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/

Using Real People in Historical Fiction

Happy President’s Day!

Today I want to talk about an issue that was raised a few weeks ago by one of our first page contributors who is proposing to use a real historical figure (namely Samuel Pepys) in his historical mystery. The brave submitter asked whether, if he did use the actual person in his novel, he had to include all that person’s flaws (which could ultimately make the character less sympathetic.) My initial answer was that my preference would be to either use the real person, warts and all, or fictionalize the character entirely…but the question got me thinking about the issue a little deeper, as it highlights the often blurred distinction between fact and fiction in many novels, not just historical fiction (although today I’m going to limit my scope to historical figures, so we don’t have to deal with defamation/libel and all the attendant risks when using real people who are still alive and well!).

Some novels become more ‘faction’ than fiction, when they use historical figures as material for their novels, especially where they try to stick to the historical record as accurately as possible. Even when novelists attempt to do this, however, they almost inevitably come under criticism for aspects that have either been omitted from the book or where the fictionalization differs from reader/reviewer expectations. While I enjoy reading well-researched historical fiction novels, I do get irritated when historical figures are used more as a hook or gimmick rather than the springboard for a truly compelling characterization or plot. I see this more in genre fiction and while I admire any writer who wants to incorporate real people in their mysteries, for me it has to be more than just a cute premise – which is perhaps why I tend not to read novels that involve real historical figures supposedly solving crimes when they obviously didn’t.

In my own novels, I use real historical figures to give historical context/texture to the story but not usually as protagonists or other main characters. I do, however, enjoy channeling real people and their stories to create my own characters. For me, it would be a far trickier proposition to use a real historical figure as I would feel constrained by the truth (or at least what the historical record/sources indicate is the truth) and would feel compelled to be as accurate as possible in my portrayal of that person. Fictional characters have no such constraints:) The only exception to this, for me, is in the realm of speculative historical fiction – where, again, the speculative/alternative nature of the history presented gives an author far more leeway to deviate from the truth. Having completed a speculative YA novel myself that incorporated a real historical figure, I did, however, feel a duty to research the real person in order to know how to create the speculative or alternative historical version (it was a lot of fun too!).

As with everything in writing, if you decide to use a real historical figure or person in your novel you have to do it well. Do your historical research, reach out to descendants if there are any (especially if you’re planning to create a less than flattering representation of the person), be mindful of how you incorporate real and fictionalized elements, and, above all, be conscious of your choices and don’t just use a historical figure as a gimmick but as a real flesh and blood character. My key take home message from all of this would be: if in doubt, fictionalize.

So TKZers, I’d love to get your feedback and opinions on this. What advice would you give a writer who is planning on using a real historical figure in their novel?

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First Page Critique: Death in London

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a historical novel entitled Death in London. My comments follow. Enjoy!

Death in London

The messenger arrived mid-morning. Sam had been at the office since dawn, trying to update and reconcile the Tangier accounts. When the young urchin coughed Sam was startled.

“God save me boy, I didn’t hear you.What do you want?”

“Beg your pardon Sir, Message from the Duke, Sir.”

Ever since the debacle with the Dutch fleet, the Duke of York had become obsessed with wanting regular updates about the provisioning of the fleet. As if Sam didn’t have enough on his plate, now he had to go to Whitehall immediately.  He knew the tide was coming in, so Sam decided to go by water. The walk from his office in Seething Lane to the wharf only took a few minutes. With the incoming tide came the smell of salt on the air, and the promise of the fine autumn days to come.

Sam was short but stocky, and had large inquisitive brown eyes.  His mouth, when it wasn’t smiling, looked as if it was going to. His full lips looked like they were made for kissing, and he used them somewhat more than he should. With autumn underway, these mornings were getting cooler, so Sam had put on his favourite cloak, he especially loved the plush lining in deepest red. His boots were shining with the silk ribbons shining in the sunlight, so he felt dressed well enough for the visit to the Royal Court.

