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/

Marketing in the time of Covid

Since the pandemic began my already sporadic social media forays sputtered to a halt – partly because I had nothing to say and partly because of the strange sense of apathy and introspection that seemed to accompany the social withdrawal associated with pandemic lockdowns. Now that I just got my second vaccine shot (yay!) and my boys are back to in-person school it’s time, it’s probably a good time to reassess my social media presence (or non-presence as the case may be)…which got me thinking about the whole issue of marketing and book promotion in the pandemic and post-pandemic world.

Sadly, some authors had the misfortune of having a book come out right when everything went into lockdown – which must have been extremely challenging. Even before the pandemic though many writers had already moved away from in-person book events (which rarely had great attendance levels anyway!) and turned to the virtual world to help bolster their marketing efforts. For many book-related businesses adapting to the pandemic was a necessity – one that was also accompanied by a host of new opportunities and options (I mean who would have thought about Zoom based author events before?!). Over the last year, I’ve been particularly impressed by how bookstores like Murder by the Book have adapted to the pandemic situation, holding virtual author interviews and other events, which I think helps foster an ongoing sense of community and support. The question is, what lasting (or at least lingering) effects will the pandemic have on the way authors (and bookstores) market and promote their work?

I still see author newsletters in my email, and many of my favorite writers are active on at least one social media platform. Only occasionally do I see a book promo video in social media, and print ads still seem reserved for the bestsellers. While there is obviously growing interest in online author events (like author Zoom visits to book groups) – it will be interesting to see how these pan out as we move into the ‘new normal’. You only have to look at the rise and decline in author/writing related blogs to see that there is constant evolution when it comes to marketing/promotion and connection building within the writing community. We here at TKZ are one of the few writing blogs that have really withstood the test of time (I remember how many more blogs there were when we first started out!) which indicates just how much the online landscape for books/authors continues to change.

So, TKZers what marketing or social media changes are you seeing for authors as a result of the pandemic?  Has Covid changed the way you market and promote your own books? Looking to the future, what do you think the ‘new normal’ might look in terms of author/book marketing and promotion?

 

Light at the end of the Tunnel

A week or so ago we realized that it’s been a whole year since our boys’ school closed for full in-person learning and my husband had his last day in the office. It was a sobering anniversary but now, especially as both my husband and I have received our first vaccine shots (yay!) and our boys are about to return to full in-person school (double yay!), it feels that there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel. You may recall my blog post talking about last year’s goals as deflated balloons, and it’s taken me up till now to even consider setting some new goals for 2021 (and I’m still super hesitant – don’t want to jinx 2021!).

I was doing some spring cleaning yesterday of what has become my makeshift office and art studio in the basement and soon discovered that I had painted a lot of paintings (like, a lot…) and though my writing output wasn’t terrific, it was heartening to think I had managed to revise one MS and submit it to my agent, and I made a start (of sorts) on a new MS. So things are definitely looking up:)…I think…

Now we’ve passed the grim one year milestone and I look ahead to the rest of the year, I’m torn between being hopeful and terrified at the same time. Do I dare to set ambitious writing goals? Do I assume that somehow the creativity switch can be reset and I’ll suddenly become super productive? I’m not sure I know yet how I’m going to feel about re-inflating all those balloons or what to do with the inordinate number of art projects I seem to have accumulated (and the lack of writing ones to accompany them!). Spring is definitely in the air, and I do see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it also feels a little like a deer in headlights moment.

How about your TKZers, how are you approaching your writing goals for this year?

First Page Critique – The Trouble with Vivian

Happy snowy Monday!

Today’s first page critique is for a submission entitled The Trouble with Vivian and it’s a hard boiled mystery – a quick disclaimer, I am by no means a hard-boiled mystery aficionado, so I will be looking to my TKZ colleagues and community to provide more input in terms of the genre. As with any first page, however, there are a number of key factors that contribute to its success (irrespective of genre) so I hope my comments prove useful to our brave submitter. My feedback follows the submission – enjoy!

The Trouble with Vivian

I stab the red icon on my smart phone.

“Miserly witch.” This month’s rent is only five days late and already she’s talking eviction. I resist the urge to throw the phone across the room, instead slamming it on a pile of unfiled dead case folders. Of course, I still owe her for last month and she has little tolerance for the rain or drought nature of a private investigator’s business. She threatens eviction with more regularity than pigeons shitting on park benches. This time, though, the old biddy claims to have someone interested in my office—as if anyone would want to climb six flights of stairs every day for this rat-hole.

