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/

Does Anyone Read Poetry Anymore?

Back when my book group could still meet in person we had a fun month where everyone chose a piece of poetry to share. We had funny poems, romantic poems, some pithy pun filled poems, and then there was me dredging up the angst with Sylvia Plath:)

I’m sure it will come as no surprise to anyone that I was a definite poetry nerd as a teenager. I was into all the angst, all the pain, and definitely all the darkness associated with poets like Plath, Dickinson, Lowell, and Eliot. I still have shelves of poetry books, including an inordinately morbid number of First World War poets, as well as a surprising number of romantics! I have to confess though in recent years I’ve bought very few new volumes of any kind of poetry and, apart from this particular book group project, have rarely taken down a book of poetry to peruse for fun. So what happened? (you know apart from life, motherhood, etc…) Why had poetry dropped off my reading list so precipitously?

A few years ago I remember hearing the poet Jane Hirschfield being interviewed on Fresh Air and being mesmerized by her poetry reading (I had to pull the car over so I could listen to the whole broadcast). More recently I was inspired by Amanda Gorman’s amazing poem at the inauguration and I do hope this elevation of poetry and performance will reignite popular interest (not that I think publishers ever viewed poetry as a great money maker!). For me, though, the desire to reconnect with poetry came a few months ago (pretty much after my book group project which made me realize what I’ve been missing). Since then I’ve been trying to start off my writing day with reading at least one poem. It’s been, at best, a sporadic success, but I am so glad that I’m finding the time to reincorporate poetry back into my life…but still I have to wonder, does anyone actually read poetry anymore??

What about you TKZers? Are you a poetry fan or was poetry just something cruel English Literature teachers forced you to study? Do you, as writers, ever use poetry as a creative or inspirational tool? What do you think are the chances that poetry is now back in vogue (if it ever was!)?

 

+5

Tens(e)ion in a Novel

So I’ve been thinking (well, wondering…) a lot about the growing popularity in the use of present tense in novels – probably because we recently had this issue come up in a first page critique, but also because two members of my writing group are also using it in their historical novels (quite successfully I might add) – which has led to some puzzlement on my part. While there are certainly some benefits to using the present tense (see below), it isn’t something that flows naturally for many writers so I’ve been ruminating over its recent appeal.

On the plus side, present tense provides an immediacy to a scene that can ramp up dramatic tension. In many YA novels, it can also provide a deeper connection to the main character. Suzanne Colins did an amazing job of using the present tense to immerse readers in the world of Panem and Katniss Everdeen. However, it certainly can feel like an artifice in many other books – one that strains the flow and forces a writer to employ some pretty awkward sentences. In my writing group, I have questioned the use of present tense in some of my fellow writers’ work, not because it hasn’t been effective in the scenes I’ve reviewed, but because it seems like a difficult tense to sustain for a whole novel. In my own work, I’ve really only used the present tense for interior thoughts or flashbacks (maybe because I’m not skilled enough to use it full time!).  When used judiciously, the present tense can help signal to the reader a transition in terms of time or narrative focus and it can certainly be used to create compellingly tense scenes. As with anything with writing, when the present tense is employed well a book can soar. That being said, the apparent popularity of writing in the present tense does seem a little…weird…So I thought I’d reach out to you, our fabulous TKZ community to provide insight and input.

So what do you all think/feel in general about novels written in the present tense? As writers, have you considered using it and if so, why? What benefits do you see to writing in the present tense? Does it feel natural to you for a whole novel?

Please note, I’m asking these questions, not by way of judgement, but out of general curiosity since I’ve recently seen many novels employing the present tense that I would have typically expected to be written in the past tense. A well written novel succeeds irrespective of the tense (or any other literary device) used – but it is intriguing to me that so many more writers seem to be choosing it as an option!

What say you all, TKZers?

+10

1st First Page Critique for 2021!

Despite 2021 starting off like a bad sequel to a disaster movie, I’m trying to get back on track with all my writing goals and I hope you are too (in between just a few news distractions!) Today is my 1st first page critique of the year, and this one, despite having no title, is described as romantic suspense.  My comments follow  – see you on the flip side.

