Beach Reading

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

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

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

 

 

3+

First Page Critique: Gideon

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

Gideon

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

My Comments

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

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

Extract with my notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Comments

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

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

 

5+

How to Handle Critiques

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

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

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

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

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

Look for consistent themes in the feedback provided.

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

Avoid comments that are vague and focus on the specifics.

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

Discuss comments and feedback with those your admire and trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

8+

First Page Critique: The Heights of Valor

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

THE HEIGHTS OF VALOR

Platteville, Wisconsin

April 26, 1898

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

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

“Charles, I–”

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

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

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

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

Comments

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

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

So TKZers, what comments or advice would you provide?

8+

Micro-Progress Your Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

8+

First Page Critique: American Dream

Today, I  have an additional first page critique for us to discuss. This one is called American Dream and I think it illustrates some great points about framing an effective first page, particularly when it comes to POV. My comments follow, and as always I look forward to input from our great TKZ community:)

American Dream

The deputy’s vehicle careened into the parking lot, hopped a curb, plowing through a row of purple hydrangeas before coming to a stop inches from the red brick. An off duty deputy  stumbled out the vehicle sucking the last drops from a blue plastic cup. He slung the empty into the damaged shrubbery and staggered inside the Velde County, Georgia services building for the impromptu Saturday evening meeting.

The hottest summer in a century coupled with a defective air conditioner created a wall of heat and a stench of sweat that greeted upon entry. A coffeemaker gurgled and spat. Fluorescent tubes flickered, splashing an uneven yellow light onto the gathering of deputies.

Sheriff Roy Hacker squinted through the rising steam of his coffee. Crow’s feet framed his eyes. Crevices etched deep into his forehead. His starched uniform, crisp and dry. The only man in the room who didn’t perspire. He rose from behind a steel gray desk, removed his service revolver and slammed its butt onto the desktop calling the meeting to order.

“Evening deputies. I want to thank y’all for appearing here on a short notice. But crime does not operate on our schedule.” Roy looked to the drunken one. “Isn’t that right, Burnett?”

The deputy nodded, slurring his assent.

“You been with Juanita this evening?”

“Yes, sheriff I have. And we was having fun.”

“Don’t doubt that you were. We all know, some in great detail, that Juanita can be a whole lot of fun.”

Laughter erupted. Deputies nudged and winked. A sly grin crept over Burnett’s reddening face.

Roy lit a cigarette. He appeared as a looming slit eyed apparition within the haze of smoke. The zippo closed in a metallic click. The room fell silent.

“It has been brought to my attention that we have some criminal activity getting ready to go down in our fine county.”

Deputies shuffled in their seats.

“My informant tells me the area where this crime will occur is right here.” Roy pointed to the top right corner on the yellowed county map taped to the cinderblock wall. “I know what you’re thinking. That’s a desolate and barren shithole teeming with assorted vermin, rattlers and water moccasins . ” He took a step toward his men. “And I’d agree. But I would add, what better place for a crime to occur?”

A collective gaze fell upon the sheriff.

General Comments

POV

This page had some good elements but I think the failure to establish a strong initial POV made it less effective. We begin with a drunken deputy (who we learn later is Burnett) but by the third paragraph we seem firmly focused on Sheriff Roy Hacker. I would recommend the author chose a close POV to focus on (Burnett or Hacker most likely) and then give the reader this perspective right from the start. A distinctive and unique POV would also help the reader become more invested in the story. At the moment it feels too generic and emotionally distant.

That being said, I would caution the author to be careful to avoid the stereotypical ‘drunken deputy’ versus ‘starched sheriff’ story. Again, I think a distinctive and unique POV is what is needed – it would add greater specificity and emotional resonance to the story and give a different perspective that could help set this story apart.

Tone

In addition, a strong POV would also help clarify the tone of this piece – is it going to be a quirky, off beat, but lighthearted police procedural? I think so, but I’m not altogether sure. There are moments where I think the author is edging a little more ‘noir’ish in the wryness of tone…but maybe not.  Again, I think this is more a result of an amorphous POV/voice – once that’s stronger, I think the tone of the page (and the book) will become clearer.

