About Clare Langley-Hawthorne

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

First Page Critique: Innocent to a Fault

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a novel entitled ‘Innocent to a Fault’ and, although we don’t have a genre specified, I’m assuming it is going to be a mystery or a thriller. The fact that this isn’t clear is indicative of some the key issues facing this page – which you can see discussed in the comments that follow. I’m looking forward to getting input and support from our TKZ community to help guide our brave submitter on how to address the issues raised and turn this into a compelling first page. Here we go!
INNOCENT TO A FAULT
Thirty-three years ago, on a sunny October afternoon, driving a classic GTO that he’d just stolen from his neighbor’s carport, a teenager murdered our parents. Celia was 18, Katie was 16, and I was 12 when the Springville police notified us about the horrible accident. Because the kid was about my age, he was given a rap to the knuckles as punishment. At that devastating time, I didn’t know who I hated more—the delinquent for destroying so many lives, or the legal system for saying, “Boys will be boys.”
Nana said the hate I felt harmed me more than anyone, so I tried keeping it in check. But I failed badly, mainly because I needed to feel something and since I couldn’t love my parents any longer, hate filled the void.
During those early days of loss, feeling more anger than a child ever should, I came to two conclusions. One, that sometimes hating a person feels good, no matter how self-destructive.  And two, people who hurt others should face punishment, with no excuses allowed. Or more simply, if they couldn’t do the time, they should not have done the crime.
I know some will disagree, but I believe those who commit crimes are selfish to the core. They figure what they want is more important than what’s right. If selfish behavior could be obliterated, murders, thefts, rapes, all crimes would go down significantly.
My sister Celia is of a different mind. She believes sometimes good people do bad things, and each situation should have room for wiggle, which was why her daughter turned out the way she had. Reni had been wiggling out of trouble since puberty, with Celia always nearby, excuse in hand.
A few weeks ago Reni got involved in trouble that even Celia couldn’t justify. The scheme was criminal, and it all hinged on me. I learned about the plot during an unexpected visit from my niece.
With little preamble, Reni presented me with two choices: commit a felony, which would keep my family safe, or refuse and see my family destroyed. It was then that I understood Celia’s wiggle room philosophy that sometimes a good person has only bad options.
I thought about those bad options—while being more scared than I’ve ever been in my life—and made my decision.
I don’t know if I would make the same choice today.
(end of Chapter 1)
 