First Page Submission

What do the bitches have planned for me today?”

Gasping, she looked around. Had she really said that out loud? The thought that ruled her life and had done so since she’d arrived on campus in August. What hell were her roommates going to subject her to this time? God damn it. How the hell did the trio manage to mess with her when they weren’t even around?

Sighing when it appeared no one was paying her any undue attention, she resumed trudging towards her dorm, absently wiping a tear from her eye. Having stayed away from the room as long as she could, there wasn’t anywhere else to go. The library and student union had closed so it was the room or her car. And sadly, if she wanted to try to sleep in her car, she’d need a blanket from the room anyway. To make things worse, the football team had won that day, so they’d be drinking and probably pretty wound up.

The key bounced all around the keyhole, her hand seemingly trying to protect her from the evil on the other side. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to relax so finally, on the tenth try, the key slid in and it was time. Bracing herself, she crept into the room. Madison and Morgan spun away from her desk, their faces turning red. Morgan hustled to the other side of the room, but Madison just stood and stared.

She walked to her bed and dropped her backpack, “Need something, Madison?”

“Your damn ass out of here.”

Right on cue, it was starting again. She tried to pretend she didn’t hear it, silently repeating to herself, don’t let them win, don’t let them see any weakness. Sitting on the bed, she pulled a fresh spiral notebook out of her backpack and grabbed a pen. All she wanted to do was ignore them and hope they might leave her alone, for once. She flipped to the first page, eager to document her initial thoughts for the latest English Lit project. It was her favorite class and the professor was the reason she was here. He was a friend of her junior college English teacher and had gotten her a scholarship. Today, he’d given her a special assignment, challenging her to dig deeper into herself after she’d confided that she had thoughts of writing for a living. ‘The ones who set themselves apart share a small part of themselves in each work’, he’d said, ‘Could she be a great one?’ Excited by the challenge, she started jotting notes. Ten seconds later, the notebook was ripped out of her hands.

Overall Comment
This page certainly has an attention getting first line, but after that I have to admit I was a little uncertain about the tone of the story, the voice of the protagonist, and whether this was the beginning of a younger adult novel dealing with bullying or (as it had been described) more of a romantic suspense novel. The tone of this first page definitely seems more suited to YA and I didn’t really get a suspense vibe…So my first major comment to our brave submitter, is what tone do you want to set for this novel? The first line “What do the bitches have planned for me today?” presents a very aggressive, in your face POV, which definitely drew me in, but after that the protagonist becomes much more passive and weak, and her actions seem to contradict an initial strong beginning. Likewise the descriptions and actions used in this first page are all over the place, presenting mixed signals about the protagonist’s character as well as the tone of the book. The final paragraph for example, seems very odd – after steeling herself for what her roommates will do to her, and fearing for the ‘evil’ they will unleash, the protagonist suddenly sits down and starts musing about her English Lit assignment…
Specific Comments
Given my overall comments focus on POV, character voice and tone, I thought the easiest way to illustrate these concerns was to go through this first page and embed my specific comments throughout. Here goes:

What do the bitches have planned for me today?” I love this attention getting first line. Wasn’t sure if intended to have as actual speech, if so need two quotation marks. Remember grammar and punctuation need to be perfect.

Gasping, she looked around. Now I’m deflated. Perhaps, the internal monologue should continue to give the protagonist a stronger voice Had she really said that out loud? The thought that ruled her life and had done so since she’d arrived on campus in August. What hell were her roommates going to subject her to this time? God damn it. How the hell did the trio manage to mess with her when they weren’t even around? Maybe move these questions up earlier so we continue to hear the protagonist’s inner monologue. Remember voice is critical to a first page so you want it ringing out loud and clear.

Sighing This seems passive, given the aggressive first line. when it appeared no one was paying her any undue attention does she secretly want attention?, she resumed trudging towards her dorm, absently why would it be absently if she’s so upset. Does she want people to see her pain and help? wiping a tear from her eye. Having stayed away from the room as long as she could, there wasn’t anywhere else to go. Explain why The library and student union had closed so it was the room or her car. And sadly, if she wanted to try to sleep in her car, she’d need a blanket from the room anyway. If she’s that afraid, why not go to a hotel? The reader needs to get a sense of why she had no one to turn to – especially as college campuses usually have counselors/RAs etc. To make things worse, the football team had won that day, so they’d be drinking and probably pretty wound up. In this paragraph the protagonist’s voice sounds far different to what we read in the first paragraph – much weaker, more passive and using different language..she says bitches and then only uses ‘wound up’?? It’s confusing for the reader and weakens the dramatic tension.

