First Page Critique: Finn Slew

Happy Monday! Today I’m critiquing a first page submission for a novel entitled Finn Slew which begins in Afghanistan and appears to be the start of an intriguing suspense/thriller. My comments follow.

Title:   Finn Slew

MAY, 2011, Kandahar, Afghanistan

The phone was vibrating. Again. Alive and angry, like he’d stuffed a rabid weasel in the breast pocket of his ballistic vest. If Finn was going to be shot, it was small consolation the phone would die first.

The ringer was off. Best not to draw attention on the streets of Kandahar City. If the phone squawked his two soldier escorts, front and rear, would want to shoot him before the Taliban had a chance.

The first four messages this afternoon were from increasingly higher links in the Astral Media chain of command.

The fifth, just now, was a text from his direct boss, Kate Adachi, managing editor of his home newspaper, the Vancouver Journal, the westernmost outpost in Astral’s media empire: “WTF Finn? Supposed to file from the base newser on  plans for our troop withdrawal. Major heat from head office AND our publisher. Also fm Major Cahill, at CFB Kandahar, wondering where the hell you are. Call me. Now.”

He ignored that, too.

He’d written the ‘glorious farewell’ story weeks ago, with too much emphasis, in Cahill’s view, on those allies who felt Canada was cutting and running with the job unfinished.

Not that the job will ever be finished. Ask the Brits. Ask the Soviets. Hell, ask the Afghans. 

The news conference would play out as others he’d endured. Cahill, the public relations flack at Canadian Forces Base Kandahar, would lay on what soldiers cynically called “the Full Canuck.” A visiting general with a full display of chest candy would share Tim Hortons coffee and donuts with the troops as he declared the mission an unqualified success.

There’d be a moment of silence for those killed in the service of their country during Canada’s decade in Afghanistan, and a nod to the grievously wounded. Not a mention of those tortured souls carrying the war home in a nightmarish loop of pain and fear. Soldier suicides? What suicides?

Then, off to the ball hockey rink at Kandahar Airfield where the big guy would play enough shinny for network visuals before hopping a flight home.

They’d make damned sure a dead soldier wasn’t catching a lift in the cargo hold. Don’t want to go off-message.

No more press-release journalism. Finn was chasing bigger game: misappropriated aid money, corrupt military contractors, black market trade in weaponry. That’s why Cahill’s shorts were in a knot.

Comments:

I think this first page is off to a great start. I’m intrigued by the premise of a Canadian journalist investigating corruption in Afghanistan just as Canadian troops are being withdrawn. The voice of our main protagonist is strong, cynical, and determined and the short paragraphs, clipped sentences and snide comments all fit the protagonist well. This is an easy first page to critique as I don’t have much to say, except well done and I want to read more!

I have only three (relatively minor) comments:

  • The first is to reconsider the title of the book. Finn Slew (to me, at least) sounds strange and a little awkward. I think a stronger, darker title that gives a reader a better sense of the book would work better.
  • The second is to perhaps shorten the 4th paragraph as the reader gets some extraneous information here about the newspaper/media corporation that slows the pace of this first page. Something like: “The fifth, just now, was a text from his boss, Kate Adachi, managing editor of  the Vancouver Journal”  – it would be simpler and the extra information can be provided later.
  • Finally, the last line suggests Major Cahill knows the story the main protagonist is pursuing, and yet in Kate’s text he’s trying to find out where the protagonist is so I’m not totally sure if the author intends Cahill to know (and hence have his shorts in knots) or not. Maybe this could just be clarified.

Otherwise, I thought this was a terrific beginning and I would definitely want to read more. What about you, TKZers, any comments/thoughts?

