Beach Reading

I am in Cancun, hopefully sunning myself (with an appropriately large hat and SPF 100 on),  for today’s blog so wanted to get some beach reading recommendations. I’ve managed to convince my husband to read the excellent Australian mystery by Jane Harper, The Dry, while I indulge in some YA reading and research for my current WIP. I’ve also got James Comey’s  A Higher Loyalty to read – but I’m not sure that qualifies as much of a beach read! On spring break I started to read Sarah Perry’s Essex Serpent but found it was too dark and damp to read at the beach…so that’s been set aside for a rainy day. It’s funny how you need just the right combination of intrigue and atmosphere when you’re trying to relax:)

So TKZers, what are you looking forward to reading this summer? Are there some juicy new mysteries or thrillers you would recommend for by the beach, by the lake, or for up in the mountains? I’m planning on spending quite bit of time up in the mountains this summer while my boys are on Boy Scout and Avid4 camps – so I need some good recommendations for books that can keep me up turning the pages at night. I haven’t had one of those reads in ages!

Thanks in advance! I’m hoping to be able to check in on your recommendations while sipping cocktails beneath a beach umbrella:)

 

 

3+

First Page Critique: Gideon

Happy Monday! Today we have a first page critique from a dystopian novel – the extract we have is from a chapter entitled Gideon so I’m not sure if this is the first page to the novel itself or merely to a later chapter. The author who submitted this also provided an overview of the dystopian world he/she has created but I’m just going to focus on the page itself – as this is typically how a reader would first immerse themselves in the world  (and we at TKZ don’t typically go through a synopsis or overview for the pages we review). Suffice to say this novel takes place in the near future after a Third World War that has obliterated civilization in a nuclear strike. My comments follow after the extract but I do think this first page critique illustrates the need for clear, consistent world building for any novel that relies on a futuristic or alternative world that is unfamiliar to a reader.

Gideon

On his way to his scheduled fear desensitization treatment at the House of Pain, Gideon Guidry and his friend Paul Roseau had stopped at the Iron Byrd Tavern, where Gideon’s friend Paul, who had made several visits himself, felt sympathy for poor Gideon had purchased several large pink glasses of Le Grand Courage, a rare and expensive French wine for him, and began slurring his words, as the two shared the wine and sat discussing Gideon’s pending appointment and possible death sentence.
Gideon gulped the wine as if he had spent the day in the desert without liquids and as if wine would never be available again, to bolster up his courage for the day ahead.
Paul said, “You know they steal your memories and sell them to those rich citizens up on the Excelsior level of Sanitorium.”
  “No, you must be kidding. They wouldn’t dare.
  “They would, and they do. “Paul said.
  “And people go along with this? “asked Gideon.
  “Either the poor subversives don’t realize it is happening to them, or they just pretending it isn’t happening to them. No one has the courage to face the whip on Public Punishment Day. So, there really is no way, you can avoid the treatment. Why not fake an illness? ”Paul suggested, Gideon just shook his shoulders and said, “There is no point in putting it off. They will get me eventually and then I’ll be in the punishment square. Might as well get the dammed thing over. Right?”
  “No, OK, maybe. Well, let’s at least meet up tomorrow anyway and you can tell me how it went. My prayers are with you, my old friend.”
  Now Gideon was like a bull seeing red, as hate poured over Gideon’s soul like hot grease on a cook stove, imaginary smoke came out of his ears, as he stood there his hands shaking, his fist balled up tight, as he faced this indignity stoically and stood in front of the old converted psychiatric hospital. Surprisingly, near the front entrance, he saw a large pile of rotted timbers stacked neatly up against the sleek new part of the House of Pain and thought, I wonder what that stuff is for? Then, he thought, oh, I hope it is not what I think it is?
  Then, Gideon thought, Am I Drunk enough? Am I strong enough?  To hide the deep dark secret.

My Comments

As always, bravo to our brave submitter for providing us with an extract of his/her work to review. Even though I don’t typically write these sorts of novels, I’m a huge fan of works that fall in both the dystopian and science-fiction genre (which this clearly seems to do). When reading these genres, I look for the following: (1) novelty and clarity in world building; (2) an immersive experience that surprises or shocks me with details or events and; (3) something unique that sets apart the world from others I’ve read. Given how many novels have been set in a post-apocalyptic world it is very difficult to achieve all three.

Rather than providing an overview as I usually do followed by specific comments, this time I’m going to provide notes embedded in the extract itself – in bold and italics – as I think this is a more effective approach.