The key bounced all around the keyhole, her hand seemingly trying to protect her from the evil on the other side Very passive descriptionTaking a deep breath, she forced herself to relax so finally, on the tenth try, the key slid in and it was time. Bracing herself, she crept into the room. Again crept is a very weak description given how aggressive she sounded at the beginning of the page Madison and Morgan spun away from her desk, their faces turning red. Morgan hustled to the other side of the room, but Madison just stood and stared. So they’ve been looking through things on her desk – shouldn’t she have more reaction to this?

She protagonist should have a name as it’s unclear who this ‘she’ is walked to her bed and dropped her backpack, “Need something, Madison?”

“Your damn ass out of here.” Without more background their bullying starts to border on caricature – their actions need to feel very specific and real if we are to sympathize with the protagonist

Right on cue, it was starting again. She tried to pretend she didn’t hear it, silently repeating to herself, don’t let them win, don’t let them see any weakness. Why doesn’t she just grab the blanket and leave like she intimated in previous paragraph? Sitting on the bed, she pulled a fresh spiral notebook out of her backpack and grabbed a pen. Why do this? She’s been so afraid and upset, yet she calmly sits on the bed and pulls out the notebook?All she wanted to do was ignore them and hope they might leave her alone, for once. This seems inconsistent, given how much bullying we’ve been led to believe has happened She flipped to the first page, eager this verb seems oddly out of place given how fearful of their bullying she’s been to document her initial thoughts for the latest English Lit project. It was her favorite class and the professor was the reason she was here. These seem unnecessary details which drain the scene of dramatic tension He was a friend of her junior college English teacher and had gotten her a scholarship. Again, why is this detail here?Today, he’d given her a special assignment, challenging her to dig deeper into herself after she’d confided that she had thoughts of writing for a living. Suddenly, despite the threat from Madison and Morgan, she’s just thinking about an English Lit assignment?‘ The ones who set themselves apart share a small part of themselves in each work’, he’d said, ‘Could she be a great one?’ Excited by the challenge, she started jotting notes. Tone inconsistency – she was afraid of their evil a few minutes ago and now she’s excitedly jotting notes?Ten seconds later, the notebook was ripped out of her hands.

I hope these specific comments help highlight the issues I have with this first page. That being said, I think this brave submitter has the basis for a strong first page if the protagonist’s voice can really shine through and if the set up for the story is clearer, more consistent, and the bullying comes through as very real and dangerous.

So TKZers what constructive feedback do you have for our brave submitter?

+9

What 2020 Taught Us

Happy New Year – and, as many may feel, good riddance to 2020!

Given the past year I thought it important to start off on a positive note – though as I am tiptoeing into the new year, I’m not quite ready to commit to any new year’s resolutions…you know, just in case… I have, however, been reflecting on what the challenges of 2020 has taught me – both personally and professionally. The TKZ community I think weathered the storm pretty well and I hope we continued to be a place where you felt encouraged and supported as writers. For me 2020 revealed both my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I was discombobulated as well as distracted most of the year but nonetheless I did manage to finish major revisions to a novel (so there was one balloon still aloft at the end of the year:)) and I learned to be more proactive and assertive when it comes to my career (with mixed results given the year we had).

I’ve definitely spent the last few weeks wrestling with goals and plans for the coming year, but it’s been focusing on what 2020 taught me that’s helped me keep these in perspective…so in the spirit of sharing, here’s my short list of takeaways from the dumpster fire that was 2020:

  1. I need more mental space than I realized to be creative – having a houseful of people all trying to learn and work remotely taught me that I should have prioritized this more
  2. Manuscripts in drawers don’t sell themselves:)
  3. I need to be braver, more assertive, and proactive as a writer (see item #2)
  4. I shouldn’t spend all my time obsessing over the big goals, but be satisfied with achieving the smaller, more attainable ones on a daily/weekly basis (again…see item #2)
  5. I don’t need to make lunch for everyone!!! (seriously, lunch became the most loathed meal of the day as I foolishly operated the ‘all day mum cafe’ for most of 2020)

What about you TKZers? As we look forward to 2021, what did the challenges of 2020 teach you as a writer?