Overall Comments
The most significant concern I have with this submission is that it reads like a synopsis not the first page to a novel. Not only have we been given the entire backstory to the narrator’s current situation but we’re also being told the entire set up for the novel without having any action, dialogue, character development, or inciting incident. All we really have is exposition and explanation that robs the first page of all dramatic tension and makes it feel like the summary of a plot rather than the start of a work of fiction. That being said, we do get some sense of the conflict that (I assume) forms the backbone of the story in the choice presented our narrator (“commit a felony, which would keep my family safe, or refuse and see my family destroyed.”) What we don’t have is a dramatic scene unfolding to show us this choice.
This first page introduces us to five characters without giving us any real sense of them as people. There’s the narrator (who is in his or her mid 40’s – the fact that we have no idea even about gender is indicative of the lack of character development); his/her sisters Celia and Katie, Nana, and Reni, Celia’s wayward daughter. That’s a lot of characters for a first page especially in the absence of action or dialogue, and when we don’t yet have any setting or real sense of time or place (everything is presented in the past tense). What we do have is a lot of explanations, theories, and beliefs – all of which could definitely come into the novel as we learn more about the narrator, but which seem very ‘non-fiction’-esque when laid out so fully in a first page. Despite these significant issues, however, there are definite stirrings of a voice for this narrator.  Brave submitter, I think that if you use this first page as an exploration of your narrator’s voice and POV, then you have a solid foundation on which to build a compelling first page.
Specific Comments
Given the major concerns I raised in my overall comments, I thought the most useful feedback I could give was to highlight specific issues and recommendations in bold/italics throughout the text of this first page. I hope these will be received in the spirit in which they are intended – as honest and helpful feedback that our brave submitter can use to start drafting a great first page. Again, here goes!
INNOCENT TO A FAULT (Odd title choice – doesn’t really seem to mesh with the story outline that follows)
Thirty-three years ago, on a sunny October afternoon, driving a classic GTO that he’d just stolen from his neighbor’s carport, a teenager murdered our parents. (This first line has too many details and yet is still strangely distancing – my recommendation is to either start with a visceral/vivid flashback to that day 33 years ago, or start with a scene in which the narrator is reminded of this traumatic event. We need to be taken straight into a scene and shown the full impact of this event on the narrator’s life. At the moment everything is merely being told to us as readers.)
Celia was 18, Katie was 16, and I was 12 when the Springville police notified us about the horrible accident. (We have nothing to ground us in the scene or make us care about the narrator or his sisters – age specifics seem unnecessary when we can’t picture who any of these characters are) Because the kid was about my age, he was given a rap to the knuckles as punishment. At that devastating time, I didn’t know who I hated more—the delinquent for destroying so many lives, or the legal system for saying, “Boys will be boys.” (Too much telling. Let the reader see the scene in the courtroom when he was sentenced. You need to decide in this first page whether your scene is set in the past or the present – at the moment we’re just being told the backstory.)
Nana said the hate I felt harmed me more than anyone, so I tried keeping it in check. But I failed badly, mainly because I needed to feel something and since I couldn’t love my parents any longer, hate filled the void. (Too much telling. We don’t know anything about the family let alone the character of Nana. Show us why the narrator was harmed more than anyone. Have the story unfold about the failure and how hate filled the void.)
During those early days of loss, feeling more anger than a child ever should, I came to two conclusions. One, that sometimes hating a person feels good, no matter how self-destructive.  And two, people who hurt others should face punishment, with no excuses allowed. Or more simply, if they couldn’t do the time, they should not have done the crime. (Show us this and structure a scene to demonstrate this to us. A conversation between siblings perhaps on the anniversary of their parents death (?)…)
I know some will disagree, but I believe those who commit crimes are selfish to the core. They figure what they want is more important than what’s right. If selfish behavior could be obliterated, murders, thefts, rapes, all crimes would go down significantly. (This reads as an opinion piece not the opening to a novel)
My sister Celia is of a different mind. She believes sometimes good people do bad things, and each situation should have room for wiggle, which was why her daughter turned out the way she had. Reni had been wiggling out of trouble since puberty, with Celia always nearby, excuse in hand. (Again we’re just being told characters’ opinions and behavior. We need to inhabit a scene where this is shown to us. Maybe this first page has Reni and the narrator and his sister Celia at a family function where this plays out in terms of action and dialogue.) 
A few weeks ago Reni got involved in trouble that even Celia couldn’t justify. (Too vague.) The scheme was criminal, and it all hinged on me. (Again too vague – is it petty crime, is it murder? – could be anything.) I learned about the plot during an unexpected visit from my niece. (Let us see this visit. Let us see the confrontation. It sounds like it is the pivotal event which sets the story in motion so we have to see it.)
With little preamble, Reni presented me with two choices: commit a felony, which would keep my family safe, or refuse and see my family destroyed. (We need may more details about the family dynamics and characters to understand this. If this is the critical conflict in the novel we need dramatic build up and a real scene to see this play out…) It was then that I understood Celia’s wiggle room philosophy that sometimes a good person has only bad options. (Again we have no real sense of character yet so why as readers should we care about the narrator’s dilemma or Celia’s philosophy?)
I thought about those bad options—while being more scared than I’ve ever been in my life—and made my decision. (At this stage the reader has no idea why the narrator was scared or the basis for making the decision. We don’t even really understand the basis for the ‘bad options’ being presented. We need a real story presenting this dilemma in dramatic terms)
I don’t know if I would make the same choice today. (I like this as an end line but we need a scene before this that builds character and dramatic tension so it can resonate)
(end of Chapter 1) (I don’t understand this either – this is only a page – how can it be the end of Chapter 1 when nothing in dramatic terms has actually happened?)
 
So TKZers, I’d love to hear your guidance and feedback to help our brave submitter on his/her path to producing a great first page. Looking forward to seeing your comments!

Art Lessons

You may recall that during the height of the pandemic I went on quite the painting binge with art providing a welcome respite as well as soothing creative outlet. I’m at the point where painting is now a part of my daily schedule (even nudging out my writing now and again) and a couple of weeks ago I participated in my first art show (!) and had my first work accepted into a real exhibition (which was very exciting!). Since then I’ve been reflecting on these experiences and have realized that the lessons I’ve learned though my painting are resonating with my writing as well. I fact, I think painting is actually helping me regain focus when it comes to my writing career.

For a start, I had no real expectations when it came to my painting. I was braver and less inclined to worry about the potential for failure (actually, I expected to fail but thought ‘what the hell’ anyway). Most of this bravery stemmed from an initial meeting I had with another artist who encouraged me to think more professionally about my art and who mentored me through the process of applying for exhibitions and shows and helped advise me on the business side of art (of which I was completely ignorant). It was also clear from the start that all I really needed to do is just put my work out there – and this was the first real lesson I’ve taken to heart when it comes to my writing. For many (many…) years I’ve relied more on my agent to send out my work while I focused solely on the writing aspect, only to realize that this meant that many (many…) projects ended up stalled in a kind of weird limbo. Not that this was anyone’s fault necessarily, but I realize now that I didn’t really take charge of my work or push for submission the way I should have. My experience with painting has shown me that I really need to adopt a more proactive ‘send it out into the universe’ approach…something which feels both liberating and terrifying, as well as necessary.

