First Page Critique: The Last White Rose

Photo by Laura Benedict.

 

Cheery good day, TKZers! It’s time for a critique of an anonymous author’s work. The Last White Rose is an excerpt from a novel that appears to be a modern gothic with both horror and romantic elements. But it might be a thriller.  I’m anxious to know what you think.

 

THE LAST WHITE ROSE

Epigraph

In my dream, I see my own green eyes, filled with terror and tears.I fall to my knees, submitting to the command of invincible blue eyes raging with white fire.His face twists into something else, something evil. He is ending my life. I wake with a strident scream… and stare into the same blue eyes.

Chapter One

Stonington, Connecticut

He was elusive, a ghost I needed to catch. The stranger whose face I’d never seen lurked around town, maintaining enough distance to mask his features in shadow. I saw his face for the first time in late July after the annual Blessing of the Fleet. His bold gaze burned into mine from the opposite side of Water Street. The highland band, piping loud and marching through the center, drew the post-ceremony procession to a close, granting me an unobstructed view.

A shiver slid through me despite the stifling summer heat.

He was magnificent. The kind of man you’d never find living in small-town New England. Imposing height and broad, muscled shoulders defined his stature. He wore jeans and a faded indigo tee shirt that exposed cut biceps and forearms. Sun-streaked, dark blond hair in a classic front wave and a commanding jawline framed his handsome, smirking face.

“Parade’s over,” someone shouted.

Even so, Jess and I held our advantageous spot at the curb. My best friend soaked in the late morning sun, sipping her raspberry lemon mimosa, watching me stare at him.

She elbowed me. “Who’s he and why are you staring at each other? Wait—Ellie, is he…”

My eyes skipped to Jess to deliver a dirty look. When I refocused across the street, he was gone. “The guy who followed me home the other night. Yes, I think so. There’s no one else as tall. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s just staying nearby.”

“And maybe you should say something to someone.”

“Not until I’m certain. Paranoia is my sister’s thing, not mine. Besides, aren’t you always saying I should be more open to meeting new people?”

“You do need to get out of your artsy little head. Just be careful.”

I struggled, trying to reconcile his presence in town and the sense that he watched me. After all, it was summertime. Stonington was a historically rich town, the only one in Connecticut to face the open Atlantic waters, so it attracted countless visitors. It was common to see strangers around town. Drunken tourists wandered the streets at night, unaware most businesses closed before ten. It was a colonial fishing town, and outsiders came from far and wide to work for the commercial fleet. It wasn’t the first time a man from one of the crews or a tourist had looked my way, I reasoned.

Then I saw him again.

The next day after the last of my noisy day-campers had gone, I locked the art studio door and headed for the fishing pier to sketch. It was either that or listen to another of Jess’s lectures. She’d go on about how I wallowed in self-imposed loneliness, and how it left her alone to test the waters in the pool of dateable men. The pool was small—blue plastic toddler swimming pool small—and I didn’t need to dip a toe to know there was nothing left in it for me.

The pier was a respite from my grandmother and sister’s intrusiveness as well. Gran and Isobel were all I had, and they meant well. Trysts with my art kept me sane, human.

I looked out over the harbor and spotted Neptune trudging her way in. The sailboats beyond paled in her presence. I don’t know what it was about the old girl, but I loved that fishing boat. Her emerald green hull had become chalky over time, and the once black and white hoists and booms were covered in rust, but she was still glorious against the backdrop of the sea. I lost myself in the sketch at once.

Photo by Laura Benedict

 

Dear Anonymous Author of The Last White Rose:

What a pleasure it was to critique this novel opening. There’s so much to work with here: you’ve obviously read a great deal of fiction and have a practiced hand in basic mechanics. Your grammar and sentence structure are strong, and even your barely-mentioned characters are vivid and distinctive. You also know how to structure a scene, which is no small feat, and your first person POV is flawless.

I like the Connecticut setting. It gives the story an immediate New England gothic feel. Gothic is one of my most beloved genres, so I’m particular.

Jess and Ellie have good chemistry. Jess is a lot of fun, though she falls down a bit on the best friend front. (More on that later.) These cracked me up: “My best friend soaked in the late morning sun, sipping her raspberry lemon mimosa, watching me stare at him.” And “She’d go on about how I wallowed in self-imposed loneliness, and how it left her alone to test the waters in the pool of dateable men. The pool was small—blue plastic toddler swimming pool small—and I didn’t need to dip a toe to know there was nothing left in it for me.”

And the scene with the Neptune was completely charming and nicely visualized. I could picture the boat “trudging” its way in. Your descriptions are—for the most part—very nicely done.

Please, dear Anonymous Author, read all of the above twice, because I know that, like most writers, you will forget it immediately as you read my criticisms and suggestions.

 

Here we go:

I’m not sure what sort of novel this is, and that distresses me. It contains gothic and demonic elements and is set in an old New England town. But there’s some romance as well. I need a few more hints. Does our heroine feel strangely attracted to the giant hot guy stalking her? Or is there some menace in the town that he might be connected to? The strong emphasis on the stalking makes me think it’s trying to be a thriller, but the stalker’s attractiveness makes me wonder if he’s a demi-god or paranormal beast or demon. Another mystery is that we don’t know if he’s the guy in the epigraph or not.

There’s a phrase that I learned from my mother-in-law very early in my marriage: “too much of a muchness.” That’s what you have in this opening section. You need to take a breath. Don’t try to tell us everything in 672 words, and definitely only tell us things once. Readers are smart. This section has too many repeated actions, too much stalking, and way too many characters. It’s important to mention or introduce all of your significant characters in the first thirty pages of a novel, but if you try to do it in the first three, your reader is going to be very confused. Fortunately, you can look at this as an embarrassment of riches because you can use much of this detail in other parts of the novel.

It’s also important for you to balance the light and dark. You can have both.

The last thing I want to address is your heroine, Ellie. Good heroines can be tough to write. Sidekicks get to be fun, villains get to be fun. Heroines can be a bit dull. Thoughts on Ellie below.

 

Epigraph

This is a dream: check.

I’m a bit confused as to how Ellie’s seeing her eyes in one line, then is falling to her knees in the next. Is she watching herself? Or is she experiencing it? Just clarify. Even if it’s a dream, it has to have its own dream physics and dream logic.

Perhaps reframe it so we know she is watching it as a scene, wondering at her own complicity.

“Strident” is awkward. As is “invincible blue eyes raging with white fire.” There’s an awful lot happening in those eyes all at once.

