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??

11+

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!

 

 

 

8+

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?

 

 

 

 

 

7+

Beta Readers

I’m back from a summer hiatus and would like to say that I used the opportunity to jet set around the world in glamorous style but…well, you know…I did get a chance to visit the mountains a few times but we’ve had so much smoke from the recent wildfires that even that experience felt very much on-brand for 2020…

In the meantime, I have been writing and painting – but I’ve also been broadening my beta-reader opportunities, which got me thinking about the whole notion and value of beta-readers. In the past my beta-reader pool has pretty much been confined to friends and family, and, if I’m lucky, co-bloggers here at TKZ:)

By now most of my friends and family have read (and re-read!) many of my manuscripts, but only recently have I begun to look further afield to see if I can get critical input from potential readers. This interest was sparked by a UK historical fiction editorial group who began offering a beta-reader service – which (serendipitously for me) came just after I finished revisions to an old manuscript of mine. What I liked was that these beta-readers will be complete strangers with a love for historical fiction (so they can be as blunt and honest as they like – something I’m never totally sure friends/family are!) and they also must answer a series of very specific questions to help a writer hone in on issues with the book. I haven’t got feedback as yet so the jury is still out on the benefits of the program but I’m excited to broaden my beta-reader reach nonetheless.

So TKZers how do you focus on the beta reader question…Who do you get to be a beta-reader (?) and at what stage in your process do you get them involved? I usually have much earlier input but I’m thinking fresh eyes in this final, just about to submit stage, will be very helpful. What’s your experience been with beta-readers? Mine’s been as mixed as my experience with writer’s groups, some input has been terrific, some not so much…

Glad to be back and looking forward to your feedback on what has worked/hasn’t worked for you all when it comes to beta-readers!

 

6+

First Page Critique: Falling Free

Today we have a first page critique for a project entitled Falling Free. My comments follow so see you on the flip side (and enjoy because I think this is a great first page!).
Title: Falling Free

I fell hard to the closet floor.

My head hit the carpet. My arms just kind of flopped where they wanted.

I lay there, wondering what’d happened.

The carpet in this Seattle hotel smelled like it’d been shampooed recently. I used to be a hotel maid, so I know about carpet smells.

I stared at the ceiling for a bit. There was a black spider in the corner, moving its legs slowly, like it was doing yoga or something. I tried to mimic its movement, but couldn’t get my arms to respond.

My head hurt a little. I closed my eyes, I swear, just for a moment.

The next thing I knew, a cop bent over me. He stared for a minute, then put his gloved hand on my shoulder and rolled me up slightly.

I guessed he was looking at the back of my head.

He settled me back down on the floor, then leaned over and brushed my long hair away from my face. He smelled like stale cigarettes and had kind brown eyes.

My wallet appeared in his hand. “Junie. That your name, honey?”

I heard movement beyond him. The room outside the closet suddenly seemed filled with people, snapping pictures, going through drawers, talking on their cell phones. Saying things like “next-of-kin” and “keep the media out”.

Didn’t make much sense to me. Who’d care, anyway?

The cop yelled out the closet door. “Hey, Jimmy! Get the boss on the phone.”

“Okay, Frank.”

Then another cop, Jimmy presumably, entered the closet and handed a cell phone to Frank.

“Why don’t you get yourself a phone, Frank?”

“Why should I when you’ve always got yours?”

Jimmy left the closet in a huff.

“Yeah, hey boss.”

His eyes strayed to where it’d landed when I fell. “Nah. Nothing to do here. Get the crew over.”

Frank snapped Jimmy’s phone shut and stuck it in his shirt pocket.

He stood, looked down at me, shaking his head. “What’s your story, Junie?” He lingered over me a moment longer, then turned and walked out of the closet.

I heard him give orders to those in the room, to get this wrapped up. The scurrying intensified, doors and drawers slamming. Then it was quiet again.

Just Frank, studying me from the closet doorway.

My story? You don’t really wanna know, Frank.

I could’ve changed things. Put that in your report.

