To Adverb or Not to Adverb?

I’m in the midst of revisions – which is why today’s blog post is rather short – and (as always) wrestling with some of the the writerly tics that seem to invade every new manuscript. Today I faced the perennially thorny issue of adverb use, particularly when it comes to dialogue tags. I have a wonderful writing group partner who is particularly good at pointing out sloppy adverb use, highlighting all the ‘quietly/desperately/softly/angrily’ kind of dialogue slips that I have a tendency to make. She’s also very good at pointing out all the times I ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ so I’m definitely feeling rather humble at the moment:)

As with any revision process, I make a judgment call on whether to keep the dreaded adverbs and when to curtail the amount of ‘showing’ versus ‘telling’ (sometimes not using an adverb actually makes the prose sound more awkward). My writing partner uses (and highly recommends) a program called ProWriting Aid, which apparently helps highlight problematic and sloppy writing but I am reluctant to go down that path for fear it will wreck my prose (or maybe I’m just afraid of all the writing errors it will illuminate!). Another writing partner ran some of her latest novel through ‘Grammarly’ with nightmarish results…which only confirmed my fears!

So my question to you all, is do you use any of these online writing aids? Have you run your prose through any of these kinds of grammar/writing checks and if so, was it helpful? How do you approach this type of stylistic revision when it comes to fiction  (up till now I’ve tended to prefer to go with my gut…) and finally – to adverb, or not to adverb, that is the question…

PS: Congratulations Jim on completing your draft of the new Mike Romeo thriller! – I’d be interested to hear if you’ve considered adding any of thee online tools to your revision process!

Mid-Year Update on the State of Publishing Today

I’ve been hearing a lot in recent weeks about the state of publishing today – especially about the general sense of ‘flux’ and uncertainty as well as the lingering sense of trauma following the pandemic. This particular issue came up recently on social media when a writer demanded on Twitter (never a good thing…) why agents and editors seemed particularly slow in responding to submissions at the moment. This set the stage for a flood of responses from those in the publishing industry reiterating just how traumatic the pandemic had been for many of them – stemming not only from the lay-offs and economic uncertainty, but also coping with working from home (often with young children), and generally being in the midst of a confluence of horrors and illness which affected everyone’s ability to focus.

Now, as we pass the mid-point of 2021 many in the industry are still struggling to catch up with the backlog of work and trying to regain a sense of normalcy after the pandemic upended so much within the industry. Reading this Twitter thread was both reassuring (given my own creative struggles during the pandemic), as well as terribly sad (so many people still trying to come to terms with their experiences last year). What was unnerving/shocking (although given it’s Twitter also inevitable…) was the number of negative responses (even from writers!) criticizing agents and editors as if they should somehow not have any human frailties… Witnessing this whole exchange on Twitter made me wonder about what others were experiencing when it comes to the publishing industry at the moment, whether they see a ‘reset’ any time soon, or whether we are really just in the throes of a kind of post-traumatic syndrome that may take many more months to overcome.

Some of my fellow writers have received a fair bit of ‘doom and gloom’ talk from their agents and editors (though to be honest I say ‘so what’s new?!’) so I thought I’d reach out to our TKZ community to see what your experience has been so far in 2021. Are your agents and editors still reeling from the pandemic? Are submissions or responses to queries taking longer than normal? What feedback have you got from those in the industry about the state of things at the moment?  One interesting tidbit I’ve heard is that many publishers are now looking for projects that they feel they can sell to Netflix for a future movie/TV show – I’m assuming because of the success of the recent Shadow & Bone series perhaps…??…anyway not sure if anyone’s heard this…

For those of you out there in TKZ with their fingers on the pulse, what are you hearing about the state of publishing at the moment?

 

 

 

First Page Critique: Lethal Impulse

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a novel entitled ‘Lethal Impulse’ (which definitely suggests a mystery or thriller!). My comments follow and I look forward to getting further advice and input to help our brave submitter! See you on the other side…

Lethal Impulse

Chapter One

The time had come for the wife of Madison’s police chief to stain the town’s pride. Tess Fleishman decided on a manner unbecoming a Southern belle, antebellum homes, and the best small town to live in Georgia. She inhaled the humid air ripe with the scent of pine. An essence of success released an adrenalin rush as she filmed Vanessa Flack running through the pine thicket.