“He is ending my life.” Simple and to the point, but “ending” feels a bit tame since she’s about to be devoured/murdered by what appears to be a demon.

Clarify the last line and be specific:

“I wake, screaming, to find those same blue eyes—now watchful and worried (or laughing and scornful, etc)—gazing into mine.”

Chapter One

First paragraph:

The opening lines are confusing. He’s a ghostly elusive guy that has been skulking around the shadows for…some period of time. Months? Weeks? Two days? Then in the next sentence she gets to the immediate scene: “I saw his face for the first time…”

Instead, get right into it.

We’re prepped by the epigraph for scary and dubious. Give us something new at the top of chapter one. I’d much rather read: “The first time I saw Jeremy Porter’s* handsome face, he was smirking at me from the opposite side of Water Street.” Something straightforward adds a bit of levity, and keeps the story from being so frontloaded with ominosity (technically not a word, but ominousness is clumsy). I confess that I’ve been guilty of over-ominosity myself, so I know whereof I speak. He seems more condescending than threatening. If you want to make him threatening, change “smirking” to “staring.”

*Don’t be afraid to name the guy. We know he has a name. As Ellie’s telling the story, she already knows his name because she’s telling it in the past tense. As it is, it’s cheap suspense. If the story were all in present tense/present action, then we wouldn’t find out his name until she learns it. But the cat’s already out of the bag.

By making the opening of Chapter One just another in a series of stalking incidents, you’ve taken away the power of the epigraph, which could be very compelling. The epigraph hints that she dreams of a man who might be a demon, but she wakes to find him watching her in real life. My assumption is that she becomes romantically involved with sexy stalker guy during the course of the novel…? But we still don’t know if epigraph guy and stalker guy are the same.

The epigraph has already set your tone. Let it rest. We get it.

“He was magnificent.”

Our guy is obviously a gorgeous, eye feast of a man, and the word “magnificent” is striking. I kind of imagine him as a blond Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast. Is he unreal in his perfection? Some small flaw would make him more believable—unless you’re going for supernatural perfection.

Let’s break it down:

Why would we never find someone like him living in small-town New England? Where would we see a man like him? Hollywood? The cover of a magazine or romance novel?

Imposing height—how tall? Ellie says: “There’s no one else as tall.” What does that mean? Significantly taller than everyone else in town? Wilt Chamberlain tall? If so, someone would have surely noticed him by now. A man that tall would be a very poor skulker.

Instead of using an indefinite phrase like “defined his stature,” let’s see him through Ellie’s editorial filters:

“I’d never seen a man so tall in real life, at least not one with shoulders so broad that they made me wonder for a moment if he had to have his dress shirts specially made. But he wasn’t wearing a dress shirt. His taut, cut biceps emerged from the sleeves of a beautifully faded black tee that just reached the waist of his indigo jeans. And his black motorcycle boots looked comfortably worn. Most women I knew would pay a fortune to have their stylist give them highlights like the ones that seemed to flow naturally through the waves of his dark blond hair. His jaw was strong and commanding, reminding me of paintings I’d seen of ancient Roman centurions on my last trip to the Louvre.

“Parade’s over,” someone behind me shouted.

I startled, and felt my face flush. The slow smile of the man I came to know as Jeremy Porter told me he’d caught me staring.”

Then you can go on and have her interact with Jess. But let’s have some more urgency and concern in their exchange. Is Jess implying Ellie should call the authorities? Who is the “someone” of whom she speaks? Be specific.

In this next section, we get a lot of new characters introduced: noisy day-campers, dateable men, Gran and Isobel, an anthropomorphized fishing boat, drunken tourists, sailors. It’s overwhelming.

And, suddenly, skulking sexy guy appears again.

What is this book about? Right now I’m just reading stalking scenes, and I’m feeling fearful that they will just go on and on…

Three scenes (including the epigraph, if it is the same guy), three appearances. Actually four, because we learn he followed her home on some other night (super alarming to have a giant follow you home!). We have no resolution of his parade appearance in Chapter One before the pier scene. He has now let her see his face, and he’s still obviously stalking her. Please give Ellie some spunk. She seems incredibly unaffected by his stalking—her friend acts alarmed but then apparently lets her go home and go about her business and go to work the next day without any further investigation of the guy. It’s one thing that Ellie’s not paranoid. It’s quite another to make her seem not very bright. And I think she is bright.

Your opening chapter has to do more than establish the tone, and Chapter One tells us little more than that Ellie is living in a historic small town and is being stalked by a hot guy. It’s an ominous situation, but she’s reacting in a way that’s not credible. And we still don’t know if this is a romance, a thriller, or a paranormal story. Give us better clues.

My first suggestion would be to work on the epigraph and just let it set the tone. Then in your opening chapter, have Ellie confront hot stalker guy after the parade. It will make her the real protagonist rather than a woman who seems to be setting herself up as a victim. I love the sketching scene on the pier, but it’s too much with what you have already. Save the setting and scene—maybe it happens after they’ve actually met.

Having her confront the guy right off puts us immediately into the story, and will surprise the reader. Even if he is our villain, he will be put momentarily off-balance. Ellie and the hot guy instantly become equals, and thus more interesting adversaries. Or a more interesting couple. Therefore it becomes a more compelling story. Be bold.

That’s my two cents. I think this story could go far.

Chatter over, TKZ friends and bloggers. What say you?

 

 

 

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Write That Caption! New Yorker Cartoon Contest

Purchased from Shutterstock by KL

How did I manage to miss this elegant little contest/game–The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest–which offers a new way for writers to procrastinate and waste precious writing time? The New Yorker cartoons were a cherished element of my childhood reading experience (I confess I skipped reading the articles until I was well into high school years).

Check out the weekly New Yorker cartoon (by clicking this link) and tell us what caption you’d write for it. Here’s my entry for the caption:

“My doctor says it’s an off-label use for energy drink withdrawal.”

Yours?

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A Nuance of Understanding That Can Change Your Writing Career

by Larry Brooks

Today I am waxing enthusiastic about what might end up being the most important step in the development of your story. Because right here, at the concept and premise stage, is where many writers come up short.

Most writers begin a draft with a vision for concept and premise in mind. Others don’t, using the draft itself as the search-mechanism to find concept and premise, then retrofitting it into the story in subsequent drafts. The common mistake is to forget to do just that, leaving the story without a clear and compelling concept and premise at its core.

Concept, as it relates to premise, is the vision for the entire story… at the idea level.

