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?

4+

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?

6+

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year TKZers!

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

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

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

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

 

5+

What Genre Intimidates You?

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

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

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

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

6+

Failing the NaNoWriMo Test

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

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

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

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

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

10+

First Page Critique: Historical Thriller

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

Title: In the Matter of Lucy

Genre: Historical Legal Thriller (1840s)

Chapter One

Narrative of Orlando B. Ficklin, Esq.

A law office is a dull, dry place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The galley roars with laughter.

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

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

Specific Comments

My comments focus on the goals I identified above:

1) A well established sense of place and time

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

2) An authentic, period appropriate voice

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

3) A sensory evocation of the period

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

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

7+

First Page Critique

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

We the People are Good to Eat

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

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

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

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

“Hey Karen!”

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

Karen was annoyed. “Hi Dave.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about me?”

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

Karen stepped away from Dave.

General Comments

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

Specific Issues

Information Dump

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

World Building

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

Dialogue

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

Characterization

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

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

TKZers, what do you think?

5+

A Saleable Premise

Over the summer, while completing revisions on two WIPs (one YA, one MG) I took a quick step back to read a book focusing on story craft entitled ‘The Magic Words, Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults’ by Cheryl B. Klein (a book, by the way, that I highly recommend). Most of the advice is just as relevant to adult and genre fiction and I thought I’d share some of her initial advice/comments around constructing a ‘saleable premise’ for your book.

A ‘saleable premise’ is basically a one sentence description of your book that defines the protagonist as well as the overarching action and conflict. Although constructing a saleable premise seems on its face to be fairly easy or obvious, it can be more challenging than it first appears. Embedded within this description is not only the basis of the story but also a promise to the reader that the book will live up to the expectations the premise demands.

Cheryl Klein notes that a premise can be ‘unsaleable’ if it is too dense, quiet or nebulous, or if the concept has been overdone, or the publisher can’t envision it reaching an audience. Some of the ways a premise could appeal is if the book puts a new spin on already successful material, fills a hole in the market, or when it plays to a publishing house’s particular strengths. Of course, the best way to sell your work is to make it great and compelling – but this assumes you can get someone to read it, which is why that initial description can be so important. A strong story concept is critical. It’s how readers decide to purchase your book over another one. It’s also how agents and editors decide to take the time to read your story amongst the hundreds of manuscripts they receive each week.

A ‘saleable premise’ is what you would articulate in a query letter or elevator speech to an intended agent or editor. It is also a way of getting a publisher’s attention and yet, I wonder how many writers necessarily think of a ‘saleable premise’ when they begin a writing project (?). In her book, Cheryl Klein identifies three exercises which I thought were useful for any writer when thinking about their WIP in terms of ‘saleable premise’. I’ve added some of my own thoughts when it comes to these exercises as well.

  1. Write down the promises of the novel. I think detailing the emotions promised to a reader can help a writer focus on reader expectations – what emotions do you want the reader to experience while reading the novel? Does the concept for the story reflect that?
  2. Write the premise of the novel in one sentence. I find summarizing any WIP in one sentence a challenge, but it does help focus my mind on what exactly the core/essence of my WIP is really about. As Cheryl Klein points out, you might be able to create several premises for your novel, each highlighting a different aspect or storyline in the book, but the exercise of creating each of these premises can help a writer focus on the most compelling/freshest and (dare I say it) most ‘saleable’ aspect of the book.
  3. Identify three comparison titles for the book. This is an exercise most writers undertake when composing a query letter or pitch to an agent or editor, but it’s also a useful process when composing a ‘saleable premise’ as it helps describe and position your novel in the marketplace and also point out how to frame your concept/story in contrast to other comparable books.

So TKZers, do you consider or compose a ‘saleable premise’ for your books? If so, at what stage of the writing process do you do this – before the first draft or only when it is ready to be submitted or published? Or is a ‘saleable premise’ something you don’t even worry about?

 

 

4+

First Page Critique

Today’s first page critique is a great example of a piece where the ‘voice’ is critical. It’s a stream-of-consciousness, first page narration which we don’t usually see. My comments, follow. Enjoy!

Lilly’s Tree

There’s always been something gratifying in watching Mama suffer, even if it was only a little bug of a thing, like Lilly locking a fist around a swatch of hair hanging from the twisty knot Mama kept her hair tucked into. Lilly would pull on it like she was the force of gravity. Mama’s eyes would tear up, and she’d let out a screech that sounded like a cat with its tail flattened underfoot. That was when Lilly was in the hair-pulling stage of babyhood, right after the biting stage and right before the pinching stage commenced. It did no good trying to restrain those little Houdini arms when they came at you. Once her fingers latched on, no amount of force would make her let go. You had to distract her. Look, Lilly, there’s the firststar shining up there in the sky or Lilly, let’s you and me get some strawberry ice cream. Mama didn’t catch onto that trick like I did. Instead, she’d go off like a struck match. She was never quick to look for the funny in something. Mama I mean, not Lilly. Just about everything had a chance of making Lilly laugh, even Mama.

Before the accident, or even before Lilly for that matter, it felt like Mama was tall as a tower when it came to watching over me. It had some to do with her being protective, I’m sure, but mostly it was because she had a suspicious nature towards me, especially after Tommy Baxter and the hickey incident when I was in sixth grade and the pack of cigarettes she found in my sock drawer last year. I overheard her telling Pastor Mike I was a highly impressionable girl and religious instruction was essential for the development of my good moral character. She was sure he’d start me right in the world. Mama had Pastor Mike visit with us every Sunday after service. He’d talk about matters I didn’t much understand or even care about, but it was pleasant listening to him all the same. The pastor would throw a smile in my direction every so often, even when he was up there behind the podium at church, and his smile would stretch right up to those blue-as-the-sky eyes. I held the belief it was a smile he reserved exclusively for me, which made it impossible not to smile right back.

My comments

This seems at first glance (at least to me) to be non-genre specific – it could be a literary, coming-of-age novel, or it could be a first-person narrated mystery or thriller. At this stage, the scene is set really for either – with enough references to possible paths (Lilly’s accident, the pastor…) to keep this reader guessing as to the novel’s direction. I thought the characterization was strong – even in this first page we get a strong image of Lilly, Mama, and the narrator’s personality.

It is heavily reliant on the success of the first person narrator and this voice is what will carry a reader through the entire story so it has to be perfect. All in all I think this voice is successful so far and, as a reader, I was pulled along and wanted to read more. That being said, there were times when the word choice used seemed out of sync with the overall tone (use of the words ‘gratifying’ and ‘commenced’ and the ‘Houdini’ reference seemed a little more sophisticated than the voice appeared to be (at least to me). One of the key elements of any successful first person voice is the consistency and authenticity of the voice so this would be my only caution to the author – make sure you fully inhabit this narrator and make word choices accordingly. At this stage we don’t know enough about the narrator, beyond her being about middle school age, to be sure, but the sentence structure and voice on this first page seemed chatty, childlike, and unsophisticated (to me it also sounded very Southern – but as an Australian I’m not very good at picking American voices in literature). There was also an undercurrent of something a bit darker which I liked. In fact, if anything I’d like to see more darkness (particularly when it comes to the Pastor – not sure why, but I’m already suspicious of him!).

There wasn’t much in the way of action or dialogue on this first page but I think this worked in this stream-of-consciousness style beginning. For me there was enough narrative pull and tension to keep me reading but other readers may have wanted something more dramatic on the first page.

TKZers, what did you think?

Let us know what comments you have on this submission and how this first page can be improved.

3+