounded reasonably authentic (though I’m no expert on 1850’s America) but perhaps it could have been used to capture her father’s Louisiana accent (if he has one) or to give the reader a better sense of their background. Both Ellena and her father sound more upper-class, almost English to my ear (especially with Ellena saying ’twas a lengthy drive the village’ – would they even use that term for a town in Texas??) so it would be helpful to have some context for this.

I did get a little confused towards the end of this first page with the paragraph: Behind him in the high seat, the carriage driver lifted the reins to slap them against the horses’ backs. He stilled then inched up to stand. “Lord, have mercy.” His base tone sent a shiver through Ellena. I’m not familiar with horses but wouldn’t slapping the reins against their backs signal them to start moving? Also I wasn’t sure what ‘stilled then inched up’ or  ‘base tone’ really meant.  Similarly, I thought saying the man ‘raced around the side of the house on horseback’ sounded clunky. These are all easy fixes, but they will help keep a reader grounded in the scene.

Finally, I would perhaps edit out the descriptions of people’s gazes / eyes and focus more on the landscape to give a sense of foreboding – for instance the phrase ‘blue-eyed gaze pointed beyond her as he arched dark brows‘ seemed a little clumsy. And, finally, a nitpicky comment:  When the initial title specifies ‘McLennan County, Texas’, I’m not sure it adds anything for the reader to then say: McLennan County rolled away in pastures of sun-dried grass. Just keep one or the other – it is repetitious on a first page to have both.

Overall, kudos to our brave writer for submitting this – I think it has the makings of a compelling first page! What do you think fellow TKZers?

5+

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year TKZers!

Welcome to 2018 and whatever new (or used) resolutions you may have made. For me, after a difficult year health wise, I’m ready to face the new year with both resilience and hope, at least where my writing is concerned. I’m not so much into resolutions for 2018 as I am into consolidating what I learned about myself and my writing process last year.

Despite everything, I feel pretty good about what I achieved – especially the fact that my agent now has three new projects to play with/submit:)  As you know from many of my blog posts, I’ve expanded into YA and MG as well as adult historical fiction/mysteries, and while this has meant a lot of time and commitment, learning and angst, I’ve learned a lot about my writing process as well as my resolve.

In 2018, I plan to continue to apply what I’ve learned and try to be a little more forgiving as far as my writing process is concerned (no more NaNoWriMo regrets for me!). Although I have delved a little bit into social media, I realise that my presence is a little erratic and unfocused so another goal of mine is to reconsider how I approach online and social media – but not to the detriment of my writing (which continues to remain the focus of course!). I also feel that, in the spirit of expanding my writing horizons, I should begin to embrace what I call the ‘difficult’ projects…those ideas/proposals I have avoided so far out of fear that they are too ‘difficult’ to successfully pull off. You know the ones – they continue to buzz about in your brain, demanding to be told, but that little voice inside (the one that hates failure) keeps telling you to wait…keeps telling you your not good enough to write it… Well, I think it’s time to embrace the difficult – be bold  as well as brave – and tackle at least one of these projects this year.

So TKZers what do you plan on focusing on in 2018. What did you learn in 2017 that you can consolidate and use in the coming year as far as your writing is concerned?

 

5+

What Genre Intimidates You?

Some writers have told me they find the prospect of writing historical fiction intimidating and this got me thinking about what, if any, genre, I would be reluctant to tackle. As a historical fiction writer, I understand that writing a novel set in a different time period to our own can be a formidable prospect. However, for me, the historical context for a novel helps provide a solid footing as well as a necessary framework for my story to develop. In many ways, writing about history is far less daunting than the present:)

Almost all of my story ideas spring initially from a historical incident or person (or, as with my latest WIPs, a ‘what if’ alternative history scenario). There’s literally no aspect of historical research that I don’t enjoy – from delving into primary sources to get a sense of life during the period, to reading secondary sources about the events of the period, to looking up (endless) historical details relating to things like fashion, architecture, furniture, food and even language (I use an online historical thesaurus which is so much fun!). I do recognize, however, that anyone contemplating writing historical fiction has to add a much greater research burden to their process. For me, this research is a critical part of finding the voice for any novel – with the specifics of time and place adding an additional dimension to everything I write. I totally understand, however, that tackling a historical novel is not for the faint of heart – but then that could be said for writing any novel! For me, the prospect of writing a contemporary novel is far more daunting than any historical novel (even one set in a period I know nothing about!). The most ‘contemporary’ period I’ve contemplated writing about is the 1980s:)