Weak story ideas easily account for half or more of story rejection, or at least, when it comes to explaining why they don’t resonate. I was talking to a writing-guru type friend recently, and he suggested this issue resides at the core of as much as 80 percent of story failures.

If you don’t get this right, if you don’t make it as strong as it can possibly be through an understanding of this nuance, then you are already putting your story at risk no matter how well you write it.

Concept and premise are the first things agents and editors look for in a story, over and above characterizations and writing voice. The nuance is this: concept and premise are different things. Superman is a concept. The plot of each story, which includes the villain and the threat they represent, is the premise… one unique dramatic arc for each Superman movie, TV episode and comic book edition.  One concept has birthed 13 major films and at least six television series alone.

One concept. An alien child crashed on earth, is raised by human parents, and ends up with powers we consider super, which he uses to fight evil and save us, time and time again.  Notice this is not premise (which is synonymous with plot in the context of this understanding).

Not every story needs to be “high concept.”

But the presence of something conceptual – which is the very essence of concept – adds strength to any story.

Concept and premise are different essences, yet one (concept) feeds into the other (premise). One of the most common shortfalls of rejected stories is when a premise doesn’t promise something conceptual to the story, when it’s all plot with nothing fresh or freshly respun, or worse, where there is nothing inherently interesting or provocative at its core.

An Example

I was teaching this at a workshop recently. I asked people to toss out a concept, old or new, for the purpose of seeing whether it met the criteria for concept (which I had presented first, but have not yet revealed here; I do this to see if, upon reading this example, you might quickly and intuitive see how and why it lacks “concept” at the level required to carry an entire novel).steals a woman’s ashes on the way to a funeral.”

“Someone steals a woman’s ashes on the way to a funeral.”

We talked about this one for a long time.

The Definition of Concept

A concept is the presence of something conceptual at the heart of the story’s essence.

A concept is a central idea or notion that creates context for a story – often for a number of stories, not just your story – built from it.

A concept becomes a contextual framework for a story, without defining the story itself.

It is an arena, a landscape, a stage upon which a story will unfold.

It can be a proposition, a notion, a situation or a condition.

It can be a time or place, or a culture or a speculative imagining.

It can even be a character, if even before the premise itself surfaces there is something conceptual about that character.

Concepts are a matter of degree.  Every story has a concept, the issue then becomes this: how does it contribute toward the reading experience?

Those stolen ashes?  That idea is more suited to a scene in the Part 1 setup of a a novel, something that starts a sequence of events.  But the real concept would be why someone did that, toward what end. And at that level, the criteria shown below would still need to apply.

The Criteria for Concept

It is inherently, before character or plot, interesting, fascinating, provocative, challenging, engaging, even terrifying.

High concepts depart from the norm, they exist at the extreme edge of imagination and possibility.

Not all stories are high concept. Stories about real people in real situations also benefit from something that creates a compelling context for the story.

Concepts promise a vicarious ride for the reader. Taking them somewhere, or placing them into situations that are not possible, realistic or something tense or horrific, something they would not choose to experience in real life.  But will love experiencing vicariously in your story.

A concept can define the story world itself, create its rules and boundaries and physics, thus becoming a story landscape. (Example: a story set on the moon… that’s conceptual in its own right.)

In summary, a concept is simply the compelling contextual heart of the story built from it. It imbues the story atmosphere with a given presence.

It does not include a hero… unless the hero is, by definition, a conceptual creation (examples: Superman, Sherlock Holmes, a ghost, someone born with certain powers or gifts, a real person from history, etc.). A story is then built around that hero leveraging the hero’s conceptual nature.

All of this is a matter of degree.  Do those stolen ashed meet these criteria? Perhaps. Could they crack open a killer story? Maybe that, too. But would that pitch – “someone steals a woman’s ashes on the way to a funeral” – offered in an elevator to an agent, motivate the agent to his the STOP button and hear the entire story

Doubtful. Because a concept is not a tease or a piece of setup. Rather, it is an OMG notion that becomes the contextual foundation of the entire story itself.

It might be helpful to consider what a story without a vivid concept would sound like in a pitch: two people fall in love after their divorce. Period. End of pitch.

And the agent says, “next!”

It’s not a bad story if you can pull it off – the writer of such a story would intend to plumb the depths of characters on both sides of the divorce proposition – but there’s nothing unique or provocative beyond the notion of divorce itself. Which is all too familiar, and therefore not all that strong a concept. If you could bring something contextually fresh to it – like, two people who both want to murder their ex fall in love – then the story has even more upside.

When we read that agents and editors are looking for something fresh and new, concept is what they mean.

When a concept is familiar and proven – which is the case in romance and mystery genres especially – then fresh and new becomes the job of premise and character, as well as voice and narrative strategy.

Concept is genre-driven.

Literary fiction and some romance and mysteries aren’t necessarily driven by concept (however, the sub-genres of romance – paranormal, historical, time travel, erotica, etc. – are totally concept-dependent). Other genres, such as fantasy and science fiction and historical, are totally driven by and dependent upon concept.

If your concept is weak or too familiar within these genres, you have substantially handicapped your story already.

Examples of Criteria-Compliant Concepts

“Snakes on a plane.” (a proposition)

“The world will end in three days.” (a situation/proposition)

“Two morticians fall in love.” (an arena)

“What if you could go back in time and find your true love?” (a proposition)

“What if the world’s largest spiritual belief system is based upon a lie, one that its church has been protecting for 2000 years?” (a speculative proposition)

“What if a child is sent to earth from another planet, is raised by human parents and grows up with extraordinary super powers?” (a proposition, leading to one of the most iconic characters is all of entertainment)

“What if a jealous lover returned from the dead to prevent his surviving lover from moving on with her life?” (a situation)

“What if a paranormally gifted child is sent to a secret school for children just like him?” (a paranormal proposition)

“A story set in Germany as the wall falls.” (a historical landscape)

“A story set in the deep South in the sixties focusing on racial tensions and norms.”  (a cultural arena)

These cover a breadth of genres, a few of them from iconic modern classics in their own right.

Notice than NONE of these are plots. Each is a framework for a plot. For any number of plots, in fact. The are conceptual.

Just remember: concept is not premise.

This one differentiation can make or break your career.  By way of analogy… concept is the idea to go to college and major in architecture. Premise is actually what happens when you do that, with a fresh and dramatic twist.  Different levels of meaning, with different criteria almost entirely.

Concept, when it works, becomes the reason why your premise will compel readers. Because it is compelling. Fascinating. Intellectually engaging. Emotionally rich. Imbued with dramatic potential. It infuses the premise with something contextually rich, even before you add characters and a plot.