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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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Faking it

I’m sure we’ve all done it – pretended to have read a classic book…agreed when someone gave an intellectual critique of an author we were too proud to admit we’d never heard of before (or never read)…even perhaps ‘faked it’ when asked about a book that we knew we ought to have read in our genre but never quite got around to doing…

Sometimes, no matter how widely you’re read or how many books you’ve written, one of the hardest things about being a writer (apart from the writing) is answering questions about other books and writers. I’ve had conversations that feel more like a grilling, as if I have to prove myself a writer by being cross-questioned about books and/or other writers. Most of the time I have no problem admitting I haven’t read a book or a particular author but sometimes…just sometimes…’faking it’ occurs. Like the time in book group when I pretended to have read the assigned book when in reality I’d just flicked through the remaining half in a last minute panic, hoping to pick up the main plot thread and wing it from there…or the time I was confronted in a ‘speed dating for agents’ event years ago by an agent who said ‘your work sounds just like Anne Perry’ and I merely nodded when in reality I had no idea who she was talking about (my bad! I did then research and read Perry’s mysteries but I am still mortified I didn’t even know her name at the time!).

The best antidote to ‘faking it’, for me at least, was having kids – kids that interrogate you on a subject and are quick to realize if you’re pretending. Like when they ask you if you’ve read the ‘classic’ book they were just assigned at school, and you know that, actually, you started it but never finished it because it was too dull… as a parent you really don’t want to admit that but within five minutes your kids are totally on to you (sigh).

As a writer, I know my (many) inadequacies and feel them more acutely the more experienced I get…so I fake less and admit more these days. But still, especially when giving a presentation or talking to readers, I don’t really want to come across as a complete ignoramus even though (drum roll) I might have to admit to having never read a Stephen King novel (or, for that matter, many other authors including biggies like James Patterson and Sara Paretsky).

TKZers, I hope I’m not alone in ‘faking it’ occasionally – so tell me when was the last time you ‘faked’ an answer on writing or books? What was your worst (or best, depending on your point of view) incident that may have involved a little ‘faking it’?

 

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First Page Critique: Strangled by a Cloud

Welcome to this week’s first page critique – today we have the first page of a historical mystery/thriller entitled ‘Strangled by a Cloud’. As always, my comments follow.

Strangled by a Cloud

My part in the Tenant’s Harbor affair began on the last day of January in 1878. That morning I was at my usual station: peddling hand-penned calling cards in the lobby of one of Boston’s many hotels; this time it was Young’s, in the financial district. A dozen cards for a Harvard toff had already bought me a hearty breakfast; a dozen more – perhaps with some flourish – for a Court Street banker would carry me through the rest of the day.

As the clock and the thermometer waned and the clouds began to spit sleet, my mood soured:  I take days like this personally, as have the thousands with my surname since the days of Noah. To lighten my mood, I left the outer crust of the lobby and strode towards the warmth of the core – the front desk – where I was greeted with the welcome smile of my friend, Adam.

“Cold is it, Mr. Merryweather?” he asked

“As colde as eny froste,” I replied, in an ersatz Middle English tongue.

“Ah, Chaucer – very good, very good,” he said (Adam was also the hotel’s unofficial man of letters and always appreciated a well-placed quote from the Tales).

I pulled the hotel register at his hands my way.  Now and then I made a sport of guessing at the age, nationality, personality, or occupation of guests based on their handwriting. I traced my finger down the list of guests until I reached the name “Charles Goodword.”

“Now here’s a bad character, Adam,” I began. “I’m guessing a gambler by profession, maybe something worse…he’s about forty years old, broad-shouldered, perhaps five feet ten or eleven…stout…and mean.  You’ll want to be rid of him, and soon.”

“Mr. Merryweather, it’s remarkable!” Adam said, truly surprised.  “As to age and height and build, you are quite correct, sir, quite correct. But as to his character, you are very mistaken: he’s a clergyman, you know – here to preach for several weeks – the Benevolent Society for something-or-t’other is paying his board.”

“A clergyman, is he?” I asked, adding, “Well, he’s a thief to boot.  Humor me and send for him,” I said, handing him one of my cards.

Adam obliged and sent a valet to call on Mr. Goodword.  The valet returned swiftly, confirming that he had successfully delivered the card and invitation, with my compliments.

“You think he’ll come?” I asked Adam. He nodded in assent.  “We shall see,” I said, shaking my head. “We shall see.”