So what genres do I find more intimidating than writing a contemporary novel? Well, I feel pretty comfortable about facing the challenge of writing a romance, sci-fi or fantasy novel…but horror or erotica? Hmmm…not so much. I doubt that I’d be able to pull off a horror novel or even a really disturbing thriller…unless it was historical. Then, for some reason, I think I’d be able to go dark (though how dark my dark would be is debatable!). As for erotica, well anytime I’ve tried to write a graphic sex scene I’ve made myself laugh…so I doubt I’ll ever make a successful erotica novelist!

In general, I feel pretty open to writing whatever I feel passionate about – even if the prospect intimidates me – but I think deep down I recognize that there’s something about history – something about grounding myself in a different time and place that informs my creative process. What about you, TKZers? Are there any genres that intimidate you?

6+

Failing the NaNoWriMo Test

So this November I tried for the second time to complete NanNoWriMo (for those unfamiliar with this, it represents an opportunity/challenge to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November). Although I never publicly launched a new novel or attended any of the social writing events in either attempt, I did start both challenges with the intention of trying to see if I could knock out a 50,000 word draft in a month. Turns out, I can’t…

This post isn’t really about my failed attempts but rather what I learned about my own writing process as a result. While I think NaNoWriMo is a great exercise for many writers it (obviously) didn’t turn out to be the best for me. In both of my attempts I was in the early stages of a new project and I thought it might be a way to overcome the dreaded internal critic and kickstart my project into high gear. Turns out my creative process just doesn’t work that way…Here is what I learned:

  1. I write quickly anyway. With determination I always finish my projects and the deadlines I set with my agent provides motivation (and fear) enough for me to push through to the end of the first, second, third and fourth (or more) drafts. That being said…
  2. The first 50-100 pages for me are critical. I have to get these right or I cannot (and I mean cannot!) move forward. I often spend the first month or so on these pages alone – making sure they are written, edited, rewritten and re-edited to my satisfaction. NaNoWriMo helped me realize and understand this – the 100 page mark was the exact point in both drafts where my brain froze at the thought of continuing on without fixing what I knew was wrong.
  3. This second failed NaNoWriMo test enabled me to come to grips with the hows and why’s of point # 2. It’s all about the voice. If I don’t get the voice and characterization correct, everything I write from that point forward feels inauthentic and forced. In this last attempt, I found myself going through the motions of writing scenes to satisfy the NaNoWriMo word requirements until eventually my creative process shriveled up and died…until I went back and started working through the voice in the first 100 pages…
  4. Word targets freak me out. I don’t do well focusing on a target number of words to write per day or week.  As a plotter I do much better with setting goals in terms of chapters and scenes than focusing on the number of words. I will often lay out an outline and move along that trajectory until I come to a point where I have to go back, reread everything and make course corrections as necessary. NaNoWriMo taught me to make peace with this…and also to realize that…
  5. Although my internal critic can be a pain in the bum it’s also what helps me craft the voice that I need to move forward with my novel. It was the same with last year’s project (which, by the way, resulted in a novel that is currently out on submission, so my NaNoWriMo failure isn’t all that bad!).
  6. Finally, I realized that I need to trust, accept, and love my own particular creative process.

So, although I think NaNoWriMo is great for kickstarting other people’s writing – I need to accept it isn’t for me. Undertaking the challenge, however, has helped me realize that I have to honor my own creative process and since mine (so far at least!) usually results in a completed novel, then it’s a process that ultimately works:)

So TKZers, are any of you doing the NaNoWriMo challenge this November? How does it work for you and your creative process?

10+

First Page Critique: Historical Thriller

Today we have a historical legal thriller to examine as part of our regular first page critiques. Sometimes historical fiction can be intimidating – especially when (as is the case in this first page) we are unfamiliar with the period or location in question. My goal as a historical fiction writer is to provide a story which helps overcome that initial uncertainty through: 1) a well established sense of place and time; 2) an authentic, period appropriate voice; and 3) a sensory evocation of the period that helps immerse a reader in that place and time. In addition to these three goals, I also hope to provide a rich layer of drama and intrigue, characterization and plot (…pretty much what we hope for in most novels!). Luckily, I think today’s first page manages to establish a pretty good foundation to achieve all these goals. Kudos to our brave submitter and read on. My specific comments follow.