Extract with my notes:

On his way to his scheduled fear desensitization treatment at the House of Pain, Gideon Guidry and his friend Paul Roseau had stopped at the Iron Byrd Tavern, where Gideon’s friend Paul, who had made several visits himself, felt sympathy for poor Gideon had purchased several large pink glasses of Le Grand Courage, a rare and expensive French wine for him, and began slurring his words, as the two shared the wine and sat discussing Gideon’s pending appointment and possible death sentence.

This sentence is far too long and unweildy. The use of ‘had’ seems redundant in the use of the past tense. The ‘House of Pain’ and ‘fear desensitization treatment’ kind of make sense but when we learn that this appears to be a public whipping I’m not sure what the purpose of this treatment really is….or why this might be a death sentence. The world I’m expected to suspend disbelief and inhabit doesn’t seem entirely consistent. The description of a tavern in particular is hard to reconcile in a more sci-fi post apocalyptic world (sounds more fantasy/middle ages). I need to believe that this world has ‘taverns’ and pink French wine called ‘Le Grand Courage’ even if it also sounds pseudo science-fiction. 

Gideon gulped the wine as if he had spent the day in the desert without liquids and as if wine would never be available again, to bolster up his courage for the day ahead.

Gulping wine as if ‘he had spent a day in the desert without liquids’ and ‘as if wine would never be available again’ and ‘to bolster up his courage’ is too much – one of these reasons would have been fine and I’m also confused: In this post apocalyptic world, why is wine available? Are there still deserts even? 

Paul said, “You know they steal your memories and sell them to those rich citizens up on the Excelsior level of Sanitorium.”

More confusion – so do they steal the memories of pain/fear desensitization treatment? If so, why would rich citizens want them? If they are stealing other memories, how and why does this occur and how does this fit into the discussion of what is going to happen to Gideon at the House of Pain?

“No, you must be kidding. They wouldn’t dare.
  “They would, and they do. “Paul said.
  “And people go along with this? “asked Gideon.
  “Either the poor subversives don’t realize it is happening to them, or they just pretending it isn’t happening to them. No one has the courage to face the whip on Public Punishment Day. So, there really is no way, you can avoid the treatment.

This makes it sound like the memories are of the whipping – but how does Public Punishment Day relate to the House of Pain/Fear desensitization treatment? Again, I’m confused as to what this discussion is really about. Would Gideon really think people might go along with having their memories stolen? Why are we now talking about subversives when before it sounded like everyone went to the House of Pain for treatment (Paul, after all, had already made several visits). Also, why in a dystopian world wouldn’t ‘they dare’ steal memories (I mean they are happy to whip people in public…)

Why not fake an illness? ”Paul suggested, Gideon just shook his shoulders and said, “There is no point in putting it off. They will get me eventually and then I’ll be in the punishment square. Might as well get the dammed thing over. Right?”
  “No, OK, maybe. Well, let’s at least meet up tomorrow anyway and you can tell me how it went. My prayers are with you, my old friend.”

So you can avoid treatment by faking an illness? Seems incongruous for a society/government that inflicts treatment at the ‘House of Pain’ to allow people to delay just because they don’t feel well…again this goes to presenting a consistent and authentic feeling world for a reader. If a reader is confused or has to ask these questions, then the world building isn’t clear.

Also, it seems very strange that Paul which say ‘let’s meet up tomorrow and you can tell me how it went’ when he’s already endured ‘several visits’ to the House of Pain. Not only does this minimize what was described in the first paragraph as a ‘possible death sentence’ it also robs the scene of dramatic tension.

Finally, there is a missing quotation mark before Paul’s comment. As we always emphasize here at the TKZ, an author must go over his/her work to ensure it is error and typo free before sending it to an agent or editor.

Now Gideon was like a bull seeing red, as hate poured over Gideon’s soul like hot grease on a cook stove, imaginary smoke came out of his ears, as he stood there his hands shaking, his fist balled up tight, as he faced this indignity stoically and stood in front of the old converted psychiatric hospital.

Notes: Again, way too many descriptions/similes going on here – to the point where it almost seems humorous…and how did he get from the tavern to standing in front of an old converted psychiatric hospital (which I’m assuming is part of the House of Pain)?

Surprisingly, near the front entrance, he saw a large pile of rotted timbers stacked neatly up against the sleek new part of the House of Pain and thought, I wonder what that stuff is for? Then, he thought, oh, I hope it is not what I think it is?
  Then, Gideon thought, Am I Drunk enough? Am I strong enough?  To hide the deep dark secret.

I’m confused as to what the pile of rotting timbers were for – a hanging? A funeral pyre? Again, the punishments inflicted in this society sound more medieval that future/post apocalyptic so it is vital that this world is described in a way that the reader believes it has sunk back into medieval style punishments (which doesn’t seem to fit with having the technology available to steal people’s memories…). The final line also isn’t clear as we have been given no sense up to this point that Gideon is hiding any dark secret. 