As he sat in the back of the ferryman’s boat Sam had that feeling of sadness that still came over him on a regular basis. Not as often as it used to, but regular enough. Elizabeth’s death had been so sudden, and such a shock. He realized with a start that it had been just over a year ago. Work kept him so preoccupied that it was only these times on the river that he had time to think and mourn.

Sam had plenty of female company when he wanted to. Too much according to his closest friends Will, and Jane. But when you lose the person you married when she was only 14, and had had the tempestuous life they had shared for fourteen years, “getting over it” was easier said than done.

At the Duke of York’s chambers in Whitehall, Sam was able to put the Prince’s mind at rest. The spars coming from the Baltic would arrive in good time and be of high enough quality for His Majesty’s fleet. When it came to the detail, Sam was grateful he was able to talk numbers that befuddled the Duke. Some years before Sam has made sure he was schooled in some arithmetic, so was able to give the Prince more information about quantities than the he was able to absorb.

My Comments

Overall, I found this first page engaging and interesting. I wanted to know more about Sam and his life and would definitely have kept reading. There was good use of selective background details and a great sense of place – in fact I would have liked a little bit more about the sensory impact of traveling the river and the London streets as Sam made his way to Whitehall.

Even after just one page, Sam is an interesting protagonist which is why I think I would prefer the third paragraph not be focus on his outward appearance. The physical description didn’t really sound like one Sam would give of himself – and it took me out of the story – while the other paragraphs provide a good balance of Sam’s thoughts and feelings as well as his background, while keeping the momentum of the story going. I preferred the close POV with Sam and his inner thoughts.

Specific Comments

Historical era/period:  I wasn’t entirely sure when this story was taking place. References to the Duke of York as ‘Prince’ made me think we must be around the Georgian era (I am assuming the Duke of York is Prince Frederick, George III’s son-??)  but I wasn’t exactly sure. The costume description sounded Georgian-ish (cloak and ribbons on boots) but there weren’t enough obvious cues (wigs etc.) and the fact that Sam married a girl of 14 threw me off a bit. I’m no expert on Georgian or Regency era marriages but this seems pretty young – so then I wondered if this was set earlier than I thought. The fact that I was second guessing the time period as a reader signals to me that the writer should give some more clues to ground the reader right from the start in era/historical time period. Given how well the writer created a sense of place with the river and the trip to Whitehall, I think the writer will easily be able to do this.

Tension/Suspense: For a first page, I think I would have liked a little more ‘oomph’ and dramatic tension – perhaps something that can foreshadow the mystery to come (I’m assuming there’s a mystery given the title ‘Death in London). This foreshadowing could come anywhere in this first page (not necessarily the first paragraph as I like how it moves us straight into dialogue and acton – it provides good momentum). At the moment all the reader knows is that Sam is good at finagling the accounts for the Prince/Duke of York – which doesn’t necessarily provide a lot of dramatic tension.

Minor quibbles:  

1) A general reader may not know that the Duke of York is also a Prince so switching between these terms could be confusing.

2) Non-nautical types (like me!) might not know what ‘spars’ are:) A little more context for the fleet would be helpful.

3) I was unsure why Sam wanted to befuddle the Prince with the numbers – is he trying to swindle or cover something up?? That didn’t seem in keeping with his character (at least what we know so far)

All in all, I thought this was an engaging first page and most of my comments are pretty easy fixes. Bravo to our brave submitter!

TKZers what advice or comments would you provide?

 

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What Books Bring You Joy?

I’m sure by now you’ve all seen the social media flap over Marie Kondo (The Life Changing Magic of Tidying up) and her (much maligned) advice on decluttering books – including the outrage over her supposed instruction to ‘keep only the books that still spark joy’ (ideally less than thirty). The furor was such that I decided to watch the episode on her Netflix show  just to see what all the fuss was about (even though I was sure, no matter her advice, I wasn’t about to part with any of my book collection!)  While I, for one, would never presume to advise anyone on the art of tidying up (even though my husband was super excited by the prospect!), I think the debate over whether you should only keep books that still ‘spark joy’ is a wonderful one…because it reaffirms why so many of us love to live surrounded by our books.