I have also been far less critical of my painting (probably because I had no expectations of success!) and happier to let a painting emerge and evolve over time. This has given me the freedom to experiment and try new approaches and techniques without obsessing about the end result. Of course it’s easy to paint over a failed painting and far less soul destroying than rewriting a novel…but when it comes to writing I’ve always been far more critical and ‘editorial’ from the start of the first draft. Now I see that if I adopted the kind of approach and attitude I have to my painting, the writing process could be far less fraught with self-doubt and criticism (well, maybe…).

Finally, I’ve learned that while preparation and professionalism remain key to both painting and writing – the true heart of the issue lies in the concept of identity. Once I allowed myself to identify as an artist, the rest flowed naturally. This fact alone has helped reinforce how important mindset really is to success. I wonder if over the years I’ve never really accepted my identity as a writer and this is why I’ve been far less confident and proactive than perhaps I should have been. In this way my painting has really helped me refocus on my career goals, both as a painter and a writer.

So TKZers, are there lessons you’ve learned from other creative endeavors that have helped inform your writing process or career?

First Page Critique: Kangaroo Court

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is a British ‘book club thriller’ – initially set in Wales (note: Yr Wydffa is the Welsh name for Snowden – just to give some context – and spelling is English spelling). Enjoy – my comments follow:
Kangaroo Court
Dave leaned against the side of his car and savoured the pain of the hot metal on his legs. He looked at Boscombe, and Boscombe looked back, all hard eyes and cocky smile.
Boscombe the Bastard. Boscombe the Bogeyman. Boscombe the Dead.
Boscombe continued to exist in Dave’s memory, at Dave’s behest, trapped in a newsprint photo behind the plastic window of Dave’s wallet. And at the end of the weekend, Dave was going to snuff out this last, tenuous existence.
If Dave went to Penny’s reunion.
It was a year since he had stamped his footprints into the fresh soil of Boscombe’s grave, but was he ready for this last step of his DIY cure?
Far behind the houses opposite, the summit of Yr Wydffa shimmered blue in the afternoon heat. How much easier it would be to drive to Pen-y-Pass instead of the Forest of Dean, walk the Pyg Track to the top of Snowdon, cool air in his mouth and his thoughts as uncluttered as the space around him. His eyes wandered back to the grainy face in his palm and he found his answer. He brought up Paddy’s number on his phone and typed: Forgot to say to get the bubbles in the fridge for Sunday night. I’ve got a surprise announcement! Hit send so there was going back.
In the car, he took a dried date from the glove compartment, slid it between his lips, and swirled the warm, sticky fruit around with his tongue to mask the taste of bile.
He turned right at the end of the street and joined the traffic heading for England.
Overall Comments
When our brave submitter sent this in the note read ‘I don’t think the opening works but I don’t know what to do about it’…and this is where I think we all can help:)
For me, at least, the critical issue in this opener is understanding and caring about the main protagonist. The beginning is confusing as it already introduces us to 3 characters in addition to the protagonist – I was immediately asking myself who is Boscombe? who is Penny? Who is Paddy?..when ultimately what I really wanted to know is ‘who is Dave?’
My main advice to our submitter is to focus on introducing the reader to Dave and giving us enough insight into him as a character so we are motivated to care about him before introducing anyone else.
To be successful, this first page needs to draw the reader in close. We need to get a sense of the stakes and a hint at least of the kind of dilemma Dave might face. At the moment I don’t have a strong sense of his identity or character (or indeed what the book is going to be about). Everything about Dave is told to us/described in terms of a relationship to other characters which we also don’t know yet. This makes it very confusing.
Dave is also alone throughout the first page…and if you remember from my blog post a few months ago, agents and editors really don’t like this! Interaction with another character helps show us why we should care about the protagonist. Without dialogue or action, a character alone can feel very detached and inward looking. This first page illustrates this problem well – We’re so wrapped up in Dave’s thoughts that we don’t really understand who Dave is, or why we should care about his ongoing guilt/anger over Boscombe’s death. To overcome this, we need to see Dave in a situation where he’s interacting with other characters and where we get hints of backstory and more dramatic tension that leaves us wanting to read more.
