First Page Critique: A Plan of Change

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

A Plan of Change

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

“Dean Decker Honored at Banquet.”

She laid the paper on her work table.

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

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

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

Giving?

Her heart pounded double-time.

“He doesn’t give!  He steals!”

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

She sat back in her chair. “I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

Dean’s eyes said “I dare you, Jenny.”

It was like the words were whispered in her ear.

Comments:

Overall

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dean Decker Honored at Banquet.”

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

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

Giving?

Her heart pounded double-time.

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

Dean’s eyes said “I dare you, Jenny.”

It was like the words were whispered in her ear.

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

5+

Reader versus Story

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

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

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

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

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

4+

First Page Critique: Heir of Death

It seems like a while since I’ve done a first page critique and I’m looking forward to today’s discussion surrounding what I think is a great example of the beginning of a new fantasy novel. My comments follow.

Title: Heir of Death

______

There was a girl amongst the grass. Alone in the moonlight and darkness.

The wind tugged at her cloak, tearing golden strands from her braid. She stood tall, blade weighing heavily at her side and watched the stars sparkle and fade.

Shadows danced across her knuckles and wreathed their way up her arms, curling around a patchwork of scars, around skin inked with the names of the dead.

They moved and swelled with her sadness, with her pride and hate – with the knowledge of what she was about to become.

So the girl stood on the bluff overlooking the city as the wind whispered her name, silhouetted by its twinkling lights. It spread out before her, a glittering mosaic of stone and wood and metal, of blood and bones and breath.

She stood cloaked in shadows and in darkness – and she waited.

And it was there, that Death came to her in the form of a man.

He was a dangerous man, arrogant and proud. Tall and powerfully built with a tangle of white blonde hair beneath his hood and eyes like soot stained ground. He wore a black cape and the blade at his side flashed in the moonlight.

Beside him he carried a crown of twisted metal. Of tiny daggers and drifting leaves, of gold and steel woven together to a thing of monstrous beauty. It floated on an invisible wind. Green eyes met charcoal, gold hair and blonde, beaten and broken and evil – daughter and father. She walked out to meet him, with an arrogant swagger, slowly, with the tension of fear only he would recognise. The shadows increased their pace, swirling around her arms. Darker and darker. Faster and faster. Tumbling to a crescendo as Death himself spoke her name.

The world disappeared then in darkness and night. The stars snuffed out, faded by nightmares. They swelled around the girl, snatching at her cloak, tearing her hair free from its cage, ripping the grass from its roots. The wind howled with her song and the earth shook with her magic. The bluff and the world disappeared.

And then it exploded.

It surged toward the man, toward him, a torrent of nightmares and pain. It surged toward him that raw unbridled power – and shattered against an invisible wall.

Shards of nightmares scattered into the sky, tumbling into the dirt and grass, into the city beyond. And the king of death smiled.

Green and charcoal met again across that ruined landscape, defiant and amused, and spoke in a silence only they could understand. Threats and nightmares and deals with the devil. Her hand itched toward her blade, toward the ornately carved knife at her side and her arm ached to bury it in his chest. But she knew she could not beat him, her deal with the devil, not even with her shadows.

Not now.

Not yet.

So the girl knelt before him and took his crown. Gold and steel and darkness above a snow white braid.

And under that black abyss of twinkling stars, on the ground between two worlds, she spoke Death’s name and became his heir.

My Comments:

Overall

As a lover of fantasy novels, I really enjoyed reading this first page. It certainly succeeded in raising my interest and in foreshadowing what I assume will be the battle to come. That being said, this reads like a prologue – setting the scene and written in abstract, descriptive terms that can sometimes feel a little too ponderous or deliberately ‘weighty’. So I just caution the author that even in fantasy – where these kind of prologues are more common – it’s important to tread lightly, lest the weight of the writing drag down the action/tension and slow the forward momentum of the actual story.  Overall, however, I liked what I read and think there’s some strong potential for this fantasy novel.