Even though on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram there was a lot of anger and outrage, at the heart of Kondo’s advice there seemed to be some valuable observations about the joy books can continue to spark in people years after they were first read, the benefits of feeling connected to the books you own, as well as the practicalities that every book lover has to face (limited bookshelf space!!!).

I come from a line of book hoarders. Up until recently, almost every available shelf in my parents’ home contained piles of books until they realized the necessity of downsizing meant facing the dreaded task of sorting through their books. I felt their horror. After all, they had decades of book collecting behind them (including amassing a lovely antiquarian collection of English Civil War books which is hopefully going to a museum somewhere). My initial instinct was (of course!) to offer a home to any and all of their ‘orphaned’ books until my husband pointed out that we have no room for our own books let alone anyone else’s…which may be why the concept of books ‘sparking joy’ seems poignantly relevant to me now (not that I’m giving up any of my books yet!!).

In the infamous ‘book’ episode, Marie Kondo asks one of her clients to name the book he will ‘never let go?’ (his answer: To Kill a Mockingbird) and the starkness of this question made me think long and hard (I still have no answer – I have far more than just one book that I’ll ever let go!). Certain books, however, do stand out – like my Chalet School book collection that I obsessively collected into my early 20’s (these school stories were published sporadically and often very hard to find). Although I don’t re-read them anymore, I couldn’t bear to part with them – which must mean they continue to spark joy:)

I’m still resistant to the notion that I could ever declutter that many books (too many bring me joy) or select just ‘one’ to keep – but Kondo’s questions have made me think about why I keep the books I keep – after all, I don’t keep every book – I’ve donated many paperbacks, potboilers, gifts, and duds in the past. I am also an avid library goer (lest you think I’m a complete book materialist!) as well as an e-book buyer (clearly, far less bookshelf space is required for those:)).

According to Kondo, the books I keep on my shelf should (in theory) be those I’ve deliberately chosen as ones that continue to ‘spark joy’…but in practice, this is far more complicated. I keep books that have infuriated and challenged me, classics I was forced to read at school and never really enjoyed but (begrudgingly) learned from, reference books from my past careers (you know, just in case…), books that hold weird sentimental value I don’t quite understand, history books for periods I’ve not written about yet…and the list goes on (not to mention the vast TBR pile!). Sparking joy seems too simplistic a criteria when it comes breadth of emotions literature provides.

What about you TKZers? What do you think about Kondo’s decluttering advice when it comes to books? If she asked you, what is the book you’d never let go?

 

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Morality and the Modern Writer

Happy New Year!

I’m going to dive right into 2019 by raising the tricky and controversial topic of what I’m calling ‘morality and the modern writer’. I’d been mulling over aspects of this issue ever since the MWA controversy over Linda Fairstein, when yesterday (quite serendipitously) the NYT published an article entitled ‘Must Writers be Moral?’. This article got me thinking (again) about how we deal with, and differentiate between, the actions and ‘morality’ of an artist as opposed to their work. In the Fairstein controversy, the MWA withdrew her Grand Master award following an outcry over her involvement in the infamous Central Park Five case. While I don’t intend to discuss this particular case in any detail, it highlights the very public way we are now seeing the line between art and artist play out in society today.