Many of these overall comments can be best explained in a closer, more detailed, reading of the first page. To this end, I’ve copied the text and inserted my specific comments to (hopefully) better illustrate what I mean. I’ve also highlighted some recommendations in italics for our brave submitter – these are just some initial thoughts but they might help guide future revisions.
Specific Comments
Dave leaned against the side of his car and savoured the pain of the hot metal on his legs. So it sounds like summer, but why is he enjoying the pain? Where is he? Why has he stopped the car? Recommendation: Start off grounding us in the scene – maybe he looks at Snowdon right now – maybe we get a glimpse of backstory. Ideally he should have another character with him who can engage in dialogue/ conflict. What if it’s Paddy or Penny? What if they tell him to throw away the photo of Boscombe. Might even be more dramatic that Dave’s pulled over because of an argument – we can get all the backstory we need then as he and another character argue over Boscombe or Penny’s reunion – anything to get a reader invested in the story 
He looked at Boscombe, and Boscombe looked back, all hard eyes and cocky smile. (Why are we being introduced to another person/name when we don’t even know who Dave is?…) 
Boscombe the Bastard. Boscombe the Bogeyman. Boscombe the Dead. I like this stream of consciousness but it’s too early – we aren’t grounded yet in Dave as a character. Also confusing as previous sentence made us think Boscombe was actually there. Difficult for a reader to start off already confused.
Boscombe continued to exist in Dave’s memory, at Dave’s behest (The word ‘behest’ stopped me as it made it sound like Dave had asked Boscombe), trapped in a newsprint photo behind the plastic window of Dave’s wallet. And at the end of the weekend, Dave was going to snuff out this last, tenuous existence. (Again, we don’t know Dave, let alone his sudden motivation to get rid of a photo of a dead person we also don’t know…)
If Dave went to Penny’s reunion. (Who’s Penny? The reader doesn’t yet know enough about Dave to care about this – also what kind of reunion? What relationship is Penny to Dave – too vague for us to care)
It was a year since he had stamped his footprints into the fresh soil of Boscombe’s grave, but was he ready for this last step of his DIY cure? Recommendation: Slow down. Let us know more about Dave first and why he’s on this road – what kind of ‘cure’ or redemption  is he seeking? We need hints at least about backstory re: Boscombe so we can care. Still recommend having interaction or dialogue with another character to reveal this. Reference to Penny makes it only more confusing as we don’t have content for her (or Boscomber) at all.
Far behind the houses opposite, the summit of Yr Wydffa shimmered blue in the afternoon heat. How much easier it would be to drive to Pen-y-Pass instead of the Forest of Dean, walk the Pyg Track to the top of Snowdon, cool air in his mouth and his thoughts as uncluttered as the space around him. Like this but we need to be grounded – readers may not know these places at all and why are we getting so specific when we don’t really know the journey Dave is making? His eyes wandered back to the grainy face in his palm and he found his answer. He brought up Paddy’s number on his phone and typed: Forgot to say to get the bubbles in the fridge for Sunday night. I’ve got a surprise announcement! Hit send so there was no(?) going back. So we’ve switched from Boscombe to a surprise announcement and the introduction of another character we don’t know (Paddy)….also now a reference to a surprise announcement. Too may unknowns by this point in the first page. Recommendation: Slow down – don’t include this in first paragraph unless critical as it’s too confusing.
In the car, he took a dried date from the glove compartment (this is very specific and also sounds a bit odd. I don’t normally expect people to have dried dates in their car – more likely a mint or a sweet in England so this begs the question why dates and does this raise anything re: Dave’s background (?). Need more detail to feel authentic. Also we have far more detail about this sensation than why he’s stopped the car or where he’s headed etc.), slid it between his lips, and swirled the warm, sticky fruit around with his tongue to mask the taste of bile.
He turned right at the end of the street and joined the traffic heading for England. Still a bit confusing for those unfamiliar with geography or how Welsh people view England – need perhaps to make clearer. Also this is the first we know (as readers) that Dave’s driving to England.
Recommendation: Make it clear from the start that Dave is driving to England from Wales for Penny’s reunion. Then have an argument/conflict to reveal Boscombe backstory. Then add something about Dave’s conflicted feelings/guilt.
Hopefully both these overall and specific comments help provide a guide for revising this first page moving forward. I think the key thing to focus on is anchoring the reader in the scene (where is Dave? where is he heading?) and introducing us to the protagonist through action or dialogue that helps us feel invested in the conflict (and the Boscombe backstory) moving forward.
TKZers what advice or feedback would you offer our brave submitter?