A sigh escapes me. Five days or fifty, what difference does it make? I haven’t landed so much as a missing tabby in months and my bank account is more shriveled than a year-old prune.

I pace.

Wind rattles the only window and I use two nail-bitten, decidedly unladylike fingers to separate a pair of horizontal blinds. Typical Buffalo—leaves swirling on heavy gusts offer the only color on an otherwise dreary grey fall morning.

Five floors below a uniformed man, dark hat obscuring his features, closes the back door of a black Lincoln parked in front of the building’s main entrance. Even alley cats avoid this neighborhood, so I can’t imagine what a chauffer-driven car is doing here.

Surely nothing to do with me.

I return to pacing.

Until the click of heels catches my attention. Frosted glass offers the silhouette of a woman standing right outside my door. She hesitates. A delicate hand lifts and pauses, dangling like the proverbial participle.

While she fights with herself, dollar signs and desperation kick me into gear. I quickly straighten my desk, assembling scattered files into one neat stack atop my in-basket, and then drop into my chair. A spring poking through cracked leather digs into my ass and I bite back a curse. I grab my cell and press its dead, black face to my ear.

“Yeah, yeah. Sure. No worries.” I hope the woman hears—anticipation has my heart pounding and stomach doing the Superman coaster. At last the shadowy hand hesitantly taps on the glass “It’s open.” The knob rattles and hinges squeak. Without looking, I hold up one finger toward whoever enters.

“Hey, Eddie. Gotta run. Don’t worry. I got this.”

Overall Comments

I enjoyed this first page and felt it had the requisite cynical voice and tone that fits the hard-boiled genre. There were some great one-liners that definitely helped reel me in. I particularly liked: “She threatens eviction with more regularity than pigeons shitting on park benches” and “A delicate hand lifts and pauses, dangling like the proverbial participle.”Overall, I think the author did a good job setting the scene for the case to come and demonstrating how desperately the protagonist needs it to make ends meet. I also liked that this hard-boiled PI is a woman:)

That being said, I did feel there was an element of predicability to this first page and some repetition in terms of the protagonist’s financial predicament. I think the ‘less is more’ adage applies here and some judicious editing in the first few paragraphs could help streamline this first page and make it stronger. In terms of the scene, I guess I was just a little concerned (and this is where I’ll need TKZers to help weigh in) that it sounded very much like the start of any number of hard boiled mysteries – a deadbeat PI desperate for a break receives a mysterious client who will change everything…so I wonder if the author is starting the story in the right place (?) as this beginning could seem a bit cliched.

One nit pick – what is the red icon on the phone? I kept looking at mine and wasn’t quite sure what this meant (I have red ‘bubbles’ indicating  when I have a new email or text message but none of those icons themselves are red). For me (and it might be that I’m just a bit dense!) this diminished the strength of the first line as I was puzzling what it meant.

Overall, this first page displayed some good writing chops and I liked the crisp and observant way the scene was laid out. For me, this page definitely has the ‘noirish’ feel of the genre and the protagonist is already compelling. I would definitely keep turning the page to read more!

So TKZers what feedback would you give our brave submitter?

First Page Critique: Jane Unknown

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a dystopian YA novel entitled JANE UNKNOWN. This page provides a very atmospheric start to a novel that I’m hoping contains lots of witchcraft! My comments follow. Enjoy!

February 24, 1692

On top of the hill was the stake, not yet aflame. An upright log dark against the grey sky. Beams of light cut through the clouds, slanting down onto the fields, turning some of the tall grass golden. And so how, in this heavenly light, did the stake still look so foreboding? Send a chill to the bone?

The Bachelors of Divinities walked me up the hill. One on each side: Ely and Jonas. I’d known them since I arrived in Salem Village, orphaned, eleven years ago, but they did not act as if they knew me now. I suppose they felt as if they didn’t. They held my elbows roughly—my wrists were already secured with rope behind my back—although they did not need to. There was nowhere to go. We’d all been taught the witches had the woods. Not the other way around: Not the woods had witches. Perhaps that’s why they suspected me? As an orphan, I came from those woods.

My ankle wobbled on a clump of grass, causing me to near fall. Ely sighed loudly and yanked me up by the elbow. Pain shot through my shoulder. It felt as if the muscle had been ripped in half. He muttered under his breath, lip twitching.