Comments:
I thought this first page was a great example of ‘less is more’ with short, snappy paragraphs that nonetheless evoked the scene, well-paced and believable dialogue, and a POV/voice that was already compelling. Bravo to our contributor!
For once I have very little to say in terms of input or advice…but if I was to make some recommendations (and honestly this piece is fine to stay as is!) they would be:
  • Perhaps consider one more sentence to give a sense of the injury that’s occurred (as it sounds like something far worse than just falling on carpet).
  • Perhaps consider a brief sentence in the closet describing the iron/ironing board or clothes/robe hanging – just something that might reveal whether this is a seedy hotel, a motel 6 or a more up-market hotel…
  • Possibly clarify time period as it sounds like it’s the 90’s (e.g. Frank snapped Jimmy’s phone shut) but I wasn’t totally sure.
  • This could also be important as I didn’t quite believe Frank wouldn’t have a phone these days (definitely would believe it if it was the 90s) – otherwise I was going to recommend changing “why don’t you get yourself a phone, Frank” to “why don’t you ever have your phone with you, Frank”,  if it was contemporary.
  •  I wasn’t quite sure how Junie could see the room outside the closet from the floor (she’d settled back down after the officer had originally rolled her up slightly). Maybe just have some movement (turned her head, or her eyes saw over the officer’s shoulder…something like that…)
  • Finally, I didn’t love the title ‘Falling Free’ – although without knowing more about the book I can’t really give good input, except to say that my initial reaction to this title was ‘meh’:)
All in all I think this is a really strong first page – TKZers, what do you think? What advice or recommendations would you make?
10+

The Ballad of Prequels and Origin Stories

Hope you are all enjoying a safe and healthy Memorial Day Monday.

We actually got some snow in the mountains this long weekend which gave me a great excuse to read (yay!), and I am about halfway through Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes which is both a prequel to the Hunger Games trilogy and an origin story of sorts for President Snow. Despite being a huge fan of hers (her middle grade Gregor of the Overland series is actually my favorite) I confess to being a bit underwhelmed and I wonder if it is due to what I call ‘prequel fatigue’. It seems like a bit of a thing at the moment where highly successful franchises look to origin stories or prequels as a kind of brand life extension. There’s Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust (a prequel to His Dark Materials trilogy) which was then followed by The Secret Commonwealth (which is confusingly actually a sequel to the trilogy) – not to mention the Fantastic Beasts films that are essentially prequels to the Harry Potter saga. While in both these circumstances I enjoyed returning to the worlds that both Pullman and Rowling so masterfully created, I did find myself constantly looking for (and finding!) plot and character inconsistencies that diminished my overall enjoyment. With the Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, I started wondering about the whole purpose of these sorts of prequels. Did I really need to read an origin story for President Snow? (not really…) Do I want to feel empathy for him as a future villain? (again…not really…)

The experience has got me wondering about the whole ‘origin story’ issue when it comes to villains. Maybe I just prefer a well-developed albeit enigmatic villain figure, but sometimes getting too much information about a character (particularly a powerful, evil one!) can actually diminish their impact – like peeking behind the Wizard of Oz curtain only to discover the criminal mastermind is actually just a sad-sack with a tragic family history…

In terms of the Hunger Games, I feel that this prequel doesn’t really add much to my understanding of the world Katniss came to inhabit, and I also feel a little cheated that the author didn’t come up with something more intriguing than a story about Coriolanus Snow. Is that mean spirited of me? (probably) but I wanted to be as blown away by this new novel as I did by the original first Hunger Games book (sigh).

So TKZers, what is your feeling about the whole ‘prequel’ thing? Have you read a series that successfully extended the brand by doing this in a way that didn’t feel merely derivative? Do you think origin stories like this for villains can be successful? If so, how??

 

8+

Saved by the Spelling Bee

Happy Monday after Mother’s Day! I hope all the mums out there got to enjoy their day. Mine descended into horror when I received the dreaded text: ‘I got Queen Bee!!’ from one of my twins…

Let me explain…During our self-imposed exile my boys and I have become obsessed with the NYT online game, Spelling Bee. I credit it (along with the crossword) for saving much on my sanity and (sadly) turning me into one of those Uber-competitive mums who rushes to get to it first so I can get the pangram before my kids do!!