Specific Comments

Weight of Exposition

Up until the paragraph ending “Death himself spoke her name’, I was fully engaged in this first page. The next few paragraphs, however, started to feel a little overwritten for my taste and I started to get more confused about what was really happening in the scene. In the first paragraph we got an image of the daughter of death waiting for her father, waiting to be crowned perhaps with the crown of twisted metal he was holding. After that things got a little murkier. I wasn’t sure how the stars could get snuffed out ‘faded by nightmares’. Likewise was it the nightmares that swelled around her or the darkness and the night? I assumed that she was using her magic to send a surge of nightmares and pain towards him (her father, Death) and that this onslaught failed, but the way these next few paragraphs read was a little confusing – especially as we have no real sense of her motivation for trying to defeat him – except (as I read the final few lines) because she didn’t want to be crowned as Death’s heir.

My advice to the author is to perhaps step back from the exposition and add some dialogue into this scene to clarify matters. Dialogue could be a great vehicle to explain the relationship between father and daughter and also explain what is meant by her ‘deal with the devil’ (which in the context could be metaphorical or actual). This would also help lift the scene from being weighed down by exposition alone.

Use of ‘Death’

I’m not a huge fan of having Death as a character (I didn’t even like it in the well known novel The Book Thief). It can seem oblique as well as grandiose to have the personification of capital ‘D’ Death in your novel – especially if we don’t really understand what Death  is in the context (The grim reaper? A God like being like in Greek and Roman mythology?). If the character is a fantasy construct/personification that is going to be an actual character, then I think we need some hints of the mythology underpinning the novel right from the get go. I love the idea of the daughter of death as the heroine in a fantasy novel but I’d like to see more clarification in the latter paragraphs of this first page so I can really believe in them as actual characters in the novel.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I think there are some great elements to this first page – it prefaces an intriguing battle between Death and his daughter in a fanstastical landscape. I would just recommend inserting some dialogue to lighten the exposition, caution the author not to get too ponderous, and ask for some clarifications so the reader doesn’t get lost in all the foreshadowing of what is to come. TKZers, I look forward to seeing you comments and advice for our brave submitter.

 

 

 

 

6+

My Crossword Obsession

Happy Labor Day!

In honor of our official workers’ holiday, I thought I’d share/confess my favorite form of relaxation/obsession – my daily crossword fix. It began as a hobby over a decade ago (I was never a huge puzzle fan as a child or teenager) and has now morphed into a bit of an obsession…one primarily focused on the NYT crossword, but which has spread so that I can no longer resist the temptation to try each and every crossword I come across – whether it be in an airline magazine or the local newspaper at a coffee shop. Nowadays, my handbag invariably has a folded, squished, half-completed crossword stuffed inside.

When I first started doing the NYT crossword, I could barely make it through Monday and Tuesday. Now, even though I might be tearing my hair out by Saturday, I’m determined to do it every day (as the NYT crossword gets harder as the week progresses, my success is measured by which day I can complete without any ‘cheating’:))

My boys have tried to encourage me to extend my crossword mania to other puzzles – and, although I enjoy doing word problems and puzzles (in Australia I loved doing the daily word Target puzzle), I simply can’t come at any of the mathematical ones like Sudoku or KenKen. I think my mind just doesn’t work that way, and the amount of frustration experienced always outweighs any satisfaction I might feel when completing these kinds of puzzles. One day I hope to challenge myself and face the dreaded cryptic crossword…but so far the ability to process any of those clues has eluded me…

As I’ve progressed over time, I’ve discovered that I’ve developed a few crossword tics. The first of these is that I have to do it on paper and always in pen, never in pencil. Although I’ve tried doing the crossword online, it just doesn’t feel the same. Ditto when it comes to trying to complete it in pencil – I just can’t do it. I have to complete a crossword in ballpoint pen, even though I hate writing with these kinds of pens as a general rule (go figure..). So my crossword on a difficult day looks like a mess of pen marks, cross-outs and (more often than not) smears of vegemite toast fingers and coffee drips…exactly how I like it:)

I’ll probably be catching up on Sunday’s NYT crossword as well as tackling Monday’s crossword this holiday weekend. What about you, TKZers, what’s your favorite puzzle? Are you similarly crossword or puzzle obsessed?