Creating and Resolving Conflict in Your Novel

Conflict is at the heart of almost every great novel. Whether it’s external or internal, conflict provides a key driving force for the narrative and is often instrumental in giving a mystery or thriller it’s page-turning momentum. I raise the issue of conflict today because of some feedback a fellow author recently received on her draft manuscript citing the failure of the manuscript to take advantage of conflict opportunities and when those did arise, resolving that conflict too quickly. Here at TKZ we often talk about the need for dramatic tension when reviewing first pages, and Jim also blogged yesterday about the ‘certain something’ that each individual writer brings to the keyboard. To this I’d like to add that each of us as writers treat conflict very differently and yet we must all make sure we fully realized the potential for conflict in our novels, and resolve all those points of conflict to a reader’s satisfaction.

The way we accomplish this often reflects our individual talents, but conflict never arises in a vacuum and we must ensure that we have also created characters and situations which ensure our readers are invested in the conflict as well as its resolution. I was acutely reminded of this as I watched the movie Beckett on Netflix last night. Not only was the conflict scattered and confused but the lack of character development meant that I was never invested in the resolution of the conflict or the solution to the so called mystery surrounding why the protagonist was being pursued. I won’t say any more about the movie to avoid spoilers, but watching it made me think more about the nature of conflict in effective story-telling. Here are some of my main take aways (from both the movie and from the feedback given to my writer friend):

  • Don’t rush to set up conflict before the reader has time to feel invested in the character. No one will care if the character’s life is in danger or is internally conflicted over something unless we understand/identify with/care about the character. In the movie Beckett, I honestly didn’t feel any connection to the characters before the main conflict/point of dramatic tension arose and thus I didn’t feel invested in the main character’s plight.
  • Always take a step back from a scene to assess whether you’ve taken advantage of the potential for conflict within it. Often a scene may be dull or boring because it doesn’t take raise the stakes or use the opportunity to explore conflict (whether internally or externally driven). In a mystery for example, if it is too easy for a character to find a clue or pursue an investigation, then the plot can lose much of its momentum. Always think about conflict in your scene and whether you can raise the stakes even higher for your character.
  • If you do raise the stakes or take advantage of an opportunity for conflict, don’t squander it by resolving it too quickly. As a reader I don’t want to be eagerly turning the pages in suspense only to find the situation is over too easily or too quickly. This is where pacing is critical because obviously conflict has to be addressed – the key is not to lose momentum by making it too easily overcome or resolved.
  • Finally, though the conflict does have to be resolved in the end (maybe not all of it – especially if there is ongoing internal or character driven conflict) but a reader can’t be left hanging. A reader also can’t be holding their breath throughout the book only to have every point of conflict resolved in one big jumbled mess at the end (again, pacing is key).

Anyway, these are just some Monday thoughts on looking at conflict in your novel. TKZers, how do you approach the issue of conflict in your writing? What tips would you add in terms of maximizing the potential opportunity for conflict as well as pacing its resolution in your work…As always, I look forward to hearing your take/thoughts on this!

Instagram for Dummies

Just a few weeks ago I began my first real foray into the world of Instagram for my art work (BTW I’m @clangleyhawthorneart if anyone’s interested:)) and I feel like I’m definitely in the ‘Instagram for Dummies’ phase! Bizarrely – since I’m only focusing on my art there – I seem to have discovered a whole lot of book and writing related pages so rather than being focused on my own work I’ve been salivating over beautiful photographs of libraries and book covers instead:). As with any new social media experience, I’m still in the throes of wonderment (which won’t last long – no doubt I’ll soon be getting the trolls and the weird follows from fake men!) but also in the thick of trying to work out how the heck to use it. So far I’ve really only managed to upload photos…

I’ve already noticed that some of my favorite authors seem to have a much larger Instagram presence than other social media platforms, which was kind of surprising but also not surprising given the toxicity surrounding much of Twitter and Facebook. Instagram is a very visual platform – which is why I decided to focus on it for my art work rather than my writing – but using it has made me wonder about its value as a potential author social media platform. As with any social media platform, the key is providing consistent content that provides value to your target audience. From what I’ve read, however, Instagram has a higher level of user engagement and also offers potentially much greater visibility compared to other social media networks. Given I’ve only just started using Instagram in a semi-professional capacity, I really don’t have a good sense of whether this is true or whether there really are any benefits to using Instagram compared to other social media platforms… but the potential has me intrigued… It also got me thinking more generally about social media in the post-pandemic era (whenever we actually get there…) and whether authors will find it easier (or harder) to market/gain visibility in the digital arena.

So TKZers, are any of you using Instagram for social media related to your writing? If so, what has your experience been like? If you’re focusing on other social media platforms, have you considered Instagram as an additional resource? And, when thinking more generally about social media in the future, do you think the pandemic has altered your reliance or use of these platforms in your marketing/publicity or writing process?

I certainly don’t have any real sense of how I might use Instagram as an author yet, let alone how it’s going to pan out for my art work – but I’ll keep you posted! In the meantime, feel free to check out my art on Instagram and I look forward to getting your feedback on Instagram on the writing/book front!

 

To Adverb or Not to Adverb?

I’m in the midst of revisions – which is why today’s blog post is rather short – and (as always) wrestling with some of the the writerly tics that seem to invade every new manuscript. Today I faced the perennially thorny issue of adverb use, particularly when it comes to dialogue tags. I have a wonderful writing group partner who is particularly good at pointing out sloppy adverb use, highlighting all the ‘quietly/desperately/softly/angrily’ kind of dialogue slips that I have a tendency to make. She’s also very good at pointing out all the times I ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ so I’m definitely feeling rather humble at the moment:)

As with any revision process, I make a judgment call on whether to keep the dreaded adverbs and when to curtail the amount of ‘showing’ versus ‘telling’ (sometimes not using an adverb actually makes the prose sound more awkward). My writing partner uses (and highly recommends) a program called ProWriting Aid, which apparently helps highlight problematic and sloppy writing but I am reluctant to go down that path for fear it will wreck my prose (or maybe I’m just afraid of all the writing errors it will illuminate!). Another writing partner ran some of her latest novel through ‘Grammarly’ with nightmarish results…which only confirmed my fears!