 

 

 

+13

First Page Critique: Outbreak

Happy Monday!
Today’s critique is the first page of a proposed YA novel of suspense entitled Outbreak/Breakout (not sure if those are alternative options or the whole title). My critique follows, but I do think this raises some interesting questions about choices when it comes to POV and tense – as well as the whole issue of writing about a pandemic!
Enjoy.
CHAPTER ONE

11:00 am

You’ve never been great at fractions, but neither is the NOLA-25 virus. It allegedly kills 1 in 3 people, so why did it wipe out the entire Perez family? That’s six people dead when it’s only supposed to be two. And what about your own family? What’s 1/3 of five? Will the virus kill Marco? That’s only 1 in 5. Marco and Mom? That’s too many. Anyone is one to many. And this virus sucks at math.

Outside your front window, the Perez home at the end of the street is eaten by flames. You used to go to school with Savannah Perez, back when there was in-person school. Now, you’ll never see her again. Yesterday it was Mrs. Mitchell, who lived right behind you. Today it’s the Perez family. That’s just how it goes. A blue van shows up one day without warning and takes the family away. Most of the time they aren’t even feeling any symptoms yet. Soon, a burn notice shows up on their front door and the Fire Squad comes to destroy everything they’ve ever touched. Clothes, furniture, pictures, germs. Only in rare cases does a blue van ever bring a family back home. Exposure to NOLA-25 almost always results in infection, and infection is an almost certain death sentence.

* * *

Your eyes drift over to Marco, riding his bike up and down the block. You feel a twinge of guilt for thinking of him first when fears of the virus creep into your mind. It’s not like you’d choose him to be the one infected. He’s a good big brother (as far as big brothers go). Besides, Marco will be fine — his mask and face shield are on, he stays on your own block. You watch him anyway, just in case someone gets close to him. But there’s no one outside.

Behind you, two women on a morning news program joke about the appearance of a smoothie they’re pouring from a blender. It’s supposed to help boost immunity, but no one could possibly believe a smoothie can stop NOLA-25. As the women jabber on, holding their noses to sip the green concoction, a list of yesterday’s pandemic victims scrolls down the right side of the TV screen. The list includes dozens of names, and those are just the ones in Miami-Dade County. Broward County will be next, with Mrs. Mitchell’s name on the list. Tomorrow, the name Savannah Perez will appear.

Overall comments:

I definitely think this page has potential – there are a few stumbling blocks but none that can’t be overcome – and this definitely feels like an authentic YA voice which can be tricky to achieve! Bravo! For me the main stumbling blocks are:

  • The use of 2nd person – this is very hard to pull off and while I like the narrator addressing the reader in this way, I’m still not entirely sure this is a sustainable POV for a whole novel. I might get my fellow TKZers to weigh in on this but I think 2nd person is going to be a challenging choice.
  • Present tense – although this is very common in YA novels I still think present tense can be off-putting to some readers. While it gives a great sense of immediacy and dramatic tension (The Hunger Games is a great example of successful use of the present tense), it can sound clunky. Although I wouldn’t say don’t use the present tense, I would just caution that it takes a very skilled writer to pull it off effectively.
  • Pandemic fatigue – I am torn on this…but I suspect many editors are going to nix a lot of books that deal with a pandemic simply because they are living through one! Again, I’d like my fellow TKZers to weigh in on this, but I am worried that editors will be inundated with pandemic novels (particularly YA). To stand out in this crowd is going to be a challenge and I fear editors are going to be very cautious about acquiring these kind of novels.

None of these stumbling blocks are in any way deal-breakers. They simply present challenges for even a seasoned/experienced writer. There are also some other more specific comments that I’ve listed below – all of which, again, can be easily overcome. Overall, I do see potential in the voice in this first page.