1+

A Title by Any Other Name

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

It’s no secret that the majority of my book title offerings are terrible. When I suggest them, my agent shudders and then usually takes pity on me and comes up with a better one. For my first novel, Consequences of Sin, I think my working title was something awfully bland like Dark River and my other suggestions went downhill from there. Thankfully, my agent saved me from title hell, and came up with the one that was ultimately used for the published novel. Recently, for a WIP, I told her the proposed title of the novel and she laughed and told me it sounded like porn (which it most certainly wasn’t!)…so clearly my talents as far as book titles go have not improved.

Last blog post I focused on the importance of cover art and my own personal angst over the issue. This week I want to focus on book titles – how much do they matter and, assuming they do, how does one come up with a great title for their novel?

When I think about my own reading preferences, I have to admit covers tend to trump titles. I’m usually less drawn to a book title than I am to amazing cover art – but if a book title sounds weird or off-key it can put me off. Like cover art, the title should be indicative of the level of violence, romance or horror in a novel – so if it doesn’t match the actual book it can be problematic.

There are some well-known examples of famous book titles that were almost called something else. Pride and Prejudice was almost going to be First Impressions (ugh…), Lolita was almost The Kingdom by the Sea (?…), Lord of Flies could have been Strangers from Within and 1984 was almost The Last Man in Europe. The first Harry Potter book was also, apparently, going to be called Harry Potter and the School Of Magic which definitely doesn’t have the ring of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or, in the UK, the Philosopher’s Stone).  Book titles for these famous books now linger in our collective memory, so it seems strange to think of them being called anything other than what we’ve come to know and love.

So if a book title can make such an impact, how do you choose one that doesn’t suck? I think the key to this is brainstorming as many titles as possible, getting lots of constructive feedback, and then letting someone else decide:)

From researching the question of formulating a decent book title, it seems there is at least consensus that a good book title should be:

  • Short
  • Memorable
  • Provocative or Intriguing
  • Easy to say (no tongue twisters or potentially embarrassing ways of mispronouncing it)
  • Match the heart/soul of the novel

For me, this all sounds much easier said than done… Of course, if you decide to go the traditional publishing route, as the author you often have to accept a new book title generated by the publisher anyway…which might be why I usually have a lengthy list of book title options which I throw into the air…and then wait for someone else to tell me which one (if any) works.

So TKZers, how do you approaching naming your books? How important do you consider the title for you book and how do you make the final decision on the title for your book?

6+

Cover Art Angst

Of all the difficulties associated with producing a book one of the most vexatious (for me at least) is the issue of cover art. In traditional publishing, many authors typically don’t have a great deal of say in the cover of their book, and when going indie, the issue of cover art can be fraught with design as well as cost issues. Also, the impact of a book cover cannot be understated. It matters. It’s what draws a reader to pick up or click on your novel. For me, a great eye-catching cover is irresistible. I’ve picked up many a book solely because of the cover (mind you, I’ve put many of those books back down again  the first page or blurb was ho-hum).

My own experience with book covers, however, has been mixed – with less-than ideal cover art for my first novel in hardback:

Followed by three wonderful covers for my paperbacks (all involving the same artist and model).


 

I think what made all the difference was that the paperback covers truly reflected the tone, mood and genre of my novels – with the right  blend of historical details, female characterization and intrigue. Now, as I contemplate the possibility of getting my rights back and possibly repackaging/re-releasing these books, I’ve started to think more about the issue of cover art and what makes a book cover great…I hesitate, though – mainly out of fear that I might chose badly. As Bookbub points out, a bad cover can have a negative impact on book sales. Hence I sometimes get that ‘deer in headlights’ look when it comes to book covers.

There are some informative blog posts providing advice when it comes to designing cover art. Jane Friedman has had some interesting guest posts on her blog on this issue (see for example 5 steps to great cover art and getting the right fit).  At the end of the day, all the advice seems to boil down to making sure the cover fits your book and attracts your target readers (something that feels easier said than done!).

When I look at my own book shelves, a few (mainly YA) book covers stand out. There’s the original Twilight series covers which (at the time at least) stood out as unique.

Then there’s the Scythe series by Neal Shusterman – these covers are gorgeous.