Final Comments

Overall, my key concern here is world building consistency – especially in a genre that necessitates something different/unique to set it apart from all the other dystopian worlds out there. The writing could easily be tightened up but this dystopian world has to be clear to both the author and the reader. Believe me, I know how hard it is to create a world and to ensure all the elements are there on the page, rather than just in your head – but in this genre it is critical.

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

 

5+

How to Handle Critiques

After undertaking quite a few first page critiques here at TKZ, it occurred to me that it might be timely to (re)consider the role of critiques and, perhaps more importantly, how a writer should handle the feedback received.

Receiving criticism, even when constructive (but especially when it isn’t!)  is never a pleasant experience (and trust me, I’ve been there many, many times) but it’s a vital part of any writer’s review process. The tricky part comes when the feedback provided isn’t consistent – which quite often it isn’t (Hint: when the feedback is consistent, it’s usually worth considering!). As we’ve seen here at TKZ, reviewing someone’s writing is a very subjective experience. So how should a writer handle multiple points of view, advice and feedback?

Here are some of my thoughts – based on my experience with beta readers, reviewers, writing groups, agents and editors….

Trust the opinion of those you admire and who genuinely want you to succeed in your writing.

I would say everyone who provides feedback here at TKZ is supportive of the brave souls who submit their work for a first-page critique – so this comment is more directed to other reviewers or writing groups, where sometimes the quality of the feedback provided may be colored by differing degrees of experience as well as intention (just saying!) so make sure the advice you’re getting is from people whose honest opinion you admire and trust. This also means not seeking opinions solely from friends or family members who may hold back on giving you an honest appraisal out of fear of hurting your feelings.

Look for consistent themes in the feedback provided.

If everyone has difficulty say with the voice or POV you’re using in your work, even if their advice differs on how to fix that, I’d genuinely consider the issue. If a consistent ‘flaw’ is identified by multiple reviewers, then it’s always worth take a close look at the problem even if, as the writer, you disagree with the solutions offered.

Avoid comments that are vague and focus on the specifics.

There’s not much a writer can do with ‘I just didn’t like the character’ feedback so it’s much better to focus on specifics rather than vague generalities. That being said, if everyone gives you the same (albeit vague) feedback, then fundamentally something isn’t resonating with readers so, as a writer, I’d take that feedback on board and see what I could do to fix it.

Discuss comments and feedback with those your admire and trust

Sometimes, when my agent has identified an issue I haven’t even thought of, and none of my beta readers have identified, I’ll go back to them with her comments – and 9 times out of 10 they will agree…so it’s always worth bouncing ideas and feedback with your reviewers. This often leads to greater clarity and consistency in terms of what may not be working in a story.

When multiple, conflicting, but specific feedback is given, go with what feels right for you… 

This is the trickiest aspect of dealing with inconsistent feedback and, as writer’s gain more experience, it does get easier to identify what rings true and what doesn’t. In one of my writing groups, I’d sometimes get random feedback that I quickly realized was completely wrong for the genre of book I was writing, or which led me down a path that wasn’t going to work for me. It’s extremely hard, though, to sift through all the comments given in a writing or critique group and know what feels right. In that situation, I’d go back to my initial comment about relying on the feedback of those you trust and admire and who really want you to succeed in your writing.

But also take a big step back to see what the heart of the issue might really be…

One of our TKZ alumni, Larry Brooks, identified it best in his book ‘Story Fix’ – where he noted that what brings a story down is often less about the writing and more about the inherent appeal and strength of the story itself. So when digesting the plethora of feedback  you’ve received, I’d initially classify the advice into two buckets (1) feedback on the actually mechanics of your writing (weak grammar, clumsy sentence structure etc.) and (2) feedback that goes to the heart of the story you are trying to tell (POV, appeal of characters, dramatic tension etc.). It’s much easier to fix issues that reviewers identify in bucket number (1). Feedback the falls into bucket (2), may require you to take a long hard look at the concept and premise of your story. That doesn’t mean despairing, it just means going back to identifying the core of story you are hoping to tell and seeing whether it holds up under scrutiny. That could be the first step in identifying what is going wrong and the best way of rectifying it.

So TKZers, what advice would you give, particularly to our brave first page submitters, on handling multiple, sometimes inconsistent, feedback when it comes to your writing?

8+

First Page Critique: The Heights of Valor

Happy Monday TKZers! Today, I have a first page critique that I think is really terrific – which means I don’t have a lot of comments as a result (though I have some you can read at the end). I think this submission demonstrates what a tight, well-written, historically authentic first page should look like!