Other specific comments:

Consistency – I was a little confused –  in the first paragraph it says that the virus allegedly kills 1 in 3 people but then it says that infection is an almost certain death sentence…which doesn’t totally make sense (I guess I would think killing 2 out of 3 people would be an almost certain death sentence…). It’s also not entirely clear to the reader why the whole house and all the possessions have to be burned even when the family taken away is asymptomatic. I think I need more detailed, consistent information when it comes to the NOLA-25 virus especially as my reading experience is informed by our current pandemic. For instance, is it a respiratory illness (sounds like it as Marco wears a face mask and shield)? How is it spread? (sounds like if they torch everything it spreads on every kind of surface but cannot be disinfected?) How do people know they have been exposed or have the illness if they don’t have any symptoms (or are they just hauled away because the government knows even if they don’t?). When writing a novel about a pandemic, especially given everyone’s heightened awareness, I think you have to be extremely specific with details right from the start for it to feel believable.

Action – This first page is really all exposition – which isn’t a deal breaker either, but I think I would have liked to actually seen real live action – like the blue van coming to take the Perez family away and then the house going up in flames. While reading this, I craved immediate action – I wanted to be in the thick of it, feeling the terror of what is happening, especially given this page is in present tense. I would be far more interested in the Perez family’s experience than the smoothie-making scene on the morning news. Just something to consider. At the moment I feel a bit ‘removed’ from the scene.

A Fresh Take – My final issue is really one of ‘where are we headed?’ with this novel. At the moment I don’t see anything except a pandemic related, possibly dystopian scenario but, given a potentially crowded ‘pandemic YA novel’ market I do think you need to have something really fresh/different or at least the foreshadowing of something different right from the start. I fear that an editor who picked this first page up would simply assume it was going to be the ‘same-old-same-old’…so I would recommend giving them something fresh that really intrigues them.

TKZers – looking forward to getting your feedback on some of the issues I’ve raised as well as any other comments you have from our brave submitter! It’s hard writing an authentic YA voice, but I think that is certainly one of the strongest elements with this first page.

+11

Gratitude & Goals (and Balloons)

This Thanksgiving will be tough for a lot of people and I am grateful that all my family are safe and healthy and that I get to spend turkey day with my husband, twin teenage boys, and collie Hamish (who is the only one who seems to have enjoyed this year!). I have certainly experienced a rollercoaster of emotions and stress this year so my thoughts go out to any of you struggling during these uncertain times.

This week I will focus on the things I am thankful for (health, family, friends, economic stability…) but will also re-evaluate my original 2020 goals to see if any can be salvaged (ugh!). Actually the metaphor that comes to mind (and my apologies as it’s a pretty crap one) is a bunch of balloons. I started out the year with a handful of promising ones, only to see quite a few fly up into the sky – some are aloft and still in sight, some I fear have blown away for good. The balloons that are now left are a ragtag bunch – goals that I keep trying to cling to, but which are looking rather worse for wear. I did complete a draft YA novel that I’m still waiting for feedback on (I like to think of it as a shiny red balloon which hasn’t been deflated yet!), and I have started a new historical book (at the moment, however, this balloon is barely inflated…). My art/painting goal looks like a balloon animal – oddly shaped and kind of cool but who knows what I’m going to do with it. Finally, there are two stray balloons which I can’t remember ever grabbing: one represents a ‘couch to 5km’ running program which I started a few months ago and actually continued (which is weird because I hate running…); the other is a ‘cooking diva’ balloon which I know I never asked for but which I clung onto when faced with providing 3 meals a day plus snacks to a hungry household of boys:).

This week, when it comes to my 2020 goals, I’m staring at this weird handful of balloons and wondering what to do with them – do I pop them? Try to inflate them a little more? Try to rescue the ones that blew away? (though I guess I should be thankful to be still clinging to some goals at all!)

TKZers, how have you handled your goals this year? Are you, like me, still clinging to some of those balloons? How are you planning to use Thanksgiving this year to help achieve (or maybe re-inflate) your 2020 writing goals?