The stake loomed taller and taller. We were close, only a few wagon-lengths away. Sweat crept along my cold skin, and I found it hard to take a deep breath.

As we reached the top of the hill, the wind whipped against us, pushing my grey dress against my legs. I wore no apron today. The wind caused hope to blossom within, especially as Ely and Jonas exchanged expressions. It had rained the night before, but this could only prolong my agony—but the wind, the wind it might help me yet. But hope could be dangerous. Disappointment fell all the further when hope lifted one high.

The stake was now in clean sight. A stool, where I would stand, against the log, where they would tie me. They’d arrange the branches and twigs at my feet, and perhaps, if I was lucky, I’d die by smoke first.

I tried to prepare myself: This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. Over and over.

It did help, I suppose. The grass blowing, as if in slow motion. Our walk forward inevitable.

Overall Comments:

I love how the author has woven together the sense of foreboding with the landscape and the weather in the moments leading up to what appears to be a witch burning outside Salem. The author definitely draws the reader in and creates a sense of empathy as well as fear for the main protagonist. Initially, I wasn’t too sure whether this was historical or dystopian YA (as this had been described) but I’d be happy to keep reading whatever direction the novel ultimately takes. I thought the stream of consciousness writing style also worked really well, helping keep the POV close to the protagonist while also feeling very much YA. At times the sentence structure did get a little confusing, but I thought it did feel like we were directly hearing the protagonist’s thoughts as they unfolded.

My only real comment would be that ‘less is more’ – while there’s plenty of atmosphere, there’s less in terms of action, and I think paring down some of this scene could help it flow a little easier. Sometimes the protagonist’s thoughts slowed down the dramatic tension. I’ve copied this first page below to highlight the areas which I think could be edited/cut and yet still retain the terrific atmosphere of this first page. The words in bold are the ones I think should be deleted and I have placed some extra notes in bold and italic. These are obviously just my thoughts (and TKZers may have other advice!). Overall though, tightening up a first page is always a good idea:)

Specific Edit/Cut Options:

February 24, 1692

On top of the hill was the stake, not yet aflame. An upright log dark against the grey sky. Beams of light cut through the clouds, slanting down onto the fields, turning some of the tall grass golden. And so how, in this heavenly light, did the stake still look so foreboding? Send a chill to the bone?

The Bachelors of Divinities walked me up the hill. One on each side: Ely and Jonas. I’d known them since I arrived in Salem Village, orphaned, eleven years ago, but they did not act as if they knew me now. I suppose they felt as if they didn’t. They held my elbows roughly—my wrists were already secured with rope behind my back—although they did not need to. There was nowhere to go. We’d all been taught the witches had the woods. Not the other way around: Not the woods had witches. Perhaps that’s why they suspected me? As an orphan (already said she’s an orphan so delete one of the references), I came from those woods.(note – I actually think these thoughts on the woods and witches could probably be moved to a later scene as it slows down the action)

My ankle wobbled on a clump of grass, causing me to near (do you mean nearly?) fall. Ely sighed loudly and yanked me up by the elbow. Pain shot through my shoulder. It felt as if the muscle had been ripped in half. He muttered under his breath, lip twitching. (Note: this whole paragraph could actually be deleted unless the injury to her shoulder is relevant later)

The stake loomed taller and taller. We were close, only a few wagon-lengths away. Sweat crept along my cold skin, and I found it hard to take a deep breath.

As we reached the top of the hill, the wind whipped against us, pushing my grey dress against my legs. I wore no apron today. The wind caused hope to blossom within, especially as Ely and Jonas exchanged expressions. It had rained the night before, but this could only prolong my agony—but the wind, the wind it might help me yet. But hope could be dangerous. Disappointment fell all the further when hope lifted one high.

The stake was now in clean sight. A stool, where I would stand, against the log, where they would tie me. They’d arrange the branches and twigs at my feet, and perhaps, if I was lucky, I’d die by smoke first.

I tried to prepare myself: This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. (maybe only need to state once?) Over and over.

It did help, I suppose. The grass blowing, as if in slow motion. Our walk forward inevitable.

Final Comment:

Bravo to our brave submitter!  I hope my comments are helpful. TKZers, what advice or feedback do you have? Looking forward to seeing your comments.

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!)?

 

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?

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?

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?

 

 

 

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.

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?