Can you differentiate the concept from the premise in your story?  If not, then this becomes an opportunity to take your story to the next level.

Final thought on this, for now.

Thrillers are one of the most fertile genres for concept. Great thrillers are just that – great – often because of the concept.

Series heroes – Jack Reacher, James Bond, Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible stories – become their own concept. People come to the story for Jack Reacher, rather than the specific plot idea on the back cover.  As authors trying to establish a thriller series, this is a critical nuance to understand.

Mysteries, however, are more challenging at the conceptual level. Given that, the creation of a conceptually fresh hero is the key, and then giving her or him something highly vicarious and emotionally-resonant to do.

Of course, this implies the need to grasp the difference between a mystery and a thriller, which is obvious once you get it, less-so before that ah-hah! moment arrives.

Have fun with that one here… I’ll chime in with that difference if it doesn’t emerge clearly in the thread. I have a feeling it will.

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When Cold Cases Kill: Guest Post By Meg Gardiner

JSB: I am on a research trip and will only have sketchy, if any, internet access today. So I’ve asked Meg Gardiner if she would step in for me. Meg is an Edgar Award winner whose new novel, UNSUB, is getting rave reviews. Like this one: 

“Outstanding series launch… Taut pacing and sympathetic characters play against a terrifying villain, who will crawl beneath your skin and trouble your sleep. Thriller fans will eagerly await the sequel.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

Plus, it’s just been announced that CBS is going to adapt UNSUB as a TV series!  

UNSUB releases June 27, but you can pre-order at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.

Welcome, Meg!

UNSUB is about a legendary killer and the young cop who hunts him. In my thriller, the UNSUB—an unknown subject in a criminal investigation—starts killing again after twenty years, and Caitlin Hendrix must decipher his coded plan before he drags more innocents to the abyss.

The novel was sparked by the unsolved case that has haunted California for decades, and me since childhood: the Zodiac. That infamous UNSUB shot and stabbed seven people in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Zodiac sent dozens of messages to the police and media, including cryptograms that have never been broken. The terror wrought by the killings still lingers today.

I grew up in California, spooked by the knowledge that the Zodiac could strike at any time. Today, I’m spooked by the thought that the killer hasn’t been caught. The Zodiac could still be out there.

And, being a thriller writer, spooky thoughts lead me to spooky ideas. What if a terrifying cold case turned hot again? What if a killer who’d disappeared—as the Zodiac did—resumed killing decades later?

I turned that unnerving idea, that they-never-caught-him fear, into this novel.

In UNSUB, Bay Area sheriff’s detective Caitlin Hendrix is pulled into the chilling world of the serial killer known as the Prophet. This UNSUB posed his victims in garish crime scene displays, and marked their bodies with the ancient sign for Mercury. He’s given Caitlin nightmares since she was a small girl. Her father, Mack, was the lead detective on the original case. The investigation shattered Mack emotionally and tore his family apart.

To write the novel, I had to create the killer’s secret world. I delved into codes, puzzles, astrology, poetry, ancient symbolism—and 21st century hacking. The Prophet is a master of mind games. To stop him, Caitlin must do what her father couldn’t. She must decipher both the Prophet’s old, taunting messages and his strange new rhymes. What do the crime scene tableaus signify? What does the Mercury sign mean? And what is the Prophet’s end game?

Readers ask if I write to exorcise my demons. I don’t. As a writer, I take what frightens me and try to turn it into gripping fiction. I put my demons on the page, and turn them loose for readers to experience in the most exciting and suspenseful ways I can create.

UNSUB is a psychological thrill ride. Enjoy it.

But, if it gets you thinking about what’s out there, don’t turn off the lights.

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First Page Critique: Enemies Domestic

Critiqued by Mark Alpert

And now we turn to a submission from one of those brave souls who offer the first pages of their novels for the perusal of the Kill Zone community and our constructive criticism. The title is “Enemies Domestic” and here are the opening paragraphs:

Maricopa County, Arizona

A bare, red lightbulb intended for photography darkrooms hung from the rough ceiling inside a small rotting plywood shed, expelled the nighttime darkness immediately beyond the open doorway, and cast Duke and his malicious undertaking in its eerie glow. Seated on an aging, rickety metal stool before a shoddy plywood-and-two-by-four workbench, he carefully placed a soldering iron upon a porcelain tile to avoid burning himself and the rough, splintery surface. At least I won’t hear the boom, he thought.

Wiping his sweaty hands atop his faded, six-color-desert fatigue pant legs, Duke took a deep, calming breath, shut his eyes, and gently opened and closed his hands to relax his unsteady fingers. After several unsuccessful seconds, he decided to break from his deadly efforts to better calm himself; opening his eyes, he carefully scooted the stool back away from the workbench and slowly stood on the unsteady wood floor. The beams strained and creaked beneath his weight as Duke first stretched his lower back, and then removed a small metal case that contained a stash of hand-rolled cigarettes and an American flag-engraved Zippo lighter from his right cargo pants pocket before turning to his right and approaching the shed’s only doorway.

Walking from the stuffy shed and its low, red glow, Duke ignited his last rollup and stiffly strode a dozen steps into the cool darkness of the March desert night to loosen his legs.  Having traded the bulb’s tedious light for a dark and clear, moonlit sky, he deeply inhaled the burned tobacco smoke, stretched his sore shoulders and back, and then exhaled
forcefully, clearing his lungs of the calming toxins. Early spring rains had recently soaked the Sonoran desert landscape, which now emanated the earthy, lightly sweet smells of wet creosote and mesquite. Duke shifted his gaze east; first from the lowly scrub brush before him to the stately saguaros just beyond his reach, to the taller, more distant Palo Verde trees along his parcel’s dry washbed, and, finally, to the White Tank desert mountains backlit by the urban sprawl and nighttime light pollution of the Phoenix metroplex. Working to clear his head, Duke crossed his arms over his chest and stood still, moving his right forearm only as necessary to work the slowly diminishing cigarette.

—————-

“Less is more.” It’s a piece of advice that’s easy to offer but sometimes hard to implement. When you’re trying to establish the setting for a novel’s opening scene, you want to fully describe it, right? You want to provide sights, sounds, smells, evocations. But it’s very easy to go overboard and ruin your efforts with over-description.