For those of you unfamiliar with Spelling Bee, it’s basically an online, highly addictive version of Boggle, comprising a daily hexagon shaped word game made up of 7 letters (6 of which surround a central letter which must be used).

The goal of the game is to make as many 4+ letter words as possible, urged on by various awards that take you from beginner accolades (‘solid’, ‘nice’) through to ‘genius’ level and then, if you find all the possible words, ‘Queen Bee’. One of the key aims of the game is also to find the pangram or a word that uses all the letters (sometimes there’s more than one pangram just to keep us on our toes!).

I’m not really sure why Spelling Bee is as addictive as it is – but I do know that I’m not alone in loving it, or turning to it for solace during these long 8 weeks under ‘stay at home’ orders. The best part about it all is that it’s become a shared obsession…the worst part, my boys are also so much better at it than me!! We now fight each morning to see how quickly we can get to ‘genius’ (a level we feel compelled to achieve) or, if we’re super lucky, to be crowned ‘Queen Bee’.

So now you can understand my Mother’s Day ‘horror’:)))

I hope that all TKZers are staying safe and healthy during these ongoing, difficult times, and that you have managed to find some distractions to keep up your spirits. Even though Colorado has begun to lift the stay-at-home orders, I am sure our obsession with Spelling Bee will continue.

So TKZers, what has kept you sane during the last 8 weeks? Are any of you Spelling Bee obsessives? What online games or apps have kept you going??

I

7+

First Page Critique: Manuel’s Revenge

Happy Monday! (even though it’s starting to feel like everyday is like Sunday…)
Today I have a first page critique which illustrates the challenges in grounding a reader right from the start. My comments, and recommendations follow.  I also look forward to getting you input for our brave submitter after this first page submission.
Manuel’s Revenge

They wouldn’t understand, especially the little ones.

“Daddy’s gone to heaven,” she would say. They would cry and grieve and she would find someone else.

When he opened the door, the apartment smelled of greasy chicken and diapers. Earlier in the evening he told her he’d be at Jerry’s Bar and Grill. Julie was furious, of course, so she and the kids had gone to visit her sister for a few days. He and his wife had exchanged harsh words, but Manuel felt relief. She and the kids wouldn’t be home. They wouldn’t see the carnage.

The scotch having fixed his resolve, Manuel made the call.

As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he crossed the frayed carpet, opened the closet door and removed a plank near the back wall. He hadn’t used the weapon in years, a nine millimeter Smith and Wesson that felt strangely familiar. From years on the streets he knew how to use the gun, but only killed when necessary, always in self defense, never for pleasure—unlike the monster who murdered his brother.

After prison, Manuel truly believed he could change, but his mind never stopped playing that endless loop. His brother’s face—the pleading, the tears, the anguish—would never disappear. Graven into his memory like etchings on a gravestone was the leering face of the thug who pulled the trigger.

Tonight that man would die, and Manuel would die with him.

Replacing the plank, Manuel eased along the wall to observe the rendezvous point from his perch three stories up. On the street below, his brother’s killer would step into the alley expecting an easy exchange. Bills for baggies. No problem.

But when Manuel looked down on the scene, his fists tightened around the pistol. Cops were erecting a barrier and a tarp-covered body lay in the middle of the alley.

A crime scene.

Two uniforms conversed under a streetlight. The lights of a patrol vehicle rotated across the dark bricks of nearby tenements.  In the shadows something moved, something barely perceptible. Even from this distance, the thick man in the sideways baseball cap shifted easily from light to darkness, watching.

Then into the shadows the thug disappeared. The meeting would be aborted. The man who killed his brother would flee. Then, as it had so many nights before, Manuel’s cowardice would seize his thoughts and haunt another sleepless night.

Main Comments

This first page had some good things going for it, right from the get go. It was written in clear, direct prose, and was immediately personal. The reader could easily grasp that the stakes, at least for the main protagonist, were going to be high and that this story was going to be about avenging the murder of the protagonist’s brother. That helped create some nice tension right from the start, but for me, this first page suffered from a lack of specificity and grounding, that made the story, even though it was going to be high stakes and personal, feel almost generic.