The NYT article (a link to which is provided here) adds a further dimension to the discussion by highlighting the increasingly widespread use of ‘morality’ clauses in publishing agreements today (something, I must admit, I was completely unaware of!). The article details the use of clauses that release publishers from their obligation to publish a book if (in the words of a Penguin Random House contract) “past or future conduct of the author inconsistent with the author’s reputation at the time this agreement is executed comes to light and results in sustained, widespread public condemnation of the author that materially diminishes the sales potential of the work.” Some contracts go even further, requiring authors to return advances should their contract be terminated. As this article outlines, even though publishers’ concern over the marketability of their authors is understandable, the issue of ‘immorality’ can be a slippery concept (especially if the publisher has sole discretion over determining an alleged infringement) and, when it comes to public condemnation, often a moving target. Some prominent writers, such as Masha Gessen, have refused to sign these clauses arguing that there is too much ambiguity involved in these kinds of ‘morality’ clauses, not to mention concerns over censorship as well as public vitriol.

In 2018 there were some very public book cancellations (most notably Milo Yiannopoulos) and scandals involving authors such as Junot Diaz that reflect the post #MeToo era. While I don’t want to engage in a heated discussion about these particular controversies, I am trying to get my head around the distinction (especially when it comes to ‘morality’) between the artist/writer and their work. Any student of literature knows that many famous writers were hardly angels – instead history is strewn with womanizers, drunks, addicts, racists, anti-semites, misogynists..and the list goes on. So how do we separate the person from his or her work? Should we judge an artist solely on their works or is the work inextricably linked to them as people (and thus, their behavior and attitudes)? In the current publishing environment it seems that writers are being held up to scrutiny in both their professional as well as their private lives.

So TKZers, what do you think about these so-called ‘morality’ clauses in publishing contracts? How do you view the distinction between a ‘writer’ and his or her ‘work’? Is such a distinction even relevant in today’s social media age?

 

 

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Are You a Rereader?

Today’s post is inspired by last week’s NYT ‘By the Book’ column in which Michelle Obama was asked “are you a rereader? What books do you return to again and again?” – two questions which prompted me to think long and hard about my own habits when it comes to rereading. Growing up my father reread his faded paperback copy of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ every year – it was almost a rite of passage and when we saw the book appear once more on the coffee table it signaled something both familiar and comforting. Growing up, I was also a great rereader – all my Enid Blyton books are well-worn and dog-eared from countless reads and rereading my Chalet School collection (an obsession of mine well into my twenties as I sought to find all sixty books in the series) was an annual event (which reminds me, I need to reread them all again – it’s been too many years!).

As an adult, however, I find (like Michelle Obama) that with limited time I prefer to read new books – though there are a few books which I’ve read more than once (or even twice). My Jane Austen collection certainly gets reread (especially after visits to Austenish places like Bath) and I have to admit Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights have had a few goes over. I also have (perhaps a bit embarrassingly) reread my Georgette Heyer collection more times than I care to remember. Going back to these books is like settling into a comfy chair with a box of chocolates – a relaxing indulgence (maybe…) but perhaps also a version of hygge:)

Rereading provides a host of different pleasures to the initial read – there’s familiarity as well as enjoyment, there’s a different kind of anticipation as the book progresses, and a different level of satisfaction when the book is finished. When I think about the books I reread, however, I notice that they really only represent a small part of my overall reading taste. If I’m honest they probably represent the more romanticized and escapist portion:)

So TKZers, are you rereaders? If so, what books do you turn to again and again? What do you think distinguishes a book that you want to reread from one which, while you certainly enjoyed it, you feel no need to pick up and read again?

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The Value of Libraries

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert” – Andrew Carnegie

My local library is a hive of activity with a bustling cafe attached, a used book sale area, and a busy downstairs where almost every table is occupied by 10am with people working on laptops, reading newspapers, or logging on to the free wifi on the row of public computers available. Upstairs, there is wonderful children’s section with story time and other parent-children activities, and meeting rooms that hold an array of community events and speakers. I remain thankful that my local community and government values a library such as ours because in many other places, the very existence of community libraries is under threat. In the UK for example, nearly 500 libraries have closed since 2010 and many libraries are now being run by volunteers due to budgetary costs and restrictions. The results of this are heartbreaking, especially since, by many accounts library use is actually on the increase (see The Guardian’s report on library closures here).