When it comes to mysteries I love the covers for James R Benn’s Billy Boyle series:

But a beautiful cover is only on element of the equation – it must also appropriately reflect the type of novel you’ve written and appeal to readers of that genre. If there’s a disconnect between the cover and the content then beauty alone won’t work. When I look at some of the list of beautiful book covers (such as Buzzfeed’s compilation for 2017, which can be found here) many of them, while certainly aesthetically appealing, wouldn’t necessarily make me want to pick up and read the book.

So what are your favorite book covers? What do you look for when seeking cover art for your own novels? What’s your experience been with cover art (either as a traditionally published or indie author) and what advice would you offer to someone thinking about repackaging their books with new cover art??

 

2+

Significant Sites

When my last blog post was posted, I was on may way to Kraków in Poland – a place I didn’t know a great deal about but which I’ve always associated with the Second World War and the Holocaust (for obvious reasons). I didn’t know much about the old town or Wawel Castle (both of which I visited) but I knew my visit wouldn’t be complete without visiting the former Jewish quarter, the site of the Jewish ghetto, and Schindler’s enamel factory. As a writer of historical fiction, I find visiting significant historical places has a powerful, often visceral impact which informs not only my writing but my sense of self. On this visit, it was my trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau that left the greatest impression.

I can’t say it was an easy decision to even make the journey to Auschwitz but both my husband and I felt it was a necessary pilgrimage to make. I’ve never done extensive research on the 1930s but, as my twin boys were studying the Holocaust this last school year, I revisited Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally and read for the first time Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night (the book my boys were required to read as part of their Holocaust unit). This helped, but it in no way truly prepared me, for what I would experience visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. I was shocked by the immediate physical effect stepping into the camps had on me. I felt nauseated, upset, horrorified as well as, inexplicably, anxious. The initial, almost casual attitude of many of visitors angered me as did their desire to photograph everything – even the most horrific and terrifying aspects of what we saw (would you really show friends photographs of the ruins of the crematoria?) but I did notice that as the tour progressed a somber silence fell amongst even the most chatty groups of tourists. By the time we had completed our visit to Birkenau, you could sense that everyone had been profoundly affected by what they had experienced (and rightly so).

As a writer of a historical fiction, the act of visiting sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau also gives me a renewed sense of purpose to my work. In many ways, though, I felt that my humanity demanded that I make this visit. I left feeling a renewed sense of outrage, horror, and also – after our visit to Schindler’s factory – hope.

So TKZers, have you ever visited a site that left a similarly lasting impression – one that affected you not only as a writer but as a human being?

8+

First Page Critique: 12 Rules

Happy Monday! Today we have a first page critique entitled 12 Rules. My comments follow and I’m hoping that TKZers provide some great input and feedback for our brave submitter. I will be on a plane to Europe so may not be able to respond to comments – but I’m sure it will be a great discussion!

Title: 12 Rules

Chapter 1

Everything around them tended to die, including people. She always struggled with keeping pretty flowers in her room alive by forgetting to water them, and he never could sustain tiny house pets lifespan beyond a couple of weeks. Even inatime things like hopes and dreams had a tendency to writher over time between the two.

Though they both had to admit, this was the first human to die in their presence.

As heartless as Arlo hated to be, the person who had fallen quite literally at their feet was of no importance to either of them. It was Parks’ third cousins step sister. Technically, she wasn’t really family according to him.

Two weeks ago they were at his annual family gathering. Everyone was drinking, laughing, and having a good time as far as Arlo could tell. Her and Parks were huddled by a picnic table full of all the younger kids while sipping on red punch, discussing the boy Parks believed to be his nephew, but wasn’t all that sure. He was cute, Arlo had commented, and in the corner they were devising a plan to get him to talk to Arlo. She knew Parks was the wrong person to ask when his first suggestion came with, “accidently spill your drink on him.” Before she could even fathom saying a word to the gorgeous new stranger, Parks’ mom pulled them over for a picture. Lined up by height, Arlo of course was at the front along with a younger lady who was very pretty. She smiled at Arlo, flashing perfect whitened teeth over baby pink lipstick that popped. Then there was blinding flashes of more than one camera, and then the flashes were gone and she was seeing spots. Everyone stood up, including the nice lady next to her. Parks had already been back at her side with a new and improved plan, but never got the chance to tell her. The lady’s eyelids fluttered and her ocean blue eyes rolled like pool table balls backwards, and she tumbled to the ground like a tiny building- quick and short. The lady didn’t just fall to the side or backwards, she fell forward; right on Arlo’s sunshine yellow shoes she’d been so excited to wear. And just like that, the lady had smeared death all over her new converse. Following the fall and destroyed shoes had been earfuls of screaming.