Let’s look at the opening paragraph of this submission. First of all, it starts with a run-on sentence. It needs to be broken up. Consider this edit:

A bare, red lightbulb intended for photography darkrooms hung from the ceiling of a rotting plywood shed. Duke sat on a metal stool beside his workbench and lowered his soldering iron, placing it on a porcelain tile so it wouldn’t burn the rough wood. At least I won’t hear the boom, he thought.

Now this paragraph is about half as long as the original, but you’ll notice that I really haven’t omitted much information. For example, I deleted the adjective “small” from the description of the shed, because all sheds are kind of small. And I deleted “rough” from the description of “ceiling,” because if it’s a rotting shed, then all its surfaces are going to be rough, right? I took out “eerie glow” and “malicious undertaking” because those are clichés, and they also don’t add anything. We already know that darkroom lights are eerie, and we’ll soon find out that Duke is doing something malicious. And for similar reasons, I deleted “aging, rickety” and “shoddy plywood-and-two-by-four.” We all know what stools and workbenches look like, so what’s the point of adding these adjectives? It would be a different story if there was something incredibly unusual about the stool or the workbench; then you might want to describe them in greater detail, especially if those descriptions provide clues to Duke’s character or what he’s up to. But if an adjective adds nothing that we don’t already know, then it should be deleted.

But notice also what I’ve retained: the last sentence in the paragraph. It’s brilliant. It’s a shivery intimation of evil and an intriguing first glimpse of Duke’s voice and character. It makes you want to keep reading, right?

I could make similar cuts to the second and third paragraphs, but they suffer from a more fundamental problem: they don’t really advance the story. We have a nice setup here, a mysterious guy using a soldering iron to make a homemade bomb, and all that can be conveyed in the first three sentences. But what do we learn in the next two grafs? Duke is in the desert near Phoenix, he’s wearing desert camo, and he smokes hand-rolled cigarettes lit with an American flag Zippo. But we don’t really get any more glimpses of his character or any clues to what he’s doing. He shuts his eyes and opens them. He walks outside and stretches. He smokes his cig and observes the scenery. But is any of this important? Does it advance the plot or illuminate the character? If it doesn’t, you should get rid of it, or at least compress the hell out of it. Go directly to the next important action or the next revealing insight.

I know this sounds a little harsh. But I’m not being any harsher than a typical literary agent or editor. Remember, folks: the first paragraphs of a novel have to be amazing to get the attention of the publishing industry. They have to feel like the takeoff of a supersonic jet. (I use this metaphor because I once got a chance to fly on the Concorde – it was a press junket – and man, that takeoff really felt like being shot out of a catapult. Whoa!)

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A side note: I have a new paperback in bookstores this week: The Siege, the second book in my Young Adult trilogy about teenagers who turn into robots. (Literally robots, and not just sullen kids who refuse to answer friendly questions from their parents at the dinner table.) It’s a fun story, and the book includes a teaser chapter from The Silence, the final book in the trilogy, which comes out in hardcover next month. Check it out! I’ve listed some Buy Links for the book here.

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Reader Friday: How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

Wikimedia Commons

An author friend of mine loves telling the story about when her mother found her sitting in front of her pot belly stove burning old manuscripts she had stashed “under her bed.” When asked why, she told her mom that she didn’t want ANYONE publishing them posthumously. She thought they were THAT bad. What about you?

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

 

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First Page Critique: Like Hell

Critiqued by Elaine Viets

Thank you to another brave soul who gave us this intriguing first page, called Like Hell. This seems to be a mystery with paranormal elements. Let’s start with the first page, then my comments for AA – our Anonymous Author – and then yours, TKZ readers.

 Alyssa lay facedown in a pool of blood that wasn’t hers. The weight of a stranger’s body crushed her, smothered her. She tried to tamp down her panic, but she was drowning in his blood. It bubbled in her nose and mouth, soaked through her clothing. The metallic taste of it gagged her, but she didn’t dare move.

The shooter was still here, his boots echoing in the university library. Someone whimpered, and received a burst of gunfire in response. He talked in a steady stream, in a language Alyssa didn’t understand. She had no idea who he was speaking to.
The thud of his boots approached and Alyssa held her breath. He kicked her ankle and she choked back a cry. With a grunt, he fired another shot into the poor stranger who had tried to shield her when the shooting started.

Somehow she didn’t scream. The shooter maintained his monologue as he paced the room. A door slammed, then … silence. Alyssa felt hot, sick, as she battled the gorge rising in her throat.

The door slammed against the wall with a loud crack and she nearly screamed.  Heavy steps, running straight at her. Suddenly, the body sailed off her, striking the wall with a thud. Impossible. The dead man had to weigh at least 250 pounds.
Alyssa opened her eyes. This man was much smaller than the one who’d shielded her, but he hauled her up with ease. Panic flashed in his blue eyes. He seized her face and jerked her head to the side.

“Where are you hit?” he demanded, as his fingers crawled over her scalp, searching for a wound.

“It’s … not …” Alyssa swayed and he caught her. “It’s not my blood,” she whispered against his chest.

Footsteps thundered into the room. Alyssa clutched the stranger and squeezed her eyes shut.

Bullets struck him in the back. She heard them thud, felt their impact, though he barely flinched.
He roared something incomprehensible. Alyssa glanced at him just before he peeled her off him. His blue irises were replaced with flames.

Stunned, she fell as he pivoted. Black wings erupted from his back, protecting her as he screamed at the shooter in his own language.”

The shooter shrieked. Babbled.

Something crashed against the wall. Her protector cursed. He turned and hauled her up again. His wings closed around them an instant before the room exploded.

Elaine’s Comments: You’re off to a sizzling start, AA, and I’d like to see more of this novel. But I’m itching to change the very first line. Try, “Alyssa lay face down in a pool of blood.” Extra words – “that wasn’t hers” — are distracting, and you tell us whose blood it is a few paragraphs later, when Alyssa tells the creature who saved her, “It’s not my blood.”

The “black wings erupting from his back,” and “blue irises were replaced with flames” are intriguing details: Is Alyssa’s savior an angel or a devil? He’s definitely supernatural. The last line is vivid – I want to know more about who – or what – saved Alyssa and why.

But here’s the major problem with an otherwise good beginning: Alyssa is too sketchy. Give us a few more details. This is a university library. Is Alyssa a teacher, a student, a scholar or a librarian? How old is she? What does Alyssa look like? These vital questions can be answered with a few phrases.

Also, tell us where we are: Is the university library in New York, the Midwest, another country? A word or two will solve that unnecessary mystery.