After seeing posts on Twitter about the rise in volunteer-run libraries in England, I began to think more carefully about what libraries mean to me and my community. They are more than just a place to borrow books or DVDs or CDs – for some it’s a safe, warm, place to read or study, for others it may be a way to find social connection in their lives, and for some people it might be their only way of accessing the internet (which could be crucial in terms of a job search or education). The more I thought about libraries, the more I realized how lucky I was to have such a fantastic one in my community.

Growing up in Australia, our local library was really my only source of research (yes, this was in the dark ages before the internet) and it was a family outing to go there to borrow books or to get material needed for dreaded homework assignments. Now, although I can access much of my book research online, I still find myself drawn to my local library – and I’m frequently seen laden down with books as I struggle back to my car. Our library recently updated their online ebook lending system (the app is called Libby) which makes it easy to borrow ebooks and download them to my Kindle. So for me the library has immediate, work related value, in that it enables me to undertake research without completely draining my bank account:) For my twin boys, the library is still their ‘go to’ place for books and they have discovered many new series and authors simply by making a decision to try something new (no risk as no money was expended!).  For many others, the library provides intangible benefits too – offering a means of attaining social mobility, self-improvement and providing opportunities to reach beyond the limitations of social or economic class.

Still, I wonder in this day and age whether people still value libraries the way I do – so I was heartened to read the American Library Association’s annual report (which you can view here) that indicates that American libraries are still receiving the funding and attention they deserve (though that’s not to say there aren’t still challenges or threats to that!).

So TKZers, I’d love to know what libraries mean to you. Do you still visit your local community library on a regular basis? What do you think is the value of a library today?

 

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First Page Critique: Titan’s Fall

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is entitled Titan’s Fall. My comments to follow. Enjoy!

Title:  Titan’s Fall

Steel gears grind overhead along thin aluminum girders. A red glow illuminated the gray cinder block wall to my right. The weighted anodized-pistol warms my palms. As I wait for the targets to line up, two questions rotate on heavy cycle: Why did my brother have to die? And, will Ms. Reddington remember I prefer chocolate cake over spice this year?

The panel next to the speaker box embedded into the wall beeps and ten cardboard birds drop down from the ceiling. According to my father, the gaming system is the latest in target technology. I wouldn’t know. My siblings and are allowed to leave the compound. The birds’ tails flash red, blue, and green. It doesn’t matter how quick they move or in which direction, blue is always first. I adjust my stance and squeeze the trigger. One by one, the targets return to the rafters.

GAME OVER.

“Kade Maddox,” Mother’s voice shrills from the intercom. “Upstairs! Now!”

My eyes flick to the red START button. Two-tenths of a second and I’ll have beaten the high score. Perhaps I can squeeze one more–

“Double-time, mister. Your father and I have to leave.”

But you just got here?

My dress shoes squeal along the glossy anti-static tiles as I sprint across the open atrium to the staircase. Spotless glass gleams all around me. Like the gaming system, the three-story, fully-staffed house in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains is supposedly hi-tech. Again, I wouldn’t know. My brother’s unexpected death changed a lot of rules.

“You promised this time would be different, August,” Mother barks. I press my back against the wall and lean closer to the door. The smell of Ms. Reddington’s overly-peppered roast beef mixes with chlorinated-air of the basement.

Father sighs. “He has been here two years longer than–”

“Don’t say his name.”

Comments:

Overall, I really enjoyed this first page. The first paragraph in particular combined just the right amount of description, intrigue and character. I thought the character’s voice was already compelling and that the humor as well as the anger and grief came through effectively, particularly in the first few paragraphs. I liked how the mystery of the brother’s death is introduced – although it did get a little confusing as we don’t really know why his death changed a lot of rules or who Kade’s mother and father are talking about in the final paragraph (I assume his brother?).