THE HEIGHTS OF VALOR

Platteville, Wisconsin

April 26, 1898

The white-haired man behind the desk threw the newspaper down on the blotter. “It is completely out of the question,” Jeremiah Dawson sat back in the leather chair and stroked his beard. “The semester is not yet over. If you fail to complete the term, you shall not graduate with your class next year.”

The well-built young man sitting in front of his elder responded with a sober nod. “I am aware of that, Father. After my service in Cuba, I can return to the campus and take my final examinations. I have spoken to my professors. My standing in the class has earned me some measure of…leeway, let’s call it.”

“Charles, I–”

The young man leaned forward. “If you’re concerned about me delaying my joining the firm, rest assured, Father, I have every intention of coming back here once I complete law school. When the new century dawns, I will be here, at your right hand. Just as you and Mother planned all these years.” He sat back, crossed his legs and joined his hands. “I know that was her wish, God rest her soul.”

“It was most certainly not her wish for her only son to become cannon fodder.” The older man frowned, then stood, boosting himself up with a hand on the heavy oak desk. He reached for a cane. “You have no idea,” he whispered, shaking his head. He walked to the display case on the far wall of the office, unable to hide his limp. Pausing before the case, he placed a hand on it. “Son, war is not a lark. It is not…it is not some grand adventure.”

The young man stood, tugged at his waistcoat, and strode confidently to his father’s side. He moved with the easy grace of an athlete, and indeed he was one of the best boxers at the University of Wisconsin. He’d also taken up polo, further developing the horsemanship skills he’d honed riding through the ridges and valleys of Grant County. Fully three inches taller than his father, he stood next to the old man and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I understand that, Father,” he said. “Truly, I do.”

“That is not possible. You have not seen the elephant.” He flipped the latch and raised the glass lid. Reverently, he reached down and touched the old sword that rested on the red velvet. “If it is glory and adventure you desire, Cuba is the last place you shall find it.”

Comments

I think this is a great first page. The conversation between Charles and his father has a nice balance of tension, affection, and drama when it comes to why Charles wants to go serve in Cuba. I found this first page compelling and I would certainly continue reading. Even after just one page I have a good sense of the relationship between father and son, their expectations, and the conflict between them. I can already visualize both characters and have an understanding of who they are and what motivates them. Without having a whole lot of historical information, there’s just enough provided to set the scene and the dialogue and descriptions provided feel authentic for the time period.

If I was to be nitpicky I might say there were just a tad too many adjectives and description for Charles but that really didn’t bother me (although I was wondering if the writer meant ‘somber’ nod as opposed to ‘sober’ nod). I wasn’t totally sure about the reference to the elephant (seemed a strange nickname for a sword) but again, that didn’t bother me. Overall, I think this first page is tightly written and compelling. Bravo, to our brave submitter!

So TKZers, what comments or advice would you provide?

8+

Micro-Progress Your Novel

A few weeks ago I spotted an article in the New York Times entitled ‘Micro-Progress and the Magic of Just Getting Started’ (you can read it here) and realized it was tailor made for us writers (especially after I’d seen a number of posts on my writing groups about writers writers feeling overwhelmed about their projects).

The idea of ‘micro-progress’ is simple: For any task you have to complete, break it down to the smallest possible units of progress and attack them one at a time.

In many ways, it’s an obvious concept. But what caught my eye, was the fact that studies had shown that micro-progress (or establishing micro-goals) can actually trick the brain into increasing dopamine levels, providing satisfaction and happiness. Sounds like the perfect plan for anyone facing the daunting prospect of completing a novel:)

Online I was seeing posts from people who felt overwhelmed by revisions, who were despairing that their novel had run aground mid way through, or who were experiencing chronic writer’s block and desperate for advice. In all of these situations, focusing on ‘micro-progress’ seemed a useful place to start.

The concept of ‘micro-progress’ has also helped me. I currently have a number of projects out on submission and a couple of ones with my agent – so it was time to start a new WIP. I faced a dilemma though – I had the first 50 pages of a YA novel that I’ve been noodling over (actually driving myself insane over is probably more apt) and yet I was concerned it still wasn’t quite ‘there yet’. I struggled with whether I really knew what the book was about (despite a synopsis and outline, mind you). So I decided it was best to put it aside and start a completely new project – yet at the back of my mind I still couldn’t quite let the old project completely die. Enter ‘Micro-Progress’!