Overall Comments:

Overall this first page was cleanly executed with an initial voice and style emerging that I think is pretty engaging. It appears to be emulating a Sherlock Holmes detachment and narration which I think could work well. What it initially lacks, however, is a bit of ‘oomph’ to set our story in motion and build intrigue. It also teeters, I think, in terms of credibility (see my specific comments below), but overall with some editing this first page could be an effective one.

Here are my specific comments:

Credibility

I think in this first page we need more background regarding the main character, Mr. Merryweather, as I’m initially skeptical that a man who makes his living penning calling cards in hotel lobbies would be educated enough to quote Chaucer and have even peudo-expertise in handwriting analysis. I’m also a little doubtful that a front desk clerk would be even an unofficial ‘man of letters’ without a bit more background. I’d be more willing to believe all of this if we got a sense that either Merryweather is an educated man that has fallen on hard times or that he is deliberately masquerading as someone he isn’t. Likewise I need a little more to buy into the fact that Merryweather has uncanny, Holmesian powers of deduction based on viewing Mr. Goodword’s handwriting.

Oomph

I wanted a little more intrigue from this first page when it came to the set up re: Mr. Goodword. I was expecting the valet to discover his dead body! The pay off on the initial page wasn’t really there and I was also skeptical as to why a clergyman would be interested in meeting a man who penned calling cards (or why the main character thought if he sent the valet up with his card the clergyman would respond – to be honest I’m not sure I even believe a man who makes his living hand to mouth by making calling cards would present his own card to anyone).  I feel that on this initial page, more intrigue would set the story on a stronger footing and would entice readers to keep turning the page.

Minor editorial issues

There were a few moments where I was taken out of the story. The first was when the main character said ‘I take days like this personally, as have the thousands with my surname since the days of Noah’. I didn’t feel this reference worked, mainly because the name ‘Merryweather’ doesn’t exactly sound like a surname from biblical times. Perhaps a middle ages reference would be more appropriate but at the moment it sounds awkward. Likewise the reference to the ‘outer crust’ of the lobby sounds strange – even though I understand what the writer was trying to get at and how the main character moved to the ‘core’ of the lobby – It didn’t work for me in the context of this story. In addition, the clock and thermometer ‘waned’ didn’t seem quite the right expression either – as the clock ‘waning’ would surely mean going backwards if the numbers got smaller (?).

I also found it odd that Mr Merryweather would call Adam by his first name but Adam didn’t reciprocate, but called him the more formal ‘Mr Merryweather’ in return. I’m assuming they are on the same social level and know each other well enough (as Merryweather calls him a friend) so the formality of Adam’s response doesn’t seem to ring true.

Also when Adam says: ‘ But as to his character, you are very mistaken’,  I feel that this should be either ‘very much mistaken’ or just ‘mistaken’ (‘very mistaken’ sounds weird to me).

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

 

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Raising Social Issues in the Cozy

Please welcome Judith Newton to the TKZ. Today, her guest post is about raising social issues in cozies, based on her experiences writing Oink: A Food for Thought Mystery. I look forward to reading your comments and feedback!  Clare

Raising Social Issues in the Cozy

by  Judith Newton

I became interested in mystery sometime in the 1990s when I began reading Tony Hillerman, whose sleuths are two Navajo policemen. What I liked about Hillerman’s books was that they dealt with social issues—the ongoing colonization of Native peoples—and that they presented stories from the points of view of people on the margins. I was especially drawn to Hillerman in the 1990s because I saw myself as living on a different sort of margin at my university. I was director of women’s studies, the faculty of which I had worked to make half women of color, and I and my program had formed deep personal connections with faculty in the four ethnic studies programs.

This community building took place, however, just as a newly prominent national development (often referred to as “the corporatization of the university”) had begun to make our already marginal positions less secure. With its ever greater focus on profit, my university administration was threatening to defund our programs. In the end, I am happy to say, the administrations’ very efforts to do away with women’s and ethnic studies prompted the faculty in these programs to form an even more tightly-knit community and to fight successfully for our survival.