At times it was also difficult to picture the whole setting – for instance why would the air of the basement still be mixing with the kitchen aromas after Kade has gone up the stairs and through an atrium and (possibly) up another staircase? I was thrown by the reference to ‘dress shoes’ as I wasn’t sure why Kade would be wearing them to target practice. I am also assuming it is a typo in the paragraph beginning ‘the panel’ that Kade and his siblings are  allowed to leave the compound (I’m assuming it should be that they aren’t). As we always emphasize, authors should be vigilant for these kind of typos as they do have a nasty way of sneaking in and staying in!

Overall, my main recommendation would just be to add a tiny bit more in terms of background so the reader isn’t confused by some of the off-hand references to the compound or ‘supposedly’ high tech features. Just a sentence or two might help ground the reader. Are we talking a dystopian society here? What ‘rules’ were there before Kade’s brother’s death? If they could leave the compound before, what was the outside world like? What level of tech is there? and where are Kade’s mother and father going (especially since they just got here according to Kade)?

However, these are all relatively easy fixes that help ground the reader in the novel, and overall I thought this was a very promising start to a novel. TKZers, what advice would you give our brave contributor?

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Compulsive Readability

A few weeks ago I purchased the latest Tana French novel, The Witch Elm, even though my TBR pile is almost to the ceiling. The reason? I buy every novel of hers as soon as it comes out. Why? Because of what I call ‘compulsive readability’ – closely aligned to the ‘trustability’ that Jim blogged about yesterday – meaning I automatically, faithfully, buy every book of hers that’s published. There aren’t many authors I’ll do that with – even J.K. Rowling missed the mark with me. I adored all the HP books and pre-ordered each installment, but then came her foray into adult books. I was uninterested in purchasing The Casual Vacancy and then with the Cormoran Strike mysteries, while I liked them, I didn’t love them (which means I got them out from the library but didn’t purchase them). In this instance, an adored author, didn’t necessarily become the compulsively readable one across all genres.

So what makes an author compulsively readable? What makes a reader buy every single book no matter the blurb or description? I think this aligns with what Jim was speaking about yesterday when it comes to ‘trustability’. I trust Tana French’s books implicitly and because of that level of trust, I won’t hesitate when it comes to buying her books. This, in essence, is what we are writers all strive for – to develop that degree of trust amongst our readers (this is what publishers are clearly looking for too!).

So what makes Tana French so ‘trustable’ to me? I thought I’d try and break down the reasons, as it helps highlight the key factors all of us should keep in mind as we build our writing careers.

First, and foremost, all her books are written to a consistently high standard – and by that I mean every single on of them is well-written, well-conceived, and (even when there may be plot holes) beautifully crafted. As a reader I have no hesitation ordering her books because I know I’m not going to be disappointed, even when they don’t appear to directly fit with the series she’s written to date (which is the case with The Witch Elm). Her writing is what has always stood out for me, not the premise of her books or the plots she spins, and this for me is critical. She never loses focus on what matters the most – the beauty of the words on the page.

Secondly, she consistently builds and maintains a world that I want to enter. Her Dublin murder squad series comprises different narrators/voices/characters but the world remains the same – which creates both an expectation and an anticipation in her readers. Whenever a new book comes out, I can’t wait to see what new spin or perspective she brings to this world (and the way she treats overlapping characters is cleverly executed – further enhancing the world).

Finally, her books never feel rushed. She doesn’t just pop out a book as if it’s merchandise. I’ve never got the feeling that she produces to a schedule (even though she almost certainly has to!) – so I don’t ever get the sense of being cheated that, now she’s successful, she’s resting on her laurels or producing ‘more’ at the expense of ‘quality’.

All these elements are worth bearing in mind as we, as writers, continue to try and establish or maintain our own careers. The difficulty is that there’s also an ineffable element – one I can’t pin down – that probably attracts me to these books over and above another (equally talented) author’s work. Nonetheless, what makes an author compulsively readable  is worth analyzing. Af all, if it was easy, we’d all be best sellers:)

So TKZers, who is your ‘compulsively readable’ go-to author? Which author are you committed to buying and why? What factors do you think go into ‘trustability’ as well as ‘compulsive readability’?