Now they were bumper to bumper in early morning traffic yelling at each other over a blaring radio.

“You were supposed to take that exit we passed like ten minutes ago!” Arlo shouted. She felt the need to cup one of her hands around her mouth like a mega phone. But leaned back in the driver’s seat, he still refused to listen.

My Comments:

Somewhere in this first page there is a great story waiting to emerge – I can see glimmers of a cool, detached, wry POV and the beginnings of a story about two people who can’t keep anything alive suddenly being confronted with an actual death. Unfortunately, this story is stymied by some stylistic choices, a passive choice of sentence structure, and a lack of characterization that robs the page of much of its dramatic tension.

In brief, I think these are the main issues that need to be addressed:

  1. Pronoun confusion – The use of ‘them’, ‘she’ and ‘he’ before we know and understand the characters creates confusion as well as distance. At first I had no idea who was ‘he’ or ‘she’ as Arlo and Parks are gender neutral names (which is no issue – just needs clarification so we know who is who) and had initially assumed they were a couple who lived together. All through this first page, the use of pronouns creates an awkward sense of distance from the story which makes it hard for a reader to feel engaged.
  2. Passive sentence structure – Many of the sentences in this first page are written in passive voice creating further distance from the story. An good example of this is the phrase “Following the fall and destroyed shoes had been earfuls of screaming”…not only does this sound awkward and strange, it also robs the scene of the drama of having people screaming as someone literally dies in front of them. I would recommend the writer go through this first page and change passive sentences to active ones to create  sense of immediacy and action.
  3. Lack of dramatic tension – In the first few paragraphs, the reader starts to feel some anticipation about the death that is going to occur only for it to be handled in a prosaic, indifferent way that drains away all the dramatic tension. I wanted to be intrigued and invested in the characters and how they responded to this initial death and also to get some sense of the story to follow. Once the scene switched from the death to Arlo shouting about how they’d missed the exit, I was no longer engaged in the story.
  4. Lack of detailed characterization – Apart from my uncertainty over the relationship between Arlo and Parks – at first I thought they were a couple whose hopes and dreams withered as much as their house plants – there is also the issue of providing characters with real meaningful scenes and dialogue so that we, as readers, become invested in them as three-dimensional characters. In this first page, none of the characters introduced are given any real substance. We are told  that that Parks is trying to set Arlo up with someone at the party, but there’s no real action or dialogue to make us care about this occurring (also the suggestion to ‘accidentally spill your drink on him’ is so bland that it doesn’t give us a true sense of character’). Likewise all the minor character’s are merely described in detached terms like ‘Parks’ third cousin’s step sister’, ‘gorgeous new stranger’, ‘a younger lady who was very pretty’, ‘ the nice lady next to her’, and someone who Parks ‘believed to be his nephew, but wasn’t all that sure’ (which I didn’t really understand…). This meant it was very hard to visualize any of the minor characters or care about what happens to them in this scene.
  5. Telling not showing – This first page is almost entirely told to us rather than shown, with only the death itself containing much in the way of visual details. I would have preferred we were immersed in the scene and given sensory details so we could visualize all the characters and become invested in the story.
  6. Spelling and grammar issues – We always emphasize here at TKZ that a first page is the all-important first impression and, as such, it must be as perfect as possible. Grammar errors such as missing apostrophes and spelling errors (‘inatime’ not inanimate and ‘writher’ rather than ‘wither’) will immediately put off any agent, editor or reader from continuing to read the story.

Overall, I think there’s a good story lurking beneath the surface of this first page, but the writer could benefit from cleaning up the sentence structure, grammar, and pronoun use, adopting a more active voice, and immersing us in the scene with action, dialogue and more detailed characterization for this first page.

So TKZers what other advice or feedback would you provide our brave submitter?