When I began to write Oink, I followed Hillerman in making my main characters people on the margins of the university, faculty in women’s and ethnic studies, but the biggest issue I faced in outlining the novel was how to write about their issues so that a general audience would want to read about them.. I was aware that puzzles and unsolved crimes keep people turning pages and that within different mystery genres there were additional inducements to reader engagement. Hillerman, of course, uses elements of the thriller. Guns booming in the dark always kept me reading. But I wanted a different feel for my novel, which would have a lot to say about the value of caring community both for our lives and for political resistance, so I turned to another genre, that of the cozy.

Cozies are characteristically set in a small and valued community. By making one of the most valued communities in Oink that of a political coalition I gave this convention a political twist. Many cozies also involve food and come with recipes. The presence of food usually affirms pleasurable connection among the characters, a connection that is then extended outward to the reader through the inclusion of recipes. In Oink the same is true, although there the major connections being affirmed are among those resisting the university’s turn toward competition, self-interest, and profit. The inclusion of recipes pleasurably invites the reader into this alliance.

In Oink, moreover, as in the history on which it was based, gathering around food is one manifestation of a larger organizing impulse based upon “working on the relationship” through multiple acts of friendship, love, and support. This is a strategy which black women had already employed to organize grassroots communities during the Civil Rights Movement and it reappears in Oink among the women characters in particular.

The cozy’s quirky, often, female sleuth and its characteristic humor are also present in Oink and serve a related purpose. According to J. K. Gibson-Graham, our repertory of tactics for getting people together should include playfulness and humor, which can toss us on to the terrain of new possibilities. By fusing playfulness and humor with a story of struggle, I aimed to attach a sense of optimism and possibility to political resistance.

By merging Hillerman’s focus on social issues and marginal points of view with the conventions of the cozy I could write about some of the difficulties for people on the margins in the university and in the nation while also immersing the reader in experiences of connectedness, love, humor, and pleasure, experiences which I hope will keep the reader reading and which I identify both as ways to live a more fully human life and as crucial to effective struggles for social change. In a way I hadn’t anticipated, the continuation of these values seems ever more critical to our time.

  • What do you see as the advantages of or the difficulties in using cozies or other kinds of mystery to address social issues?
  • Are there particular cozies with a social issue or political theme you have read and enjoyed?
  • Does exploring social issues even belong in a cozy?
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Where History Comes Alive

It’s Spring Break so I will be visiting Teothihuacan outside Mexico City when this blog posts, so my apologies, I probably won’t be able to respond to your comments until later in the day/Monday evening. I’ll be showing my boys these amazing pyramids as they have been studying Mexico’s history in their social studies class. We will also visit the  Anthropology museum in Mexico City as well – when traveling with me no one gets to avoid history!

One of my favorite parts of research is visiting places and immersing myself in a sense of history. Some places are able to evoke the past easily – as if the past remains stored in the stone walls, cobble stones or timbers of the houses. Other places, however, feel more inaccessible. I find Teothihuacan, with its vast avenue and towering pyramids, is a place that evokes awe but is also so alien in many ways that it is hard to picture what life must have been like way back then. It’s more challenging to imagine the past here but nonetheless the echoes are still there, if you listen hard enough. Likewise, I used to find the Australian landscape much harder to ‘read’ – the aboriginal past seeming to be more elusive and the colonial overtones a little too blunt. By comparison, somewhere like London the past really is omnipresent. For me, the voices of the past are all around and it is easy to imagine the sights, smells and sounds of history.

So TKZers where has history come alive for you? What places have you visited (for research or pleasure) that have evoked the greatest sense of history?

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Backstory Fatigue

Maybe it’s just my own declining attention span (thanks Jim for another reminder of the issue in yesterday’s blog post!), but I’m increasingly growing weary of complicated, anguished backstories in crime shows. I admit I haven’t been reading much in the way of mysteries lately, as I’ve been focusing on research for my latest WIP, but I often turn to TV crime shows (usually of the British variety) to relax. Lately, however, I’ve found my interest waning as the backstories in the latest crop of shows I’ve started (but not finished!) have become increasingly overwrought and intrusive.