There’s a stray pronoun that needs to be rounded up and branded in this pair of sentences: “Someone whimpered, and received a burst of gunfire in response. He talked in a steady stream, in a language Alyssa didn’t understand.” Make that “He talked” into “The shooter talked.”

I’d find another way to phrase this sentence about the gorge in her throat: “Alyssa felt hot, sick, as she battled the gorge rising in her throat.” Technically, “gorge” means “throat,” and Merriam-Webster says, “‘Gorge’ is often used with ‘rise’ to indicate revulsion accompanied by a sensation of constriction – ‘my gorge rises at the sight of blood.'”

You might also want to combine these two sentences into one paragraph: “Footsteps thundered into the room. Alyssa clutched the stranger and squeezed her eyes shut. Bullets struck him in the back. She heard them thud, felt their impact, though he barely flinched.”

These are small complaints, AA, and can be easily fixed. You’ve done an excellent job of building tension when the shooter comes back and kicks Alyssa to make sure she’s dead.

I have one technical question about this sentence: “With a grunt, he fired another shot into the poor stranger who had tried to shield her when the shooting started.”
What kind of weapon was the shooter using? I’m not a ballistics expert, but many bullets can go right through that stranger’s body. Why wasn’t Alyssa hit and hurt?

Keep writing, AA. Hope this sells like hell.

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    Fire and Ashes, the second Angela Richman Death Investigator mystery, will be published July 25. Pre-order the  ebook for $3.99 here

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Bringing a Gun to a Knife Fight

By John Gilstrap

Let’s get back to talking about how to kill people.  It is, after all, what our characters do, right?  This week, the topic is knife fighting.

That’s a pig carcass wrapped in a leather jacket (the one on the right).

Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to train on guns and knives with Steve Tarani, whose martial arts skills are the stuff of legend.   My most recent training was about a year ago at Gunsite Academy in Paulden, Arizona, where I spent a week training with carbines, pistols and . . . wait for it . . . knives.  While I’ve done a lot of shooting in the past, this was my first exposure to knife fighting, and it was, frankly, terrifying.  As you might imagine, on the pistol and carbine courses, there’s no shooting at each other, but when it came to the knife sessions, there was sparring among the students, albeit with practice knives.  In part because Tarani and I are friends–and in part because my nickname was “Writer Boy”–I was frequently called out to be the victim during demonstrations.  The most embarrassing of those episodes was when Tarani disarmed me and “killed” me with my own knife before I even knew he’d moved.

The 21-Foot Rule

Same pig carcass but with an overhand thrust.

A long time ago someone did research to show that within 7 yards, and attacker with a knife can close the distance and kill a skilled shooter before the shooter can clear his gun from his holster.  Our class proved that to be a bogus number.  The real number is closer to 30 feet, and once the attacker with knife skills is within arm’s length, the shooter doesn’t have a chance.

Fair Warning: It gets a bit gruesome from here.  While there are no upsetting pictures, there are some toe-curling concepts.  Read on at your own risk.

Once you’re close enough to touch your gun-wielding opponent, slash the tendons of his wrist and the guy can no longer hold his weapon.  We were taught to next slash his eyes to blind him.  From there, it’s a matter of evaluating the threat.  If he’s done, then so are you, but if he’s still got fight in him, you go for the kill.

The (Other) Kill Zones

A knife fight is an exercise in exsanguination.  The last one to bleed out is the “winner”. Thus, knife fighting is geared toward severing major blood vessels.  Arteries produce a more crippling blood flow than veins, but they arteries lay buried significantly deeper in the body than veins.  To get to an artery, then, you’ve really got to want it.  To sever the carotids, for example, we were taught to start the strike with the fist of your knife hand in direct contact with the victim’s neck and push through.  Same thing with the femoral arteries, which made for some awkward posturing while sparring.

Best access to the subclavian arteries is via the arm pits.  Like the carotids, they branch directly off the aorta, but I found the armpit thrusts difficult to execute.  There’s also a belly thrust that will take you through the navel to the abdominal aorta, but it involved the assistance of a knee strike to get the blade deep enough, so we didn’t practice it.

Defensive Moves

While all of the above applies to defense against a lethal attack, we were taught potentially less lethal moves to be employed if we’re more interested in discouraging an attack than engaging in one.

The Windmill. Say you’re at the bus stop with your kid or your mom or with your significant other, and that skeezy guy who’s been eyeballing you approaches in an unsettling way.  You tell him forcefully to stay away, yet he keeps coming.  You want to break off the encounter, and you certainly don’t want to fight the guy.  This is where the move I call “the windmill” comes in (if Tarani gave it a real name, I don’t remember what it was).  You draw and open your locking blade folding knife–if you don’t carry one, I think you should–and hold it in a thumb-support or fencer’s grip (the blade on the thumb end of your fist, not the pinky end) and as you back away, you make slashing motions in the air.  Big figure X’s at face-to-shoulder level.  You tell him over and over to stay away.  No sane person would walk into that razor-sharp windmill.

Which brings us to The Filet.  So, Mr. Skeeze keeps coming and he gets a hand around your free arm or he gets a fistful of your clothing.  You bring the edge of your blade down perpendicular to his arm bone and dig deep.  Then, in one fast, continuous motion, you pivot your blade to be flat against the bone and you slice from wrist to elbow, separating the flesh and muscle tissue of his arm completely off the bone.  I’m told it’s not a fatal wound, but goodness gracious it would be an ugly one.

Zero Resistance

On the final day of classes, Steve Tarani brought in a bunch of pig carcasses and dressed them up in clothes from all seasons.  Pigs in T-shirts, pigs in leather jackets, that sort of thing.  The point was to employ the lessons of sparring with real blades on actual flesh and bone.

While I always carry a sharp knife, I’m not obsessive about the edge.  I certainly couldn’t shave with the blade.  So I was surprised–shocked, actually–by the ease with which I could slash through the heaviest clothing all the way through the carcass’s thoracic cavity.  On one of my slashes, in fact, I thought I had whiffed it, only to find out that I’d gone through to the bone.

Now I Need Input

I’m told sometimes that my filter for that-which-is-disgusting is out of sync with those of normal people.  If posts like this are a step too far into the violent side of reality, I can tone them back. All input is welcome.

And I have mentioned that I have a YouTube channel called A Writer’s View of Writing and Publishing.  Feel free to visit and subscribe!