I decided to use the advice in the NYT article and tackle both projects but with a different mindset. For the brand new WIP I’d sit down and get started in the usual way. I have the synopsis and outline so it was time to face the blank page and get writing. I’d focus on this everyday except Friday – when I’d allow myself to tackle the old project but with a ‘micro-progress’ approach. I’d just take it scene by scene in Scrivener and see what happened – without placing too much pressure on myself. The regular WIP could progress in the usual fashion – but for this one I’d be happy setting smaller, more manageable goals to see how it would all come together. In this way a ‘micro-progress’ mindset helped overcome my confidence issues as well my concerns about abandoning the project all together.

A ‘micro-progress’ mindset could be helpful in almost all our writing as it focuses on the smaller more manageable steps that can be taken. The evidence also seems to demonstrate that this approach can stimulate our brains, enabling us to continue, progress and feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction – rather than becoming overwhelmed by the totality of the task ahead. But I guess the key question is – TKZers – what do you think about ‘micro-progress’?

 

8+

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year TKZers!

Welcome to 2018 and whatever new (or used) resolutions you may have made. For me, after a difficult year health wise, I’m ready to face the new year with both resilience and hope, at least where my writing is concerned. I’m not so much into resolutions for 2018 as I am into consolidating what I learned about myself and my writing process last year.

Despite everything, I feel pretty good about what I achieved – especially the fact that my agent now has three new projects to play with/submit:)  As you know from many of my blog posts, I’ve expanded into YA and MG as well as adult historical fiction/mysteries, and while this has meant a lot of time and commitment, learning and angst, I’ve learned a lot about my writing process as well as my resolve.

In 2018, I plan to continue to apply what I’ve learned and try to be a little more forgiving as far as my writing process is concerned (no more NaNoWriMo regrets for me!). Although I have delved a little bit into social media, I realise that my presence is a little erratic and unfocused so another goal of mine is to reconsider how I approach online and social media – but not to the detriment of my writing (which continues to remain the focus of course!). I also feel that, in the spirit of expanding my writing horizons, I should begin to embrace what I call the ‘difficult’ projects…those ideas/proposals I have avoided so far out of fear that they are too ‘difficult’ to successfully pull off. You know the ones – they continue to buzz about in your brain, demanding to be told, but that little voice inside (the one that hates failure) keeps telling you to wait…keeps telling you your not good enough to write it… Well, I think it’s time to embrace the difficult – be bold  as well as brave – and tackle at least one of these projects this year.

So TKZers what do you plan on focusing on in 2018. What did you learn in 2017 that you can consolidate and use in the coming year as far as your writing is concerned?

 

5+

What Genre Intimidates You?

Some writers have told me they find the prospect of writing historical fiction intimidating and this got me thinking about what, if any, genre, I would be reluctant to tackle. As a historical fiction writer, I understand that writing a novel set in a different time period to our own can be a formidable prospect. However, for me, the historical context for a novel helps provide a solid footing as well as a necessary framework for my story to develop. In many ways, writing about history is far less daunting than the present:)

Almost all of my story ideas spring initially from a historical incident or person (or, as with my latest WIPs, a ‘what if’ alternative history scenario). There’s literally no aspect of historical research that I don’t enjoy – from delving into primary sources to get a sense of life during the period, to reading secondary sources about the events of the period, to looking up (endless) historical details relating to things like fashion, architecture, furniture, food and even language (I use an online historical thesaurus which is so much fun!). I do recognize, however, that anyone contemplating writing historical fiction has to add a much greater research burden to their process. For me, this research is a critical part of finding the voice for any novel – with the specifics of time and place adding an additional dimension to everything I write. I totally understand, however, that tackling a historical novel is not for the faint of heart – but then that could be said for writing any novel! For me, the prospect of writing a contemporary novel is far more daunting than any historical novel (even one set in a period I know nothing about!). The most ‘contemporary’ period I’ve contemplated writing about is the 1980s:)

So what genres do I find more intimidating than writing a contemporary novel? Well, I feel pretty comfortable about facing the challenge of writing a romance, sci-fi or fantasy novel…but horror or erotica? Hmmm…not so much. I doubt that I’d be able to pull off a horror novel or even a really disturbing thriller…unless it was historical. Then, for some reason, I think I’d be able to go dark (though how dark my dark would be is debatable!). As for erotica, well anytime I’ve tried to write a graphic sex scene I’ve made myself laugh…so I doubt I’ll ever make a successful erotica novelist!

In general, I feel pretty open to writing whatever I feel passionate about – even if the prospect intimidates me – but I think deep down I recognize that there’s something about history – something about grounding myself in a different time and place that informs my creative process. What about you, TKZers? Are there any genres that intimidate you?