So my question to you all, is do you use any of these online writing aids? Have you run your prose through any of these kinds of grammar/writing checks and if so, was it helpful? How do you approach this type of stylistic revision when it comes to fiction  (up till now I’ve tended to prefer to go with my gut…) and finally – to adverb, or not to adverb, that is the question…

PS: Congratulations Jim on completing your draft of the new Mike Romeo thriller! – I’d be interested to hear if you’ve considered adding any of thee online tools to your revision process!

Mid-Year Update on the State of Publishing Today

I’ve been hearing a lot in recent weeks about the state of publishing today – especially about the general sense of ‘flux’ and uncertainty as well as the lingering sense of trauma following the pandemic. This particular issue came up recently on social media when a writer demanded on Twitter (never a good thing…) why agents and editors seemed particularly slow in responding to submissions at the moment. This set the stage for a flood of responses from those in the publishing industry reiterating just how traumatic the pandemic had been for many of them – stemming not only from the lay-offs and economic uncertainty, but also coping with working from home (often with young children), and generally being in the midst of a confluence of horrors and illness which affected everyone’s ability to focus.

Now, as we pass the mid-point of 2021 many in the industry are still struggling to catch up with the backlog of work and trying to regain a sense of normalcy after the pandemic upended so much within the industry. Reading this Twitter thread was both reassuring (given my own creative struggles during the pandemic), as well as terribly sad (so many people still trying to come to terms with their experiences last year). What was unnerving/shocking (although given it’s Twitter also inevitable…) was the number of negative responses (even from writers!) criticizing agents and editors as if they should somehow not have any human frailties… Witnessing this whole exchange on Twitter made me wonder about what others were experiencing when it comes to the publishing industry at the moment, whether they see a ‘reset’ any time soon, or whether we are really just in the throes of a kind of post-traumatic syndrome that may take many more months to overcome.

Some of my fellow writers have received a fair bit of ‘doom and gloom’ talk from their agents and editors (though to be honest I say ‘so what’s new?!’) so I thought I’d reach out to our TKZ community to see what your experience has been so far in 2021. Are your agents and editors still reeling from the pandemic? Are submissions or responses to queries taking longer than normal? What feedback have you got from those in the industry about the state of things at the moment?  One interesting tidbit I’ve heard is that many publishers are now looking for projects that they feel they can sell to Netflix for a future movie/TV show – I’m assuming because of the success of the recent Shadow & Bone series perhaps…??…anyway not sure if anyone’s heard this…

For those of you out there in TKZ with their fingers on the pulse, what are you hearing about the state of publishing at the moment?

 

 

 

First Page Critique: Lethal Impulse

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a novel entitled ‘Lethal Impulse’ (which definitely suggests a mystery or thriller!). My comments follow and I look forward to getting further advice and input to help our brave submitter! See you on the other side…

Lethal Impulse

Chapter One

The time had come for the wife of Madison’s police chief to stain the town’s pride. Tess Fleishman decided on a manner unbecoming a Southern belle, antebellum homes, and the best small town to live in Georgia. She inhaled the humid air ripe with the scent of pine. An essence of success released an adrenalin rush as she filmed Vanessa Flack running through the pine thicket.

The sun’s rays conveyed a strobe effect on Vanessa’s yellow tee and orange shorts. The eighteen-year-old raced across uneven terrain, fought low hanging limbs, and craned her neck to look for her assailant. Vanessa cut over to the dirt road and hustled up the red clay embankment. She heaved breaths and rested her hands on her hips.

“How was that?” Vanessa puffed out the words.

Tess clapped. She ducked through the open driver’s window and backed out holding a towel and an insulate tumbler. “You showed me I made the right choice.”

Vanessa draped the towel around her neck and dabbed her face. “Thank you for this, Tess.”

Tess set the camera affixed to a tripod on the rear seat. “You can thank me when it’s over. I need your help with this next part because the doctor told me I’m not to lift anything over twenty pounds.” She popped open the trunk.

Vanessa embraced Tess. “I heard about your diagnosis. I thought about going into oncology once I complete medical school. That’s still a long way off, though. What has the doctor said about your prognosis?”

“We view my future differently. I’m hoping for remission.” Tess gestured to the trunk. “Climb in.”

Vanessa glanced inside the trunk. She retreated two strides. “Do I have to get in there? It looks grimy.”

“We can’t let anybody see you with me, Vanessa. It will ruin the surprise. It’s only until we get to the barn.”

Vanessa clambered into the trunk. Tess swathed towels around Vanessa’s wrists and ankles before she bound them with paracord. Vanessa thanked Tess for the use of towels to prevent ligature marks on her skin.

Tess grinned. “A killer must focus on details, Vanessa.”