 

 

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First Page Critique: Beethoven
And the Well-Aimed Bullet

To play a wrong note is insignificant. To play without passion is inexcusable —  Ludwig van Beethoven

By PJ Parrish

A new First Pager found its way to my in-box Sunday, and it had such an immediate impact on me that I decided to postpone my post-in-progress and use the submission. I think it offers us a good departure point for a discussion about using pacing to keep the reader in the reality of the moment.  The fact that I was listening to Beethoven’s Ninth as I wrote this well, I’ll get to that in a sec.

First, a huge thank-you to the writer for letting us learn from your first page. (And I wish you had sent us a bit more. Your line spacing bar must be set at 3!) Before I talk, take a moment to read today’s submission:

A Thriller – KEEP IT SAFE

I levered the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay and a bullet slammed into my back. Below the right shoulder blade. More to the center. A lousy spot where if you have a rash or insect bite it’s impossible to scratch and not look like you’re having a seizure of some sort. If I knew this was the night someone was out to kill me I would have brought something up from the cellar more unique than a domestic Chardonnay, even though it had a pleasant balance of oak to it. There was that bottle or Nieto Senetiner Malbec from Argentina, I was holding for a special occasion, for example.

Anyway, the chard went flying, the bottle hit my hardwood floor, didn’t break, the amber liquid flowed out. As for me, the impact of the slug jolted me forward. I tripped over my feet and did a full body slam on the deck.

There I was, face down, flat on a hard wood floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps crunch their way over to me. We’re talking serious, heavy duty, outdoorsman rubber soles here.

________________________________

Short and sweet, right? Well, it’s not bad. I like that we are immediately in a dramatic moment, but I think the writer has two problems here, and by addressing them this opening might go from adequate (I’ve read this setup before) to unique (Yes, I have read this before but this reads so well that I’ll stick around a little longer).

What are the problems? I think the issues are with point of view and pacing — or more to the point, that sweet spot where the two intersect.

This opening is pure action scene, right? But the only action is the uncorking of a bottle and then a bullet in the back. We get no setting and no sense of who this man is, although because this is first person, I am guessing he’s the protagonist. (If not, that’s another issue for another post). Now, I don’t mind this lack of information — it’s sort of intriguing — but with such an abbreviated submission, I can’t tell if the writer will soon give us the context we need to care about this poor guy.

Pacing is important in your whole story, but when you are in an action scene like this, it is extra-critical.  When you move into an action scene, you the writer need to shift gears, changing your style (word choice, syntax, size of sentences and paragraphs) so the reader gets a sense of speed, urgency (which is different than speed) and intensity. Action scenes are meant as a contrast to slower scenes of information. They are meant to be ingested quickly in smaller and sharper bites rather than digested in more leisurely paced scenes. Think staccato not legato.

But, but…my overall writing style is more legato! Yeah, I hear you. I know. I’m a legato by nature, too, but I’m learning (still!) when I need to switch to staccato.

Okay, think Beethoven. I’m going to him because as I said, he was my soundtrack today as I wrote. Beethoven was a genius, an original. But like any good genre writer, he worked within a “formula” — the classic symphony. The classic symphony has four movements: The opening (allegro or “lively”), the second (adagio or “slow”), the third (scherzo or “quick) and fourth (allegro presto or molto or “really fast!”)

This roughly translates to crime fiction’s three-act structure: a quick intriguing opening that hints at the story and theme to come; the middle where motivations, backstory, clue-trail and complications are laid out; and the climax where the action peaks, the hero usually triumphs, themes are echoed, and all is resolved.

Now by the time Beethoven got to his magnum opus ninth, he knew all the ropes and tropes so he played with the structure a little, moving the scherzo ahead of the adagio, but we’ll ignore that for now.

Let’s start with Beethoven’s “First Page.” He specified the tempo of the ninth’s opening as allegro ma non troppo, which means “quickly but not too fast.” Which is what you want in a book thriller or mystery — a quick-paced intriguing setup but with something held in reserve for the climax. Bear with me, but please go listen to a few moments of how the ninth begins:

Hear that cool quiet introduction? It’s almost creepy with its build-up of tension. But then, thirty seconds in — BAM! — Beethoven hits us with a bullet in the back. This is what I wish our writer had given us.  Before the man gets shot, give us maybe a graph or two that serves as a quick line-sketch of where we are and who we are watching. Maybe a bit of mood. I can’t tell if this man is a seasoned operative or cop who senses that someone is coming to kill him tonight or if he’s a civilian oenophile who’s just unlucky. A few well-placed bars could have gone a long way here, and then when we do get the bullet in the back, it would sting even more.

Let’s move on to Beethoven’s adagio. Again, listen to just a few bars and come back.

Here, Beethoven is laying out the theme. Here, we crime writers would use this middle to give us the context for what we witnessed in the opening, tell readers about our characters and their motivations, slip in backstories, begin addressing theme, and set up complications. But even when the tempo is slower, you still need to watch pace. The ninth’s 14-minute third movement is all in slow tempo, yet if you listen to the 9:30 moment, you hear a definite building of tension, a dark foreshadowing, and a hint of the ninth’s booming climax.

Then we get to the fourth movement of the ninth, and boy, what a doozy of a climax. Beethoven opens with a rush of urgent sound — the car chase has begun, the hero is in pursue down the unlit hall — but then he backs away and the mood goes dark and swirly. If you know the ninth, you know how the story ends — as it should in redemptive triumph. But check out the opening moments for now:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXOG4X-6bz8

Now back to our submission and that sweet spot where pace and point of view intersect.

The main issue I have with the submission is that it is neither staccato or legato but a curious hybrid of the two that fails to deliver on the premise promised by the setup. It’s like the writer was listening to the adagio instead of the allegro as he wrote it. The plot event (getting shot) is intrinsically fast yet the style of this opening is leisurely, almost as if the character is sitting in a bar ten years later telling a friend what happened to him. Let’s go to Track Changes. The comments in red are mine:

I levered I rather like this verb choice here though it’s technically incorrect the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay and a bullet slammed into my back. Below the right shoulder blade. More to the center. A lousy spot where if you have a rash or insect bite it’s impossible to scratch and not look like you’re having a seizure of some sort. These thoughts are out of place. there is no time for such navel-gazing when you are in mortal danger. If I knew this was the night someone was out to kill me A character can’t know what he can’t know ie: Little did he know…. I would have brought something up from the cellar more unique than a domestic Chardonnay, even though it had a pleasant balance of oak to it. Again, he’s about to die so he’s not  thinking about bouquets. There was that bottle or Nieto Senetiner Malbec from Argentina, I was holding for a special occasion, for example.

When I first read this, I wondering if the writer was going for satire here, maybe doing an homage to old detective movies.