+9

Searching for Justice

Despite (or maybe because of) a rather distracting week, I managed to finish the latest mystery by one of my all time favorite writers (I’m not going to disclose the book or author or I’ll have to give spoiler alerts!). However, instead of the usual feeling of contentment that comes from finishing a well-written, masterly plotted mystery, I felt…let down…and it took me a few days to figure out that the major reason for my nagging sense of disappointment was that the novel never really gave me the ending I wanted. Sure there was resolution but there was no justice…and I was surprised at how much that altered the whole reading experience for me.

Don’t get me wrong, the novel had great characterization and a well-paced investigation, it was beautifully written and often poignant, but in the end the perpetrators of the crime never really faced any real consequences, and certainly no punishment. This got me thinking about reader expectations when it comes to the whole mystery/crime genre and also whether, given how much the genre has changed over the years, writers still need to end their novels with a sense that justice (whatever that might mean) has been served.

Like many other readers, part of the reason I read mysteries is to get the satisfaction that comes from seeing justice served (something that all too often does not occur in real life). There is something very affirming about ‘good’ winning out in the end – even if that ending is messy or morally compromising. Once I begin to read a mystery novel I place my trust in the writer that the crime/mystery will ultimately be solved and that the person(s) responsible will be brought to account – but how do I (as both a reader and writer) feel about a resolution that omits ‘justice’ and ‘punishment’? I’m still not sure.

When it comes to this particular book at least, it was about managing reader expectations. I was expecting a murder mystery and though I got one, I didn’t get the ending I was expecting, and as a result, I felt the whole book tainted by a lack of a satisfying resolution. I think this disappointment says a lot about how writers need to manage reader expectations and also, perhaps, the strengths and limitations of the genre itself (for instance if I had considered this literary fiction I might not have expected the same kind of ending as I would with a mystery).

So TKZers what do you think -do you still expect or demand to see justice served in a mystery novel? How much leverage do you give when it comes to endings/resolutions in a mystery/crime genre novel? Am I just being old fashioned or is justice and/or punishment even needed anymore?

 

+10

First Page Critique: Oh By The Way

It’s seems a while since I did a first page critique  (though it probably isn’t) but time this year has been running in very strange ways – but it feels good to get back down to the nitty gritty of what makes a first page work. Today’s submission, ‘Oh By The Way’ provides a great introduction to the role of humor and setting the tone for a POV right from the start. Enjoy – my comments follow.

Oh By The Way

I didn’t go out with a bang. It was more of a thud. When the car hit me, all I could think  was, “Oh, great.” My body lifted ridiculously out of my shoes on impact, then fell to the ground so quickly that the rest of me didn’t follow. Thud.

I watched my crumpled body from above and thought, “I’m going to be late for work.” I  floated higher into the London sky, past the smog and into the clouds before realizing the whole cartoonish scene had been my death. “Lovely,” I folded my arms across my chest and rose into the heavens a bit pissed off.

Without any transition at all, I found myself standing in front of a bland sort of train station. It sat under a hazy orange sky surrounded by nothing at all. I turned in all directions and noted not a tree or a bird. The only sound came from my shoes crunching tired-looking pebbles beneath my feet.

“Well, my shoes are back. That’s clever,” I thought. But, the rest of it was quite disappointing. I mean, there was no ceremony to it. I didn’t exactly expect trumpets, but a  kazoo perhaps could have been spared.

I let out a frustrated giggle and noticed a card hanging from my neck by a lanyard. It had a mortifying picture of me with an astonished look on my face and the words “DISTRACTED  DRIVER” bolded in red.

“Bloody hell,” I said out loud.

My ears perked at the sound of pebbles crunching to my right as a plump little woman came walking toward me out of seemingly nowhere. She reminded me of my middle school  English teacher, except with better shoes.

“Oh, my dear,” she reached her hand out to me and I awkwardly took it. “How are you?”  she asked.

“Incredulous,” I blurted out. I was still gripping the photo around my neck and lamely held it up to her. “I was a pedestrian, not a distracted driver,” I said. As if getting my name tag right was what really mattered.

“Oh, not to worry. That’s just a conversation starter,” the woman smiled.

The sound of footsteps suddenly surrounded us on all sides. Beings began taking shape out of the orange haze and we were no longer alone.