Title: In the Matter of Lucy

Genre: Historical Legal Thriller (1840s)

Chapter One

Narrative of Orlando B. Ficklin, Esq.

A law office is a dull, dry place.

Leastways, that’s what “Mr. H” told me on my first day as an apprentice.

God, but I could use some dull and dry right now. You wouldn’t believe what the people of a backwoods Illinois county can get up to in the way of shenanigans in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and forty-seven. Lying, cheating, stealing, screwing, welching, divorcing – there seems no end to the vices of this hamlet. And the half of the them – and not always the better half – find their way to me.

This week has been a busy one for laying bare offenses, large and small. The circuit court is in town for the spring session. It’s a regular curia regis: Judge Hopkins and an itinerant band of attorneys traveling through the “realm,” arguing and dispensing justice, when they aren’t eating, smoking, drinking, whoring, and swearing. Our courthouse, such as it is, is a backroom of Deskin’s Tavern. It’s no unusual occurrence to find judge, lawyers, litigants, witnesses, and jurors at the same dining table.

Yesterday, I defended the Meisenhalter brothers.  David Adkins had sued them for slander. Once, for Levi calling Adkins a “damned pig thief,” and again for Robert calling him a “damned infamous pig thief.” Fortunately, the truth was our best defense: Adkins had, in fact, stolen five hogs a few years back in another county. The jury found for my clients and I got my own hog – rightfully earned – as compensation.

Today, I’m watching – and learning – from the master: Mr. Lincoln.  He’s representing Eliza Cabot in a slander case, one more titillating than my own with the Meisenhalter boys. Eliza is suing Frances Regnier for saying that Elijah Taylor was “after skin” and had got it with Eliza, that Taylor “rogered” Eliza, and that Elijah “has got some skin there as much as he wanted.”

Lincoln has just asked Taylor if he knows the difference between adultery and fornication. After some thought, Taylor answered: “Well, I’ve tried both…there’s no difference.”

The galley roars with laughter.

Despite the performance, I’m distracted.  My mind wanders to this morning’s “mail”: a rock, thrown through my office window, with the following note:

“Take on that damned ni – – er’s case, and I’ll see you in Hell.”

Specific Comments

My comments focus on the goals I identified above:

1) A well established sense of place and time

What I enjoyed about this first page is that I felt we immediately had a well established time (1847) and place (some small backwoods town in Illinois) without the need for any unnecessary data-dumps or overly long descriptions. I could easily envisage the setting without being given much in the way of description as the key elements were all there (the back room of Deskin’s Tavern for example and the two law cases that were highlighted with humorous specificity). This first page demonstrates that historical novels don’t need a huge amount of period description at the start – just enough to evoke the time and place and allow the reader to step into the scene quickly and easily.

2) An authentic, period appropriate voice

Overall I think the voice in this first page is strong and authentic. I had some minor quibbles with word choices (like ‘leastways’) but those were just personal preferences. The first person narrative is strong and humorous and the voice of Orlando Ficklin Esq. seems to be one that has enough interest to sustain the story. Given it is his narrative, I did wonder whether we needed the quotation marks around the words realm and mail – they seem to distract as other quotation marks are around other character’s actual speech/dialogue. I also wondered why the ‘n-word’ in the final line of the page was censored, as I assume the threatening note on the rock thrown through the window would not have been. I was also briefly taken out of the narrative by the term ‘rogering’ as I associate that more with British slang – I have no idea if this was used in the USA in the 1840s – but would just advise the author to double check all the words used to make sure they would have been in common usage at that time/place.

3) A sensory evocation of the period

Most often we associate ‘sensory evocation’ with descriptions involving sights, sounds and smells to evoke a historical scene. In this first page we don’t really get any description of what people are wearing or sensory based period details but I think we get enough in terms of scene setting with the snippets of conversations provided and the first person narrator’s view on the circuit court proceedings. I expect as the novel progresses more period details will be provided that will fill out the historical scene for the reader.

So far, at least for me, we have a solid basis for a story that I would be more than happy to continue reading. The last line also provides a great set up for the drama and intrigue that is to come. What do you think, TKZers?