The sun’s rays conveyed a strobe effect on Vanessa’s yellow tee and orange shorts. The eighteen-year-old raced across uneven terrain, fought low hanging limbs, and craned her neck to look for her assailant. Vanessa cut over to the dirt road and hustled up the red clay embankment. She heaved breaths and rested her hands on her hips.

“How was that?” Vanessa puffed out the words.

Tess clapped. She ducked through the open driver’s window and backed out holding a towel and an insulate tumbler. “You showed me I made the right choice.”

Vanessa draped the towel around her neck and dabbed her face. “Thank you for this, Tess.”

Tess set the camera affixed to a tripod on the rear seat. “You can thank me when it’s over. I need your help with this next part because the doctor told me I’m not to lift anything over twenty pounds.” She popped open the trunk.

Vanessa embraced Tess. “I heard about your diagnosis. I thought about going into oncology once I complete medical school. That’s still a long way off, though. What has the doctor said about your prognosis?”

“We view my future differently. I’m hoping for remission.” Tess gestured to the trunk. “Climb in.”

Vanessa glanced inside the trunk. She retreated two strides. “Do I have to get in there? It looks grimy.”

“We can’t let anybody see you with me, Vanessa. It will ruin the surprise. It’s only until we get to the barn.”

Vanessa clambered into the trunk. Tess swathed towels around Vanessa’s wrists and ankles before she bound them with paracord. Vanessa thanked Tess for the use of towels to prevent ligature marks on her skin.

Tess grinned. “A killer must focus on details, Vanessa.”

General Comments

The last line certainly got my attention on this first page! I thought the author did a good job setting the scene for what the reader is sure is not what it seems at first glance…and a scene that definitely sets the stage for the taut mystery or thriller to come. That being said, I wasn’t completely grounded in this first page and I think part of this was because (a) I wasn’t entirely sure of the mood/tone though it was certainly suggestive of something dark  (which I love); and (b) I didn’t have enough background to understand what was going on (or at least what Vanessa thought was going on…). Both of these issues are easily fixed and I certainly think this first page has heaps of potential. I’m also pleased that there was dialogue/another character given how my last blog post illustrated the pitfalls of having the protagonist alone on the first page! I think the dialogue with Vanessa successfully raised red flags while also sounding believable but I would have liked a little more detail to fully understand what Vanessa thought she doing (acting in a short movie I’m assuming?) and why she was so willing to submit to being bound and placed in the trunk. I also wondered about the POV – As a reader, I wanted more insight or internal monologue for Tess but this might not be what the author wants (which is fine). Overall, bravo to our brave submitter!

Specific Comments

I thought the best way to tackle identifying more specific issues/comments was to go through this first page and highlight these in bold and italics. Hopefully this approach helps illustrate the areas where I think further revisions/clarification could be helpful…Here goes…

The time had come for the wife of Madison’s police chief to stain the town’s pride (I don’t love this expression and given how this first scene pans out I think it could be stronger) Tess Fleishman decided on a manner unbecoming a Southern belle, antebellum homes, and the best small town to live in Georgia (this is where I wasn’t sure about tone as it’s very light but then the scene that follows seems to hint at something darker so maybe have more than just a ‘manner unbecoming’?) . She inhaled the humid air ripe with the scent of pine. An essence of success (I don’t really know what this means) released an adrenalin rush as she filmed Vanessa Flack running through the pine (repetition of pine – maybe chose another word) thicket.

The sun’s rays conveyed a strobe effect on Vanessa’s yellow tee and orange shorts. The eighteen-year-old raced across uneven terrain, fought low hanging limbs, and craned her neck to look for her assailant. Vanessa cut over to the dirt road and hustled up the red clay embankment. She heaved breaths and rested her hands on her hips. (Like how this sets the scene nicely – I could totally visualize this)

“How was that?” Vanessa puffed out the words.

Tess clapped. She ducked through the open driver’s window and backed out holding a towel and an insulate tumbler. (Is she in or out of the car?) “You showed me I made the right choice.”

Vanessa draped the towel around her neck and dabbed her face. “Thank you for this, Tess.” (This is where I wanted more background detail/clarification about what Vanessa thinks she’s doing…)

Tess set the camera affixed to a tripod on the rear seat. “You can thank me when it’s over. I need your help with this next part because the doctor told me I’m not to lift anything over twenty pounds.” She popped open the trunk.