 

 

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First Page Critique: A Plan of Change

Happy Monday! Today’s First Page Critique is entitled ‘A Plan of Change’. I think this page provides a good illustration of some common challenges when it comes to foreshadowing. My comments follow.

A Plan of Change

Jenny Holland never intended to go through with her plan. Plotting revenge against them was just something to ease her anger and pain. Then she opened the newspaper, and a mini-headline on page two ignited a whole new round of hate:

“Dean Decker Honored at Banquet.”

She laid the paper on her work table.

Dean and a group of VIPs smiled in a photograph below the bold type.  All the men wore tuxedos, except Dean.  He had on a gray suit and striped tie.  He was the center of attention and yet he found a way to make himself stand out even more.  In another photo, Carolyn stood beside him, her head tilted demurely toward his. Her coyness made Jenny want to stab her in the throat.

Jenny read the article.  Each line of praise tightened the muscles in her neck a little more.  The last accolade was too much:

“Without him, our charity wouldn’t be able to help as many clients as we do.  Dean is so giving.”

Giving?

Her heart pounded double-time.

“He doesn’t give!  He steals!”

Remember, Jenny.  Dean’s only power is the one you grant him.

She sat back in her chair. “I know.”

She looked out the window of her home office as she tried to calm herself.

Under the maple tree a thrasher foraged for food.  It tossed dead leaves aside, again and again. Usually bird-watching made her smile.  Not today.  Dean killed any chance of that.

Soon the thrasher began hammering the ground with its bill.  She envied the way it jabbed and punched.  The only punching she ever did was in her imagination. It flew away when Mrs. Moon jogged up the sidewalk.  Sarah waved, like most mornings.  Mrs. Moon did the same.

Once their neighborly routine was over, Sarah dropped her hand on top of Dean and Carolyn’s photo.  Dean’s face peeked between her fingers.

It wasn’t right that Dean and Carolyn enjoyed life while Bobby couldn’t.  If she went ahead with her plan, neither would smile ever again.

Dean’s eyes said “I dare you, Jenny.”

It was like the words were whispered in her ear.

Comments:

Overall

Although I enjoyed reading this first page, I think one of the major issues is one of foreshadowing – namely too much is disclosed up front about Jenny’s plan when it comes to Dean and Carolyn. It’s a good example of how a little can go a long way, especially in the first paragraph where we are already told that she is plotting revenge. There is also a great deal of extraneous information in this first page which really doesn’t pull the reader in – like the observations about the thrasher (a little too heavy-handed) and the exchange of waves with Mrs. Moon (unless it provides a sharp contrast to Jenny’s current thoughts, do we really need to know the neighborly routine right here?).

There is also the question of who exactly is in the room on this first page. We start and end with Jenny Holland, yet about three quarters of the way into this first page we are suddenly introduced to Sarah ( “Sarah waved”, “Sarah dropped her hand”). I’m proceeding on the assumption that there aren’t actually two female characters in the scene, but rather the author changed the name of the protagonist from ‘Sarah’ to ‘Jenny’ at some point and that ‘Sarah’ is now a typographical error. Here at TKZ we’ve emphasized the importance of proof reading your first page to the nth degree – an error like this would turn off an editor immediately.

When it comes to the issue of foreshadowing, my recommendation would be to cut most of the explanatory sentences and leave the reader intrigued as to what Jenny is planning. This first page should set up the key questions the novel will address (why is Jenny so angry? What did Dean do? Who is Bobby and what happened to him?) and provide intrigue and tension (what exactly is Jenny planning – can she go through with it?). Telling the reader in the first paragraph that: “Plotting revenge against them was just something to ease her anger and pain” robs this first page of dramatic tension. Similarly, sentences like “If she went ahead with her plan, neither would smile ever again” seem unnecessary as well as cliched. Far better, I think to keep the reader in suspense about Jenny’s plan (as well as her mental state).