6+

Failing the NaNoWriMo Test

So this November I tried for the second time to complete NanNoWriMo (for those unfamiliar with this, it represents an opportunity/challenge to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November). Although I never publicly launched a new novel or attended any of the social writing events in either attempt, I did start both challenges with the intention of trying to see if I could knock out a 50,000 word draft in a month. Turns out, I can’t…

This post isn’t really about my failed attempts but rather what I learned about my own writing process as a result. While I think NaNoWriMo is a great exercise for many writers it (obviously) didn’t turn out to be the best for me. In both of my attempts I was in the early stages of a new project and I thought it might be a way to overcome the dreaded internal critic and kickstart my project into high gear. Turns out my creative process just doesn’t work that way…Here is what I learned:

  1. I write quickly anyway. With determination I always finish my projects and the deadlines I set with my agent provides motivation (and fear) enough for me to push through to the end of the first, second, third and fourth (or more) drafts. That being said…
  2. The first 50-100 pages for me are critical. I have to get these right or I cannot (and I mean cannot!) move forward. I often spend the first month or so on these pages alone – making sure they are written, edited, rewritten and re-edited to my satisfaction. NaNoWriMo helped me realize and understand this – the 100 page mark was the exact point in both drafts where my brain froze at the thought of continuing on without fixing what I knew was wrong.
  3. This second failed NaNoWriMo test enabled me to come to grips with the hows and why’s of point # 2. It’s all about the voice. If I don’t get the voice and characterization correct, everything I write from that point forward feels inauthentic and forced. In this last attempt, I found myself going through the motions of writing scenes to satisfy the NaNoWriMo word requirements until eventually my creative process shriveled up and died…until I went back and started working through the voice in the first 100 pages…
  4. Word targets freak me out. I don’t do well focusing on a target number of words to write per day or week.  As a plotter I do much better with setting goals in terms of chapters and scenes than focusing on the number of words. I will often lay out an outline and move along that trajectory until I come to a point where I have to go back, reread everything and make course corrections as necessary. NaNoWriMo taught me to make peace with this…and also to realize that…
  5. Although my internal critic can be a pain in the bum it’s also what helps me craft the voice that I need to move forward with my novel. It was the same with last year’s project (which, by the way, resulted in a novel that is currently out on submission, so my NaNoWriMo failure isn’t all that bad!).
  6. Finally, I realized that I need to trust, accept, and love my own particular creative process.

So, although I think NaNoWriMo is great for kickstarting other people’s writing – I need to accept it isn’t for me. Undertaking the challenge, however, has helped me realize that I have to honor my own creative process and since mine (so far at least!) usually results in a completed novel, then it’s a process that ultimately works:)

So TKZers, are any of you doing the NaNoWriMo challenge this November? How does it work for you and your creative process?

10+

First Page Critique: Historical Thriller

Today we have a historical legal thriller to examine as part of our regular first page critiques. Sometimes historical fiction can be intimidating – especially when (as is the case in this first page) we are unfamiliar with the period or location in question. My goal as a historical fiction writer is to provide a story which helps overcome that initial uncertainty through: 1) a well established sense of place and time; 2) an authentic, period appropriate voice; and 3) a sensory evocation of the period that helps immerse a reader in that place and time. In addition to these three goals, I also hope to provide a rich layer of drama and intrigue, characterization and plot (…pretty much what we hope for in most novels!). Luckily, I think today’s first page manages to establish a pretty good foundation to achieve all these goals. Kudos to our brave submitter and read on. My specific comments follow.

Title: In the Matter of Lucy

Genre: Historical Legal Thriller (1840s)

Chapter One

Narrative of Orlando B. Ficklin, Esq.

A law office is a dull, dry place.

Leastways, that’s what “Mr. H” told me on my first day as an apprentice.

God, but I could use some dull and dry right now. You wouldn’t believe what the people of a backwoods Illinois county can get up to in the way of shenanigans in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and forty-seven. Lying, cheating, stealing, screwing, welching, divorcing – there seems no end to the vices of this hamlet. And the half of the them – and not always the better half – find their way to me.

This week has been a busy one for laying bare offenses, large and small. The circuit court is in town for the spring session. It’s a regular curia regis: Judge Hopkins and an itinerant band of attorneys traveling through the “realm,” arguing and dispensing justice, when they aren’t eating, smoking, drinking, whoring, and swearing. Our courthouse, such as it is, is a backroom of Deskin’s Tavern. It’s no unusual occurrence to find judge, lawyers, litigants, witnesses, and jurors at the same dining table.

Yesterday, I defended the Meisenhalter brothers.  David Adkins had sued them for slander. Once, for Levi calling Adkins a “damned pig thief,” and again for Robert calling him a “damned infamous pig thief.” Fortunately, the truth was our best defense: Adkins had, in fact, stolen five hogs a few years back in another county. The jury found for my clients and I got my own hog – rightfully earned – as compensation.