General Comments

The last line certainly got my attention on this first page! I thought the author did a good job setting the scene for what the reader is sure is not what it seems at first glance…and a scene that definitely sets the stage for the taut mystery or thriller to come. That being said, I wasn’t completely grounded in this first page and I think part of this was because (a) I wasn’t entirely sure of the mood/tone though it was certainly suggestive of something dark  (which I love); and (b) I didn’t have enough background to understand what was going on (or at least what Vanessa thought was going on…). Both of these issues are easily fixed and I certainly think this first page has heaps of potential. I’m also pleased that there was dialogue/another character given how my last blog post illustrated the pitfalls of having the protagonist alone on the first page! I think the dialogue with Vanessa successfully raised red flags while also sounding believable but I would have liked a little more detail to fully understand what Vanessa thought she doing (acting in a short movie I’m assuming?) and why she was so willing to submit to being bound and placed in the trunk. I also wondered about the POV – As a reader, I wanted more insight or internal monologue for Tess but this might not be what the author wants (which is fine). Overall, bravo to our brave submitter!

Specific Comments

I thought the best way to tackle identifying more specific issues/comments was to go through this first page and highlight these in bold and italics. Hopefully this approach helps illustrate the areas where I think further revisions/clarification could be helpful…Here goes…

The time had come for the wife of Madison’s police chief to stain the town’s pride (I don’t love this expression and given how this first scene pans out I think it could be stronger) Tess Fleishman decided on a manner unbecoming a Southern belle, antebellum homes, and the best small town to live in Georgia (this is where I wasn’t sure about tone as it’s very light but then the scene that follows seems to hint at something darker so maybe have more than just a ‘manner unbecoming’?) . She inhaled the humid air ripe with the scent of pine. An essence of success (I don’t really know what this means) released an adrenalin rush as she filmed Vanessa Flack running through the pine (repetition of pine – maybe chose another word) thicket.

The sun’s rays conveyed a strobe effect on Vanessa’s yellow tee and orange shorts. The eighteen-year-old raced across uneven terrain, fought low hanging limbs, and craned her neck to look for her assailant. Vanessa cut over to the dirt road and hustled up the red clay embankment. She heaved breaths and rested her hands on her hips. (Like how this sets the scene nicely – I could totally visualize this)

“How was that?” Vanessa puffed out the words.

Tess clapped. She ducked through the open driver’s window and backed out holding a towel and an insulate tumbler. (Is she in or out of the car?) “You showed me I made the right choice.”

Vanessa draped the towel around her neck and dabbed her face. “Thank you for this, Tess.” (This is where I wanted more background detail/clarification about what Vanessa thinks she’s doing…)

Tess set the camera affixed to a tripod on the rear seat. “You can thank me when it’s over. I need your help with this next part because the doctor told me I’m not to lift anything over twenty pounds.” She popped open the trunk.

Vanessa embraced Tess (At first I thought Tess was still in the car – maybe clarify how she’d been filming earlier). “I heard about your diagnosis. I thought about going into oncology once I complete medical school. That’s still a long way off, though. What has the doctor said about your prognosis?” (The cancer issue seemed to come a bit our of nowhere and perhaps needs just one additional line. This is also where I felt like we needed a better sense of POV – are we viewing everything through Tess or is it 3rd person omniscient as I almost want some inside view on Tess’s motivation)

“We view my future differently. I’m hoping for remission.” Tess gestured to the trunk. “Climb in.”

Vanessa glanced inside the trunk. She retreated two strides. “Do I have to get in there? It looks grimy.”

“We can’t let anybody see you with me, Vanessa. It will ruin the surprise. It’s only until we get to the barn.” (Again, as a reader I feel I need to have more background as to what Vanessa thinks she’s involved in – getting into a trunk is pretty extreme.)

Vanessa clambered into the trunk. Tess swathed towels around Vanessa’s wrists and ankles before she bound them with paracord. Vanessa thanked Tess for the use of towels to prevent ligature marks on her skin.

Tess grinned. “A killer must focus on details, Vanessa.”

(Love this last line but just needed more details/background or at least further hints to understand why Vanessa would agree to this…and if Tess’s intentions are darker, maybe a few more hints on that…)

Hope some of these comments are helpful to our brave submitter. My fellow TKZers, what advice/comments would you provide?

Troubleshooting Plot Issues

When it comes to writing, I’m a plotter not a pantser, but despite my best intentions there’s almost always a point in the process where I have to take a step back and assess something that has gone awry in the overall arc of the novel. More often than not it’s my own desire to over complicate things and so I have a bit of sub-plot and exposition pruning to do – sometimes, however, I just can’t pinpoint what isn’t working and that’s when I have to troubleshoot the issue. At the moment, I’m in the strange position of having over-pruned my current WIP but, nonetheless, I’m going to employ similar strategies to work out what to put back in and what new material will be required (especially as a lot of what I took out needed to be taken out). Given I’m in the throes of troubleshooting mode, I thought I’d share some of the strategies I employ and get some (no doubt very useful) feedback from all you wonderful TKZers on your own troubleshooting strategies!