General Comments:

I enjoyed this first page for its breezy tone and humor, setting the scene (I assume) for a story set in some kind of afterlife. My favorite line – ‘I didn’t exactly expect trumpets, but a  kazoo perhaps could have been spared.’ – provides a great illustration for how a POV can really come to life in just one sentence. This first page was a little less successful in other ways – mainly because of some uneven writing and lack of real imagery (there seemed to be a lot of non-descriptions like ‘bland train station’ or ‘not a tree or a bird’ which didn’t really add much to the story). Given that most of my specific comments are more directed at these kind of issues, I’ve copied the first page below with my notes embedded, as this illustrates what I’m trying to say a bit better. Despite these issues, though, I do think that this first page has a lot of potential. Starting with an ‘out-of-body’ death experience has been done before, however, so I would urge the writer to really hone those humor skills and make every word, in every sentence count. I love the Douglas Adams style of humor, which is hard to pull off, so overall I think with some more revising, this could be a very successful, wryly funny, first page.

Here is the version of this first page with my specific comments embedded in bold:

Oh By The Way [odd title but could work]

I didn’t go out with a bang. It was more of a thud. When the car hit me, all I could think  was, “Oh, great.” My body lifted ridiculously out of my shoes on impact, then fell to the ground so quickly that the rest of me  [bit awkward as reader left wondering what is the ‘rest of me’ is if not the body…maybe say my consciousness or my brain or my thoughts?] didn’t follow. Thud.

I watched my crumpled body from above and thought, “I’m going to be late for work.” I  floated higher into the London sky, past the smog and into the clouds before realizing the whole cartoonish scene had been my death. “Lovely,” I folded my arms across my chest and rose into the heavens a bit pissed off. [this works well! Like the tone/POV]

Without any transition at all [clunky], I found myself standing in front of a bland sort of train station [?? bland feels like a non-description that doesn’t add anything] . It sat under a hazy orange sky surrounded by nothing at all [except a colored sky…so this seems again more of a non description]. I turned in all directions and noted not a tree or a bird [so why say this? Again doesn’t add anything]. The only sound came from my shoes crunching tired-looking pebbles beneath my feet [so there are pebbles – not nothing at all].

“Well, my shoes are back. That’s clever,” I thought. [I’m assuming the narrator is also dressed – maybe an observation about clothes would also help reader visualize the person] But, the rest of it was quite disappointing. I mean, there was no ceremony to it. I didn’t exactly expect trumpets, but a  kazoo perhaps could have been spared. [Love this line!]

I let out a frustrated giggle [I can’t visualize what that looks like…] and noticed a card hanging from my neck by a lanyard. It had a mortifying picture of me with an astonished look on my face and the words “DISTRACTED  DRIVER” bolded in red.

“Bloody hell,” I said out loud.

My ears perked at the sound of pebbles crunching to my right as a plump little woman came walking toward me out of seemingly [redundant] nowhere. She reminded me of my middle school  English teacher, except with better shoes. [nice line! Love the repetition of shoe issue]

“Oh, my dear,” she reached her hand out to me and I awkwardly took it. “How are you?”  she asked.

“Incredulous,” I blurted out. I was still gripping the photo around my neck and lamely held it up to her. “I was a pedestrian, not a distracted driver,” I said. As if getting my name tag right was what really mattered. [love this line too – clever way of giving insight into character]

“Oh, not to worry. That’s just a conversation starter,” the woman smiled. [love this!]

The sound of footsteps suddenly surrounded us on all sides [awkward]. Beings began taking shape out of the orange haze and we were no longer alone. [Again feels more like a non-description. I would like something to visualize as a reader]

Hope this feedback helps – TKZers, what do you think? What suggestions do you have to our brave submitter??

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Crafting Your Narrative

This year I’ve been exploring the world of art through painting as well as writing – partly as a result of the pandemic lockdown, partly as a culmination of years of ‘dabbling’ in acrylics. A few weekends ago I decided to take the first step to taking my art to the next level and enrolled in a class about turning your creativity into a business. I was pretty nervous as my painting still feels very new and fragile, but came away feeling inspired and, perhaps more importantly, with the realization that this new approach to painting could also inform my writing career as well. The first exercise in the class was entitled ‘crafting your narrative’ and it became such an important exercise (for me at least) that I wanted to blog about it!