I like to watch as characters take shape slowly over many episodes, evolving alongside their cases, rather than having a backstory thrust upon me right from the get go in a way that I find intrusive and (often times) underwhelming. The current show that’s got me peeved the Netflix original series Paranoid. In the first few episodes we get an intriguing murder but also (in my opinion) a rather heavy handed introduction to the backstory for each of the main protagonists – a panic attack ridden investigator, a know-it all junior officer with a lying alcoholic lying mother, and a female investigator who goes from cocky to crumbling wreck after her boyfriend dumps her (she wants children, she’s in her late 30s. etc. etc.). While I will probably persevere with the show, I feel like I’m already experiencing backstory fatigue and I’m only up to episode 3!

The best crime/mystery shows and novels allow the protagonist’s backstory to unfold and inform the story as well as intrigue the reader. I wonder, given the crowded marketplace, whether we’re currently experiencing a bit of ‘backstory overload’ as a means of trying to differentiate the show/story/characters. For me, however, this often feels like a character’s backstory is being foisted upon me right from the start in an effort to either impress or unnerve me (neither of which usually work!). In Broadchurch, I was willing to buy into the multitude of character ‘issues’ because their stories evolved alongside the case and thus felt organic. I’m not sure the same can be said for Paranoid (for me the jury is still out).

So how does this help inform the writing process when it comes to character development and backstory? For me, my current irritation has helped solidify the following advice…

  1. A character’s backstory needs to evolve rather than be rammed down a reader’s throat. That means no huge exposition dumps or digressions too early on and no ‘overloaded’ backstory for a character that feels imposed rather than organic.
  2. The ‘iceberg’ approach works best – let the reader know there is far more beneath the surface of the character than the tip that the reader sees initially. Let the water recede to reveal the extent and depth of the backstory as the plot/story unfolds.
  3. Make sure to consider the multifaceted nature of human beings. Sometimes genre characters can feel too ‘one note’ (the classic depressed, alcoholic loner as a detective for example) but sometimes they can also feel way too overwrought and unnatural…so make sure you feel like you’re creating a real person.
  4. Don’t try too hard to create the world’s most anguished or unusual detective. Again, this seems to be evident in TV shows more so than novels, but after a while, backstories can start to feel like gimmicks rather than genuine human foibles.

So what do you think about when creating your characters’ backstories? How do you approach backstory development? Which TV shows or novels do you think have explored backstory well, and which have given you (like me) a bit of ‘backstory fatigue’?

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Over the End of the World

One of my twins loves reading pre and post apocalyptic YA novels, but even he has reached saturation point. There’s really only so many stories you can digest involving the horror, chaos and disintegration of society that comes from either impending doom or the aftermath of an end of the world scenario. In many ways, our mutual ‘apocalyptic’ fatigue (after all, I’ve read almost all the same books) is indicative of market saturation as well as stagnation. It also raises issues, to follow on from Jim’s post yesterday, about how writers nurture their ideas to execution.

I think it’s safe to say the market has pretty much covered these scenarios:

  • contagion/epidemic
  • alien invasion
  • ecological disaster
  • Impending meteor/asteroid strike
  • vampires/werewolves/demons/zombies/robots/monsters/mutations etc. taking over the world
  • government conspiracy/police state/total control/thought control/emotional control
  • evil schemes that generally involve youths in competition to kill or hunt each other down and/or destroy society

Note: Feel free to add to this list by the way…

But the key element I think (at least on the fatigue front) is that many novels now feel merely derivative of stories that have come before and which deal with the same or similar ‘apocalypse’ event. It’s hard, given what has already been written, to come up with a new idea or new way of executing that idea that doesn’t feel tired or hackneyed. It is, in some respects representative of the classic dilemma facing all writers – namely, how do you put a new/fresh/unique spin on an idea/mystery/predicament that has already been done to death? This is where I think it is critical for writers to take a step back when considering their idea for a novel (before what Jim calls the ‘green light’ stage) and evaluate the key elements of concept and premise (that my fellow blog mate Larry Brooks is so good at describing).