Vanessa embraced Tess (At first I thought Tess was still in the car – maybe clarify how she’d been filming earlier). “I heard about your diagnosis. I thought about going into oncology once I complete medical school. That’s still a long way off, though. What has the doctor said about your prognosis?” (The cancer issue seemed to come a bit our of nowhere and perhaps needs just one additional line. This is also where I felt like we needed a better sense of POV – are we viewing everything through Tess or is it 3rd person omniscient as I almost want some inside view on Tess’s motivation)

“We view my future differently. I’m hoping for remission.” Tess gestured to the trunk. “Climb in.”

Vanessa glanced inside the trunk. She retreated two strides. “Do I have to get in there? It looks grimy.”

“We can’t let anybody see you with me, Vanessa. It will ruin the surprise. It’s only until we get to the barn.” (Again, as a reader I feel I need to have more background as to what Vanessa thinks she’s involved in – getting into a trunk is pretty extreme.)

Vanessa clambered into the trunk. Tess swathed towels around Vanessa’s wrists and ankles before she bound them with paracord. Vanessa thanked Tess for the use of towels to prevent ligature marks on her skin.

Tess grinned. “A killer must focus on details, Vanessa.”

(Love this last line but just needed more details/background or at least further hints to understand why Vanessa would agree to this…and if Tess’s intentions are darker, maybe a few more hints on that…)

Hope some of these comments are helpful to our brave submitter. My fellow TKZers, what advice/comments would you provide?

Troubleshooting Plot Issues

When it comes to writing, I’m a plotter not a pantser, but despite my best intentions there’s almost always a point in the process where I have to take a step back and assess something that has gone awry in the overall arc of the novel. More often than not it’s my own desire to over complicate things and so I have a bit of sub-plot and exposition pruning to do – sometimes, however, I just can’t pinpoint what isn’t working and that’s when I have to troubleshoot the issue. At the moment, I’m in the strange position of having over-pruned my current WIP but, nonetheless, I’m going to employ similar strategies to work out what to put back in and what new material will be required (especially as a lot of what I took out needed to be taken out). Given I’m in the throes of troubleshooting mode, I thought I’d share some of the strategies I employ and get some (no doubt very useful) feedback from all you wonderful TKZers on your own troubleshooting strategies!

My first point of reference is always the original plot outline (the one I’ve undoubtedly veered off from…) and as part of my revision process I always refine the outline to keep pace with the changes I’ve made. With my current WIP I’m about to take two additional steps: First, I’m going to lay out the plot in ‘bubble format’ where I go through the manuscript chapter by chapter to identify the main scene and plot points to track how the story pans out; second, I’m going to graph the story out, tracking high and low dramatic points to see whether the overall arc of the story seems to work. This second stage is  gives me a visual snapshot of the pacing of the novel and whether the overall story arc conforms to a basic 3-act structure.

If neither of these strategies really help identify the problem then my plan is go back to the ‘drawing board’ and ask myself these key questions.

  • Have I started the story in the right place?
  • Is there a fundamental flaw in the premise of the book? (I really hope not!!)
  • Is the story getting weighted down by too much narrative – or is the balance of background, character, setting, or plot weighing down the momentum of the book?
  • Have I got too many POVs? (a major revision in my current WIP was the elimination of an entire POV as the shift to that character’s perspective was interrupting the flow of the plot too much)
  • Are there inconsistencies in the length of my chapters or pacing in the way the story unfolds? (for example it would be a major red flag for me if I discovered that the chapters in the middle of the book are much lengthier than the early or later ones – would signal a saggy middle for sure!)
  • Have I resolved all the threads of the story?

Well, this is the plan at least! Hopefully once I’ve finished troubleshooting I’ll have a good sense of what I need to do next to revise my plot outline and get back to revisions/ rewriting mode.

What about you TKZers? what strategies do you employ to troubleshoot plot/pacing/arc issues during your revision process?

 

 

Agent Perspectives on First Pages

I attended a virtual writing workshop last weekend in which there was a panel of agents providing feedback on a random selection of first pages anonymously submitted by attendees. It provided a fascinating (yet also terrifying) vision of how agents review material sent to them by authors and how quick they are to stop reading (as the moderator read out the first pages the agents raised their hands at the moment they would have stopped reading and when 3 out of 4 agents had their hands raised, the reading stopped and the critique began).  Given our own first page critiques here at TKZ I was interested to see whether agents had any different takes/perspectives when reading those critical first pages provided them on submission. Not surprisingly this panel revealed just how critical the first page is – and how quick agents will stop reading! Of the twenty or so first pages read out, only one survived being read out in its entirety. For many pages, agents didn’t even get past the first paragraph…yikes, right?!