To this end I would also urge the author to reconsider the inner monologue/dialogue as it sounds confusing and a little childish at the moment (especially “He doesn’t give! He steals!”). While I don’t mind the idea of Jenny having an exchange that sounds like she’s speaking to a therapist that isn’t there – this would have to be executed with more finesse (and possibly raising the question of an unreliable narrator, which is tricky to pull off).

I suggest a rewrite that reduces the exposition/foreshadowing and removes the extraneous information that drains the page of dramatic tension. Here’s my initial suggestion (apologies for the presumption, but I think it illustrates the points I’m trying to make):

Jenny Holland never intended to go through with her plan, then she opened the newspaper, and the headline on page two ignited a whole new round of hate.

“Dean Decker Honored at Banquet.”

Dean and a group of VIPs smiled in a photograph below the bold type. Carolyn stood beside him, her head tilted demurely toward his. Her coyness made Jenny want to stab her in the throat.

 Each line of praise tightened the muscles in Jenny’s neck a little more.  The last accolade was too much: “Without him, our charity wouldn’t be able to help as many clients as we do.  Dean is so giving.”

Giving?

Her heart pounded double-time.

It wasn’t right that Dean and Carolyn enjoyed life while Bobby couldn’t.  But could she really go ahead with her plan?

Dean’s eyes said “I dare you, Jenny.”

It was like the words were whispered in her ear.

This is by no means a great rewrite but I’m hoping it illustrates my point. Overall, I think this page could work well with some heavy revision. TKZers, what advice would you offer our brave submitter?

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Reader versus Story

Yesterday Philip Pullman (author of His Dark Materials series) tweeted an observation that, when a ‘children’s book goes wrong, it’s often because the author is thinking of the readers and not the story. That might be true of other books too.’ While I would agree this can happen, I would also argue that sometimes a book ‘goes wrong’ when the author fails to pay sufficient attention to his or her readers – particularly in genre fiction. I’m talking about reader expectations. Stories can run aground (particularly during the publishing process) when authors fail to consider (or live up to) reader expectations.

When we critique first pages here, we often (consciously or not) consider the conventions of the genre we are considering. A couple of weeks ago we critiqued the first page of a fantasy novel that was a prologue – a device that is both familiar and welcome in the fantasy genre but which, in many other genres like mystery and thrillers, is less enthusiastically embraced. Mysteries and thrillers have a number of so-called conventions which are really more about reader expectations than story structure. Similar conventions abound in other genre fiction like fantasy and romance. When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t consider genre or reader expectations (except my own) but once the book was sold as a mystery, I needed to make revisions to make sure that it conformed to what readers would expect from the start of a historical mystery series with a female amateur detective. Now, I’m more likely to subconsciously take into account reader expectations while I’m writing an initial draft – but that doesn’t mean I artificially try to change the story to suit what I think some hypothetical reader will want. Nonetheless, reader expectations still play an important role in the revision process.

Failure to live up to reader expectations could be the reason a novel doesn’t get published or doesn’t sell as well as it could once released. Similarly, especially in the children/MG/YA space, even though a writer should never underestimate their readership (after all, nobody wants to read a book that talks down to them), failure to take into account the age of the target audience can make a book hard to position in the marketplace.

I think Philip Pullman was probably trying to highlight circumstances in which a writer focuses too much on what they think a reader will want from the story, rather than letting the story unfold. I have heard of some cozy mystery writers who have tried to tailor their stories to what they think publishers (and, by default, readers) want, in an effort to make their story more marketable/publisher friendly. This rarely succeeds unless the writer is authentic in their story choices – you can’t manufacture a story to suit what you think are the publishing trends or reader likes/dislikes.

So TKZers what do you think of Philip Pullman’s assessment? How often do you think stories ‘go wrong’ because writers are thinking of readers rather than the story?

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