In terms of lack of specificity, I wanted more detail about the main protagonist to set him apart. I wanted to be able to picture him, get a hint of intrigue (why had he been in prison for example?) and to hear a more realistic internal dialogue that made him feel like a real person – one I immediately felt sympathy for, and whose story created the kind of dramatic tension that could sustain a novel.

In terms of grounding, I wanted more details to be able to picture the apartment and the building – especially as it seemed such an easy vantage point from which he could have killed the ‘thug’ in the past (had he tried before? – this wasn’t clear).

Specific Comments/Feedback

Having mused over the best way to provide constructive feedback regarding this first page, I decided that providing further comments/notes in bullet form as I read the first page was probably the most useful. So here goes:

  • First line – ‘They wouldn’t understand, especially the little ones’ had me intrigued. But then, just as I was thinking about the children (and we never find out how many or their names, or ages), the comment ‘they would cry and grieve and she would find someone else’ suddenly seemed cold and rather flippant. I wanted to know more about his relationship with his children and their mother (who was, I assumed his wife) but was a little put off already.
  • We get a brief description of the apartment but nothing more. I wanted to be able to visualize the place, and feel grounded in the surroundings. Where are we? What is the socio-economic background of this family? (they sound poor but then he drinks scotch in the next paragraph which doesn’t seem consistent with this initial impression). I’m assuming Julie is his wife but why had they exchanged harsh words – was it because he was always at Jerry’s Bar and Grill (and here, the name is specific but seems unnecessary since I have no other information or context regarding all the other surroundings). Also ‘carnage’ is a very strong word and it makes me think of a large scale, mass killing.
  • Now Manuel makes the call – but I’m not sure what this means as we haven’t got the backstory or context yet – but I’m willing to go with it.
  • Then we have a paragraph about him getting his weapon out and again, we get specifics about it (9 millimeter Smith & Weston) but few specifics about his past. He always killed in self-defense? Why? How did he know the monster who murdered his brother killed for pleasure? I need more here to be invested in this story.
  • ‘After prison’ – again, we get a hint of a past/backstory but no details, except about his brother (who, as yet, remains nameless). The line ‘graven into his memory…” would work better if I had more details so I could really visualize the scene.
  • ‘Tonight that man would die, and Manuel would die with him’ – Why, if he’s shooting the man from the vantage point of a window three stories up, would Manuel have to die? This didn’t quite make sense without more context and information on what Manuel was planning. It sounds like he wasn’t going to be the one going to make the exchange below (as he is upstairs) but how is the exchange supposed to work exactly (?) – and how did Manuel know all this (had he set it up? I couldn’t tell by the end if he had, or if these kind of exchanges were just a frequent occurrence in the alley and Manuel had finally got the courage to try and kill the ‘thug’ this time (?) (again, this reveals lack of grounding and specificity to me).
  • Now, when Manuel looks down on the scene he sees cops…but didn’t he hear sirens or see the flashing lights as he walked across the dark room towards the closet in the previous paragraph?
  • So it’s a crime scene, but we have no context for it – and now a man is watching from the shadows but the police are clueless(?) There’s a reference to nearby tenements but again I can’t picture the scene, as I haven’t got any description or point of reference for where we are.
  • The final paragraph has the ‘thug’ disappear (which seems too easy given the police presence), and ‘then, as it had so many nights before, Manuel’s cowardice would seize his thoughts and haunt another sleepless night’. I really liked this last line, but it still confused me as I don’t have context for his previous attempts or the past that links him to the thug and the circumstances surrounding his brother’s murder.

As all these comments reveal, this first page really needs more specific details and a clear description of place, backstory, and characters to come to life for me, and to create the tension needed for me to turn the page and keep reading. That being said, the scene itself is a compelling one – a man risking everything to avenge his brother’s death – and our brave submitter no doubt knows all the details that could easily be added to bring color and tension to this story. Overall, most of my comments/recommendations are a relatively easy fix and I think once we get the specificity and grounding we need as readers, this first page could be the start of a something good.

So, TKZers, what comments or feedback do you have for our brave submitter?

 

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