Today, I’m watching – and learning – from the master: Mr. Lincoln.  He’s representing Eliza Cabot in a slander case, one more titillating than my own with the Meisenhalter boys. Eliza is suing Frances Regnier for saying that Elijah Taylor was “after skin” and had got it with Eliza, that Taylor “rogered” Eliza, and that Elijah “has got some skin there as much as he wanted.”

Lincoln has just asked Taylor if he knows the difference between adultery and fornication. After some thought, Taylor answered: “Well, I’ve tried both…there’s no difference.”

The galley roars with laughter.

Despite the performance, I’m distracted.  My mind wanders to this morning’s “mail”: a rock, thrown through my office window, with the following note:

“Take on that damned ni – – er’s case, and I’ll see you in Hell.”

Specific Comments

My comments focus on the goals I identified above:

1) A well established sense of place and time

What I enjoyed about this first page is that I felt we immediately had a well established time (1847) and place (some small backwoods town in Illinois) without the need for any unnecessary data-dumps or overly long descriptions. I could easily envisage the setting without being given much in the way of description as the key elements were all there (the back room of Deskin’s Tavern for example and the two law cases that were highlighted with humorous specificity). This first page demonstrates that historical novels don’t need a huge amount of period description at the start – just enough to evoke the time and place and allow the reader to step into the scene quickly and easily.

2) An authentic, period appropriate voice

Overall I think the voice in this first page is strong and authentic. I had some minor quibbles with word choices (like ‘leastways’) but those were just personal preferences. The first person narrative is strong and humorous and the voice of Orlando Ficklin Esq. seems to be one that has enough interest to sustain the story. Given it is his narrative, I did wonder whether we needed the quotation marks around the words realm and mail – they seem to distract as other quotation marks are around other character’s actual speech/dialogue. I also wondered why the ‘n-word’ in the final line of the page was censored, as I assume the threatening note on the rock thrown through the window would not have been. I was also briefly taken out of the narrative by the term ‘rogering’ as I associate that more with British slang – I have no idea if this was used in the USA in the 1840s – but would just advise the author to double check all the words used to make sure they would have been in common usage at that time/place.

3) A sensory evocation of the period

Most often we associate ‘sensory evocation’ with descriptions involving sights, sounds and smells to evoke a historical scene. In this first page we don’t really get any description of what people are wearing or sensory based period details but I think we get enough in terms of scene setting with the snippets of conversations provided and the first person narrator’s view on the circuit court proceedings. I expect as the novel progresses more period details will be provided that will fill out the historical scene for the reader.

So far, at least for me, we have a solid basis for a story that I would be more than happy to continue reading. The last line also provides a great set up for the drama and intrigue that is to come. What do you think, TKZers?

7+

First Page Critique

I confess to being a little trepidatious about tackling today’s first page critique entitled ‘We the People are Good to Eat’, not just because of the subject matter (you’ll see…) but also because I’m not really sure of the author’s intention (dystopian YA? parody?). It’s always tricky when reviewing only one page, but this particular submission had me scratching my head even more than usual. Read on – my general and specific comments follow.

We the People are Good to Eat

At 7:37 AM, on the 1378th Level of the City Building of Manhattan, thousands of people moved along the West 55th Street Corridor, going east from the 9th Avenue to the 8th Avenue corridor. Many teenage students walked among them, heading toward their local Public High School; HS L-1378-55, which stood between 8th and 7th.

As the crowd moved along, they went past an enormous advertising billboard, displaying a photographed line of full figured Warrior Women dressed in bikinis, while armed with swords and spears. Shrunken human heads were tied on their belts. Superimposed above them, across the top of the photo, was the slogan, “Paradise Meats. Healthy Tasty Treats”

17 year old Karen Bennet moved with the crowd. She was dressed in a lightweight, dark green jacket, with the words “HS L-1378-55”, printed in yellow on the back. She also wore a light blue skirt, hanging to her knees. Like all the other students in the crowd, the hungry, blonde Karen carried her edu-computer, and like many of them, she also had a pair of shrunken human heads tied on her belt.

She was about halfway down the block, when her steady boyfriend David Krendell came up beside her.  He was irritated.

“Hey Karen!”

Like most of the people in the City Building of Manhattan, he was a little thin and his energy level was low. She was also thin and not very energetic. A daily ration of sausages and meat patties was allocated for each citizen, but the portions were small.

Karen was annoyed. “Hi Dave.”

“I hear” he accused “you’re planning to try out for cheerleader?”