Dramatic Tension

In this first page, all we really learn about is an informant who’s told the police where a crime is going to occur. This (along with the repartee about Juanita), robs the page of much of its dramatic tension. I’m not sure I get why the Sherrif has brought in his deputies for an impromptu Saturday evening meeting (or why the coffeemaker would be gurgling at that time) just to tell them that…seems a bit anticlimactic. Although I liked the humor in the sheriff’s description of the place, I think there would be more dramatic tension if a crime had actually occurred or if there was more detail (humorous or otherwise) about the actual crime that’s about to occur, to make me feel compelled to keep reading.

Specific Comments

Finally, there are some specific comments which are a but more nit-picky but which are nonetheless important for an effective first page. The first issue is one of repetition. The term ‘deputy’ and ‘deputies’ is used numerous times (twice just in the first paragraph). This looks sloppy to an editor and can also dilute the power of specificity in the first page. In addition, there’s a lot of description that can be pared down. Remember, in a first page every word counts. Do we need details about purple hydrangeas and damaged shrubbery? Could we just have one or the other? Likewise, do we need a whole paragraph description of the sheriff or could we just know he was the one person in the room who didn’t appear to perspire (from which we can infer a lot). I think the author could tighten up this first page by focusing on the details he/she really wants to emphasize – is it the drunken Burnett’s entrance, or the hottest summer on record, or is it Sheriff Hacker’s demeanor and humor (?)

Overall, I think once the description is pared down and a firm POV/voice established, this would be a much more effective first page. What do you think? TKZers, what advice or comments would you have for our brave author?

5+

First Page Critique ‘1940’

Today’s first page critique is a novel entitle ‘1940’. My comments follow, but I think it is a good example of some of the pitfalls when it comes to the opening of any novel – namely how to start with an incident that compels a reader to keep reading, while also providing a good grounding in the time and place of the story. See you on the flip side for more detailed commentary.

1940

Ilya began to fidget. The concrete bench he shared with his teacher chilled his thin frame. Martha stopped reading the Washington Herald and placed it on her lap. She watched Ilya finish a sketch of the blooming dogwood tree that stood across from them. It fascinated her he could draw the tree effortlessly at the age most boys in fourth grade just wanted to climb a one.

He slid the worn pencil over his left ear then stared at her, but kept silent.

“What is it Ilya? She asked. “I can tell something’s on your mind.”

He had been waiting for the right moment to tell her what the housekeeper said while he was waiting for the limo this morning.

“Alfrayda said teachers don’t take their students to the cemetery.”

She held her temper and calmly said, “This teacher does.” Then she confidently added, “I’ll set Alfrayda straight first thing when we get back to the compound.” She wasn’t afraid to confront the Soviet embassy housekeeper.

“Father should bring me,” he said angrily. “He’s just an attache at the embassy. He has time.”

She placed her arm around his shoulder and drew him close. “My dear boy, your father is not just an attache. He has many demands for his time and Ambassador Aleksandrovich relies heavily on your father’s skills.”

“You have demands, but you always have time for me.”

“Yes, I have demands, but nothing on the scale of a government official.”

He accepted her reply and began to sketch an outline of the gravestone set under the flowering dogwood. That upright gravestone in the sea of handcrafted concrete statues seemed cruel to her. Ilya’s slender fingers guided the pencil systematically, retreating to darken and emphasize his mother’s name engraved across the tarnished limestone.

                                       Sigrune Haushoffer  

                                               1900-1931

Ilya nudged her. “I’ve finished.” He held the sketch at arms length for her to observe.

“One day you will have your drawings displayed in a museum,” she told him. Maybe then, she thought to herself, Yaroslav Dalmatov would appreciate his son’s artistic talent.

“You mean like the museums here in D.C.?”

“Of course.” She never hesitated to encourage him.