Now none of the agents on this panel were cruel or unusually critical, but it was depressing to witness how many basic issues doomed these first pages. By the end of the panel it was also clear that these agents (which came from a variety of backgrounds and interests when it came to representation) were pretty consistent (often unanimous) on the particular issues that made them stop reading. As a result, I thought it might be helpful for our brave first page submitters as well as other TKZers to summarize these issues. So here we go with a list of the ‘top 5 issues that will make an agent stop reading your first page’…

  1. Beginning with the weather…we had a remarkable number of entries that had detailed descriptions of the weather in the first paragraph and the agents were like ‘ugh’ unless it served a very unique or useful purpose. Bottom line – don’t.
  2. Beginning with only exposition…again a large number of first pages had no real action, dialogue, or even character interaction in the first page. Many entries had only exposition and backstory. Bottom line…agents didn’t care enough about the character to read this – so save the exposition for later!
  3. Having a character alone…this was an interesting take from a couple of the agents who really didn’t like first pages where the character is all on their own. The principal reason for this was that doing this limited the author’s ability to show character and increased the potential for exposition and introspection rather than action and dramatic tension. Bottom line – better to show character through action and interaction/dialogue on a first page than resort to telling/exposition.
  4. Unnecessary verbiage or description…One of the main reason agents stopped reading was the overuse of adverbs, adjectives or descriptions which slowed down the pace of the action. In one first page there was a three paragraph description of the main character waking wondering if he was dead. The agents were like, establish this in one line and move on! Likewise they did not like flowery, overly descriptive prose. Bottom line…word choice matters. Say it in one word not three:)
  5. Being cliched! It was clear that this panel of agents had seen it all so they nixed any opening that felt worn and cliched. The list of cliched openings in these first pages included characters waking up and not knowing where they were/who they were or if they were alive; running for a flight in an airport; meeting someone in a bar; planning a heist…you get the picture. They also stopped reading as soon as characters turned into stock standard cliches – like the brilliant but eccentric misfit, the bitter divorcee or the alcoholic former cop…again, you get the picture. Bottom line…Be fresh!

Although this agent panel was pretty depressing to watch (as I said, only one of the entries passed muster!), it was clear that all these agents wanted to love these first pages. They wanted to be inspired to read on!  And all of the issues that stopped them reading are same issues that present themselves time and time again when we read and critique first pages at TKZ (so there’s no particular mystery or magic as to what agents are after!). Bottom line – any writer who is able to cast the same critical eye over his/her own work is ready to make the changes necessary to craft an amazing first page.

So TKZers, what’s your take on these agents’ feedback?

Character Name Crisis!

I’m at the point in my current WIP where I’m having a ‘naming crisis’. Although I’m happy with the names of my key protagonists, my antagonist currently has a name that just doesn’t fit (sigh…) so I’m in the throes of character naming angst. Being the type of writer that finds it hard to write a character until I have adequately ‘christened’ him or her, this angst is causing me quite a headache as well as producing a weird kind of writer’s block as I write and rewrite the antagonist’s name in various scenes as I struggle to get it right.

Finding the right name for a character is always a critical first step for me. I can’t just put in a placeholder or any old name in a first draft, I really have to be sure of at least the main character’s name before I can find the right voice. Usually female character names are easy – they come to me right away, or at least after just a little historical research (when you write historical like I do, the last thing you want is a modern name that’s completely wrong for the period). When it comes to male characters, however, there’s always some degree of angst. For example, in my current WIP I’ve only just realized that I’m using the same name for my principal male protagonist as in a book a wrote a few years ago – so obviously I have some favorites that I need to eliminate:) I also avoid names of ex-boyfriends or former colleagues (I find it difficult to separate the real person from the imaginary one when using particular names). When it comes to female characters I don’t seem to have the same sensitivity (I also accidentally named a maid after my sister and had no idea until she pointed this out to me…). In my current WIP I can’t work out exactly why the name of the antagonist doesn’t fit (my beta readers are happy with it after all), all I know is that it doesn’t…and I’m struggling to find a name that does.

This character angst has got me desperately looking for new naming strategies including scouring my bookshelves for random author and character names in the hope that these strike some inspiration (nope…) and resorting to baby naming websites (also with little success). So what to do when a character’s name is so elusive?? Honestly, I’m not sure (but maybe you TKZers can help!).