My first point of reference is always the original plot outline (the one I’ve undoubtedly veered off from…) and as part of my revision process I always refine the outline to keep pace with the changes I’ve made. With my current WIP I’m about to take two additional steps: First, I’m going to lay out the plot in ‘bubble format’ where I go through the manuscript chapter by chapter to identify the main scene and plot points to track how the story pans out; second, I’m going to graph the story out, tracking high and low dramatic points to see whether the overall arc of the story seems to work. This second stage is  gives me a visual snapshot of the pacing of the novel and whether the overall story arc conforms to a basic 3-act structure.

If neither of these strategies really help identify the problem then my plan is go back to the ‘drawing board’ and ask myself these key questions.

  • Have I started the story in the right place?
  • Is there a fundamental flaw in the premise of the book? (I really hope not!!)
  • Is the story getting weighted down by too much narrative – or is the balance of background, character, setting, or plot weighing down the momentum of the book?
  • Have I got too many POVs? (a major revision in my current WIP was the elimination of an entire POV as the shift to that character’s perspective was interrupting the flow of the plot too much)
  • Are there inconsistencies in the length of my chapters or pacing in the way the story unfolds? (for example it would be a major red flag for me if I discovered that the chapters in the middle of the book are much lengthier than the early or later ones – would signal a saggy middle for sure!)
  • Have I resolved all the threads of the story?

Well, this is the plan at least! Hopefully once I’ve finished troubleshooting I’ll have a good sense of what I need to do next to revise my plot outline and get back to revisions/ rewriting mode.

What about you TKZers? what strategies do you employ to troubleshoot plot/pacing/arc issues during your revision process?

 

 

Agent Perspectives on First Pages

I attended a virtual writing workshop last weekend in which there was a panel of agents providing feedback on a random selection of first pages anonymously submitted by attendees. It provided a fascinating (yet also terrifying) vision of how agents review material sent to them by authors and how quick they are to stop reading (as the moderator read out the first pages the agents raised their hands at the moment they would have stopped reading and when 3 out of 4 agents had their hands raised, the reading stopped and the critique began).  Given our own first page critiques here at TKZ I was interested to see whether agents had any different takes/perspectives when reading those critical first pages provided them on submission. Not surprisingly this panel revealed just how critical the first page is – and how quick agents will stop reading! Of the twenty or so first pages read out, only one survived being read out in its entirety. For many pages, agents didn’t even get past the first paragraph…yikes, right?!

Now none of the agents on this panel were cruel or unusually critical, but it was depressing to witness how many basic issues doomed these first pages. By the end of the panel it was also clear that these agents (which came from a variety of backgrounds and interests when it came to representation) were pretty consistent (often unanimous) on the particular issues that made them stop reading. As a result, I thought it might be helpful for our brave first page submitters as well as other TKZers to summarize these issues. So here we go with a list of the ‘top 5 issues that will make an agent stop reading your first page’…

  1. Beginning with the weather…we had a remarkable number of entries that had detailed descriptions of the weather in the first paragraph and the agents were like ‘ugh’ unless it served a very unique or useful purpose. Bottom line – don’t.
  2. Beginning with only exposition…again a large number of first pages had no real action, dialogue, or even character interaction in the first page. Many entries had only exposition and backstory. Bottom line…agents didn’t care enough about the character to read this – so save the exposition for later!
  3. Having a character alone…this was an interesting take from a couple of the agents who really didn’t like first pages where the character is all on their own. The principal reason for this was that doing this limited the author’s ability to show character and increased the potential for exposition and introspection rather than action and dramatic tension. Bottom line – better to show character through action and interaction/dialogue on a first page than resort to telling/exposition.
  4. Unnecessary verbiage or description…One of the main reason agents stopped reading was the overuse of adverbs, adjectives or descriptions which slowed down the pace of the action. In one first page there was a three paragraph description of the main character waking wondering if he was dead. The agents were like, establish this in one line and move on! Likewise they did not like flowery, overly descriptive prose. Bottom line…word choice matters. Say it in one word not three:)
  5. Being cliched! It was clear that this panel of agents had seen it all so they nixed any opening that felt worn and cliched. The list of cliched openings in these first pages included characters waking up and not knowing where they were/who they were or if they were alive; running for a flight in an airport; meeting someone in a bar; planning a heist…you get the picture. They also stopped reading as soon as characters turned into stock standard cliches – like the brilliant but eccentric misfit, the bitter divorcee or the alcoholic former cop…again, you get the picture. Bottom line…Be fresh!

Although this agent panel was pretty depressing to watch (as I said, only one of the entries passed muster!), it was clear that all these agents wanted to love these first pages. They wanted to be inspired to read on!  And all of the issues that stopped them reading are same issues that present themselves time and time again when we read and critique first pages at TKZ (so there’s no particular mystery or magic as to what agents are after!). Bottom line – any writer who is able to cast the same critical eye over his/her own work is ready to make the changes necessary to craft an amazing first page.

So TKZers, what’s your take on these agents’ feedback?