COMMENTS

General:

Overall, although this first page is tightly written and interesting it doesn’t have anything that reaches out and grabs me from the outset. All we really have is a conversation between a boy and his teacher. Although the fact that is his father is an attache to the Soviet Embassy in DC is interesting, there’s not much in this first page that provides anything in the way of real intrigue. There are snippets of it – the fact that he’s sketching at the cemetery where his mother is buried, the fact that his father is clearly doing something important with the Soviet Ambassador, but there isn’t quite enough to get a reader invested in the characters as yet. We need to care about Illya and his artistic talent to have our interest piqued. Right now, I’m not feeling all that compelled as a reader to read more.  I think the author should reconsider where to actually start this novel – this page sounds more like the opening to a second chapter than the first.

Specific Comments:

There’s also not a lot in terms of historical grounding for this first page. If I didn’t see the title ‘1940’, I wouldn’t be able to place when this first page conversation is taking place. I liked the sparseness of the detail provided and the directness of the dialogue, but I felt I needed a greatest sense of historical footing so I could visualize the scene. Without historical context, this conversation could be taking place today, or the 1950s or 1960s. There’s no detail given to distinguish the time period for me. It’s always hard reviewing a first page when you don’t have a synopsis or outline, but it is important to set the stage both in time and space – I see Washington DC but I don’t, as yet, see 1940.

POV

This first page is written with an omniscient 3rd POV where we, as readers, hear the thoughts of Illya as well as his teacher. For me this dilutes the power of this particular first page – I wanted to feel closer to one of these two characters (registering their emotional responses and hearing their inner dialogue) to feel more engaged.

 

Names

Now this might be a bit of a nit pick, but the name ‘Alfrayda’ threw me out of the story – for some reason it sounded wrong for the 1940s and also (weirdly) reminded me of names in The Handmaiden’s Tale. This could just be me, but I caution the writer on including too many unusual names that could distract from historical grounding of the story (unless of course this is an alternate history/fantasy where names like that are common!). Also there are a lot of names used in this first page without any really characterisation provided: We have Martha, Illya, Alfrayda, Ambassador Aleksandrovich and Yaroslav Dalmatov (Illya’s father) – but out of all of them, I can really only picture Illya given the scene described.

Dramatic Tension

Although I liked the conversation between Illya and Martha about his artistic talent and the graveyard drawing session, all the dramatic tension feels off stage – between Illya’s father and his son, as well as between Martha and the Alfrayda. There isn’t any actual conflict on the page. Martha is supportive of Illya’s talent and wants to encourage him but we don’t understand why we (as readers) should care about his talent or his role in the upcoming story.

Summary

The good news is that the first page is well written with a nice clarity of prose and purposeful dialogue. For it to be a compelling first page, however, I think the author should either start the novel in a different place  (and keep this scene for a later chapter), or inject more dramatic tension onto the page to have us, as readers, fully invested in this story from the get-go.

So TKZers what do you think? What advice would you give our brave submitter?

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First Page Critique: Somewhere in Texas

Today we’re reviewing the first page of a historical novel entitled ‘Somewhere in Texas’. As always, my comments follow

Title: Somewhere in Texas

Autumn, 1850

McLennan County, Texas. 

“I did not travel five-hundred miles cramped in stuffy stagecoaches, with the never-ending prattle of gossiping women, to wait now.” Father’s voice grew in volume as Ellena Bradbury drew the curtain back and peeked through the narrow carriage window.

The cowboy he addressed set his battered hat on his head. “Suit yourself, mister. Y’all can wait in the house for the boss.” He motioned to his right, then turned to lumber away.

Father pulled the carriage door open, his thin lips tight beneath an equally thin mustache, as he offered his hand. “Come, Ellena.”

Ellena shifted away from the window. “’Twas a long drive from the village.”

“After traveling so great a distance from Louisiana to Houston, the short drive seems especially lengthy.”

Ellena slipped from the muggy carriage into blazing Texas heat, and drew in a deep breath.

A huge, single-story house stood before her, its crude plank siding dark in the shade of a wide porch. Black and white spotted chickens pecked the barren yard, only to lift their heads and squawk in alarm when they saw her.

Beyond the structure, McLennan County rolled away in pastures of sun-dried grass.

Beautiful, though not as picturesque as home.

Ellena pivoted and clasped her hands. “Where are the horses and longhorns?”