When starting a first draft I often ‘try on’ a couple of character names for my main protagonist (or protagonists) as I work through accessing their voice and POV. Usually this isn’t a major hurdle, but with my current WIP every time I try on a name for the main antagonist it just doesn’t seem right (ugh!)…So TKZers, any advice? What is your character naming process? Have you ever had a ‘naming crisis’ and if so, how did you eventually find just the right name in the end?

 

 

Marketing in the time of Covid

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

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

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

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

 

Writing in a Point of View Not Your Own

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Last week I wrote about hardboiled fiction and the pedigree that began with a writer named Carroll John Daly. I focused on the First-Person PI narrator.

But a hardboiled series can be told in Third Person, too. Frederick Nebel wrote a hugely popular series for Black Mask featuring police captain Steve MacBride and a reporter named Kennedy. These were done in Third-Person POV. More currently there’s a fellow named Gilstrap who writes about a guy named Grave in Third Person. Likewise Coletta’s Sheriff Niko Quintano, Langley-Hawthorne’s Ursula Marlow, Odell’s Chief of Police Gordon Hepler, Viets’s Helen Hawthorne, and Burke’s Tawny Lindholm

We’ll get to P. J. Parrish in a bit.

So what POV did I choose for my series about a crime-fighting nun, Sister Justicia Marie of the Sisters of Perpetual Justice?

I’ve written here before about the genesis of this character. How my son, who loves plays on words, said I should write about a nun who fights crime with martial arts skills. “You could call it Force of Habit.”

He smiled. I smiled. And then I said, “I think I’ll do it.”

“I was only kidding,” my son said.

“It’s a great concept,” I said. “Original, great title, and I think I can do something with it.”

That was back in 2012. Since that first novelette (about 16k words), four more followed, and quite to my delight has built a loyal following.

Now I’ve put the whole series in one collection, and added a sixth, never-before-published novelette. FORCE OF HABIT: THE COMPLETE SERIES is up for pre-pub. If you reserve your copy now you’ll lock in the $2.99 deal price (and this puppy is 90k words worth of action) before it goes to the regular price of $4.99. The titles are:

FORCE OF HABIT

FORCE OF HABIT 2: AND THEN THERE WERE NUNS

FORCE OF HABIT 3: NUN THE WISER

FORCE OF HABIT 4: THE NUN ALSO RISES

FORCE OF HABIT 5: HOT CROSS NUNS

And for the first time anywhere: FORCE OF HABIT 6: NUN TOO SOON

Allow me just a few horn toots from verified reviews:

“This first book was so good that within minutes of reading it, I downloaded book two.”

“Action packed with both internal and external conflict, I was riveted the whole way through.”

“Sister Justicia is kicking butt and taking names! She knows how to clean up L.A. but good!”

“James Scott Bell seems to be able to put more events in a 50 page novella than you’re likely to find in some 300 page novels.”

“Highest possible recommendation! Five Stars!”

“Honestly, they need to make a TV series about Sister J.”

Now, back to the choice of POV. Having never been a nun…or a woman…I gravitated toward Third Person from the jump. That does not mean I couldn’t take a stab at First Person. Unlike some of the “wisdom” of the age, I say let a writer do what he or she will and let the market decide. I just felt more comfortable in Third.

So what about the nun-woman part? Well, friends, there’s a little thing I like to call RESEARCH. It really works! I have a friend who is a former nun, who helped me tremendously with this series. I also made contact with some Benedictine nuns online for further insight.

As for the woman part, I have the greatest research assistant of all—Mrs. B. She reads all my stuff before anyone else, and offers me invaluable editorial advice.

[And if I may be allowed a side note: Today marks the 40th anniversary of the best decision I ever made. It involved the lovely Cindy, a minister, a packed church, and me.]

Once again, here’s the link for the deal pre-order.

For those of you outside Amazon U.S., you can open to your Amazon site and plug this into the search box: B091DRDWRJ

I will note that Michael Connelly is currently writing a series from a female Pacific Islander POV. And our own Mr. Gilstrap’s new series stars a U.S. Congresswoman who is also a single mom, both of which (if my research is accurate) John has never been.

And leave us not forget the sisters P. J. Parrish writing from the POV of one Louis Kincaid.

It can be done!

Do you agree? 

Light at the end of the Tunnel

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

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

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

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

First Page Critique: Jane Unknown

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

February 24, 1692

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Comments:

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

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

Specific Edit/Cut Options:

February 24, 1692

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Comment:

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