She snapped at him. “Since I already fought on the Warrior Girls Squad last year, I’m now qualified to join the cheerleaders. All cheerleaders and their families receive triple rations for the entire season, just like the warrior girls. Why not?”

“You might be the cheerleader who gets hanged, after we lose a game.”

“The extra rations will improve the health of me and my whole family for the entire season. Isn’t that worth the risk?”

“I wish you didn’t have to take that risk at all.”

She sighed, “And I wish you weren’t such a wimp, Dave.”

“I’m not being a wimp.” He told her, “The extra rations are intended to make the cheerleaders fill out, so they’ll look sexy, instead of unhealthy.”

She laughed, “You’ve got a complaint about that?”

“The girls on the cheerleading squad are expected to do it with every guy on the Warrior Team. I’m the Team’s equipment handler, so I know everything that goes on. I want you to be my girlfriend alone. Not the entire Team’s.”

“I know what’ll be expected of me, and I don’t see the point of me being a well fed, sexy cheerleader, if I’m not a team girlfriend. They’re the girls who have all the fun.”

“What about me?”

She groaned. “You’re too much of a wimp, and not all that much fun.”

Karen stepped away from Dave.

General Comments

As I wrote in my introduction, I’m not entirely sure what the author’s intention is here, but assuming it is a YA dystopian novel then I have a number of specific issues to raise, but my main overall comment would go back to my blog post a couple of weeks ago – does the author really think the idea of teenagers eating human flesh is a saleable premise? To be honest I can’t imagine many editors favorably reacting to that. Even if the author intended the novel to be a parody of a YA dystopian novel (which is not apparent in this first page) then this would have to be made obvious from the start and, even then, I’m not sure the premise would really sustain a publishable novel.

Specific Issues

Information Dump

Moving onto the specific issues in this first page… I think the major concern I have is that this first page is more of an information dump that a compelling start to a novel. While I was intrigued by the initial setting (the 1378th Level of the City Building of Manhattan), there were a lot of details that seem extraneous (the address and repetition of the HS number) and the dialogue between Karen and Dave seems designed to provide the reader with information, rather than a natural conversation between two teenagers (would Dave really have to explain to Karen why cheerleaders get extra rations or that a cheerleader gets hanged after losing game? She obviously knows this – so the information is really only for the readers’ benefit). In terms of story craft, however, this first page cannot be merely an information dump masquerading as conversation. We need action and tension to become engaged in the story – right now, this first page seems staged and unrealistic.

World Building

This stifled conversation drains the page of any tension or drama a reader may have felt after the mention of the Warrior Women billboard (the first mention of the shrunken heads) and so far, the information the reader is getting seems more off-putting than compelling. I’m assuming society has resorted to cannibalism because meat has become scarce but how and why remains unclear (and to be honest, as a reader I’m not sure I even want to know…). When re-reading this piece I wasn’t even sure how cannibalism is involved (although, given the title I’m assuming it is). Do Warrior Women just show off their skills by having shrunken heads tied to their waist bands? Is everyone else hungry because of meager meat rations or is human meat their only option? When creating a dystopian world, it’s fine to leave questions unresolved on the first page but the reader must feel confident that the author has created a viable and intriguing world – which I’m not convinced has been achieved as yet.

Dialogue

As I mentioned, the dialogue on this first page seems to be nothing more than an informational dump and I certainly don’t get any sense of attraction or friendship between Karen and Dave to indicate there would be any possibility of them being boyfriend and girlfriend. In fact, Karen seems pretty unlikable so far, which isn’t a great start. Also the conversation about cheerleaders ‘doing it’ with the whole team seems a bit off-kilter (although the mention that Dave is the team’s ‘equipment handler’ was possibly inadvertently hilarious). Neither Karen nor Dave come across as real (dare I say it) flesh and blood people yet – which leads me to my final specific comment…

Characterization

When dealing with a rather icky subject matter (cannibalism) an author is going to have to rely on some amazing characterization to get over that initial hurdle. The reason why the Hunger Games was so popular was, in major part, because the character of Katniss Everdeen was so compelling. So, while that series dealt with teenagers fighting to the death, the empathy of Katniss really added a humane touch to what was otherwise a pretty horrific premise for a book series.

Perhaps the author of this first page was inspired by that series and wanted to push the envelope even further – but as my comments demonstrate – in order to pull that off you need to have a solid and believable world (which hasn’t been developed in this first page yet), empathetic and compelling characters, and action that compels a reader to turn the page and keep reading. Sadly, because of the issues I’ve raised, I would not want to turn the page with this story – but I also think the author needs to take a step back and consider the ‘saleable’ premise question before addressing any of the specific comments I’ve raised.

TKZers, what do you think?

5+