 

 

3+

Do you have a muse?

“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer.”

Stephen King, On Writing.

The Ancient Greeks believed there were goddesses or muses who were the sources of knowledge and inspiration for the creative arts. From Calliope and Errato in poetry to Melpomene (tragedy) and Thalia (comedy), they personified the force of creative inspiration. Even today, many people describe creativity as a capricious power to be harnessed – some even speak of it as a kind of ethereal being, who (when the mood is right) flutters down to bestow inspiration (and possibly genius) on the lucky artist or writer. I don’t hold a great deal of stock in the ides of muses, simply because as a writer I don’t have the luxury of waiting for the muse to appear. For me, inspiration comes with the active practice of writing – a ‘bum in your seat’ kind of inspiration rather than a sprinkling of fairy-dust. Although this week I found, in the midst of some dreadful first draft writing, there was a moment of inspiration – generating a single line that opened up a character and a relationship in a way I hadn’t expected. In that moment, it truly was as if I had a muse on my shoulder but she certainly wouldn’t have been able to visit had I not been typing away in the first place.

As Stephen King describes it, the muse is ‘a basement kind of guy’ and my fellow blogger, James Scott Bell often likes to refer to the ‘basement guys’ when he describes his writing process. I like the analogy, particularly because, as King says, writers still have to do the grunt work regardless – because only in burning the midnight oil can you find the bag of magic in the end. Although sometimes, especially when stuck in the middle of a chapter, I really wish there was some other-worldly goddess who could visit and endow me with talent and inspiration:)

Apart from the concept of the muse as an ethereal visitor, there’s also the real life people  that many called their muses. From Dante’s childhood sweetheart Beatrice to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife – these so-called muses inspired and motivated the creation of great works of art. Often times, these muses were lovers, mistresses or wives – I couldn’t find any great example of a husband muse but maybe I didn’t search widely enough! I like Anais Nin’s perspective when she wrote: “For too many centuries women have been being muses to artists. I wanted to be the muse, I wanted to be the wife of the artist, but I was really trying to avoid the final issue — that I had to do the job myself.”

I guess my only real muse is my collie Hamish – he’s my constant companion, lying on the floor by my chair while I’m writing. He’s always willing to listen as I complain or tear my hair out in frustration, and is always happy to misinterpret my triumphs (a completed chapter!) as a request to play tug with a chew toy. He willingly goes for multiple walks a day when I need to clear my head and is always content to lie next to the couch when I resort to watching Masterpiece Theatre as ‘research’.  In honor of him (and my previous collies) I always try to include at least one collie in each novel I write:) As you can see from this photo, he really is the perfect writer’s muse.

 

As much as I would love to embrace the whole concept of the muse, I think my attitude can be best summed up by a quote from a fellow Australian writer, Kerry Greenwood (of Phryne Fisher fame), when she said. “If I ever saw my muse she would be an old woman with a tight bun and spectacles poking me in the middle of the back and growling, ‘Wake up and write the book!'”.

So TKZers do you have a muse? If so, in what form does your muse visit (real or imagined)? Do you ever feel like you could use one to sprinkle some fairy-dust of inspiration?

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First Page Critique: Tenor Trouble

Today’s first page critique is entitled Tenor Trouble, and raises many of the issues we’ve addressed here at the TKZ such as the appropriate entry scene for a novel, the use of description/backstory, and clarity in POV. Kudos to our brave author for submitting this page. My comments follow.

Tenor Trouble

“Oh no, my dear. No. You simply should not even think about auditioning for this role.”

Melissa stared at her teacher, all joy flooding from her. “I shouldn’t?”

“No, no.”

Helena Montague tapped her lacquered fingernails on the shiny surface of the vocal score for Othello, which had arrived from Amazon that morning.

Melissa had been delighted that she had caught the postman before she had to leave the flat for her ten-thirty seminar on Media Adaptations of Dickens, because she went straight from work to get to Glasgow in time for her singing lesson. It was possible, of course – even probable – that the Grande dame of British opera already had the score somewhere on the shelves that lined the music room in her elegant West End townhouse, but some instinct had made Melissa hold back on mentioning her plans until she had her own copy in her own hands.