7+

Books to Remember

With any luck by the time this posts I’ll be on a plane bound for Tokyo and Typhoon Lan hasn’t totally disrupted my plans. This means I won’t be able to respond immediately to comments, but I’m hoping some TKZers will join in and comment nonetheless.

I’ve been thinking about those reading moments that become etched in your mind – where you remember the exact time and place you read a particular book so that the memory itself is almost as potent as the book. This has happened to me on a few occasions – usually while I’m traveling – and it’s amazing just how vivid the recollections can still be. Like the late night flight to NYC where I read the first Harry Potter book. I distinctly remember the moment I got to Diagon Alley and just how magical that seemed. The memory is so strong I can visualize the pages of the book in the pool of overhead light.Then there was also a train ride from London to Manchester when I first read Philip Pullman’s The Northern Lights (or as it was called here in the USA, The Golden Compass) and how it felt being transported to an alternate Oxford while the English scenery whizzed past out the window. (NB: I’m hoping to reclaim this sense of exhilaration reading Philip Pullman’s latest – The Book of Dust – on the flight to Japan (or to be more accurate I will be fighting over it with one of my twins who has already disappeared off with the book to start it!).

I’ve had many flights where the book I was reading so totally consumed me that I was still  voraciously reading it after landing – gripping the book until the very last moment when I had to get out of my seat and deplane. This happened to me with both Tana French’s novel In The Woods and Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity. What is surprising is why only some books provide such vivid ‘reading’ memories and yet others, just as equally good, seem to slip by – where I recollect the book but not the moment of reading it. Perhaps it’s the mark of an amazing book or maybe it’s the confluence of circumstances that make the reading part so memorable – but still it’s amazing how certain readings stay with you, while others just seem to fade away.

So TKZers what is your most vivid memory about reading a particular book? Why do you think some books inspire such strong recollections of the moment they were first read?

 

6+

First Page Critique

I confess to being a little trepidatious about tackling today’s first page critique entitled ‘We the People are Good to Eat’, not just because of the subject matter (you’ll see…) but also because I’m not really sure of the author’s intention (dystopian YA? parody?). It’s always tricky when reviewing only one page, but this particular submission had me scratching my head even more than usual. Read on – my general and specific comments follow.

We the People are Good to Eat

At 7:37 AM, on the 1378th Level of the City Building of Manhattan, thousands of people moved along the West 55th Street Corridor, going east from the 9th Avenue to the 8th Avenue corridor. Many teenage students walked among them, heading toward their local Public High School; HS L-1378-55, which stood between 8th and 7th.

As the crowd moved along, they went past an enormous advertising billboard, displaying a photographed line of full figured Warrior Women dressed in bikinis, while armed with swords and spears. Shrunken human heads were tied on their belts. Superimposed above them, across the top of the photo, was the slogan, “Paradise Meats. Healthy Tasty Treats”

17 year old Karen Bennet moved with the crowd. She was dressed in a lightweight, dark green jacket, with the words “HS L-1378-55”, printed in yellow on the back. She also wore a light blue skirt, hanging to her knees. Like all the other students in the crowd, the hungry, blonde Karen carried her edu-computer, and like many of them, she also had a pair of shrunken human heads tied on her belt.

She was about halfway down the block, when her steady boyfriend David Krendell came up beside her.  He was irritated.

“Hey Karen!”

Like most of the people in the City Building of Manhattan, he was a little thin and his energy level was low. She was also thin and not very energetic. A daily ration of sausages and meat patties was allocated for each citizen, but the portions were small.

Karen was annoyed. “Hi Dave.”

“I hear” he accused “you’re planning to try out for cheerleader?”

She snapped at him. “Since I already fought on the Warrior Girls Squad last year, I’m now qualified to join the cheerleaders. All cheerleaders and their families receive triple rations for the entire season, just like the warrior girls. Why not?”

“You might be the cheerleader who gets hanged, after we lose a game.”

“The extra rations will improve the health of me and my whole family for the entire season. Isn’t that worth the risk?”

“I wish you didn’t have to take that risk at all.”

She sighed, “And I wish you weren’t such a wimp, Dave.”

“I’m not being a wimp.” He told her, “The extra rations are intended to make the cheerleaders fill out, so they’ll look sexy, instead of unhealthy.”