So what is ‘crafting your narrative’? Well, basically it is an initial exercise designed to make you think about your own creative narrative – what makes you and what you craft unique. Honestly, I can’t say I’d ever thought of looking at myself this way. All my elevator pitches and synopses have been focused on a particular book I’ve written and what makes it ‘unique’, rather than focusing on myself as a writer. When it came to my painting, the class prompts examined not only the media and mode of expression I use, but also what inspired me and how I thought my work made other people feel. In the end the (rough draft) that I came up with for myself as a painter was “I create abstract acrylic paintings that explore color, symmetries, shapes, and the relationship between the natural world and our interior selves…” Not bad I thought for a first attempt, but then I immediately began to think about how I would craft a similar narrative about myself as a writer…and soon realized just how much harder that would be!

Crafting your own narrative is, I discovered, much more challenging than summarizing a book for an elevator pitch – yet it makes perfect sense. As we discussed in class, when you are trying to differentiate yourself as any kind of creative, it’s vital to know who you are and what makes your work unique. So I set about trying to craft a narrative the same way I had for myself as a painter…and so far I’ve really only come up with a very rough statement that I am a fiction writer ‘who writes about bold, intriguing women against a backdrop of real and re-imagined histories’. Of course this doesn’t sound like most of my books at all – or me – so crafting my own narrative is definitely still a work in progress:)

So TKZers, how would you craft your own narrative as a writer? How (in one sentence of two) would you describe yourself as a writer and what makes your work unique? Do you find this exercise as challenging as I do?

Quick note: It’s fall break this week and we’re embarking on a driving trip round our beautiful home state of Colorado, so my internet access will be a little bit more limited today than usual – but I will be checking in!

 

 

 

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Literary Themes

I don’t usually think of myself as a writer who sets out with any particular theme(s) in mind when I start a novel – usually my books begin with either a character or a historical event that sparks my imagination and then (as I am a planner not a pantser) the plot and details follow. While I know I am drawn to particular historical periods, character traits, and (dare I say it) political movements and issues, I hadn’t really ever thought about thematic elements in my work until I was putting together an updated project grid listing my current and proposed writing projects. It was only then that I saw some of my little thematic quirks – and of course now I’ve seen them I can’t unsee them!

Literary themes usually address fundamental aspect of society or humanity. In crime fiction issues such as the concepts of justice, punishment, and the nature of good and evil, inevitably come into play. When I think about some of my own favorite writers I soon realize they turn to similar themes in their work. In a series, these themes may recur because they underlie a protagonist’s backstory or motivation (childhood trauma, addiction, poverty etc.) but exploring thematic elements can also (accidentally perhaps) reveal a lot about an  author and the issues they keep come back to in their work.

It was interesting to see the kind of themes that seem to recur in my own books as they certainly seem to suggest I have a few existential and philosophical debates that remain unresolved in my subconscious:) Some of the particular themes I noticed (in no particular order) include:

  • Patriotism (I often seem drawn to characters fighting for political independence or going against the established notion of patriotic duty);
  • Good versus evil in a spiritual/supernatural sense (I often explore religious, occult, and spiritualist ideas);
  • A women’s role in society (okay, no surprise there, since I have suffragette characters!);
  • Dislocation (My characters are often feel they don’t belong or are disassociated from the life they currently live);
  • Loss (this surprised me as I hadn’t realized just how many characters I have dealing with the aftermath of loss).

In addition, I also found that I seem to have an inordinate interest in both India and Ireland. The latter is probably explained by my Irish roots (thanks Ancestry.com!) but I’m not sure about the India obsession (I’d like to think I lived there in a previous life, but given my Ancestry.com results I would have been too poor to leave the farm in Ireland!). I also have a weird attraction to the year 1916…with 3 unrelated books set in that year without me consciously realizing it!

So TKZers, have you ever explored the themes that underlie the books you write or the books you love to read? When you look at your own work, do you see recurring themes? If so, what are they?

 

 

 

 

 

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