Anyway, anytime you have to resort to his word, your transition is weak. the chard went flying, the bottle hit my hardwood floor, didn’t break, the amber liquid flowed out. Again, if you’re shot, you aren’t likely to be thinking in terms of “chard” and “amber liquid.” As for me, another weird transition that jerks me out of the moment the impact of the slug jolted me forward. I tripped over my feet and did a full body slam on the deck. He just falls to the floor. Also, he‘s outdoors? I thought he was on a hardwood floor.

There I was, another of those weird transitions. face down, flat on a hard wood floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps crunch rubber crunches on wood? their way over to me. We’re talking serious, heavy duty, outdoorsman rubber soles here.

So see the problem here? This is an adagio tempo imposed on what should be an allegro moment.  It’s hard enough to mix tempos between scenes and keep the pacing good. But when you mix the two within a scene, we hear only noise, not the special music of your style.

My sister Kelly is good at writing action scenes, better than I am. So I asked her to give this a quick rewrite while still honoring the writer’s setup and style. I offer this not because I believe one writer’s style should be imposed on another — you need to find your own voice! — but to show how to keep a character’s point of view firmly in the reality of the moment.

Just as I levered the cork from the Chardonnay, I heard a sharp crack and felt something hit my back — a hard, hot poke that I instantly knew was a bullet.

I dropped the bottle, heard it clunk but not break, as it hit the kitchen floor. I grabbed for the counter, trying to stay upright, trying hard to breathe, but my legs caved and I hit the floor.

The pooled wine felt cool against my face and though I knew I had taken a bullet, knew someone outside my window had just tried to kill me, I had the strangest thought — I should have brought up the bottle of Nieto Senetiner Malbec, because that would be a much more dignified wine to die in.

The difference here is that Kelly has included only those things that would register in the man’s consciousness given the dire circumstances. She saved that odd thought about the Malbec for a kicker…and it comes only AFTER the man is down and bleeding. If you are lying on the floor with a bullet in your back, well, yeah, you might have a weird existential thought — I should’ve, I could’ve, I didn’t, I never… But save it for when there is a “quiet” moment in your action scene, make it quick, and then get back to the action at hand.

I’ll leave you with a few, ahem, bullet points about pacing and point of view.

  • Never include unnecessary details that can disrupt the flow of the action. If you have a helicopter crash into a mountain, don’t stop and have the pilot tell me that in his long history of flying with the army, including that tour in Nam, this helicopter model always had a history of tail-rotor failure.  If a wounded man finds himself face down in a pool of wine, don’t stop and give me a detailed memory of that year he spent in his twenties backpacking through France.
  • Describe the scene only through what your character can know. If he is lying on the floor dying, he can only see what is in front of him — the steel tip of an approaching boot comes slowly into focus. And use all the senses! Beginning writers are overly reliant on sight. In action scenes, other senses are often more powerful. A blindfolded man hears a sloshing sound then smells gasoline.  A woman victim feels the featherly caress of a cold gun against her cheek.
  • Make your physical movements clear and concise.  Moving characters around in space is grunt work but you have to pay attention. He walked into the bedroom, she turned the corner…etc.  But in action scenes, you have to be careful that you choreograph each step on the page so the reader has no doubt what is happening to whom.
  • But don’t over-describe. In your head, your action scene is playing out like the slow-mo shoot-out in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. On your first draft, sure, go ahead and bleed purple. But then go back and clean things up. Remember — as in sex scenes, which are also action scenes, less is usually more.

Thanks again, dear writer. I would like to read more. The set-up is intriguing. And a character who would rather have a majestic Malbec from Argentina instead of a plunky Chardonnay from Trader Joe’s is worth following.

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Empowering History?

In a recent lecture, Hilary Mantel, the bestselling author of the historical novel, Wolf Hall, berated her fellow female writers for what she considered ‘falsely empowering’ their female characters in their work. This lecture, detailed in an article by The Telegraph newspaper (see link here), raises an interesting issue for any historical fiction writer, or indeed any writer incorporating the social, political or economic landscape of a particular time or place. Characters, after all, must be viewed within a frame or context – even when that appears to weaken rather than empower them.

Mantel’s major concern is with some (unnamed) female writers who retrospectively make their female characters look stronger or more independent than they would have been during a particular historical period. “A good novelist,” she argues, “will have her characters operate within the ethical framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers.” Fair enough – even though implicit within her statement is a criticism of predominantly female authors she obviously believe falsely attribute ’empowering’ characteristics upon their historical characters (even though I’m sure authors of both genders have been guilty of the same!). I also think Mantel’s criticism fails to address the expectations in the current book/publishing market and the demands for a more nuanced approached to historical fiction.

Many writers want to uncover forgotten voices in history – to give  a voice to people whose stories may not have been sufficiently examined in traditional historical textbooks or fiction. They also want to give readers a connection to these people – making them relatable as well as consistent with their time period. This can often be no easy task – as Mantel herself points out, many modern readers would find the beliefs and opinions of many historical figures unpalatable. That doesn’t mean, however, that writers shouldn’t be allowed to explore the commonalities that bind people together. No one, after all, would really want to immerse themselves in a world in which the characters have little or no redeeming features. Likewise, I think many women today would want to read historical fiction that relegate female characters to being weak, uninteresting or dull. In many ways it was the desire of readers to connect with female characters of the past that has created fiction that aims to have ’empowered’ female characters.

So how should a writer approach the delicate balancing act of appealing to modern readers, presenting an intriguing and relatable character, and yet remaining true to a historical period/place or social milieu? This is where Mantel could perhaps have been less strident and more forgiving of the challenges facing historical (as well as other fiction)  writers. With my own work, I know I want to portray strong characters even though I remain mindful of the social, political and economic constraints they would face during the time period I’ve chosen. To be honest, I’m not sure many editors would be interested in a completely ‘unempowered’ female character…it would certainly be a difficult book proposal to sell!

For me, history is not something that needs to be ‘revised’ in my fiction, but equally well, I want to explore the depths of my female characters that make them relatable to modern readers. I worry that Mantel’s view implies that somehow writers simply aren’t doing their homework even though the balancing act is a far more delicate one (in my opinion).

So TKZers, do you agree with Mantel that some writers have been guilty of falsely empowering their female historical characters? How do you approach the task of developing your characters against the context/landscape of their time period? If you are a reader of historical fiction, which do you value more, complete historical accuracy or characters who, despite the era, are still relatable?

 

 

 

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