“Hush.” Her father’s blue-eyed gaze pointed beyond her as he arched dark brows.

Behind him in the high seat, the carriage driver lifted the reins to slap them against the horses’ backs. He stilled then inched up to stand. “Lord, have mercy.” His base tone sent a shiver through Ellena.

She spun around, but everything was as it should be. House in place. Peaceful, dry pastures waived in the breeze.

What did the carriage driver see from his high perch? Ellena stood on her tiptoes. A red-tailed hawk sailed through the sky, screeching as it dove low and out of sight. Father stepped to her side and a wind gusted only to cease into eerie stillness.

The hairs on the back of her neck rose. “What is it, Father?”

The pounding of a horse’s hooves on earth sounded far off. Ellena held her breath as the pattern grew louder.

A man raced around the side of the house on horseback, his red shirt bright against a black vest. “Stampede! Stampede!” He reined in near the porch, his lean muscular body taut as his gaze met hers then narrowed. “Run!”

Comments:

Overall, I think this first page successfully evokes a sense of time and place and introduces a dramatic initial element which has the potential to keep a reader turning the pages. I liked how the writer chose to begin with an approaching stampede, but there were a few minor issues which almost pulled me out of the story, and I think there were a few missed opportunities to make this first page even more compelling.

The first of these was backstory: Now in a first page we certainly don’t want any dump of backstory information, but I did want just a sentence or two to give me a little more context for Ellena and her father’s move to Texas – something that would add emotional depth to the characters and their feelings upon their arrival. Initially in this first page, it sounded like they were coming to a place they’d recently bought, but when the cowboy tells them dismissively they can wait for the boss, I wasn’t entirely sure why they were there (which is fine, but I’d prefer a hint so I care more about why they’ve come). Dropping just an intriguing snippet or two would do – anything to make this first page also stand out in terms of specificity. At the moment it verges on being a little too generic (outsiders coming to ranch, unprepared for the realities or dangers etc.). I’d like to feel more intrigued…Why have they come from Louisiana? What have they left behind? Why is it just Ellena and her father?

Specificity when it comes to characters also provides much needed emotional resonance. I wanted to understand how Ellena felt about coming to Texas so I could care more about her as a character. The line ‘Beautiful, though not as picturesque as home‘ is the perfect set up for just a sentence or two to capture her emotions and contrast her expectations to the realities she sees before her.

Another aspect of specificity is the use of dialogue. I thought the dialogue in this first page sounded reasonably authentic (though I’m no expert on 1850’s America) but perhaps it could have been used to capture her father’s Louisiana accent (if he has one) or to give the reader a better sense of their background. Both Ellena and her father sound more upper-class, almost English to my ear (especially with Ellena saying ’twas a lengthy drive the village’ – would they even use that term for a town in Texas??) so it would be helpful to have some context for this.

I did get a little confused towards the end of this first page with the paragraph: Behind him in the high seat, the carriage driver lifted the reins to slap them against the horses’ backs. He stilled then inched up to stand. “Lord, have mercy.” His base tone sent a shiver through Ellena. I’m not familiar with horses but wouldn’t slapping the reins against their backs signal them to start moving? Also I wasn’t sure what ‘stilled then inched up’ or  ‘base tone’ really meant.  Similarly, I thought saying the man ‘raced around the side of the house on horseback’ sounded clunky. These are all easy fixes, but they will help keep a reader grounded in the scene.

Finally, I would perhaps edit out the descriptions of people’s gazes / eyes and focus more on the landscape to give a sense of foreboding – for instance the phrase ‘blue-eyed gaze pointed beyond her as he arched dark brows‘ seemed a little clumsy. And, finally, a nitpicky comment:  When the initial title specifies ‘McLennan County, Texas’, I’m not sure it adds anything for the reader to then say: McLennan County rolled away in pastures of sun-dried grass. Just keep one or the other – it is repetitious on a first page to have both.

Overall, kudos to our brave writer for submitting this – I think it has the makings of a compelling first page! What do you think fellow TKZers?

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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year TKZers!

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

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

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

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

 

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What Genre Intimidates You?

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

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

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

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

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