She laughed, “You’ve got a complaint about that?”

“The girls on the cheerleading squad are expected to do it with every guy on the Warrior Team. I’m the Team’s equipment handler, so I know everything that goes on. I want you to be my girlfriend alone. Not the entire Team’s.”

“I know what’ll be expected of me, and I don’t see the point of me being a well fed, sexy cheerleader, if I’m not a team girlfriend. They’re the girls who have all the fun.”

“What about me?”

She groaned. “You’re too much of a wimp, and not all that much fun.”

Karen stepped away from Dave.

General Comments

As I wrote in my introduction, I’m not entirely sure what the author’s intention is here, but assuming it is a YA dystopian novel then I have a number of specific issues to raise, but my main overall comment would go back to my blog post a couple of weeks ago – does the author really think the idea of teenagers eating human flesh is a saleable premise? To be honest I can’t imagine many editors favorably reacting to that. Even if the author intended the novel to be a parody of a YA dystopian novel (which is not apparent in this first page) then this would have to be made obvious from the start and, even then, I’m not sure the premise would really sustain a publishable novel.

Specific Issues

Information Dump

Moving onto the specific issues in this first page… I think the major concern I have is that this first page is more of an information dump that a compelling start to a novel. While I was intrigued by the initial setting (the 1378th Level of the City Building of Manhattan), there were a lot of details that seem extraneous (the address and repetition of the HS number) and the dialogue between Karen and Dave seems designed to provide the reader with information, rather than a natural conversation between two teenagers (would Dave really have to explain to Karen why cheerleaders get extra rations or that a cheerleader gets hanged after losing game? She obviously knows this – so the information is really only for the readers’ benefit). In terms of story craft, however, this first page cannot be merely an information dump masquerading as conversation. We need action and tension to become engaged in the story – right now, this first page seems staged and unrealistic.

World Building

This stifled conversation drains the page of any tension or drama a reader may have felt after the mention of the Warrior Women billboard (the first mention of the shrunken heads) and so far, the information the reader is getting seems more off-putting than compelling. I’m assuming society has resorted to cannibalism because meat has become scarce but how and why remains unclear (and to be honest, as a reader I’m not sure I even want to know…). When re-reading this piece I wasn’t even sure how cannibalism is involved (although, given the title I’m assuming it is). Do Warrior Women just show off their skills by having shrunken heads tied to their waist bands? Is everyone else hungry because of meager meat rations or is human meat their only option? When creating a dystopian world, it’s fine to leave questions unresolved on the first page but the reader must feel confident that the author has created a viable and intriguing world – which I’m not convinced has been achieved as yet.

Dialogue

As I mentioned, the dialogue on this first page seems to be nothing more than an informational dump and I certainly don’t get any sense of attraction or friendship between Karen and Dave to indicate there would be any possibility of them being boyfriend and girlfriend. In fact, Karen seems pretty unlikable so far, which isn’t a great start. Also the conversation about cheerleaders ‘doing it’ with the whole team seems a bit off-kilter (although the mention that Dave is the team’s ‘equipment handler’ was possibly inadvertently hilarious). Neither Karen nor Dave come across as real (dare I say it) flesh and blood people yet – which leads me to my final specific comment…

Characterization

When dealing with a rather icky subject matter (cannibalism) an author is going to have to rely on some amazing characterization to get over that initial hurdle. The reason why the Hunger Games was so popular was, in major part, because the character of Katniss Everdeen was so compelling. So, while that series dealt with teenagers fighting to the death, the empathy of Katniss really added a humane touch to what was otherwise a pretty horrific premise for a book series.

Perhaps the author of this first page was inspired by that series and wanted to push the envelope even further – but as my comments demonstrate – in order to pull that off you need to have a solid and believable world (which hasn’t been developed in this first page yet), empathetic and compelling characters, and action that compels a reader to turn the page and keep reading. Sadly, because of the issues I’ve raised, I would not want to turn the page with this story – but I also think the author needs to take a step back and consider the ‘saleable’ premise question before addressing any of the specific comments I’ve raised.

TKZers, what do you think?

5+

A Saleable Premise

Over the summer, while completing revisions on two WIPs (one YA, one MG) I took a quick step back to read a book focusing on story craft entitled ‘The Magic Words, Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults’ by Cheryl B. Klein (a book, by the way, that I highly recommend). Most of the advice is just as relevant to adult and genre fiction and I thought I’d share some of her initial advice/comments around constructing a ‘saleable premise’ for your book.