I jot all my ideas down in a notebook – most of which will never develop into a completed novel – either because the idea itself is to thin, or the execution/story that surrounds the idea doesn’t turn out to be novel enough, or complex enough to sustain itself. When considering any new WIP, I take my idea, produce a detailed proposal and then (because I’m an outliner) map out the plot for the story. As part of this process, it soon becomes apparent if the idea cannot sustain a novel, especially if I couldn’t answer these critical questions:

  • Why should readers care about my story/idea?
  • If it deals with well worn tropes, what makes my idea or POV unique or significantly different (I don’t count trivial distinctions)?
  • How would this story stand out from all the other novels out there?
  • Even if I think the idea is sufficiently novel to warrant a story, do I really know what the concept/premise behind this is in sufficient detail (anyone who’s read Larry Brooks knows that many stories collapse because a failure at the concept or premise stage).

At the moment (thankfully) I’m not considering any a pre or post apocalyptic story ideas. Although my son and I have reached the tipping point we could still be brought back with a unique twist/edge or story about the end of the world. The key issue I think is that, when considering a new idea, read extensively before committing to the story. In a crowded market, you have to stand out (even when you’re writing about chaos and the end of the world…)

So, are there any types of stories you are totally ‘over’? How do you approach developing your ideas when facing a a crowded/saturated corner of the market?

 

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First Page Critique: the Silencer

Happy Monday! Today we critique the first page submission entitled The Silencer. As always, kudos to those brave enough to submit. My comments follow.

The Silencer.

Friday, 9:45 a.m.

But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

James 3:8

The worst part about waiting to testify is I spend the entire time terrified the lawyers will uncover some huge mistake that screams how lazy and incompetent I am. I tell myself a hundred different ways that I always do the best I can … but I don’t really listen.

After so many appearances in court you’d think I’d have no problem when it comes time to testify. But it never fails. Every time the bailiff comes to get me from this small waiting room, the cycle begins. My therapist once told me my fear in court had more to do with my lack of control then my ineptitude as a witness. I disagree. Then again, she also said I joined the police in an effort to stop for others what I couldn’t stop for myself when I was younger.

The door swung open and a big woman with a horsey face and short gray hair stepped inside. Her uniform hugged her well-nourished figure. The web belt is off-center and sagged to her right, the holster almost resting on her thigh. She looked directly at me and I’m waiting to see if her voice sounded like John Wayne.

“Detective Rebecca Watson?” she asked in a soft voice.

“That’s me.” Like clockwork, my stomach twists into a knot, pushing its contents toward my throat as I stand and follow her into the courtroom.

The courtroom is overflowing with spectators and media. Knees trembling, my high heels echoed off the marble floor as I approach the witness stand, carrying a red binder, also known as a murder book. Today is going to be a very tough day. This is no ordinary case. The Florida Supreme Court awarded Leonard Lee Lucius a new trial or whatever verbiage they used. Some crap about tainted evidence. Anyway, his new defense team argued a crucial piece of evidence, the knife used to kill his girlfriend, Teri Goodson, was exposed to foreign fibers after being collected from the crime scene and before being signed into the evidence locker.

Apparently, neither the jurors nor his lawyers saw fit to argue this point during the previous trial. The jury found him guilty. The District Attorney sought the death penalty, but Lucius ended up with life.

All eyes in the courtroom focused on me. I kept my head straight to avoid their stares. As each foot stepped in front of the other, it feels like I’m the one on trial. This isn’t true, but I can’t wrap my head around the fact they’re judging me, even before being sworn in.

My comments

Overall I enjoyed this first page, but there were a few critical elements that held me back from being fully engaged or invested in this story. I’ve summarized these under two main headings: Character Development and Dramatic Tension. I’ll deal with each in turn.