It made it real, somehow. Melissa had been so keen to get her score that she hadn’t waited for the bulk order for the company to come through from Harmony Music, but had summoned one overnight from Amazon as soon as the choice of show was officially confirmed. Not that there had ever been a great deal of doubt about whether Agnes Farquhar’s choice of Verdi’s Otellofor Doric Opera’s next production would be voted through by the Committee.

And when she had ripped off the cardboard packaging in her kitchen that morning, and gazed reverentially at the glossy cover – identical to last year’s score, with the exception of the name of the show, framed in red – she marveled at how lightweight and relatively slender the book was. It was astonishing to think that this insubstantial volume held within it the whole of such a great work.

Now she looked at the same score on the lid of the baby grand piano, tingling with dismay. “Um – why?”

My Comments

Overall Feedback

First off, I thought the first three lines of dialogue worked really well at capturing my attention and interest. Unfortunately, after that, there is far too much narrative about Melissa’s purchase of the score for Othello and her traveling to her singing lesson, which stalls the action and drains the first page of the initial dramatic tension established.

The key to this first page is, I think, establishing emotional resonance. We want to feel (and care about) Melissa’s anticipation about auditioning as well as her dismay when her teacher immediately dismisses the prospect. To do this, the author could easily reduce the various paragraphs to one or two sentences. For example, something like “Melissa clutched the glossy score to Othello that she’d eagerly had shipped overnight and stared at Helena Montague, once the Grande Dame of British opera, in dismay.” Then the scene could immediately move to providing us with more action to give the reader a tantalizing glimpse of the novel to come.

I’m assuming the novel isn’t just about Melissa’s dashed hopes so I’d like to see some kind of foreshadowing of the drama (or mystery) to come. If this is a murder mystery, the reader should start to feel a sense of anticipation that a crime is about to occur.

More Specific Comments

Dialogue

I thought the dialogue was effective – from the initial first line I already had a good sense of Helena’s arrogance as well as Melissa’s insecurity. The teacher-student relationship was obvious. I think more dialogue rather than narrative would have strengthened this first page. That being said, we also need more action in order to become committed to following (and caring about) Melissa as a character. The dialogue so far makes her seem insecure and submissive (although that is possibly understandable when faced with the Grande Dame!).

POV

I confess I got a little confused at the start when the POV seemed to shift from Melissa to Helena Montague tapping her lacquered fingers (an image I liked BTW) on the vocal score that had arrived from Amazon that morning. It made me think (incorrectly) that it was Helena who ordered it. I think this page would work better if the author stuck close to Melissa’s POV and we knew quite clearly that we were observing Helena through her eyes.

Extraneous Information

As I already noted in my overall comments, there is far too much background detail in this first page that weighs down the scene. Do we really need to know that Melissa has a ten-thirty seminar on Media Adaptations of Dickens? Likewise, do we need details such as it was Agnes Farquhar’s choice of Verdi’s Otello for Doric Opera’s next production or that a committee voted on it? Probably not. Even though Melissa’s delight and reverence for the score packs some emotional punch, this could be portrayed more succinctly. We don’t need all the details regarding her ordering it on Amazon, intercepting the postman, or how she felt opening the package.

A first page is the reader’s initial entry point to the story and so every line, every word counts. My advice to our brave submitter would be to get straight to the heart of the matter and the initial incident which (I assume) sets up the conflict for the rest of the novel.

First Scene

One question I would ask our submitter is whether he or she thinks this is the best place to start the novel – could this confrontation occur perhaps later in the first chapter or even in chapter 2? Since I’m not sure where the story is heading, I can’t answer this myself but I do wonder if this chapter contains sufficient dramatic weight to start a novel. Although Melissa’s disappointment is evident, we probably need more intrigue/drama to become fully invested in her as a character. Sometimes it helps for a writer to take a step back and re-evaluate the best place to start the story so that it grabs the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go. Maybe (and I don’t have any idea about the actual plot for this book so I’m just throwing it out there) this novel starts with the discovery of Helena’s body and then moves to this scene as Melissa grapples with her mixed feelings over her singing teacher’s demise…

All in all though, well done to our brave submitter.

So TKZers what feedback would you provide or add?

 

 

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