A ‘saleable premise’ is basically a one sentence description of your book that defines the protagonist as well as the overarching action and conflict. Although constructing a saleable premise seems on its face to be fairly easy or obvious, it can be more challenging than it first appears. Embedded within this description is not only the basis of the story but also a promise to the reader that the book will live up to the expectations the premise demands.

Cheryl Klein notes that a premise can be ‘unsaleable’ if it is too dense, quiet or nebulous, or if the concept has been overdone, or the publisher can’t envision it reaching an audience. Some of the ways a premise could appeal is if the book puts a new spin on already successful material, fills a hole in the market, or when it plays to a publishing house’s particular strengths. Of course, the best way to sell your work is to make it great and compelling – but this assumes you can get someone to read it, which is why that initial description can be so important. A strong story concept is critical. It’s how readers decide to purchase your book over another one. It’s also how agents and editors decide to take the time to read your story amongst the hundreds of manuscripts they receive each week.

A ‘saleable premise’ is what you would articulate in a query letter or elevator speech to an intended agent or editor. It is also a way of getting a publisher’s attention and yet, I wonder how many writers necessarily think of a ‘saleable premise’ when they begin a writing project (?). In her book, Cheryl Klein identifies three exercises which I thought were useful for any writer when thinking about their WIP in terms of ‘saleable premise’. I’ve added some of my own thoughts when it comes to these exercises as well.

  1. Write down the promises of the novel. I think detailing the emotions promised to a reader can help a writer focus on reader expectations – what emotions do you want the reader to experience while reading the novel? Does the concept for the story reflect that?
  2. Write the premise of the novel in one sentence. I find summarizing any WIP in one sentence a challenge, but it does help focus my mind on what exactly the core/essence of my WIP is really about. As Cheryl Klein points out, you might be able to create several premises for your novel, each highlighting a different aspect or storyline in the book, but the exercise of creating each of these premises can help a writer focus on the most compelling/freshest and (dare I say it) most ‘saleable’ aspect of the book.
  3. Identify three comparison titles for the book. This is an exercise most writers undertake when composing a query letter or pitch to an agent or editor, but it’s also a useful process when composing a ‘saleable premise’ as it helps describe and position your novel in the marketplace and also point out how to frame your concept/story in contrast to other comparable books.

So TKZers, do you consider or compose a ‘saleable premise’ for your books? If so, at what stage of the writing process do you do this – before the first draft or only when it is ready to be submitted or published? Or is a ‘saleable premise’ something you don’t even worry about?

 

 

4+

First Page Critique

Today’s first page critique is a great example of a piece where the ‘voice’ is critical. It’s a stream-of-consciousness, first page narration which we don’t usually see. My comments, follow. Enjoy!

Lilly’s Tree

There’s always been something gratifying in watching Mama suffer, even if it was only a little bug of a thing, like Lilly locking a fist around a swatch of hair hanging from the twisty knot Mama kept her hair tucked into. Lilly would pull on it like she was the force of gravity. Mama’s eyes would tear up, and she’d let out a screech that sounded like a cat with its tail flattened underfoot. That was when Lilly was in the hair-pulling stage of babyhood, right after the biting stage and right before the pinching stage commenced. It did no good trying to restrain those little Houdini arms when they came at you. Once her fingers latched on, no amount of force would make her let go. You had to distract her. Look, Lilly, there’s the firststar shining up there in the sky or Lilly, let’s you and me get some strawberry ice cream. Mama didn’t catch onto that trick like I did. Instead, she’d go off like a struck match. She was never quick to look for the funny in something. Mama I mean, not Lilly. Just about everything had a chance of making Lilly laugh, even Mama.

Before the accident, or even before Lilly for that matter, it felt like Mama was tall as a tower when it came to watching over me. It had some to do with her being protective, I’m sure, but mostly it was because she had a suspicious nature towards me, especially after Tommy Baxter and the hickey incident when I was in sixth grade and the pack of cigarettes she found in my sock drawer last year. I overheard her telling Pastor Mike I was a highly impressionable girl and religious instruction was essential for the development of my good moral character. She was sure he’d start me right in the world. Mama had Pastor Mike visit with us every Sunday after service. He’d talk about matters I didn’t much understand or even care about, but it was pleasant listening to him all the same. The pastor would throw a smile in my direction every so often, even when he was up there behind the podium at church, and his smile would stretch right up to those blue-as-the-sky eyes. I held the belief it was a smile he reserved exclusively for me, which made it impossible not to smile right back.