Character Development

  • The main protagonist, Detective Rebecca Watson, seems in the first paragraph at least, to be a rookie who is understandably nervous about appearing in court. The second paragraph, however, indicates that she has appeared countless times and it sounds like her anxiety is more of a deep-rooted issue (one she sees a therapist about) based on a traumatic event in the past which is what drove her (at least in the therapist’s opinion) to being a police officer. This sense of inconsistency, makes it hard to get a handle on Rebecca as a three dimensional character . By the end of this first page I have to admit, she seems rather generic and her anxiety makes her feel less believable as a seasoned detective. This meant I wasn’t totally invested in her as the main character.
  • I also felt like I needed some action and drama rather than merely exposition about Rebecca as a character. I wanted to feel like I was in Rebecca’s head hearing her unique voice but also seeing her in action.
  • Although I feel like the writer knows his/her character, as readers we aren’t on a firm foundation (I don’t quite buy Rebecca as a detective yet). Why does she feel like she’s constantly being judged? Why does she lack confidence in her abilities – is it this case, or part of her own neuroses? If I’m going to like Rebecca and root for her as a main character, I feel like a need more depth even on this first page. This may come more in the form of intriguing specifics that can be fleshed out later but at the moment there’s not enough that goes beyond the standard ‘cop’ genre to really draw me in. Action demonstrates character far more than mere description or background.
  • Also, there seems a few contradictions on this first page – she seems nervous and anxious, yet she’s supposedly experienced. She is a detective but she says ‘new trial or whatever verbiage they used’ when speaking of the Supreme Court when, as a detective she would know exactly what was ordered.
  • We also get far too much detail about the bailiff when compared to the protagonist – If Rebecca was a detective wouldn’t she already know most of the court staff? We also don’t know whether Rebecca was involved in the initial investigation or her role in the tainted evidence question that is the reason for her court appearance (we assume).

Dramatic Tension

  • A first page is first and foremost a powerful lure that draws a reader in. It has to set the scene as well as the main character and, most importantly, it needs to have dramatic tension to ensure a reader is immediately invested in the story. At the moment this first page seems more of an introduction than a dramatic entry point to the story. We learn about Leonard Lee Lucius’s new trial in a rather cumbersome way with details that should come later or should be used in the first page to greater dramatic effect (perhaps by way of a scene in which the police are confronted by the tainted evidence).
  • Overall, it felt like there was too much time spent on Rebecca’s worries/feelings of inadequacy that on establishing a dramatic scene that confronts and intrigues the reader. I was left wanting more ‘oomph’ to keep me going and a stronger, more consistent main character that had flaws as well as depth but who felt ‘real’ from the get go.
  • I also wasn’t sure how the biblical quotation at the start of the page relates to the story – while we don’t need an answer per se, I think readers would like to get a sense of how it illuminates the story to come.

So TKZers, what are some of your comments and feedback? How can we help this writer punch this first page up to the next level?

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The Power of Book Clubs (?)


When I lived in California I was a member of a book group/club for almost ten years and,  once I became a published author, it became apparent that tapping into the interest of book groups like ours was a great way of connecting with readers. Flash forward almost a decade and I’m wondering, in a world where social media is so overwhelming and influential, if book clubs across continue to be a powerful force for ‘word of mouth’ recommendations and publicity for authors (?).

I am currently a member of a book group, but our meeting schedule and commitment to actually reading the books selected is less ‘fixed’ than it used to be. In many ways this reflects the greater craziness of lives that now involve kids, work and a multitude of other interests all competing for our limited attention. Still, I love being part of the group as it  enables me to read books I would never have chosen on my own – and has thus exposed me to countless amazing books I would have otherwise never read. However, even I find myself stretched too thin to make it the group meetings or finish the book on time.

So I have a question for all you readers and writers out there – how important do you feel book groups are these days (in terms of generating interest in books and perhaps helping boost word of mouth recommendations). Are you in a book group at the moment? As an author, are you still making appearances or phoning in for calls to book groups (I spoke at  one in December and I have to say, it was awesome!). For those of you who have a book coming out soon, are you targeting book groups as part of your marketing plan or is social media outlets more important?

I’m hoping that book groups continue to be an amazing force for good – encouraging reading, book discussions, and a general interest in all things literary, but I have to wonder,  are book groups still as meaningful as they used to be (if, indeed, they were!).

My inquiring mind would love your input!

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