My comments

This seems at first glance (at least to me) to be non-genre specific – it could be a literary, coming-of-age novel, or it could be a first-person narrated mystery or thriller. At this stage, the scene is set really for either – with enough references to possible paths (Lilly’s accident, the pastor…) to keep this reader guessing as to the novel’s direction. I thought the characterization was strong – even in this first page we get a strong image of Lilly, Mama, and the narrator’s personality.

It is heavily reliant on the success of the first person narrator and this voice is what will carry a reader through the entire story so it has to be perfect. All in all I think this voice is successful so far and, as a reader, I was pulled along and wanted to read more. That being said, there were times when the word choice used seemed out of sync with the overall tone (use of the words ‘gratifying’ and ‘commenced’ and the ‘Houdini’ reference seemed a little more sophisticated than the voice appeared to be (at least to me). One of the key elements of any successful first person voice is the consistency and authenticity of the voice so this would be my only caution to the author – make sure you fully inhabit this narrator and make word choices accordingly. At this stage we don’t know enough about the narrator, beyond her being about middle school age, to be sure, but the sentence structure and voice on this first page seemed chatty, childlike, and unsophisticated (to me it also sounded very Southern – but as an Australian I’m not very good at picking American voices in literature). There was also an undercurrent of something a bit darker which I liked. In fact, if anything I’d like to see more darkness (particularly when it comes to the Pastor – not sure why, but I’m already suspicious of him!).

There wasn’t much in the way of action or dialogue on this first page but I think this worked in this stream-of-consciousness style beginning. For me there was enough narrative pull and tension to keep me reading but other readers may have wanted something more dramatic on the first page.

TKZers, what did you think?

Let us know what comments you have on this submission and how this first page can be improved.

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To Genre or Not?

As a follow up to my last blog post, I wanted to point out this week’s ‘By the Book’ in the NYT in which the mystery writer, Louise Penny is interviewed (you can read the link here). It serves as a lovely contrast to the interview given by Philippa Gregory which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago. Louise Penny provides, I believe, the poised and professional tone a writer should convey in these kind of interviews. She also gives an interesting response to the question ‘Which genres do you avoid?’ stating that, while the concept of ‘genre’ can be an effective marketing tool, she doesn’t buy into the notion of genres and considers ‘good storytelling is good storytelling’.

In general I agree with this sentiment, although I do think that certain genres (particularly romance and mystery) provide more than just a marketing tool – they offer a ready-made frame of reference and conventions which an author can use to structure his or her story. These ‘genres’ also provide an eager and accessible audience/fan base. There are few mystery or romance writers who wouldn’t acknowledge the value and support provided by  their genre based writing and fan communities, bookstores and conferences.

When I completed my first novel, I had no idea it would be marketed as a historical mystery so initially at least, it really didn’t conform to ‘rules’  of the mystery genre. It was my agent who first suggested making changes that would place it more squarely in the ‘mystery’ genre. Now I certainly didn’t have to take her advice, but most of the changes made sense and certainly helped make my protagonist more proactive and interesting (rather than being a sleuth in the first version of the novel, she was more swept along by events and the mystery as it unfolded). Making my novel more of a ‘mystery’ rather than simply historical fiction helped bring greater focus to both my characterization and plot and (I think) made the novel stronger as a result. Throughout it all, however, I wasn’t really hung up about the concept of ‘genre’ as I was writing.

After blogging about Philippa Gregory’s evident disdain for the concept of ‘genre’ fiction, I started thinking about whether writers nowadays even consider themselves ‘genre’ writers or whether the terminology/concept is outmoded. Good storytelling is, after all, good storytelling, now matter how a book may be classified on the shelves. So I thought I’d check in with you, fellow TKZers, to see what you thought about the concept of ‘genre’. Do you classify yourself as a ‘genre’ writer? Do you think about the conventions of your ‘genre’ while writing? When you pitch your work or publicize it do you even mention genre? Does ‘genre’ even matter these days?

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